Well, it’s happened. Not even two articles into writing for this website and I’ve learned my first lesson about writing about games: “Be prepared for your personal views to be proven wrong by the internet and/or the games industry while researching an article”. But, silver lining, at least I now know how that feels quite early into my hopeful career as a games journalist. What was the question in question? One given to us via Twitter asking us if the trend of zombie games is still going strong or if it’s finally coming to an end.
Originally I set out to write this article with the happy knowledge that it was a slam dunk. To me, zombies have been played out, basically to the point that they’re now either just mindless bullet fodder or shoe-horned into an unrelated game for a usually unnecessary change of pace or as a joke on the trend itself.
Hell, we add prefixes like “space” or “Nazi” to zombie in an attempt to make them sound more interesting in some way, or extra interesting if we combine more than one prefix; “Norwegian Snow Nazi Zombies” anyone?
Even survival horror games that are praised for their interesting creature design like Silent Hill include them. Sure, they may have some special meaning behind them, but when you get down to brass tacks a zombie used as a metaphor is still just a zombie.
Within recent memory, the last Zombie games I remember popping up within the year were Dying Light and the spin-off to Telltale’s The Walking Dead; The Walking Dead: Michonne, with no future releases in sight. But after looking at the list of what zombie games were released in the last 6 years, as well as what we might be expecting later in the year to prove that point in a comedic smackdown, I was proven horribly wrong.
As it turns out, the trend of zombie games doesn’t appear to be dying off any time soon. Going through the lists, I found that a lot of the zombie games that had come out in recent years were some of the most acclaimed games in industry’s past, ones that I held up as some of my personal favourites: Telltale’s The Walking Dead, Sunset Overdrive and The Last of Us being some standout examples.
Even during 2016, we’ve got a lot of zombie games that we’re either now playing or looking forward to: The season of The Walking Dead: Michonne, Plants Vs Zombies 2: Garden Warfare, two Resident Evil games (Resident Evil 0 HD and Resident Evil: Umberella Corps), Overkill Software’s take on the Walking Dead franchise and even a confirmed third season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead.
Now I could easily call it a day here by telling you that yes, there is still a trend and give the simplest reason of “they are popular games that rake in a shitload of money”. But I think that there is more than that reason alone as to why gamers and game developers keep coming back to zombies as a theme for their games. And since people love lists, I thought I’d make one out of the reasons I found for you guys to enjoy.
1. No, seriously. They make a LOT of money
I know I said before that this is the simplistic version of why the trend is still prevalent, but it is a contributing factor when you think about it. When it comes to making games as an indie developer, even more so when you’re starting out in the industry, you don’t really have the luxury of turning down an idea that will be a sure-fire sale. If you have an idea that follows a popular trend that has seen gamers happily pay money for, then you don’t get to pass up on the opportunity. It’s most likely the reason why a lot of indie teams starting out make games like The Organ Trail, DayZ or I Made a Game with Zombies in It.
In the case of AAA developers, adding zombies into their games via DLC and extra game modes, even if it seems oddly shoehorned in on occasion, has easily boosted the interest and sales of their games thanks to the trend. At this point, the zombie mode you see in every Call of Duty game these days is by far the part I’ve seen people get hyped up for. Even Red Dead Redemption was given another sales boost thanks to the inclusion of the excellent Undead Nightmare DLC.
2. They force innovation
When a new trend hits gaming culture, if a developer wants to hop on the bandwagon and make money, they need to set themselves apart from the competition. In some cases, innovation can simply come from what I like to call the “ideas on a dartboard” approach, taking the zombie apocalypse and sticking it in a different era (Undead Nightmare) or a location different enough from the usual cityscape (Dead Island). And that’s all fine and good, it can work. But I feel like the best zombie games that we’ve seen in the past have stood out thanks to innovation in terms of mechanics and design.
Plants Vs Zombies offered us a mechanically deep, adorable and player-friendly take on the tower defence genre through its various plant types, environmental challenges and challenging combinations of zombie types per wave. Oh, and that weirdly catchy theme song.
This approach has also been carried over into its recent team-based shooter release, Plants Vs Zombies: Garden Warfare 1 and 2, offering the player different character types for both Plants and Zombies that the player can experiment with to find what works for their playstyle.
Shooters like Left 4 Dead and the Call of Duty: Zombies mode offer up stage-based co-op multiplayer challenges that go from difficult to almost impossible without an effective use of team-work between the players. In the case of Call of Duty, the Zombies mode also offered players a new and interesting type of multiplayer that felt and played differently in comparison to the typical multiplayer mode that the series is known for.
The Dead Rising series offered the idea of time-sensitive mission completion that effected the ending the player would get, as well as a crafting system that allowed players to come up with interesting and fun new weapons, including and not limited to my personal favourites: The Defiler and the Paddlesaw.
The Last of Us and Telltale’s The Walking Dead told deep and moving stories to its players that focused less on combat and more on the characters and situations that you interacted with. These games gave us mature stories that didn’t attempt to shy away from or sugar-coat the absolute worst parts of the zombie apocalypse. And I don’t want to forget how The Walking Dead redefined choice-based games through the grey-area moral choices that were presented to the player, offering something very different to the “Mother Teresa vs Baby-Eater” black and white choices seen in games before and after it.
3. We forget how effective they are as enemies for the developers to implement into games
When it comes to implementing any kind of AI in games, a development team have to work long and hard to make sure that every moving character and model moves in either an intelligent or realistic way around the game world. This is even more so the case when it comes to implementing AI for human characters, as common sense interactions with the game world or the player can make or break the game’s immersion for the player.
But when it comes to creating the AI for zombies, the task of making them move around and react to the game world believably becomes a lot easier. Why? Because zombies are dumb. Almost every piece of modern pop-culture tells us that zombies are incredibly simple minded creatures that have no intelligent brain function, just animal instincts and ravenous hunger. So if the player sees a zombie that runs into a wall, can’t jump over/climb something or fall off a ledge, it’s very likely that their immersion won’t be broken because they’ll expect a zombie to do something like that. As a result, a zombie character’s AI can be simplified into something along the lines of “Wander around this set space until player sets off a trigger/comes within a certain range, in which case, run at the player and attack.”
4. We forget how effective they are as enemies for players to encounter
When it comes to encountering enemies in games, they’re usually remembered for being a very easy kill for some kind of reward like XP or in-game currency. But depending on the context of the game, they can also become a massive challenge based on the context of the game they are found in. I think we can forget that because former appears to be the popular alternative because it is usually the most fun way to encounter zombies. After all, the easiest method of killing zombies is via a headshot: one of the most satisfying ways to kill something in a game that also gives a player extra rewards in a lot of cases.
Games like Dead Island, Sunset Overdrive and Dead Rising place the player amongst a horde of zombies that go down easily. And if there are types that don’t, the game is designed so that, over time and with a certain weapon, they will go down just as easily. It’s this arcade context that gives the player a sense of empowerment through violent, ironically brainless fun that allows players to plow through a roadblock with no icky morals to worry about. They’re already dead, so go nuts, kid!
But then there are games that use the survival context of dealing with zombies, such as The Last of Us and Telltale’s The Walking Dead. In this context, zombies are absurdly strong, relentless in their pursuit of you and are just an overall bad time to even attempt to go up against. Hell, killing them easily with a gun is one of the dumbest things you can do, because it usually just brings even more of them towards you. They are an incredibly difficult roadblock that is usually better of just being left alone, save the player or an ally getting a set of teeth marks on their body and a suddenly grumpy disposition.
These kinds of zombies are usually found in story-based games in which combat isn’t the main draw. Here zombies pose as both a passive and active threat towards the player and game’s characters. They can either be attacking the characters, about to attack the characters or be an unknowing enemy and source of tension for a stealth sequence. But they are also a background setting to the drama, establishing why it’s there, why some characters feel the way they do about others, how it motivates them to do certain things over the course of the game’s story. They can give us some of the most “human” characters in modern media and also make good use of the question “In an apocalypse, is the real threat the monsters or other people?”
At this point in time, I feel like the trend of zombie-themed games is still very prevalent in modern gaming, it’s just a lot less obvious. Quite simply, the market just seems to be a lot less oversaturated with them than it was in the late 2000s and early 2010s. And rather than the trend simply dying off, developers and gamers found themes and elements that appealed to us from them that have allowed us to continue enjoying them, or tolerating them in the case of some people. And I guess that after writing this, I think that I kind of flip-flop somewhere between the two.
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