This statement has become something of a motto in some circles, particularly circles of people who follow the games industry and games media extensively, and those who enjoy analysing and observing the ever-shifting trends the market has to offer. The general “consensus” seems to be: zombies are an overplayed tool used either as a means for the player to kill endless waves of humanoid bodies without it damaging their moral compass, or as a cheap narrative device used to force a group of characters into situations wherein their most extreme emotions and actions become the norm.
I happen to think both of these theories are true to a certain degree, and there are countless examples of games in which these tactics are used (although not always in a negative way). However, zombie games still, and probably always will, have a place in the games industry.
In 2012, Telltale’s The Walking Dead was one of the most critically acclaimed games of the year; praised not only for its brilliant dialogue, acting and storytelling, but for the apparent revival of an entire genre of games. Currently, in the summer of 2013, The Last of Us is garnering near-universal critical acclaim and sending industry pundit’s heads spinning. Two titles about humanoid flesh eating monsters have become the go-to games in the “games are art” argument.
What I find really interesting about this whole thing is: I keep swearing myself off zombie games. I keep telling myself they are tired, overdone and lacking in any kind of creative drive or passion. Then I’ll go buy The Walking Dead, Dead Island and State of Decay because: (in my own words) “It’s like a zombie game, but different!”
There must be a reason for why, as consumers of videogames, we keep returning to these walking corpses with open arms and sharpened axes. Not only are zombie games often critically acclaimed (or at least lauded for ambitious takes on a stale franchise – more on that later), but they also sell like hotcakes. In fact, I’d bet good money that you could stick the word “Dead” into just about any crappy film, game, comic or TV show at this point and it would still reach a huge amount of people across the world. There’s something universal about zombies and their impact on the player. They offer a glimpse into the darker side of human nature; the all-consuming, wasteful and greedy side of us that just keeps hungering for more, until nothing is left. Zombies are by nature, an all-purpose tool to be used by a developer to serve multiple functions.
In the past week, I have witnessed two relatively similar; yet ultimately different takes on how to use zombies as a “tool” within videogames. Just before E3 began, I finished playing State of Decay, the new open world zombie survival simulator from Undead Labs. I came away from the game feeling like zombies as a concept had been refreshed and reinvigorated in my mind. The game is choppy, buggy and ugly as all hell, but the ways in which it engages the player are unique and engrossing in a really special way. “This is it!” I told myself, “This is the zombie game I always told my friends somebody should make!”
At Microsoft’s E3 briefing, they showed of Dead Rising 3, the latest chapter in Capcom’s over the top hack-n-slash blood fest. Dead Rising 3 and State of Decay evoked near polar opposite responses from me.
State of Decay uses zombies as a constant source of danger, to the point where they go beyond just being frightening. At various points in the game, the zombies were becoming so detrimental to the completion of my ever-growing list of missions, I actually thought to myself: “These zombies are really annoying”. Yes, these cannibalistic, mutated humans are something of a bother aren’t they? In fact, the game uses a growing list of objectives in conjunction with bickering and arguments in your home base, and an increase in the strength and numbers of the zombies plaguing the town to give you a real sense of oppression and impending doom. Throughout my time with the game, I felt worried, apprehensive, scared for my allies, and like I was being overworked in order to survive. This wasn’t evident by some arbitrary stat decrease on the screen, or in my character’s stamina bar; I actually felt overworked by the game, and I loved it.
Where State of Decay offers a refreshing new “survival-sim” take on zombie games, with its extra emphasis on base building, recruitment, resource management, and supply raids, Dead Rising 3 looks to be the most vapid, soulless excuse for a zombie game I’ve seen in a while, to the point where it has forgotten why anybody liked Dead Rising in the first place.
Now, of course I haven’t played Dead Rising 3, and a certain amount of Microsoft’s briefing should be taken with an aircraft carrier of salt, but the portion of gameplay they showed off could only be describe as lukewarm at best. I’m not really a big fan of the DR series, but I understood their appeal and had respect for the over the top, silly nature of the games. In the first two installments of the series, zombies were used as simple objects to be killed; nothing new there. But where the game stood out was in exactly how the player got to kill those flesh eating demons. The sheer flamboyance and variety of weapons and costumes at the player’s disposal was admirable, and the idea of putting a player inside a shopping mall full of all consuming, brainless creatures (ooh social commentary) was always going to raise a smile from the audience.
With DR3 though, we were presented with a brown, tepid slab of gameplay, wherein hot pants and guitars seem to have been replaced with guns, fire and a “turdwash” lens filter. The reason people play Dead Rising is so that they can kill zombies in a silly, colourful environment whilst gleefully looking like the biggest prick in the world. It only takes a modicum of common sense to realise that making a DR game that isn’t about those things is a giant, hulking misstep of a move.
For the entire time I was watching the Dead Rising 3 reveal, I kept thinking: “Wow. This just looks like State of Decay with much more polish, and much less in the way of interesting gameplay or charm.” It won’t appeal to DR fans that enjoy whimsical, nonsensical hacking and slashing. It’s unlikely it will appeal to those who enjoyed the community focused base building parts of State of Decay, and it won’t appeal to the fans of gritty shooters Capcom so shamelessly wants to impress. So who is actually going to be playing this game at launch?
While State of Decay used zombies as a means of creating a sense of depression, frustration and worry within the player, Dead Rising 3 just made me feel depressed, frustrated and worried at the state of the videogame industry.
Zombies are not inherently good or bad. They are not overused; nor are they still the “coolest thing in pop culture”. Zombies are merely a tool, and like every tool, it’s all about how you use them.