Fictional companions and goth concerns.
I extrapolate a lot from fashion. In my list of Top Ten Characters I Hate, I wrote about hating Left 4 Dead’s Zoey based on her pink hoodie, and how that’s, like, maybe internalized misogyny. Like its predecessor, Left 4 Dead 2 has one playable female character, Rochelle, and I love her for similarly shallow reasons: a Depeche Mode t-shirt.
Rochelle wears jeans, tall boots, a studded belt and a pink shirt with Depeche Mode lead singer Dave Gahan’s face emblazoned above the band logo. At first I thought, maybe this t-shirt was the first thing Rochelle could find in the apocalyptic aftermath. Maybe she doesn’t even like Depeche Mode. But Left 4 Dead has lore: an associate producer on a news program, Rochelle’s “big break” was being sent to Savannah to cover the zombie infection outbreak. In her profile photograph, Rochelle stands next to a Eyewitness 10 News truck, waving to the camera while holding a clipboard. Not only did she like Depeche Mode enough to endorse them at work, she was wearing their shirt on her first big assignment, camera-ready. But then the zombie thing worsened, and she had to kill the Infected instead of presenting news about them.
Characters in the Left 4 Dead games don’t get many speaking lines, but like Dave Gahan says, “Words are very unnecessary.” If the survivors are talking, they’re not focused on killing zombies. Rochelle seems pretty focused. When she does have lines, they’re poignant: “This is some grim shit we got ourselves into,” or “Kill all sons of bitches, right?” But in the absence of deep character development why not extrapolate from fashion? Rochelle likes a band I like; Rochelle is the best.
In marketing terms, what does it mean that Valve’s character designers chose to dress Rochelle in a Depeche Mode t-shirt? Is it relatability – targeting someone like me – or, more simply, a beacon of the pre-plague world? Is it a generational signifier – is Rochelle Gen X? Her face is modeled after Shanola Hampton, a Gen X actress. Rochelle is 29 at the time of the game – but presumably L4D2 takes place in “the future,” making her too young for that demographic. Then again, if she was 29 when the game was released in 2009, she’d have been born right on the Gen X/Millennial cusp.
Does it signify that she’s cool? Is Depeche Mode cool? I mean, yes, they’re very cool, but are they, like, “cool” to the youths? As an adult goth, I have no idea.
My personal theory about Rochelle’s wardrobe selection lies in the lyrics of the 1990 Depeche Mode song “Sweetest Perfection:” “The sweetest infection of body and mind, / Sweetest injection of any kind . . . Things you’d expect to be having effect on me / Pass undetectedly / But everyone knows what has got me. / Takes me completely, touches so sweetly, reaches so deeply / I know that nothing can stop me.” Zombie plagues aren’t as sweet as heroin, but they probably make the zombies feel all right. Zombies definitely feel unstoppable as they come at our heroes in waves, getting killed off with no signs of remorse for their compatriots. The Infection could well be sweet. When The Infection hits the bloodstream, we only know what happens for the survivors: killing sons of bitches, getting into grim shit.
* * *
When I saw Depeche Mode at Barclays Center last year, I was too cheap to buy a t-shirt. And my love for Depeche Mode is ingrained so deeply, I didn’t think I “needed” one. This was the wrong decision. If the zombie apocalypse hit today, what would lend me the psychological strength to kill the Infected? The secondhand Alexander Wang dress I’m wearing now has a hole in the shoulder, but to me, it still signifies cocktail parties and material comfort. If the outbreak happened outside my window, I’d be digging through drawers for my most metal band shirts and cursing my lack of foresight in not purchasing a black Violator babydoll. Visual cues go a long way when you’re trying to feel tough, or when you’re trying to feel anything. Rochelle’s look is multi-purpose: studded belt for strength, pink shirt for sympathy, Depeche Mode logo for relatability, goth cred and a nod to The Infection. Or maybe one of Valve’s designers just really loved Depeche Mode. Either way, as Dave Gahan says, “Put it on, please don’t question why. / Can you believe / Something so simple, something so trivial / Makes me a happy [wo]man?” And as Rochelle says, “I am the baddest woman alive.”