On a whim I purchased both installments of Left 4 Dead, and now I’ve got a head full of zombies. Zombies are a ubiquitous part of geek culture, but it was with some surprise that I realized that this esteemed publication has not directly treated them. Please permit me to rectify the shit out of this situation.
So: zombies. They’re everywhere these days, aren’t they? So often have we seen the standard outbreak formula, or zombie myth if you want to get anthropological, that we can pretty much recite it by heart. First, there’s no more room in hell, so zombies must spawn from wherever it is they come from in this particular telling. Zoom in on a small, plucky group of survivors from all walks of life and just as many racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. These survivors are cooped up in a small, fortified location, and must band together against the enemy without and tensions within. Many will die tragically. In the end, salvation will either come or not come, and the newly minted friendship among the few remaining cast members seems set to last until they die horribly offscreen. Cut and print, we’ve got us a zombie film.
As it so often does, familiarity has bred contempt for the undead horde so that most of us won’t pay for a new zombie movie/game/book unless it either laughs at the entire situation (as with Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland), or else focuses not on the zombies themselves, but on the real monster, mankind (as with The Walking Dead). Call me out of touch, backwards of thought and/or slow to embrace new ideas, but I’ve not yet grown sick of the classic zombie myth. I still think the zombie myth works, and I don’t think it will ever not work. For me, the biggest draw of zombie media has always been inserting myself into the fiction. I personally wouldn’t complain too much if the world ended not with a bang, nor a whimper, but a groan of “BRAAAAAAINS!!!” It’s hard not to feel like a badass when covered in ex-zombie and brandishing a shotgun/cricket bat.
I know that for many the zombie craze has been played out. And yet, like the hellwalkers they depict, zombie games just keep coming. I want to examine why zombies work in games, specifically why they make engaging and compelling enemies when presented in the context of a survival situation. I believe the best zombie games are those in which the game brings the player directly into the situation. The closer the player is to the action, the more invested ze is in what happens on-screen, the greater the player investment and the greater the game payoff. This is true of all games, of course, but is most visible in games where the player has the most to gain or lose, and I can’t really think of anywhere the stakes are higher than in a zombie apocalypse.
In my inaugural article, I posited that there exist three relationships between player and PC (Read it here!). The best zombie games, I would submit, are the ones that embrace the most intimate of these, that of Container/Animus. There are few things more camp than zombie movies, and few things more terrifying than an actual zombie apocalypse scenario. From the other side of the screen, we are free to critically examine the strategies of the characters in a given zombie film. Of course we would know not to run down that hallway alone, smelling of brains, or to go check out that strange noise, and we haughtily shake our heads and cross our arms, saying “See? They should’ve listened,” when those ill-fated characters get the fates they deserve for their stupidity.
But place yourself in that situation, and the paradigm shifts. Suddenly, when you are directly responsible for the choices, and survival of the group rests on your shoulders, that separation, and the cozy insulation from the terror of the situation, goes away. Suddenly, it’s not so much a nonplussed (or plussed, if you’re feeling feisty) prediction of a zombie jumping out of a window, but a frantic “OH SHIT ZOMBIE!!!” But such jump-scares are not what make these games work. At their best, zombie games inspire a kind of fatalistic dread that comes with knowing that game over isn’t a question of if, but of when.
Given that I am writing in an intellectual climate that encourages classification, let me put forth a list of criteria that make zombie games truly effective, not merely gimmicky. The Effective Zombie Game, as we shall call it, is the game which inserts the player into the zombie myth most fully. First, such a game must have zombies. Now now, Captain Obvious has not struck again, friends. Certain games, even a series I mention later in this article, are not applicable here, as the primary antagonists are not, strictly speaking, zombies. Second, the requisite zombies must be the primary antagonists and focus of the game or mode in which they appear. It isn’t essential for the game to be a “full-length” title, however. Lovecraft, Poe, and King have proven conclusively that sometimes the shorter scare is the better scare. Third, the emphasis of the game must be survival, or survival-for-as-long-as-possible. The Resident Evil series, for example, with its focus on comical voice acting and corporate antics, doesn’t really fit the bill, as the player is not put in the role of a survivor or victim, but a badass agent or a master of unlocking. This choice of casting removes some of the drama from what could be a very frightening situation for someone who is unprepared or untrained for a zombie outbreak. Fourth, the games must be conducive to immersion to some degree. The lack of actual horror present in most zombie media these days is, as I mentioned above, a result of detachment through familiarity. For a game treating the zombie myth to any real degree, it must be able to give us what novels or films cannot: a chance to take an active part in the situation. And finally, the games must, either directly or indirectly, be capable of producing fear and/or dread in the player. This means no cocktail dress-clad rampages, no chibi Napoleons, no Minecraftian horrors (Those are called Creepers). Now that we’ve got a decent list of criteria for the Effective Zombie Game, let’s examine a few titles that explore the subject matter and see how they stack up.
The Left 4 Dead series offers a compelling zombie experience. The game’s strength lies specifically in its successful recreation of the tension of zombie survival scenario where survival is an actual possibility (as opposed to other games which we will discuss presently). In the L4D series, the characters are given only the most superficial characteristics; the player is not meant to identify with the characters so much as embody them1. The AI Director also builds tension by throwing at the players exactly what they don’t want to see. Also, the frantic meta-game communication that necessarily arises amongst the players raises the stress and tension in its own way. The team dynamic only makes the game that much more atmospheric, which in turn makes the zombies that much more effective as a threat.
This all sounds amazing, and it is. The L4D series is one of the most exciting, original takes on the zombie myth, and it succeeds as a zombie movie simulator with flying colors. Its only failing, I feel, is that in its emphasis on co-op play, it necessarily breaks some of the immersion needed to completely encapsulate the Effective Zombie Game. The game’s episodes are structured as a linear progression from safe room to safe room, placing more emphasis on running a marathon than holding out for as long as possible. The knowledge that there is a light at the end of the zombie-infested tunnel detracts from the hopelessness of battling to game over.
Though the Fallout series is not a series of zombie games, per se, creatures known as ghouls, who share many traits in common with zombies, are a staple of the series. These ghouls share many things in common with zombies, and were clearly meant to be analogous to them. Fallout 3 even has portions that feel very much like some of the better zombie media out there. Fallout isn’t a zombie-hunting series, but the areas where it does indulge are conducive to an atmosphere of fatalistic danger, and the game is immersive enough to create an appreciable level of fear and tension.
But, as it is the conceit of this article, we must ask, does the Fallout series fit the criteria of the Effective Zombie Game? Well, no. The story of the Protagonist of a given Fallout game is not that of survival against ghouls. The ghouls, though a definite presence, are not the Protagonist’s primary concern in a wasteland that is populated by an embarrassment of other creatures and factions that would gladly murder hir. Also, though I personally find them to be the most engrossing titles on this list, and though the series is naturally focused on survival against devastating odds and circumstances, I am not drawn into the life of a zombie hunter, but of a survivor of the Wastes.
These games are great examples of zombie games, so far as they go, and though they go some way toward capturing the feeling of true zombie horror, they fall short of inspiring the true sense of dread and hopelessness that I feel belongs to the Effective Zombie Game. What games fit the bill, you ask? Remember my earlier comment about how such a game needn’t necessarily be “full-length”? Well, prepare to call bullshit, because, having declared two games that are chock full of zombies to be ineffective, I must give crowning recognition to a title that isn’t even a zombie game.
The game I have encountered that best encapsulates everything that the Effective Zombie Game can be is Timesplitters 2. Now hear me out for a second. I realize that a game dealing with inter-dimensional space monsters is not, at first glance, a strong candidate for the Effective Zombie Game. The Goldeneye Sequel, maybe, or, hell, even the Effective Monkey Game, but zombies? Yes, zombies. Timesplitters 2 features a zombie survival mode with a simple objective: Hold out as long as you can and then die. Though its presentation is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, you quickly lose sight of how goofy the situation is as you fight for your life. Unlike Left 4 Dead, there is no win condition. You keep going until you either die or quit to the main menu2. L4D gives you hope; Timesplitters gives you more ammo (in most cases).
Timesplitters 2 was, I believe, the first zombie game into which I delved. In addition to a campaign level centering around a cathedral whose entombed monks have reanimated, the game presents you with three challenges of increasing difficulty. The object is simple: Behead as many zombies as you can. You can also liberate them from their arms, yet somehow this does nothing to make them less dangerous. First, you play a banana-yellow-clad henchman who must endure with a handsome arsenal of shotguns and automatic weapons. Next, you are a circus strong man who must defend the center ring against flaming zombies (the game kindly offers you a fire extinguisher). Lastly, you are a simple soldier who foolishly forgot to bring a gun along and must destroy your foes by punching their heads off. You would think the aesthetics of the game…
…would undermine the horror element, but…
…should serve to illustrate that this game can serious up when it wants to. Even the circus round (no doubt the leading candidate for the most bizarre of zombie challenges) is not so much silly as it is subversively dark and twisted, the calliope music lending a sinister tone of voyeuristic performance to your struggle, perhaps serving as a commentary on filmic depictions of the zombie myth.
Timesplitters succeeds further in its sound design, which heightens the danger and frantic atmosphere as your round plays out. As is a convention of the zombie survival minigame, the player must stay within a certain small area of a larger map or else lose the round, re-enforcing the notion that you are trapped. Stepping out of bounds activates an alarm whose pounding intensity communicates viscerally the player’s impending doom from ring-out. The zombies themselves make only one or two different sounds (neither of which are particularly frightening), but their moans serve as a signal to you, Container/Avatar, that there are more of them coming from all around you.
The insidious genius of these rounds is in the escalation. The first few rounds are quite manageable, designed to warm you up and get you familiar with the challenge at hand. Gradually, though, the waves of zombies last longer, and you must contend with more of them. Though the zombies don’t do much damage to you (one can generally shred through them quite nicely) they grow back, so to speak, while your life dwindles away. Also, the maps are designed to make you very flankable, forcing you to watch yourself from all sides as the zombies’ cries fill the air from your six. And it is this atmosphere, this gradual hopelessness and dread, that makes Timesplitters 2 succeed over other zombie games. The game floods you with so much information critical to your survival that you forget that you are playing a game, especially a silly game where you can crossbow cartoon dinosaurs. All that matters is that you are alone against a sea of death.
Though I have only passing familiarity with the franchise, I understand that the Call of Duty series has also produced a zombie mode or two. From my understanding, these modes seem to be an evolution of the concept put forth in the Timesplitters series. Though I confess I’ve never played them, they seem to stack up very well against the list, although they have borrowed the running-from-place-to-place model of L4D. More than this I am not qualified to say, although what I’ve seen has piqued my interest in the games.
Let’s be honest, no matter how great the zombie film is, there comes a point where the survivors are safe…for now, and must regroup and get ready for any future threats. At this point the film either starts to drag or shifts in tone, the cast now shooting zombies for the lolz, and it is also at this point that our interest begins to wane. Sure, it’s a good idea to give the viewer a second or two to breathe, but real zombies are not so generous3, and Effective Zombie Games think of pacing in terms of seconds, rather than minutes or acts. So, while there may be some games that devote more resources to zombies, or force you into the myth longer and from different perspectives, the most Effective ones throw you in headfirst and make you swim until you sink.