Gamers have been obsessed with the undead for years now, if you’ve seen our coverage of the first ever zombie game you’ll have seen just how early this trend began. In recent generations, with the launch of Left 4 Dead, The Walking Dead, Dead Rising, Resident Evil and arguably The Last of Us, zombies have taken over almost every gaming platform on the market. Why do we, as gamers, enjoy the experience of a zombie apocalypse? Is it the tension, teamwork and constant sense of impending death? Or are we just a massive bunch of raving psychopaths who enjoy the senseless gore of combining a ridiculously large chainsaw with a brainless corpse?
Video Games originated primarily as a social activity, many older gamers still recall their first trips to arcades with friends as fond and vivid memories. With the release of the home console it became increasingly easier to avoid this social aspect of gaming, as such we’ve seen games like Halo, Counter Strike and Call of Duty monopolize a market which continues to connect gamers even from the comfort of their own house. This bridge of socialisation between players is key in understanding what makes us tick for the apocalypse.
The zombie apocalypse is typically identified in popular culture as an event that immediately wipes out a large percentage of the human population and leaves small splinter groups behind with the soul purpose of surviving. This often translates to games as a player working with other players or NPC’s to survive through the undead nightmare. This teamwork amongst tension sucks gamers in to the gameplay, it gives the player the sense that there are other physical beings all working toward a common goal, particularly in games such as Left 4 Dead that feature instances presenting inevitable death if not for other players. When this gameplay objective is combined with a class system that often features in zombie titles the player gets the sense that not only are the people around them working to a reachable goal, but that they can offer some contributable skill to their over all progress. This team progression provides a direct contrast to other multiplayer games on the market. Gamers can only shoot at other people for so long until they desire some sort of teamwork, even if the team-based objective is simply shoot more things.
But what about those zombie games that don’t feature teamwork? Games like Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare, The Last of Us (I’m not going to get held up on semantics, for conversational purposes…it’s a zombie game) and Dead Rising? Well for these cases clearly the teamwork formula doesn’t quite work, so instead I’m going to pull a fast one and jump straight into morality and expression. Freedom of expression is vital in the video game industry, understandably however some things are not so free to be expressed; themes such as current war scenarios, personal racist or religious abuse and child murder. When a developer wants to present the player with insurmountable odds and a literal army of enemies, an army of human beings may blur the lines a little presenting not a fun rampage of bloody violence but instead a straight up psychopathic slaughter. Some games do involve a human army as the enemy and some of those few do it well, but if done incorrectly it comes across as a poor attempt to string our emotions into the narrative. When this army is replaced with risen corpses or diseased beings that no longer resemble humanity, its much more tasteful and much more enjoyable. Morality then, is a large part of why we are so drawn to zombies; it distances us from the killing of an inhuman, ‘alien’ creature and allows us to enjoy crazy weaponry, brutal moves and a butt-load of blood. This theory can also be prescribed to T.V series such as The Walking Dead, we only cheer for the humans and curse the undead because they’re just that, undead. When we see Rick smashing the skull of a zombie we don’t feel for the zombie anymore than we would the killer in a crime show, they are distanced from our own humanity.
The final piece of the puzzle comes from the blood curdling nature of a zombie horde. Set pieces in the Resident Evil series really got the heart pumping and left you breathless. A brilliant case study of the fear I speak of comes from a game that directly contradicts both the expression theory and the teamwork theory…Dead Space. While the creatures in Dead Space are not specifically zombies, they do inhabit human corpses and are a kind of mutant virus themselves. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Dead Space gives gamers the sensation of intense isolation, we’re floating in space and there’s no one to save us…and boy do we love it! When it comes to a zombie game, Dead Space proves that often the titles that don’t feature hordes of undead are the most suspenseful and frightening. This fear is often placed hand in hand with the risen dead but very rarely do these games adequately play upon this fear. It is only really in the single player titles that we see any nerve-racking enemies, corridors or sound effects. This is primarily due to the teamwork aspect discussed earlier, when you have other players around you that you are relying upon and communicating with, you are less likely to feel that isolation of Dead Space because put simply, you’re not isolated. This is what made the most recent Dead Space fall a little flat in my opinion, because there are two types of zombie game, the thrillers and the team games, Dead Space 3 tried to be both.
Using team initiatives and goals, morality, expression and fear, zombie games have taken control over the gaming market in its current culture. They inspire us to work together against insurmountable odds, give us an excuse to reach out to our inner psychopath and chill us to our very bones. While I doubt the popularity that the zombie genre currently inhabits will last forever, they’ve had a good run and we’ll enjoy them till they die…again. Happy Zombie Week!