No More Zombie Games, Please

18 Feb

If the videogames industry is anything to go by, I’m the only person who isn’t sick of zombies. After watching the Dead Island trailer, which seems to be getting a lot of viral hype, I was remarkably underwhelmed. It was dramatic, probably overly so, and interestingly put together, but nothing altogether new. Adding a melodramatic score and the harrowing death of a child did nothing to move me. This must be what it’s like to be a Saw fan, sitting at the sixth or seventh movie, popcorn in hand, gleefully awaiting another grisly death in the hopes that my bloodlust is ignited. Dead Island just held no appeal. The apparent depth on offer was just cheaply achieved, with no real weight. I know the same methods are used to sell movies and such, but with zombies in a game, well, it’s just too late for me.

Capcom share much of the blame for the current zombie holocaust affecting videogames. Resident Evil was the first game to offer that horror movie experience, and did so very well indeed. By the time Dead Rising appeared the potential for zombies had been realised, they are easy to kill. Shambling around the screen slowly, human yet inhuman, mowing them down (literally with a lawnmower) en masse had a certain appeal, and I don’t criticise Capcom too much, because they have at least attempted to innovate, even moving away from zombies to slightly more human foes in Resident Evil 4. The villains of the piece, as usual, are Activision. Nazi Zombies gave gamers with little imagination just what they wanted, cheap, repetitive gameplay with a zombie twist. Plus they’re Nazis, all bases are covered. This has led to more zombie antics in the latest Call of Duty and a mission pack for the otherwise thoughtful and occasionally poignant Red Dead Redemption. Everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon, yet no one wants to do anything all that interesting with the undead.

Zombie game law #17 - Must have the word 'Dead' in the title

I may be a little harsh in making this assumption, but part of the reason zombies seem popular with developers, rather than gamers, is that they take the effort out of programming. There’s no need to give them any proper AI, they just shamble about, or move toward the protagonist. They can all look similar too, no need for much variety in enemy when they’re all grey, bloodied corpses. Left4Dead at least took a unique slant, giving some ‘personalities’ but they were simple in terms of actions. Humans attempt to use tactics, change approaches and may require complex interactions. Zombies are a facile way for developers to add mission packs and little more. It’s lucky really, that gamers seem so obsessed with the groaning hordes. There’s also the reliance on cheap shocks and gore, which are ever popular. Games seem to have, for the most part, missed the point of zombies in terms of storytelling.

Humans are interesting, there will never be a shortage of things to say about humans. We’re multi-faceted, with emotional depth. Games, movies and literature tell us about ourselves because we have personalities, and we can identify with characters. Zombies in media exist to facilitate the stories of people and society. George Romero understood this more than anyone. Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead brought zombies to popularity in cinema, both of which dealt with social issues through the medium of horror. The former dealt with racism, particularly in its poignant closing scene, and the latter consumerism. The zombies were there to illustrate and explore aspects of humanity, rather than cheaply frighten. The tension was created by adding depth to the characters in ways Frank West in a dress could never have. Even Resident Evil knew this. The first two games were about the folly of man, the greed of large corporations and the lust for power of Wesker leading to an interesting plot twist.

Why are there always cornfields?

In their desire to appeal to the zeitgeist, developers have entirely missed the point with zombies, they have attempted to make them the focus, rather than looking at the humans involved. While comic book ‘The Walking Dead’ garners praise for its use of a tired concept in interesting ways, games fail to offer any compelling reason to keep playing the same thing. Games do have a certain amount of leeway to just create a fun experience, but Left4Dead and Dead Rising have covered that already. The subject material just isn’t interesting anymore. It could be if someone tries to tell a compelling story that just happens to involve zombies, and Dead Island may do just that. From what the trailer told me though, it’s just another zombie game, with the same old mechanics. The only difference is some schmaltzy emotional rubbish about a family, or some such nonsense.

Looking at gameplay screenshots only exacerbates my fears for the game, the ‘tank’ enemy of Left4Dead returns, but in a straitjacket. This is a game about survival on an island that wouldn’t have guns and the like. It wants to be taken seriously, but what tropical resort has a local mental asylum? Taking liberties with realism is fine, but not when you’re asking for an emotional response as that trailer does. That requires a certain level of consistency. Zombies can be interesting, and zombies can be part of a great story, but not unless the human element is the focus. Nazi Zombies may have been a fun diversion, but now developers seem more and more willing to structure an entire game around what is little more than a gimmick, no amount of overwrought drama playing out in slow motion and in reverse will make it worth playing.

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One Response to “No More Zombie Games, Please”

  1. superdefective March 20, 2012 at 8:11 pm #

    Indeed the over saturation of zombie games is getting very old.

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