Zombie games are fairly common in this day and age; ranging from good to pitiful. Have we committed overkill on the undead and ruined the genre for future generations?
First introduced in George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” some thirty-five years ago, zombies have made an imprint on our society that is unlike anything that has come before. The fear of being consumed by an undead, unthinking, husk of a former human is one that many across the world share. I myself am both intrigued and terrified of the zombie creature and the zombie lore. Romero’s “Dead” series has spanned decades, race, intelligence of zombies, and social commentary. Ever since the growth of the video game industry, the zombie genre has made a resurgence with hundreds of zombie games released for nearly every console, smartphone, PC, and tablet device released. It is said that too much of a good thing eventually becomes a bad thing. We’ve seen it with the zombie film genre and are now experiencing it with the vampire genre. But, is it too late for zombies in games? More specifically, have we committed overkill in regards to the zombies?
For this I will use a few examples of what games got the zombie factor correct and those that treated the horror icons like a cheap add-on/jump scare. Perhaps the two games that got them right are The Walking Dead: The Game and the Dead Rising series. I would list Resident Evil but even though they got things right as well, the series has become an incomprehensible monster and its mere existence defies logic.
In the first season of The Walking Dead: The Game and the 400 Days add-on, there are countless scenes and moments where zombies are shown as not just a scary monster that will eat you whole, but as a consequence of your choices and actions made. This can be seen notably in the fourth episode where a simple gunshot attracted a horde of zombies and separated the group, nearly killing a character in the progress. Normally this would be nothing if it were an issue of the comic or a scene from the AMC television series but the fact that you have a higher level of interaction with the game means you have a deeper level of affection as the slightest noise or change in music can cause you to require a new pair of pants.
400 Days however, ups the ante by having you play as multiple characters thus seeing multiple instances of gore, brutality, and it even makes you wonder “who is the real monster, zombie or man?” There is a scene of day 2 of the outbreak that shows many emotions and feels like something ripped right out of John Carpenter’s remake of “The Thing From Another World” in 1982. In said scene there are multiple characters in one room and a monster that is literally within grabbing distance of three characters. For those who’ve never seen “The Thing,” I am referring to the moment where Nauls, Childs, Garry, and Palmer are tied to a couch and are being tested to see who is a human and who is an imitation. One is revealed to be an imitation and the three freak out and try to avoid death. The only difference here is that there are no flamethrowers and no RJ MacReady there to save you. Despite being focused on choice and character development, The Walking Dead: The Game nailed the horror, terror, and fear of zombies.
The Dead Rising series takes zombies in the complete opposite direction when compared to The Walking Dead: The Game. Dead Rising was the “Dawn of the Dead” game that legally wasn’t; to the point where there was a disclaimer on the box differentiating it from Romero’s film. Like TWD, the zombies weren’t the main antagonist but a consequence/obstacle that gets in the way but not in the same sense of TWD. These were Romero zombies but not as smart and more hive-minded. The latter making it easy to dispatch groups quickly. It’s not necessarily the zombies themselves but what they inadvertently created: the psychopaths found in all Dead Rising games. These psychopaths are normal survivors who at some point were pushed off the edge of sanity and lost all sense of reality. They ranged from prisoners, to cults, and perhaps the scariest of all: a clown. One of the selling points of Dead Rising was that anything could be used as a weapon as long as it wasn’t nailed down. Anything from a machinegun to your own spit can be used to fight the undead.
Like most zombie fiction, people get infected and instead of using the old “strange immunity” for the player character, they actually make him more human than any of the 4-5 playable characters. The epilogue of the game is all about trying to find a cure or something/anything to slow the process. Not only is this smart but actually done, unlike other zombie games that mention a possible cure and never bring it up again. The end result is a 24 hour injection called Zombrex that slows down the zombification process and is without a doubt the most valued pharmaceutical in the world. The zombies themselves become weapons used by terrorists (some real and some accused) and actually have inspired PETA-like organizations in the in-game world that want to treat the zombies like victims which, as they will see, is the polar opposite. The evolution of the zombies in Dead Rising was hypothetically what would happen if our culture were exposed to a zombie outbreak.
This example will be a little obscure as no one really played it but I did. Shellshock 2: Blood Trails is the sequel (I don’t know how) to Shellshock: Nam ’67 made by Killzone developer Guerilla Games nearly a decade ago. The plot of Shellshock 2 dealt with biological weapons in the worst possible way. The weapon, codenamed “WhiteKnight,” renders all those infected with zombie like symptoms. These are not Romero zombies though, these are even worse zombies that just shamble towards you and try to vomit on you. Shellshock 2 is one of the worst games ever created in the entire 30+ years of video games. The artificial intelligence is barely smarter than Extreme Paintbrawl’s on the PC which is legitimately the worst rated game of all time.
It’s not that they put zombies in the game that makes it bad, it’s the way they made the zombies look and act. It is completely atrocious and makes a controversial war (Vietnam) even worse by adding in these bastardized zombies. The whole task of the game treats the predecessor like complete garbage as they took the character which had a realistic ending in Shellshock: ’67 and completely change the back-story and timeline established by the first game. There are straight-to-DVD sequels of popular films all the time and nearly all of them are complete and utter trash. This is perhaps the only case of a sequel to a game coming out that has little to nothing to do with the first game. So in a sense, this was the first, and by my count only, straight-to-DVD video game.
Developer Rebellion took the Vietnam War, which was and still is affecting those who fought in it, and made it worse. There is absolutely no justification for planting zombies in Vietnam as it makes no sense at all. They could’ve just put out the game as simply “Blood Trails” and experiment with one of the worst psychological wars of all time, but no, they had to connect it to an average game that took itself seriously. Something the “sequel” doesn’t.
The next example is one that is closely related to one that gets it right. That game is The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct. The first-person shooter from Terminal Reality and Activision puts you in the role of perhaps the most popular character on the television series: Daryl Dixon played by Norman Reedus (who you may recognize from Blade II and The Boondock Saints). What Terminal Reality set out to do was give an origin story for Daryl and his brother Merle played by the great Michael Rooker. Taking place in the early days of the outbreak, it attempted to give Daryl a sympathetic origin story. But the problem is that the cool characters don’t need origin stories. This is evident with Wolverine and Boba Fett, the latter being the main one Reedus is compared to.
The problem with this is that no matter how hard you try, you will never get the back-story the fans will like as their expectations created countless possibilities and variables that would make Daryl the man he is. The Walking Dead: The Game is in canon with the comic series, while Survival Instinct is set in canon with the television show. While the former is great, the latter is a disappointing addition to the canon of the show since the weak story and events portrayed Daryl as a completely different person than his first on-screen appearance in episode 3 of the Walking Dead Season 1, “Tell It To The Frogs.” He is a bad ass southerner that has the best weapon of all: the crossbow. He also goes on perhaps the greatest character transformation from a character that wasn’t in the comics to one that people actually want to see in the comics.
In actuality, Survival Instinct doesn’t really need to exist as the weak story does little to give an insight into the character of Daryl Dixon. The “survival” part of the title isn’t really necessary as zombies can be taken down in one hit with a gun, or a blunt object like a machete, fire axe, or pipe. You are told to kill as few walkers as possible to make it through the game alive, three walkers specifically are bad in the eyes of Terminal Reality. What the eye of the player sees is something completely different. In the first proper mission of the campaign you can single handedly take out nearly all the walkers in the area. However, there are still places where it is considered suicide to engage in more than three zombies such as the Hospital and the Festival Square. In a game where you are facing the undead and the undead only, if your enemies are stale and boring, the gameplay will only be stale and boring.
The point I am trying to get to is simply that when in the hands of creatively-incompetent people, zombies get misused and become laughable which heavily punishes the sub-genre by making it less serious. While games like Dead Rising have had a whacky spin, games like State of Decay take them very seriously and treat them like the ravenous end of days creatures they are. Now that Dead Rising 3, the next zombie game, is only a month away, only time will tell how this will be received and handled. But going back to the question “Have we committed overkill in regards to the zombies?” the answer would be a varied one. On one account you have The Walking Dead: The Game, but on the other you have The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct. In truth, it all depends on the person writing the story, designing the game, and painting a bleak and intense zombie horde that has only one priority and one priority only: eating you.