Have Zombies Shambled Over The Shark?
Gamers have always had to contend with shambling, odorous sub-human creatures capable only of expressing themselves in guttural grunts and moans. These days, though, they're less likely to be your roommates and more likely to be the murderous zombie hordes you find in a distressingly high percentage of modern games.
It wasn't always this way. A long while back, zombie games were rare and interesting – and, most of all, creepy. Remember the first time you played Resident Evil? As a friend described it to me when I first got my original PlayStation, it wasn't a game you wanted to play with the lights out – or even with the lights on.
Now, zombies and zombie games are everywhere, which might be fine if they weren't... well, I don't mean to say they're all bad, per se, but too many of them seem to use zombies as so much disposable bags of flesh for players to hack, shoot, and incinerate.
Can zombies be actually interesting again?
Here's where I make everyone mad by criticizing DayZ. Don't get me wrong, as an open-world, multi-player, survivor shooter, it's great.
But it's not truly a zombie game.
Yes, it has zombies, but they could just about as easily be robots or goblins or orcs. They're just not that scary when you can see them in daylight from 500 meters away through your scoped rifle. The tension in that game comes from other human players, not from the mindless hordes that most people just run past.
DayZ, when it works, is generally considered a good game. Since the start of 2012 alone, we've seen roughly a jillion games, of various levels of quality, with zombies – even if they weren't directly labeled as such – as major antagonists, like:
- Dead Space 3
- The Secret World
- Lollipop Chainsaw
- The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct
- and no fewer than three Resident Evil releases.
And then there was The War Z – the less said about that one, the better.
Zombies are the new Bacon
Both shirts available on Zazzle (if you don't have them already)
Zombies have become the go-to bad guys for modern action games, just as orcs have for fantasy games. And, just like orcs, they're overplayed. If “another fantasy game with orcs” sounds dull to you, should “another modern-day shooter with zombies” be any different?
It's not just gaming, either. Zombies are hotter than ever in books, movies, and TV. The Walking Dead. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. World War Z. Game of Thrones – and no, I'm not talking about Cersei, who's colder than any wight. Zombies have moved past the realm of schlock B-grade horror and solidly into the mainstream. Games want to attract that mainstream audience, and they do it by bringing in the too-familiar zombies.
A part of it, I think, is that we've become a tiny bit more sensitive about the portrayal of violence, at least against other human beings, in popular culture. Blowing away other people? Not so cool, especially in the wake of recent tragic mass shootings. Blowing away things that look like people but aren't? Somewhat more acceptable. And when it's something we somewhat recognize ("Uncle Fred?" "That thing isn't Uncle Fred any more. Frag it!") it adds another level to the personal interaction.
But zombies aren't people. The occasional assassin aside, people are generally visible and not exceedingly scary. Zombies-as-people might fulfill the cannon-fodder requirement of movies and video games, but in doing so it diminishes their overall impact. They become about as scary – and as menacing – as the battle droids in the Star Wars prequels, the perfect example of “We want our heroes to mow down hordes of enemies, but don't want those enemies to be human because it might offend people.”
(Though if we're going to talk about games as mass-murder simulators, why hasn't there been a game where you play as a Sith and slaughter gungans? It would be a best-seller, without a doubt. Hey, maybe LucasArts can make it! Oh, wait...)
Zombies can still work
They can still bring that tension, that creeping horror that's so rare in today's offerings. But I also think they're a perfect example of “less is more,” not just in the number of games that feature them, but in the number of them you encounter in any given game. Fifty zombies coming up over the hill are just targets for automatic-weapon fire. One or two stalking you or leaping out from the darkness – now that's something.
I like sandbox-style games like DayZ just fine, but maybe, when it comes to tense zombie encounters, this is a case where scripted, mostly linear games are the better choice? Though Skyrim is anything but linear, its dungeons mostly are, and when you're in a narrow corridor in some Nord tomb and the corpses start rising up to rip your head off... that still gets me. Well, until I one-shot them with my Axe of Overpowerd Death-Dealing.
The zombie cat, however, is out of the bag. There might still be a few games, like the Amnesia series, that utilize zombies as effective, scary enemies, but the mass market will probably dictate that most “zombie games” are frag-'em-all shooters. That's OK sometimes, as anyone who's played Left 4 Dead will attest.
But even if a zombie game is well done, we're left with one question: Are there too many of them? Like orcs, are they overplayed? The answer is probably yes, and it's going to take some other phenomenon to supplant them as the industry's decomposing darlings.
That transition could take years, though, so for the moment we'll have to make do with what we've got, and probably endure more than a few bad titles that simply try to cash in on the zombie money train.
Pass the shotgun shells. It's going to be a long night.