Bring your pitchforks! A defense of the much beleaguered genre of zombie games.
Hold your comments for the end people, because we’re going to be talking about zombie games today. More specifically, we’re going to be discussing how awesome they are. Even though there are a billion and a half zombie games, I’m going to sell you on why the genre of zombie fiction is so rad. Or die and reanimate trying.
So, let’s start, first things first, and get the elephant in the room out of the way. There really are a boatload and a half zombie games. They were a fairly niche thing up until the past decade or so, though, so while Resident Evil had zombies, it wasn’t exactly part of the zombie overload. It did go off the deep end in another pool, but that’s not of consequence here.
Zombies became popular, supposedly, because their AI is easy to code for and they’re an unnuanced and basic fear. They take little effort to write, since they lack motivation besides “hunger” and typically just shamble about being a pain.
One of the most popular zombie games was Left 4 Dead, which is a four person co-op game where your goal is to get to safe zones through massive amounts of zombies. While a fun game to play with people, it was very scant on story and the zombies were just cannon fodder. A mindless shooter.
Dead Island was similar, though there was some mild RPG action in it, too. Lots of zombies, you have to kill them, and that’s largely it. The plot was cliché and predictable, and the characters were really paper thin.
These games aren’t what I’m talking about, though. Yes, I would argue that there are too many games like this. Bland shootery games (even though Dead Island‘s analogue melee combat was interesting) don’t take the fullest advantage of zombies as an enemy.
Now, I’m not talking about Romero style social commentary, though I don’t necessarily have a problem with it. The neat thing, to me, about zombies is that they are a totally neutral party. Totally harmful and destructive, but they bear no malice.
Zombies are a force of nature hellbent on human annihilation. Not as a matter of course but an ultimate and seemingly inevitable matter of fact. If that wrath of God was personified, it would manifest as an undying, unyielding horde.
A good story to me typically has an enemy with whom you can relate, and humanity can never relate to a natural disaster. All of the hopelessness and powerlessness is amazing for creating drama and tension. While you can kill one zombie or even hundreds, one person cannot weather the hurricane themselves. I love the theme of tilting at windmills as a necessary matter of survival.
Much like pioneers throughout history who had to fight the elements and vicious wildlife just to survive, zombies are the hostile environment within which survivors have to live. And they do live, even if they say they are just surviving.
My favorite part of zombie stories is how people interact with people. In games where zombies are just a foe to be mowed down in mass, you lose the sense of community based around not massacring zombies but learning to live amongst them in the shadows of the world. The Walking Dead games do this spectacularly, just like the TV series and presumably the comics.
Because zombies are a force of nature and environmental hazards, they make for a setting rather unique. While there are many games located following an apocalypse, there are very few that take place during an ongoing apocalypse. Something that doesn’t stop because it is now a part of the world.
We get to participate in stories of survivors, living in a hostile world, trying to survive. This is enjoyable storytelling to me. We get to watch people, thrown from their lives, develop in a new world. Perhaps it’s just my bias towards strong character based stories, but this is what I think zombie games are made for.
Not for boring, never-ending monster shoot-em-ups. That’s a waste, to me. You have an environment that can be used in all sorts of ways, and it usually gets used as a backdrop for racking up an intense kill count. I want the backdrop to be fully appreciated and we won’t get that if we just quit making zombie games.
What we need instead is to ask more from developers. Look at the games that have just come out in the past couple of years. The Walking Dead, Zombie Exodus, and State of Decay are all fun games that take advantage of their setting and use it to explore the stories of characters trying to get by.
The Walking Dead and Zombie Exodus are choose your own adventure stories with a heavy, heavy focus on interpersonal relationships. TWD is a point and click adventure game, while Zombie Exodus is text based, but they both spend most of the time focused on the survivors. They both also like to tug on the heartstrings, but The Walking Dead definitely pulls less punches, which is to be expected considering the “anyone can die” source material.
State of Decay is a bit more open-ended, to be sure, but that’s not bad. It has more focus on combat than the others, but it does so more gracefully than other zombie games, in my opinion. There is effort spent on micromanaging your base, keeping your people happy, and doing side quests to help out friends and so forth. It works to foster a sense of community, or sometimes throw a spanner in the works and give you someone who’s just going to bring the group down. This makes for not only immersive storytelling, but also emergent story-telling, which is great for the genre.
I don’t want all zombie games to be like those, but I do want more zombie games that don’t squander their strongest asset. In the zombie apocalypse, the zombies are the least important important part. The survivors are the ones who matter most, so they’re the ones the games should be about. We need more games like those, not less.