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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Mat, there are so many lines in this post that are classic – from “I’d marry one if I could” to “I own a baseball bat and there are some knives and non-perishable foods” that I don’t even know where to begin. On a day when my iPhone died, you helped me see the laughter in the universe. I thank you.
It’s true that we haven’t seen a scary zombie game in ages. Resident Evil became much more Survival and much less Horror after… heck, after Code Veronica probably, and recent zombie games have been about blasting them rather than trembling with fear as they shamble toward you. What could this mean?
Resident Evil was pretty much the trail blazer for “survival horror” I think. For me, Capcom never matched it. I remember being reduced to my last ammo clip countless times during the original game, even having to deal with the combat knife on several occasions (which was useless.. realistically so). As for scares, I’m not sure another entertainment medium has shocked me as much as when those dogs first jumped through the windows in the downstairs of the mansion. Resident Evil was scary, even if at times only for the terrible game mechanics and quick changes of fixed cameras.
Resident Evil 2 ranks amongst my top 5 games ever whenever I’m asked, but it wasn’t as scary. Resident Evil 3 gave you a grenade launcher and a machine gun within the first 10 minutes if I recall correctly, which killed the atmosphere there from the get go. A shame really, as I loved the Nemesis monster. In terms of scares, the series has plummeted
I think the last truly scary game I played was Silent Hill 2, although that wasn’t really about zombies. By my reckoning, that makes the last true “survival horror” game 14 years old (Resident Evil, 1996). That’s a while. I’d like another, I think..
I remember the first time I booted up the original Resident Evil – I’d just come home from a pizza delivery job at, like, midnight. Switched on the PS (One), and watched the intro movie. Came across the first zombie munching on a corpse. It was pretty creepy. I had to turn on some lights, turn off the PS, and go to bed.
The next day, in broad daylight with windows opened, I fired it up again and dared to play for more than 15 minutes. I don’t think I’ve come across a zombie game that’s affected me as much as the original Resident Evil.
I will write a big response to this later mat when not on my phone, great article!
I’ve got to say Resident Evil’s zombies didn’t bother me really, because they were easily expended once you realised you could kneecap them then slash them on the floor with the knife; saving a lot of ammo and thus reducing the dread (and horror) of actually surviving. Don’t get me wrong though I remember the game very fondly. That was one of the joys of Resident Evil, sussing out the most effective ways of taking out the various enemies in the mansion. What bothered me with the Resident Evil games – at least the earlier games – was the stillness and quietness of the environments, whether it was the mansion or the police station in Raccoon City. This was only compounded by the slow shuffling death that lurked around most corners. We all remember the ticking clock in the dining room, the crackling flames of burnt out cars and those crows cawing because there were no other noises, no misplaced tension music or inappropriate bombast, just silence waiting to be punctuated. Resident Evil didn’t give you effective camera angles either, usually happy to conceal the horror until it was right on top of you, it didn’t allow you to save willy-nilly, it didn’t allow you to shoot and move at the same time, it literally gave you baseline control which only further heightened your mortality.
Looking back I don’t think zombies themselves have ever scared me, it’s always been the other quicker or stranger/alien looking creatures that’ve bothered me the most. The traditional zombie has always been a slow lumbering husk but that’s exactly the reason why they’re not scary to me, at least not scary in that they don’t pose a tangible threat because they’re simply too slow. The running zombies in more recent games have usually been accompanied by an assortment of guns and other ad-hoc goodies so they don’t pose much of a threat either. What if Dead Rising gave you no effective weaponry? Exactly.
In Resi 1 it was the first encounter with a hunter after the garden section that really rattled me. That was absolutely terrifying because the movie that plays after you return to the mansion is viewed from this new creature’s perspective and you can see it clearing parts of the garden in seconds, parts of the garden that took you minutes to traverse on the way back. When the movie ends the camera is positioned so that you can’t see the hunter, you can just hear its claws clicking on the floor as it approaches you from the door you just exited. You have no idea what this thing looks like, all you know is that it’s fast and has claws. Suddenly the game changed gears. That was pure class and by far outranks the dog encounter which was simply a cheap (but very effective) scare.
I’m glad you mused on the potential of zombie games at the end there Mat because one of my friends said ‘the zombie genre has run its course’ which I thought was pretty fucking unimaginative and which probably only revealed just how many zombie flicks he hadn’t watched. I recently watched the Night of the Living Dead and thought it was brilliant but it only made me long for a survival horror that was closer to home, one that felt horribly hopeless. I’m betting Lewis will respond with some sort of zombie holocaust survival MMO suggestion which let’s face it, would be awesome. But who needs to dream about what this idea could be when it’s been playable for 5 years? I haven’t played this yet and have been meaning to for ages but it sounds fantastic.
Great article anyway Mat, and you’ve reminded me of what I’d consider the best zombie piece I’ve ever read. It’s by Simon Pegg of Spaced, Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead fame and simply has to be read by any self-respecting zombie er, lover.
Oh Gregg you know me so well! A zombie survival mmo would be crazy awesome!!!!!
Oh and Mat, you big wet lettuce, how’s Penumbra: Overture going?
“I think the last truly scary game I played was Silent Hill 2”
Lew told me otherwise! 😉
Gregg, you’ve caught me out there. Penumbra is horrifically terrifying, possibly so much so that my brain has tried to forget it out of existence.
Back to zombies though, Simon Pegg is a man after my own heart with that article. I agree with him to the last word, especially about the thing with zombies running.
I was reading The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks a while ago. It’s obviously a fictional guide on how to survive Z-Day, but it stays very close to popular zombie culture. There was a section in there about what makes a zombie, and it raised some good point. Being dead isn’t a super power, and to that end a zombie should never be able to do anything beyond the limits of the human it was previously in life. A zombie should only ever be able to perform the most basic of tasks available to a human, with many functions (i.e, running) being compromised by the fact that they’re.. well, “dead”.
Regarding fear, for me zombies have never been about an immediate threat. There’s something more psychological about them, in my opinion. The idea of essentially being relentlessly stalked by something soul less, something dead, in overwhelming numbers. I suppose it goes back to Resident Evil again.. there were times when I’d walk in a room, hear the shuffling and the groaning and turn right back out of there again. That was another point raised in Brooks’ book, too. You could probably reach a safe area from zombies quite easily, but the sense of hopelessness, desperation and isolation, combined with a constant groaning across an otherwise silent and “dead” world would probably send you mental even if the zombies didn’t get you first.
I think I need to get out more.. 😉
Nah, “getting out” is overrated. It’s really hot out there right now.
I assume you’ve read World War Z? The Zombie Survival Guide is great, but WWZ is a brilliant piece of social commentary. He indicts almost everything about why people are worthless. It should have won awards.
I loved Shaun of the Dead until the end, like most people I know… though I must admit, fast zombies notwithstanding, my favorite recent zombie picture was Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead. I loved it.
I enjoyed the remake of Dawn of the Dead too apart from the dodgy garish green baby sequence. That was a bit too… overwrought. I liked the idea but it just felt a little heavy handed. I absolutely adore the original despite seeing it after the remake.
Do you watch many British films over there in the States Steerpike? Hot Fuzz, Dead Man’s Shoes, Brassed Off etc? It’s just that I watched a quintessentially British film the other day and wondered how much a foreign audience would appreciate it. If not, I can see a thread opening up over there in the Memorial Lounge…
Oh and Steerpike do you remember that bit in Cragscleft Prison on Thief: The Dark Project where you’re in the mines and you come across a room full of corpses and as you walk across it several get up? I slightly soiled myself.
@Mat: Yeah I absolutely agree with the psychological aspect but I’m not sure that comes across in zombie games. There were a few moments in the Resident Evils where characters you’d become acquainted with turned into zombies and in some cases that was more disturbing than actually being slowly stalked by them. The relentlessness of them is very unnerving when in numbers but again this isn’t something that comes across in games very well, save for Left for Dead or Dead Rising, but they’re armed to the teeth with weaponry so the effect is somewhat diluted. As I said, Night of the Living Dead is brilliant and is set largely in a couple of rooms so the claustrophobia, isolation and despair really sinks into you but which game and how many films have had the audacity to do that?
In fact it’s funny you compare zombies to Nazis because I remember watching the Anne Frank film and being absolutely terrified of the Nazis finding them in the Annex. To be honest I’m quite uncomfortable putting something as serious as WWII next to the comparatively banal but the likeness is certainly there in the context of computer games.
It’s the same in Aliens when they all hole up, set the sentries and sit tight but then all hell breaks loose when the fire alarm goes off and attracts the hive. If a game could capture that knife edge tension of being discovered then I’d be very impressed. Imagine a game where you’re isolated in one place with a handful of characters, all with their own strengths and weaknesses and you have to manage them to make sure they don’t go batshit insane and risk compromising you all. Some characters could be scared of being left alone while others don’t like being in the company of certain other individuals. Some characters could have questionable intentions and motivations while others are genuinely helpful and become emotionally connected to you. It could be great. So Mr. Developer, that ideas on me.
Anyway Mat: Penumbra. My advice to Steerpike, and it still stands, was to pretend Arnie is sat on your shoulder screaming ‘DO IT! DO IT NOW!! C’MAN!! DO IT!’ whenever you feel scared. That’ll make you move. Never underestimate the power of a good Arnie mantra.
a. I was frightened by the title screen of Penumbra. I know better than to revisit that horror.
b. Ahhh, Cragscleft… a great mixture of suspense and fear. They did such a great job with that game. Whereas in the two “obvious” horror levels – Down in the Bonehoard and The Haunted Cathedral – felt almost… homey, Cragscleft, Constantine’s Manor, and… shiver… Return to the Cathedral left me liquefied. By the way, to answer the question you Steamed me the other day – for $2.99 Deadly Shadows is definitely worth it, if only for Shalebridge Cradle (you have never known fear until that mission), and I was too easy on it in my review.
c. Depending on who we are, we do watch British cinema over here. I love much of it. Hot Fuzz was hilarious. I just saw Rocknrolla last night and enjoy all things Guy Ritchie. Plus, I mean, you guys gave us David Lean. You can’t go wrong with David Lean. And Kate Beckinsale! but for different reasons.
d. Zombies: ironically, I am currently reading the enormous(ly heavy) compendium The Walking Dead, a graphic novel series recommended and loaned by our own Jay Dobry.
Gregg: The bit about the characters being holed up and how different personalities can effect that is a great suggestion and something I’d certainly like to see in a zombie apocolypse game. I think the “Thing” game attempted to handle that.. keeping other characters conditions under control.. although I can remember little of how much success they had with that. That’s the only example I can really remember of real character management in the face of adversity.
Regarding the comparison between Nazi’s and Zombies, I assure you the link was only in terms of how overused both have been throughout the games industry recently. World War II games are old news now and are met with a large degree of skepticism, regardless of how good they are (see World at War). Zombie games seem to have quite quickly gone the same way. Like I said in the piece though, I still think there are untapped possibilities with the market that I’m desperate to see explored before the industry throws them out all together.
Haha, don’t worry Mat, I wasn’t picking at your article, you made the connection clear it was just my own example that made me question the comparison.
I was going to mention The Thing but I’m like you, I’ve no experience with it so couldn’t comment on its success. Old Rooster gave it a 5/5 here in the archives but I remember Dobry mentioning somewhere, perhaps in his What Not to Fear article, that he didn’t regard it that highly.
@Steerpike: too late regarding Thief III and I know it was super cheap, it’s just that I’ve owned it once before and couldn’t get into it each and every time I played it. Looking Glass spoiled me. I’m sure it’ll come around again at some point anyway so no worries!
Dobry loved The Thing. Like Mat with his zombie bride, Dobry would marry a Thing if he could. We’re talking about the John Carpenter film, of course. I don’t think he ever played the game, I will check with him SINCE HE’S NEVER AROUND.
I am a little late to this party, but I have a good excuse. It’s been close to 100 degrees (fahrenheit to you British people, which is like 37 degrees or so to you people) and I live in a 94 year old house without air conditioning. I barely had the will to live. In fact, my activities over the last three days can be summarized as followed: some slow progress on my Football Manager 2010 career (Southampton have been promoted!), watched one movie, two episodes of Buffy, and bought a handful of ridiculously cheap games off Steam. It’s been a struggle.
Now, I am back at work and in air conditioning. Ah, zombies. Nothing quite like them. I never played the Resident Evil games. I watched a lot of them played, but, I think, the only one I ever played was that last one and only for like an hour. I love “Left 4 Dead”. I know people thing the zombie genre has been played out, but I, agree, that there’s still stuff to do.
There really hasn’t been a game like you described that involves actually surviving a zombie appocalypse. Back in the day, I always thought that an X-Com type zombie survival game would be excellent. You have your group of survivors that have to get from Point A to Point B or what not. There is some over arching plot, but also a number of random encounters with zombies, other survivors, etc. You would have to keep track of supplies, forage and all of that. You could pick up different survivors and they would have skills, but skills that related to their pre-zombie job, so you would have to choose: do you really want to take on the accountant and his lawyer wife and their two kids, none of which are going to do squat in a firefight and will just suck up resources, or do you leave them behind? If you leave them behind, how will that affect your group’s morale?
I think a “Fallout 3” type of game would be great too. Not the I have power armor and a plasma rifle and cannot be stopped end of Fallout, but rather the whole trying to scrape by Fallout. You could start the game very much like the start of “28 Days Later” or “Walking Dead”. You wake up in a deserted hospital, wander around a bit and then realize you’re in Zombieland. The game structure could be very open world like Fallout, but also with an over arching plot as well.
A real, hard-core zombie survival game would be excellent, where things like ammo, food, conditions of weapons, etc. all mattered. You throw in some other potentially dangerous humans, like Romero always did, and away you go.
Back in college, we used to spend hours talking about our zombie survival plan. We still have one today. It all revolves around our good friend Vince, who is a medical examiner in NYC and the first thing he does each morning is put his fingers in dead people’s mouth, surviving the initial attack long enough to call me. He’s the canary in the coal mine. I get his message, I make the calls and we move. I reckon we’ll have a good 24-48 hours head start on everyone.
As for running vs. walking zombies. For a long time I was a staunch traditionalist. If I had to choose, I’d take the walking zombies, but like Steerpike, I loved the “Dawn of the Dead” re-make. Really loved it, so I have become a little more open to the idea of the running zombie. Now, what I will NOT abide is the smart zombie or the zombie with feelings. No. Not ever. Never. Not a chance. Zombies do not thing, they do not have feelings, they do not use weapons. Ever.
The comic series Steerpike mentioned “Walking Dead” is great. That, along with “World War Z” and “Zombieland” are three of the best, most recent additions to the zombie cannon. They are actually making a TV show based off the comic. It will be airing in the fall on AMC. Six episodes, but it’s being directed by Frank Darabount (he of “The Green Mile” and “Shawshank Redemption” fame) and they really, really seem to “get” the whole zombie thing. These are slow zombies too. I’m sure you Brits can find it somewheres.
You know, it occurs to me that Mrs. Ajax shouldn’t have bothered with that “do yoga in incredible heat” thing she did a while back, since your house is now a suitable environment. I feel for you, my friend. Truly I do. Perhaps you should come over and stay in my frigidly cold condo for a while, because no one should be that hot. You know how I feel about heat. Just give me some warning, because the place is a real mess right now.
Vince has long promised to sacrifice himself for our long-term survival in the event of a zombie apocalypse. I’ll miss him when we’re out on the road, but there’s really no way he can survive that first wave. Poor guy. He has all of us on speed dial.
I have a distinct memory of discussing the idea of an X-Com style strategy/turn based zombie game with someone in the industry, but I can’t remember who. I think it would be a great idea. Not scary like Resident Evil, maybe, though if they artfully combined tactical combat with a third person view, even that could be managed.
Didn’t 28 days later implement some of the first running zombies? (could be wrong!).
Personally, I prefer the concept of a zombie capable of running. It’s much more fun.
I guess half lifes headcrab-humans and the skinless, jumping, clawing red version are zombies too.
Oh and in the event of a zombie attack Ajax, please give us on Tap a warning too!! 😉
Are you kidding Lewis? We’re going to use Tap to coordinate the global resistance effort against the undead. I only hope our bandwidth is sufficient.
I think “28 Days Later” might have been the first to do it. It made sense in that context since, those weren’t technically undead, but rather living people infected by a “rage” virus. It’s be a pretty lame “rage” virus if those infected just walked and stumbled around. That’s not very “rage” like at all.
It’s been a horrible few days. In fact, we finally installed the window AC unit in our bedroom last night. As bad as I feel for myself, it’s even worse for our poor dog. He just sits around panting all day, trying to find some cool spot to lie down on. He’s even been too hot to eat. Between the opressive heat and the excessive fireworks on Saturday and Sunday night, it’s been a long, difficult few days for my neurotic, overly-sensitive animal.