Zombies are a weird thing. The idea of them has been around for ages, they helped kickstart the new wave of horror film-making back in the Sixties, and yet it feels like its only comparatively recently that they took over the world of popular culture. Ever since 28 Days Later came out, the world has gone zombie mad, and right now they're on every street corner of mainstream culture, shambling in their hordes into our films, TV shows, and into our videogames. They're everywhere.
Of course, in reality zombies have been a big part of gaming for a while now, arguably ever since Resident Evil kicked off the survival horror phenomenon, if not before. But even with that in mind, it seems like zombies have become more prevalent than ever in gaming. Just this weekend we had Dying Light showcased on the VGX awards with its sledgehammer-wielding undead madness. Dead Rising 3 is one of the most high profile launch titles for the Xbox One. Dead Island managed to get both fame and notoriety for its portrayal of zombies in its pre-release material. Valve managed their own take on the co-op shooter formula with the Left 4 Dead games. Ubisoft released Zombi U as a (underrated) Wii U launch title. Even Call Of Duty has gotten in on the craze. One of the biggest additions Treyarch made to their iterations was to add a zombie mode in World At War, a mode than has gone on to define their take on the franchise. And this is ignoring zombie long-runners like the Resident Evil franchise.
So why are they so popular? Even with popular culture and appeal being what it is, why have so many developers decided to jump on the zombie bandwagon? What is it about them that's so appealing to gamers?
Well actually, if you look at things from a design perspective, it's not about what's appealing to gamers, but what's appealing to game designers.
See, here's the thing about zombies: they're stupid. Mindless. The literal definition of braindead. They shuffle around slowly and aimlessly, and when they see a living person with warm brains inside their head, they shuffle/lurch/sprint towards them with nary a secodn thought for their own well being.
For a game designer, that's golden.
Game design is reaching a funny crossroads. We've already seen developers struggling with the rising cost of graphics and visuals, and that's causing all sorts of problems of its own which I won't go into here. but there are other obstacles developers are having to overcome, and one of the big ones is AI. you see, a lot of gamers seem to have this notion that with improved hardware specs, artificial intelligence in games will sort of just magically improve on its own. "Oh, see, this console has an octo-core CPU, just think of what that will do for AI". It's as if by scaling the hardware upwards, gaming AI will scale itself upwards with it.
As it happens, that's not the case. AI in games is actually just about the hardest, most difficult thing to program. You're a good developer if you can get enemies to merely act convincing, and you're a goddamn rare developer if you can actually fool your players into thinking the enemies are smart. The reason for this is because of how AI is coded. You can't just program AI to do whatever you want, how you want. You have to program it with incredibly basic instructions, instructions which basically amount to "If___ then___". There is no grand coding solution for getting an enemy soldier to intelligently lay down suppressing fire while another enemy flanks the player. If a developer is able to do that in game, its only because the developer was able to write down enough "If___ then___" instructions for such a thing to occur. Bear in mind, it takes a lot of those sorts of instructions just to make a Goomba-type enemy react to the player character in a 2D platformer. In a 3D shooter, you're talking about having to create an incredibly complicated script, made up of thousands of incredibly basic "If___ then___" instructions in order to create even the illusion of basic intelligence and self-preservation.
It's a lot of work. A huge amount. And no matter how better specs get, if developers are still having to work within a two year development schedule, then there's only so much they can do before they reach the productivity ceiling. Gamers are demanding more advanced AI, in that lovable gamer way, but it is getting more and more difficult for developers to live up to those demands.
What does that have to do with zombies? Well actually, it's quite simple. As already discussed, zombies are not intelligent. They act in very predictable, basic fashion, and exhibit none of the behavioural traits we would expect from a living person. And because of that, they're exponentially easier to program.
In a convincing first-person shooter, you need to program any enemies in the game to realistically take cover when shot at, have a demonstrable understanding of how to navigate the level, know how to avoid getting stuck on the scenery, shoot at the player without being too accurate, and work together with any other enemies in the area. With a zombie, all you have to do is get them to lurch towards the player, because that is all the player expects from a zombie. You don't need to program them to work together. You don't need to program them to shoot weapons. You don't even need to program them to take cover if they're shot at. in fact, all those things would serve to make a worse zombie game, because the player would not be able to believe they're shooting at zombies if they exhibited such behaviour.
Can you perhaps see why more and more developers are choosing to make zombie games now, and why we're inundated with so many of the bloody things? Making a convincing zombie game requires significantly less AI programming, pathfinding and such than a game with intelligent human/alien/demonic enemies, and is therefore much less hassle for the developers. A shooter with dumb human enemies will get poor reviews for the lack of AI. A shooter with dumb zombies? That's expected.
That doesn't mean that games with zombies in are lesser than those without. On the contrary, in fact. If you want to make a game that will stand the tests of time, that will be looked back on as a milestone of interactivity, as one of the all time greats.... stick some zombies in. Seriously. Let's take a look.
First, let's start off with the original Resident Evil.
One of the original Playstation's killer apps, and the game that kicked off survival horror. While it's aged somewhat now, it's regularly held up as one of the most innovative games ever made, even if the story was a bit of a jill sandwich. What's it about? Zombies. Not magical undead zombies, true, but zombies nonetheless. You're in a mansion, trying to hide and survive from a man-made zombie horde. We'll come back to this franchise in a bit, but for now suffice to say that zombies made this game what it is: one of the most important games in the entire history of the medium.
Alright, so that's one game. Surely they can't be all that important though, right?
Yep, good ol' Half-Life. The Greatest FPS Ever Made[sup]TM[/sup]. The game that redefined the genre. That changed how narrative could be told in an interactive setting. What do you spend most of the game doing?
Shooting headcrab zombies.
Now, you could argue that headcrabs aren't real zombies, more people possessed by the Valve equivalent of a facehugger. You could argue that... but it would be balls. In terms of their behaviour and actions, headcrabs are pure zombies. They lurch around, then slouch towards Freeman as soon as they catch sight of him. Functionally they're no different from zombies in any other game, and as such they most definitely count. Most of Half-Life, for all mysterious sci-fi trappings and cool atmosphere, is a zombie shooter. And it's not the only FPS acclaimed amongst the best of all time to fall into that category...
It really cannot be overstated the effect Halo had on gaming. While Goldeneye and Perfect Dark has showed that FPS games could be done on consoles, Halo was the one to create the template which is still used today. It set the bar for console shooters, pretty much carried the OG Xbox singlehandedly, and with the second instalment created one of the all-time definitive multiplayer experiences. It set players on an alien world full of atmosphere, had them facing colourful aliens who were (for the time) frighteningly intelligent, and gave them all sorts of neat toys to play with.
Which makes it all the stranger when the game reveals the Flood halfway through, and the game becomes a zombie shooter. The Flood would go on to dominate the first three games, pushing the Covenant more and more to the sidelines, until Bungie finally said ENOUGH and excised them from the series with the franchise prequel, Halo Reach. And yet, looking back, the Flood defined the Halo series just as much as the Covenant. The entire story of the first three games is an epic journey to halt the Flood before they wipe out the galaxy of sentient life. Their spores are in every part of the franchise's DNA, and they even live on in Halo 4 with the Prometheans, braindead bullet spongey enemies who can respawn on the battlefield and tend to just charge headlong at the player. The game even has a multiplayer mode where players become Flood and try to infect each other.
OK, so Zombies were a key part of some of the most important FPS games ever. What about third person shooters? Well...
There's a reason I'm mentioning Resident Evil 4 separate from Resi 1 or the rest of the franchise. The same generation that Halo came out and redefined console FPS games, Resident Evil 4 came out and not only redefined the RE franchise, it redefined action games. When best-ever-games lists are drawn up, this game always sits near the top. It created the over-the-shoulder viewpoint used by games like Gears, pioneered the use of in-game action commands that games like Uncharted went on to commandeer, and provided some of the slickest, tightest game design ever seen in a blockbuster release. Everything from the level design to the reload animations was slick as hell, and the game still stands as one of the best action games ever. What do you do in it? Being a RE game, you kill zombies, this time while trying to save the President's daughter. The game's mechanics were designed entirely around the idea of shooting down zombie hordes as they lurch, jump and run towards you, and in that regard it is peerless.
OK Titus, I hear you say, so zombies have been important in action games, but they're all about shooting anyway. You're not going to tell me that sticking zombies in a story based game, a game about characters and emotions, is going to make it one of the most critically acclaimed games ever, right?
Yeah, about that...
The Walking Dead is a funny game. It came out of nowhere in 2012, with barely any hype, and by the end of the year had made off with every GOTY award going. As it turns out, adding zombies can apparently make a story better. Telltale did so, and created a story where the player was forced to make heartwrenching choices. While it's a 'game' in the same way a David Cage game is, it still managed to marry interactivity and storytelling in a way that caused many gamers to well up like babies in an onion factory. It became the focal point of storytelling in games, and even the Games As Art debate, and is probably the most unanimously acclaimed game of last year.
Ok, you say, so that's just one game. An outlier. An oddity. The outcome of a perfect combination of chance factors: timing, marketing, and reception. It's not as if you could put out another story-based game about zombies and expect the same thing to happen, right?
The Last Of Us. ladies and gentlemen. One of the best reviewed games not only of this year, but of the entire generation. The Game Of The Generation, if you believe some of the reviews. Where TWD stole the GOTY crown last year, TLOU did for many this year. What's it about? Well, it's much like Resident Evil 4: you escort a young girl through a brown-and-grey hellhole while shooting zombies in the face. Where it beats RE4, of course, is in its narrative focus, telling a heartbreaking tale full of mature ideas, dark themes and horrible betrayals. It's the crowning jewel in the PS3 library, if you believe the hype, and it is fundamentally a game about zombies. Ok, so it's also about other stuff like the human will to survive, hope, and other existential bollocks, but fundamentally its about zombies.
See? All these games are regularly hailed as amongst the very best of all time, and they've all got zombies. Is it any wonder the gaming industry has gone zombie mad? They're easy to program, and are statistically likely to get you GOTY awards, and all the sales that go with them.
I have no idea what next year's overall GOTY will be, but I'll hazard a guess that it will likely feature zombies in some fashion. We just love them too much not to have them. They're braindead shooting fodder, though provoking story material, and everything inbetween. We've already got two zombie games out for the new 'current' generation (Zombi U and Dead Rising 3), another one on the way (Dying Light) and who knows what else on the horizon.
Just like how comics ended up being defined by superheroes, perhaps games will end up being defined not by military brown shooters, nor peppy platformers starring plumpy plumbers, but by zombies. They'll be our medium's Superman, Batman, Spiderman and Wonder Woman all rolled into one shambling, moaning horde. Isn't that a fun thought?