Zombies 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.
So 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.
I 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.
There 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.
Over 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.
And 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.
We 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.
Does 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 Dead
In 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.
Oh, 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."
In other words, Left 4 Dead's aim isn't to portray a zombie apocalypse. It's to help you prepare for one.
Not 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.
Example: 99% of zombie games are using zombies as a bad guy. There are a finite number of them, they come at you, you kill them. And you kill them in a confined, linear space. Meaning that the zombie has been reduced to a mere "target". It could be a zombie, it could be an alien, it could be a monster, doesn't really matter.
But Dead Rising placed you in a large shopping mall with tens of thousands of zombies. And they're all around you. Your resources are limited, and while a single zombie rarely presents itself as a threat, 100 zombies in a group does. And it's a threat that's always there. These are the kind of things a good zombie story plays upon, and sadly, Dead Rising is one of the only games to make full use of them.
At least, until Dead Rising 2 comes out, at any rate.
Above, we've touched on a few things the "major" zombie games do right, and a few things they do, well, wrong. But of those core zombie story traits we listed at the start of the piece, there's one thing zombie games seem to shy away from doing at all, and that's "turning".
If you've read Robert Kirkman's "Walking Dead" comics, Max Brook's World War Z or seen Romero's Dawn of the Dead, (or even Shaun of the Dead), you'll know that zombie stories are at their best when major characters are bitten, and transition from being one of the few remaining good guys to being one of the countless millions of bad guys.
It's so powerful because it rolls so many themes and emotions together. A main character is dead. The ranks of the enemy have grown larger. And the good guys are now faced with the hardship of "killing" someone who is, yes, an zombie, but was also once an ally or loved one. And that's all rolled into the one event.
But games don't seem to want to go there. You'll see minor examples, sure, but does Leon have to put a bullet in Ashley's head at the end of Resident Evil 4, after it's revealed she's been bitten? Or does Zoey, having been bitten by a Hunter in a round of Left 4 Dead, then rise up to take a chunk out of Bill's backside? Nope. And for a medium that's so obsessed with proving its creative chops, in providing experiences that are truly emotional, continually leaving such a powerful story element out of games seems a strange omission.
So why leave it out? Faliszek has an easy answer, saying it's for design purposes. "Early on we decided we wanted it to be about team-work and the connection you had with your team", he said. "While I love the mistrust that "turning" adds to movies, the best implementation in a non-zombie horror film being John Carpenter's The Thing, it really works against the core mechanics of the game. We wanted to keep you together as a cohesive unit always working together to escape."
And Takeuchi's thoughts? "You know, that's a good point, why don't we see that in games? I'm actually not sure myself. Is it just a coincidence...?"
No, sadly, it's not a coincidence, because it reveals a shortcoming in zombie games that even Capcom, masters of the genre, are prone to dabble in. For all their gore, and all their brain-eating potential, zombies are not a literal threat. They're slow, they're stupid, they can't open doors, they can't drive after you. Instead, their threat is a metaphorical one, something Romero understood when he filled a mall full of brain-dead shoppers and a handful of desperate humans.
The real danger wasn't necessarily in being eaten alive. It was in how you'd deal with prospect of a never-ending horde of zombies that, while mindless, were innumerable and existed for no other reason than to find you, and eat you. How you'd cope with seeing your friends and loved ones eaten, then come back and try to eat you. It was in seeing humanity for what it really was once you penetrate the thin veneer of society: a violent, selfish mob that consumes itself with greed once the zombies have eaten away at law & order.
Zombie games of the future, take note.