I love zombies. Like, really love zombies. I’d marry one if I could.
Once upon a time in the not too distant past, the videogames industry loved zombies too. There was a point barely a year or two ago when even a trip to your local game store resembled something out of a George A. Romero flick, with soul-less, groaning store assistants shambling from one isle to the other, stopping only to lunge towards you with a zombie game in one hand and a strategy guide in the other.
Still, the ravages of time catch up with us all eventually. Whether it be through over saturation or simply a lack of fresh ideas, the humble zombie appears to be joining the Nazis on the videogame antagonist scrap heap.
Is there life in the undead yet, or is it time to bury them for good?
My own fascination with the walking dead as a gaming villain started at the age of 11. Specifically with Resident Evil, the game which introduced survival horror to the mass market. At the time, I thought I was bold as brass. As one of the earliest adopters of the original PlayStation amongst my peers, who were still playing the likes of Sonic and James Pond on the Sega Genesis, I wanted to delve deeper. I wanted to play the big bad scary games. Barely 10 minutes in and one zombie encounter later, I was petrified. Not even the re-assuring tones of Barry Burton and his crap catchphrases could calm me down. Shivering like a leaf, I persisted for a good 5 or 10 minutes more. My leap for the console’s “Off” button coincided with Jill Valentine screaming, as upon turning a corner, an unsuspecting zombie started chewing on her ankles. I went to bed without any supper and with every light in the house turned on.
Of course, things have changed since. It takes slightly more than a few polygons on a screen to give me the jitters now (although I do stress only slightly more), but it could also be the case that as gamers, we’ve become desensitized to the dangers of a shambling chunk of rotting flesh and organs. Zombie games are ten-a-penny now, adorning the shelves of every game store and across every format. But why are they so popular?
From a development point of view, they are, like the Nazis, an easy target. Let’s be honest here, who feels bad about shooting Germans in Call of Duty? When was the last time anybody in the media made a fuss out of a game centered around the themes of World War II? Let the player see a Russian airport massacre through the eyes of a terrorist and you’ve got a media frenzy on your hands, but flatten half of 1940s Berlin and storm the Reichstag and nobody cares. For a gamer, both the Nazi and the zombie are little more than a target. A nameless, faceless, mass-produced moving target without a soul or a personality. The moral compass very much goes out of the window; killing them en masse becomes fair game.
Unlike Nazis however, zombies come without negative history. Jokes about the Nazis can only really go so far, given that millions of people were killed and suffered immense hardship as a result of their actions, but zombies come with no such baggage. As far as I’m aware, nobody’s Grandma was eaten by a corpse in the last 70 years. Essentially, zombies are flexible. As the likes of Resident Evil, Dead Rising and Plants vs Zombies will attest to, the living dead can be made to appear as scary or as ridiculous as the developer so desires. In many cases, they’re a cut and paste or paint by numbers game mechanic unto themselves.
Unfortunately this accessibility has left many gamers disillusioned. Announcements about new zombie titles are often met with similar derision to that which Treyarch encountered when they announced Call of Duty: World at War, which arrived to a mass of “rolleyes,” “epic fail,” and “Wot, World War II again?” comments across the internet. World at War was infact a very solid effort, possibly my personal favorite entry in the series, but it dared to tread old ground in a new world spoilt by Modern Warfare and was publicly hounded for the trouble. So much as a cameo roll from a walking corpse now triggers similar responses wherever you look. Even if World at War’s own Nazi Zombies spin off is curiously exempt from this new found hostility.
Personally however, I see this more as a reflection of how the zombie genre has evolved, or even devolved, more than how many of its kind are on store shelves. The zombie has, for all intents and purposes, almost become something of a running joke. Despite appearing in some of my favorite games of all time, I personally don’t feel that the genre has ever matched the scares and shocks of the original trawl through the mansion in Raccoon City. Even within its own skin, the Resident Evil series has lost its way. Los Ganados, the infected but altogether more human antagonists of Resident Evil 4, were a welcome change from tradition from a gameplay perspective and gave the series a much needed kick start, but Resident Evil 5 took the idea too far. With the Majini, Resident Evil 5 introduced a motorcycle chase that effectively killed the series’ roots with the living dead. Traditional zombies are long gone by this point; with them going the soul and the scares that made the original game in the series so intriguing. What’s left is a slightly above average third person shooter with vaguely familiar characters and little else.
At the other end of the spectrum is Dead Rising, a game so heavily based on popular zombie culture that there’s a disclaimer on the box confirming it has nothing officially to do with Dawn of the Dead. Simple in its approach, Dead Rising could perhaps be considered the ultimate zombie apocalypse simulator. Trapped in a mall for 3 in game days, your only goal is to make it to day 3 in order to be extracted via helicopter. Until then, there’s a whole mall full of zombies and weaponry to play with. There’s a story, but it doesn’t have to be completed. There are side missions and civilians to rescue, but none of it needs to be done. You can literally do what the hell you like. However, despite being trapped in a relatively small space with literally thousands and thousands of zombies, Dead Rising isn’t scary. No sir, not scary at all. Nor is it even that hard to survive. Unless you find the idea of dressing up zombies in Lego costumes or hitting them with road cones terrifying, Dead Rising is a fun and novel spoof of zombie culture, but it’s not one that attempts to capture the feeling of hopeless isolation or fear in any sort of serious way.
So where does the genre go from here? Where next for the shuffling, the groaning and the decomposed? The morgue? The crematorium? Not yet, please. As the market currently stands, there simply has to be an alternative option.
I don’t think anyone could argue that right now, Left 4 Dead is the standard bearer for the zombie genre. Possibly moreso than any other game of its kind, the sole aim is to survive, to the point where there is literally no story of any kind. As a co-operative experience and as a game, Left 4 Dead is an exceptional achievement, but as a survival experience in a post zombie apocalypse environment, I think there is room to explore further. After all, Left 4 Dead is merely a series of 4 individual campaigns, lasting little more than an hour each, in which you and 3 buddies get from point A to point B, then from point B to point C and so on. What if there was more to that?
I’ve often wondered – as you do – just what I’d do if the dead decided to go for a stroll in my neighborhood right here, right now. I mean really, what would I do? I live in a 2 story terraced property on the outskirts of a city home to around 500,000 people. I am situated 10 minutes in either direction from the open countryside and the City centre. I own a baseball bat and there are some knives and non-perishable foods in the kitchen, but other than that I’m pretty unprepared. The nearest gun store is a 10 or 15 minute drive away, but what obstacles would I face to get there? Would the zombies have beat me to it? Would I be eaten or go insane first? Would a flock of civilian survivors, lawless and with no hope, have already descended on the store with a state of chaos and panic in full swing? Would a supermarket and basic survival be the answer rather than a fight?
Would a game that explores these choices, literally the very most basic aspects of zombie apocalypse survival, be an interesting take on an old formula? I believe so. Leaving behind the gun toting action sequences and plot based set pieces of previous zombie games, and putting you in the role of an untrained and under prepared civilian instead of a cop or soldier, what would you do? In a living, breathing and currently being eaten open world City, where night, day and even the weather play a part in your conditions, how would you survive? In an environment where every single decision could risk the lives of yourself and others, what would you do?
The genre isn’t dead yet. Hopefully, there’s life in those maggot filled eyes. Surely there has to be more to this than the run and gun that we’re used to, largely even bored by. Isn’t it time we put both the survival and the horror back into survival horror gaming?
Then again, there’s always Plants vs Zombies.
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