Hard Project: Zombies

I mean, if Infestation: Survivor Stories didn't do it...

Ironically, this genre seems almost impossible to actually kill.

I love zombie fiction.  I absolutely hate most video games that feature zombies.  And there’s a good reason for that, largely stemming from the fact that the two bear only the slightest connection to one another.

Let it not be said that you do not have your options for zombie games if you want them.  The Walking Dead has been doing quite well for itself.  DayZ is out in early testing that only asks you to, you know, purchase it before you can test it.  (That seems backwards to me, but that’s a different article.)  Dead Rising is a thing, State of Decay is a thing, Left 4 Dead is a thing, and hell, Plants vs. Zombies is out there.  That’s not even counting the numerous games which feature zombies as a sideline – arguably the Husks of Mass Effect are close cousins.

But I don’t really like zombie games all that much, and even the games that I’m listing don’t seem to really like zombies all that much.  Which is why I’m listing this as a hard project, because it turns out that making a zombie game is a very different prospect from writing zombie horror, and the two don’t go together nicely.

Apparently, zombies aren't hard to kill.

It’s not as interesting when the hordes of undead mostly serve as filler for the hack-and-slash in a bull mask and sweat pants.

The threat

I am not going to lie to you – when I first saw screenshots of Dead Rising and its wall-to-wall zombie hordes, I was pretty interested.  That interest died fast, however, once I learned that the thrust of the game was finding new and interesting ways to tear zombies apart.

A good zombie story isn’t about dealing with the zombies except as a constant, unstoppable threat.  Yes, there are zombies out there, and usually you can pick off a few of them if necessary, but the fact is that you are going to be overwhelmed.  There are no two ways about it.  Even Shaun of the Dead, a downright hilarious film and a parody of zombie films in general, treats the zombies as something to be escaped rather than fought through.  Zombies are dangerous, because the whole point is that they are an endless, relentless horde that doesn’t tire or feel pain or even do much of anything beyond seek to kill and consume.

Not so in most games.  In games, zombies are bullet sponges you don’t feel bad about killing.  You can hack your way through zombies with trivial ease, over and over.  I lost interest in Dead Rising 2 when I realized that the main reason to kill zombies was simply to save myself some time when I had survivors with me – generally shoving them out of the way would work just as well.  The only reason people are trapped in the mall is because it locked the people and the zombies in the same area.  Otherwise it would just be a leisurely chop-fest to the front door, step out, and casually chop up a few more before you get tired and go home for the day.

Which by itself is fine, I suppose.  Only things keep going downhill…

I don't get it, but they're sitting on the pile of money from an unfinished game and I'm not, so...

The real fun of surviving in a zombie apocalypse is fighting off fellow survivors who will happily murder you for your stuff, not dealing with zombies.

The horror

What’s really scary about zombies, most of the time, is that there’s not much separating you from becoming one of the walking dead yourself.  You can make a heroic stand against the zombies, kill dozens of them, but it doesn’t take much to be one of them.  And that’s what awaits, no matter what you do.  You will be one of the shambling undead yourself, and someone will have to shoot you down or be dragged down to hell with you.

The designers at Valve thought long and hard about how to bring this sense of horror into Left 4 Dead and settled on “well, it’s a co-op shooter, but if you take a lot of damage one of your companions will have to stop shooting zombies long enough to revive you.”  Somehow that carries a great deal less visceral bite.  Maybe it’s personal preference, maybe it’s the fact that in one version you’re facing the constant risk of losing yourself to mindless consumption and in the other you’re just getting thwacked about a bit?

I’m not saying that you should totally turn into a zombie once you’re bitten in a video game, because that would make a rather terrible video game.  I’m saying it’s hard to make a video game where that doesn’t happen while still retaining the fundamental horror of dealing with zombies.  When you make the mindless hordes easy to fight through any you take away the idea that these things can turn you into them easily, what you’re left with are bullet sponges.  Sometimes knife-and-sword sponges, depending on the game.  The horror of the situation is lost, you just have a lot of things to re-deadify before the day comes to an end.  Interesting, sure, but not scary.

Horrifying.

“Oh no! I might get overwhelmed by scratch damage and have to restart!”

The meaning

All of this is second, though, to the fact that zombies in game don’t mean anything beyond “zombie.”

Monsters in fiction mean something when used properly.  Vampires represent sexuality and the fear of the foreign, werewolves represent primal fury and bestial instincts, zombies represent pure mindless hordes acting in unison.  There’s a lot of space to work with that from a narrative standpoint, and you can argue that there’s some disturbing subtext in the fact that video games use that monstrous stand-in for unthinking masses as a thing for players to shoot at until they all fall over.

I don’t think that’s really intentional; I think it’s just that zombies in horror fiction serve a very different purpose from zombies in video games.  Video game zombies are there to essentially be human-shaped targets where the details don’t matter and you shouldn’t feel bad.  Sure, you shot a whole lot of them, probably even more than you needed to, but who cares?  They were zombies.  And not the sort of zombies where you’re invited to think long and hard about the fact that these were once human beings.  They’re there, you can shoot them, and you should enjoy shooting them because that’s all they mean.

Making an actual zombie game is difficult because once you turn zombies into an actual threat and start making use of that pressing threat of being overwhelmed, you’re taking away the part where instead of cowering you get to mow through mindless undead without a care in the world.  Years of games have stated that zombies are nothing more than punching bags, and taking that away feels like an assault.  The closest we’ve gotten is, again, The Walking Dead, and even that stays true to the core of the comics where the real threat is other people rather than just zombies.

I don’t tend to be too excited at the prospect of playing a game just to beat up hordes of slow-moving enemies without a care in the world, though.  So I don’t much like zombie games.

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About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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