Brains Trust: The Effective Zombie Game

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.

Yeah, zom­bies.

  1. This point is height­ened by the “cast­ing” of the play­ers as the char­ac­ters in the posters and cred­its that open and close the maps []
  2. Which is a sort of meta-existential death, amirite? []
  3. Trust me. I know. []

Chelsea L. Shephard

About Chelsea L. Shephard

Chelsea L. Shepard (formerly Hannah DuVoix) doesn't write for the Ontological Geek anymore, but she used to be our Editor-in-Chief! She is currently earning her MFA in Game Design from NYU and is probably also thinking about Fallout: New Vegas.