Zombies are a tenacious bunch; it takes a lot to kill them. And although guns, baseball bats, and impromptu environmental tools have worked in the past, we’ve taken their annihilation a bit too far this time. At the hands of virtually every form of media known to man, the undead have been beaten so far into the ground that even they won’t be coming back from their graves, and video games have dirtier hands than anyone. Shooters have labeled them nothing more than fodder designed to become bullet piñatas, disasters like The WarZ make them look like a failed recipe entirely, and they’re now the go-to “why not”enemy for anything with a hint of apocalypse.
Zombies were originally a creative addition to horror and survival-oriented games. In this stage, zombies were largely successful, and they were perfect for the role. You were faced with an implacable horde of ravenous humanoids that forced you to confront your human mentality regarding murder and pit it against the need to survive. Friendly faces are just one bite away from becoming a living weapon out to kill you. They’re slow-moving, but their speed will surprise you, they’re an internally producing and potentially all-consuming threat, and their sheer size makes them appear insurmountable. And, best of all, the source of the undead scourge is usually embedded somewhere in a virus or curse that’s just sci-fi enough to scratch our nerdy itch.
Because of all this, we were happy with zombies for a while. But, unsurprisingly, we eventually wanted more out of our undead nightmare. So, the concept of “what a zombie is” was tweaked. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve seen some great renditions; Dead Space’s Necromorphs add a lot to the mix but retain some of the more crucial elements to quality zombies, and Bethesda put some nice spins on the enemies in their Fallout series. But despite the indie successes and fantastic horror reimaginings, zombies are headed downhill quickly.
I’m not talking about creative freedom here; a zombie can be whatever you want, be it a Witch or Boomer from Left 4 Dead, or any number of the monstrosities out of Silent Hill or Resident Evil. Although there is a line between tweaking and bastardizing, this is more a problem of frequency—one that the industry knows all too well.
Zombies have become the easiest source of filler nowadays. Instead of implementing a new enemy type based on the game’s unique environment or lore, developers just plop zombies into the mix and call it done. Shooters are at the top of this nonsense, with Call of Duty heading the charge with its uninspired hunter multiplayer, but even games like Borderlands went with zombie-based content. The famous Arma II mod, DayZ, soon to be an independent game, chose to add a zombie apocalypse to the open world engine of Arma, and even something as comparably obscure as Minecraft has several mods that do the same. Wanting to play or make a zombie game is one thing, but oversaturating the market with a tired and battered formula is another entirely.
And zombies have just been plain unlucky at times. The train wreck that was The WarZ proved to be one of the worst games in recent years (arguably ever), riddled with technical errors, developer inadequacy, unjustified micro-transactions, and a total lack of product support and gameplay patches. The entire project devolved into a needless fiasco, and zombies just so happen to be at the forefront of that garbage. Sadly, as a result, they’re now frequently branded an unviable idea. At the same time, the film adaptation of Warm Bodies is hell-bent on depicting zombies as humane and emotional creatures that deserve our respect—and simultaneously making most horror fans die a little inside.
Although we’ve seen that zombies can be an effective element for video games, life as a zombie is pretty damn abysmal right now, and they have my condolences. For once, they need to stay dead. At least until a developer steps up to handle them correctly.
Readers, where do you stand on this issue? Do you agree that zombie games have become generic and overly frequent, or am I just too picky about my undead encounters? What changes, if any, do you think the genre needs to see?
Date: March 12, 2013