Zombie!!! Games of the Living DeadLuke Plunkett3/18/09 1:00pmFiled to: FeatureResident Evil 5TopOriginalLeft 4 DeadDead Rising2101EditPromoteShare to KinjaToggle Conversation toolsGo to permalinkZombies are suddenly hot again. Recent films, books and comic series have reignited the worlds love of the flesh-eating undead, and video games are, as always, right in on the action.AdvertisementSo what better time to take a look at zombies, their role in video games, and how games go about implementing the concept of a horde of the living dead!If you want to get historical, zombies are, as far as we know, first mentioned on the record in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Which was written around 4000 years ago.AdvertisementI will knock down the Gates of the Netherworld, I will smash the door posts, and leave the doors flat down, and will let the dead go up to eat the living! And the dead will outnumber the living!You'll also find historical precedence for zombies in medieval European texts, Haitian Voodoo lore (where the dead can be revived and bound to a master) and mythical tales from every other corner of the globe, including the rather unappealing prospect of dead Viking warriors rising from the grave to fight the living. But really, the zombies we know and love - and the zombies most commonly recycled throughout modern popular culture, including games - come from George A Romero's films Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978, pictured below).Both movies revolve around a central, similar story: a group of survivors barricading themselves into a space to protect themselves from a horde of the walking undead, who are feasting on the living and destroying human society in an apocalyptic event. Both movies were also smash hits. They've been remade several times over, and have served as the primary source of reference on all things zombie for countless other films, novels, comic book and, yes, video games about zombies.SponsoredThere are several reasons for this. On a cheap, superficial level, people love the gore. Walking corpses are messy, and they're out to eat people. Which is also messy. But it's also terrifying. The concept of a world overrun with creatures whose sole purpose is to eat you is bad enough, but when those people are your former co-workers, friends and family, it adds an extra layer of intimacy to the horror.There's also a message. In Dawn of the Dead, the film is as much a criticism of our consumer-mad lifestyle as it was a tale of flesh-eating corpses, with the zombies portrayed as mindless vessels shambling around the one thing in life that still mattered to them beyond the grave: the mall. Indeed, the real danger in the film isn't even the zombies: it's the psychological trauma the survivors are forced to endure, along with the attacks of other violent, selfish humans.AdvertisementOver all the near-countless zombie tales recorded over the past forty years, most also retain a number of core characteristics when it comes to portraying the zombies themselves, which games (for the most part) also stick to. First, they're stupid. These are corpses, after all, all they do is shamble around groaning and looking for somebody to eat.Speaking of shambling, despite recent (and less recent, in the case of cult Italian director Lucio Fulci's works) filmmakers attempting to tell you otherwise, zombies should be slow. Simon Pegg, British comedian and Shaun of the Dead (pictured, above) actor/writer, puts this best, saying "speed simplifies the zombie, clarifying the threat and reducing any response to an emotional reflex. It's the difference between someone shouting "Boo!" and hearing the sound of the floorboards creaking in an upstairs room: a quick thrill at the expense of a more profound sense of dread."Secondly, they "turn" people. The presence of the horde is already indicative of this, but zombie tales are rife with incidents where loved ones and/or trusted friends are attacked and bitten by a zombie, with the result they then later become a zombie and themselves have to be killed off.AdvertisementAnd finally, they explore how, like in many other "apocalyptic" scenarios, humans cope with situations of extreme adversity. The survivor/survivors of a zombie story have to deal not only with limited food, supplies and communication (not to mention millions of zombies), but also lawlessness and the breakdown of human civilization as we know it.So how, then, is this modern concept of the zombie – honed to near-perfection for four decades by writers around the world – applied to video games, both in storyline and, more importantly, game design? Let's take a look at a few notable examples – and speak with Resident Evil 5 producer Jun Takeuchi and Left 4 Dead writer Chet Faliszek – to find out.Resident EvilAdvertisementAdvertisementWe had to start here, didn't we? It's not just the most popular zombie tale in video gaming, it's one of the most endearing across popular culture as a whole. Indeed, it's been credited by many with reviving the entire zombie genre, bringing it back into fashion during the 90's (the first game was released in 1996) in a decade when it had otherwise been relegated to b-movie schlock in other mediums.But Resident Evil didn't just bring it back. It made a complicated (some may say convoluted) story out of it, with a corrupt and negligent corporation responsible for a series of viral outbreaks, creating a lore which not only adds to the appeal of the series for die-hard, but injects a much-needed sense of "corniness" as well. Nothing like throwing zombie dogs and Spanish midgets into a story about man-eating corpses to lighten things up.In recent years, the series has moved away from its roots to challenge the very definition of the term "zombie". Where zombies are normally associated with the walking dead, Capcom's last two Resident Evil games have instead featured villagers infected with an alien virus. These guys are not only still "alive", but retain much of their human capabilities, such as communications skills and the ability to use weapons, tools and even vehicles.AdvertisementDoes this mean they're even zombies anymore? Resident Evil 5 producer Jun Takeuchi certainly thinks so. "Until recently, zombies were seen as beings who couldn't run", he told us (well, almost recently...Fulci's City of the Living Dead (1980) had running zombies). "Tastes have changed a little bit, though. Now it's okay to have fast zombies. So sure, I think that enemies that communicate and use weapons can certainly be seen as zombies, maybe a different type, but zombies nonetheless".Left 4 DeadIn many ways, Left 4 Dead takes an approach to the walking dead that can best be summed up as "different". There are zombies with "superpowers". Zombies are sometimes slow, sometimes fast, sometimes acutely aware of you, other times completely oblivious.AdvertisementAdvertisementOh, and you can kill them by shooting them in the leg.But while the game takes a creative liberty or two with the established idea of a zombie, it takes a meticulous approach to the feel of a zombie apocalypse. The game captures the bleakness of such a scenario perfectly, with dim lights, ruined cityscapes, and most poignant of all, scrawled letters to loved ones found on walls throughout the game. All are haunting examples of a society in decay."There have been other zombie games" says Valve's Chet Faliszek, who served as writer for Left 4 Dead, "but they always gum it up for me. They make it about evil men or evil corporations or evil… you get the idea. We wanted to have Left 4 Dead be about The Zombie Apocalypse.""This is one reason we chose to avoid going in depth over the cause or what exactly is happening when you first start the game" he continues, explaining the game's emphasis on "realism". "We wanted to throw the players into the world of the zombie apocalypse the same way the characters were. A good test to see how you would last with complete strangers during the zombie apocalypse is to jump in a Left 4 Dead game with three strangers."AdvertisementIn other words, Left 4 Dead's aim isn't to portray a zombie apocalypse. It's to help you prepare for one.Dead RisingAdvertisementNot quite the mainstream name Resident Evil is, but still a fantastic title, one which we think does a better job than any other of really getting zombies "right". You play a man trapped in a mall overrun by zombies, and have to survive for three days. That's it. For those three days you'll have to make use of everything inside the mall you can get your hands on to stay alive, from umbrellas to lawn mowers, often with gory – and hilarious – results.There's more than a touch of Dawn of the Dead present in the game's premise and setting – indeed, it attracted a lawsuit over similarities to Romero's film – and that's probably why it succeeds: because it comes closest to delivering a game that apes the feeling of dread you'd associate with a zombie apocalypse.