Weekend Reading: Zombies! Enemy design in games

Zombies aren’t an integral part of video games, but dammit, they should be. Sparked by watching Resident Evil: Extinction, I began to think about enemies in video games. Mostly the run of the mill types: zombies, henchmen, soldiers, etc. There will sometimes be a shift in how these enemies act. Suddenly, they’ll go from being a minor nuisance to being a challenging threat, or after fighting one as a boss, become extremely common and less of a challenge.

Alright, I’ll admit it: this is mostly me railing on Resident Evil: Extinction some more. Really, it’s a rant on zombies, flow, and horror games. I mean, shouldn’t the enemies be challenging throughout? Just because you’ve played through the game for a while doesn’t mean the enemies should get any easier.

In the proper world of zombies, there should only be two forms that exist, and only one of which should be in existance at a time. One version of zombies are slow, shambling, and endless, as in the case of Night of the Living Dead, Dead Rising, and Shaun of the Dead. The other version are the fast, dangerous, and more sparse zombies shown in the remake of Dawn of the Dead, along with 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later.

Each zombie has a particular use in the setting that the story attempts to create. In the case of the slow zombies, it’s the fear of a never-ending onslaught of flesh-hungry zombies that will encroach upon you, and there will be no safe ground. The fast zombies are hunters, with their base instincts of hunting still in place, and they charge at their prey, as though they will die if they don’t get that flesh immediately. They’re a constant threat that can attack quickly and provide little reaction time.

In games, we’re more used to the former type: they’ll be in a room, and as we approach, move towards us. There will be some sign that the zombie is coming towards us, because we’ll hear their moaning, like they always do. We have some amount of time to react before the zombie tries to munch on our face.

What we’re frequently presented with in Extinction, and some other less than desirable zombie movies, are zombies that hide in waiting for someone to stop by. The zombies will then dramatically pounce on the person. While I understand their use in terms of dramatic effect, it’s not true to how these zombies should be. Zombies are not exempt from making noise when they walk, and they should not be laying in wait for prey to pass by them. I can understand them wandering around a building if the doors trap them, but otherwise, they should be in a constant search for food.

The enemy should remain in a constant state of how they act. If you want to achieve a different effect with a wave of enemies, then simply introduce a new wave of enemies. “Upgrading” the zombies is boring and uninventive — instead, introduce a new type of enemy. It allows for more creative freedom, as well as making it a more memorable experience for the participatory audience.

With Resident Evil: Extinction, the “upgraded” zombies had increased aggression and had some basic logic functions (enough to use a Sony product!). They were able to scale a miniature Eiffel Tower, remove wire grating on windows and punch through heavy glass. Yet, their original versions, when surrounding the entrance to an Umbrella base, were stopped by a mere chain link fence. Sure, there were probably a thousand of them, but my god, it’s a chain link fence, with barbed wire. No zombie could stop that rusty piece of metal, no matter how hungry they were for the piled corpses of Alice clones sitting a scant 50 feet away.

Enemies, whether they be from Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid, Silent Hill, or any other series, should retain the same amount of difficulty throughout. Let’s stick with Silent Hill for this portion. There are a variety of enemies, and each are meant to do something different. As you progress through the game, the enemies don’t get any easier — you’re just better prepared to deal with them.

The problem, most likely, is the idea that the character levels up. I certainly found this to be the case with Dead Rising. The Special Forces units were terrifying at first — a group that you avoided at all costs. After a while, though, they became more of a nuisance as you leveled up, and they grew easier to defeat. Creating an enemy almost too difficult to deal with, and then making them less difficult is something that breaks the whole flow of the game.

What I mean by flow is that principle which Jenova Chen’s game flOw is based upon. designed by Mihaly Cszksentmihaly. Keeping the player in a state of challenge, without stressing them out by throwing enemies that are too difficult, nor boring the player by giving them enemies that have become too simple to defeat. That’s why games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill have succeeded so well, and while Dead Rising was great, throwing an inconsistent difficulty of enemies was a problem, when you look at it.

Readers, what do you think? How do you enjoy your enemies: a constant challenge to you, no matter what point in the game you’re at, or are you glad that after defeating an enemy, you can easily trample through them later on?