There's something special about getting a game on launch day and playing through it with a bunch of affable strangers, all of who are trying to figure things out. It's not a situation I find myself in often, usually being "late to the party" and all, but it's always fun. Take Left 4 Dead 2, for example. Unlike the first game, I wasn't able to play with any of my friends, so the only way I was going to play co-op was with people I didn't know. A risky situation, sure, but better than playing alone.
Speaking of alone, I don't think I'm the only one who believes the Left 4 Dead games can be pretty damn difficult for a new player, even on the Normal difficulty setting. They become less challenging as you play through them multiple times, mastering the best ways to deal with the different special infected and crescendo events, but it can take hours to complete a campaign when a group of novices are thrown into the fray. Imagine, then, four strangers trying to complete the silly task of carrying a garden gnome through a campaign they've never experienced before, all for an achievement. Well, I did it mostly for the novelty of the situation, but points certainly don't hurt, and I would have doubted the commitment of the team otherwise.
I had just spent quite a while on the first campaign's final crescendo event, where players have to collect gas cans to fill up Jimmy Gibbs Junior's car to escape the mall. A couple of players had either quit or been kicked out due to their inability to follow the simplest of instructions, which consisted mainly of "stick together", but the eighth gas can had finally been collected, and it was time to move on to probably the most anticipated campaign for everyone in the game, Dark Carnival. Like with most games before I beat them, I had yet to look at the achievements for Left 4 Dead 2, so I was surprised when I came across Gnome Chompski at the beginning of the second chapter. One of the other players mentioned there was an achievement for carrying him through the campaign, and the general consensus was yeah, we have to do this.
We hit the button to start the shooting gallery, trying our best to reach the 750 points needed to unlock Gnome Chompski from his box on the wall, which took longer than it should have since we had yet to realize that shooting peanuts deducted points. We had to fight off small hordes of infected every so often, and one of the players grew impatient, but we ignored him and eventually achieved our goal. I took up the task of carrying Chompski, protecting him with my life and only putting him down in the most dire of situations. He was good at stunning enemies, at least. We reached the end of the chapter and all asked each other if an achievement unlocked, as we weren't sure if we had to carry the gnome through the entire campaign or just the chapter. It turns out it was the former. "Fine with me. This is fun!"
Having Mr. Chompski stare at me the whole time was kind of creepy, especially with the lighting in the Tunnel of Love reflecting off his face, but I loved him and protected him like my own. We grew close, him and I, and us and the rest of the survivors persevered until the crescendo event of chapter four, the part where you open the gates and have to push your way through the seemingly infinite horde of infected to reach the safe room. We were not prepared.
In the many times I have played and beaten Left 4 Dead 2, whether it's with friends or people I've never met, this bit in particular is one of the most difficult parts of the whole game. It's hard enough with a fully capable crew, but throw a gnome into the mix, disabling the carrier's ability to use a decent weapon and adding another thing to keep track of, and it can get pretty rough. And let's not forget this was our first time playing through the game.
So we tried. And tried. And tried some more. It became a sunk cost scenario, where we had invested so much time into this little gnome that there was no way we were going to give up now. And then something horrible happened. The gates had opened, I was being swarmed by infected, and Gnomey was nowhere to be found. He vanished, our memories the only evidence of his existence. We had been at this for well over an hour, and I sat him down in a corner so I could assist the team better, and now he was gone. The others pushed forward, and one by one we fell, but that impatient player I mentioned earlier? He made it to the safe house. There were to be no do-overs or retries; we had to continue and finish the campaign. We eventually made it to the helicopter, but something about our victory felt a little empty.
It was two days later that I returned to the campaign by myself. I put it on Easy, determined to get that goddamn achievement and rescue Gnomey from his eternal imprisonment. I was successful. You may call my success hollow, but I've rescued Gnomey enough times since then with different people on harder difficulties that it doesn't really matter. The gnome always escapes. Always.
While I may never know what happened to Gnome Chompski on that fateful day, my theory is that a boomer exploded and sent him flying to an unreachable part of the level. It happened to me during one of my later attempts, at least.
So, what's next for my gnome-based achievement adventures? Why, placing Gnomey in that rocket in Half-Life 2: Episode Two, of course! He always said he wanted to fly...