Night of the living bores: The overuse of zombies in video games
Even though video games weren’t around in 1968, the echoes of a certain film by one George A Romero would have such a large amount of influence over the next forty five years of popular culture that he could have sued numerous books, movies and eventually video games for stealing his intellectual property. In one fell swoop, Romero seemed to have established the modus operandi for all stories involving reanimated corpses. They eat human flesh, they are stupider than a bag of hammers, they usually shamble at less than walking pace and they often travel about in huge fucking numbers. The film I am talking about, of course, is the highly influential Night Of The Living Dead.
Romero had undoubtedly created something special with his film. There is just something about the primal nature and simplicity of zombies as an adversary that is infinitely engaging to audiences all over the world. To all intents and purposes they look like people, but they have been completely robbed of their humanity. The stories written about them often involve mild mannered husbands rising from their graves to dine upon the flesh of their pleading wives and children. It can be incredibly shocking from a moral point of view, and yet incredibly engaging from a sociological one. As I have said before, people love the idea of dystopia even more than utopia. The thought of the cataclysmic collapse of societal order in favour of a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” mentality just appeals to our imaginations and – more importantly – it makes for one hell of a video game premise.
It is such a good premise, in fact, that games designers have been cashing in on it for ages. The zombie game has just been done to death, if you’ll excuse the pun. It’s everywhere you look these days from the tacked on FPS zombie shooting modes of Call Of Duty to the supposedly “shocking” tourist hacking of Dead Island: Riptide. Even though it garnered quite a lot of positive critical reception, I even found the recent indie game Deadlight to be a pretty but essentially boring game that had none of the tense desperation or creeping dread that usually comes with the territory. In many cases, these games feel like rushed and hackneyed interpretations of George A Romero’s masterpiece instead of homages created by fans of the genre. A cynical person could even say that many are shameless cash-ins designed to pique our interests and prey upon our natural curiosity with the undead. I’m afraid I am one of these cynical people.
It’s a realisation that has crept up on me like a peckish cadaver in search of a midnight snack, but many zombie games are in need of a serious overhaul. My own love of the genre is undoubtedly the cause of this oversight. A part of me just really wants to be entertained by these games in a similar way that films like 28 Days Later, Shawn Of The Dead and Dawn Of The Dead have entertained me in the past. It is quite understandable to hold out hope, but it’s slightly worrying when you consider that the past six months alone have seen the release of two highly anticipated but seriously sub-par zombie games with ZombiU and Resident Evil 6.
One was supposed to be a must have launch game intended to get people to invest in Nintendo’s new wonder box, and the other was supposed to be the latest iteration of a much loved mega series. What we got was a far cry from both, having to instead slog through a repetitive and stereotypical survival horror and an overblown bloated action game that shunned its established roots. The sad truth is that zombie games are being churned out faster than Doctor Who episodes, but they rarely have the same level of care in their design or in the execution of their special effects that the much loved British science fiction series does.
Of course, this trend isn’t true for all games containing the undead. You only have to look at the early Resident Evil games to see how zombies can be successfully integrated into a game’s story and gameplay to terrifying effect. It’s not even true for all recent games to be released that contain zombies as a central theme. The adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead by Telltale Games is testament to this and is a shining example of just how brilliant the setting of societal collapse can be for creating a compelling and truly heart-wrenching interactive narrative. The characters of Lee, Christa, Kenny, Lilly and of course Clementine were undoubtedly shaped by their environment, and I doubt very much that I would have cared half as much about what happened to them if it wasn’t for the threat of zombies. It is an excellent example of how the undead can improve the story of a game through the underlying themes that they represent, and not just the grotesque fascination of their nature.
That’s not to say that a tremendous amount of fun can’t be had with games that celebrate the sheer challenge of overcoming undead hordes with brute force. Valve’s multiplayer classic Left 4 Dead and the recent Arma 2 mod turned fully-fledged-game DayZ are two very good examples of this. Both games simulate the camaraderie and thrill of tackling the hordes with online companions in very different and distinct ways. Left 4 Dead is immediately accessible action that is arguably the best example of a zombie/multiplayer FPS and DayZ is a realistic simulation that requires players to manage their supplies and choose their companions carefully. In both cases, there is very little in the way of story to frame the experience. Players are instead given a rich sandbox with a premise that everyone understands – zombies are everywhere and are trying to kill you – and they create their own experiences.
The truth is that there are a lot of different ways to tackle the problem of integrating the living dead with video games. Often, however, developers simply can’t think of them, or they just rush out half-baked concepts in the hope of making some easy money. This makes gamers like myself feel mistrusting of new games that come out with the seemingly irresistible strapline of “contains zombies”. There are just too many of them for it to be automatically something special. I can’t help feeling that developers would be better off in the long run if they looked at the relative successes and failures of the genre before committing themselves to new projects. Either that or – shock horror – they could take a break from zombies and think of something new. Perhaps it’s not worth pinning our hopes on Naughty Dog showing us something mind-blowing with The Last Of Us. I guess I’ll never know unless I put some money down for that pre-order.