A horde of zombie videogames shamble across the screen every year. You'd think gamers would tire of safeguarding their brains and scoping for headshots, yet these games continue to attract players within every genre, from Resident Evil to Plants vs. Zombies.
Even Minecraft has zombies.
A Century of Zombies
The living dead command such instant fearful recognition after centuries of foundation laid by popular culture. From the reanimated corpses of ancient folklore to the 1930's silver-screen servants of sorcerors to the 1970's familiar flesh-eating zombies crawling out of graves, the undead have stayed in the spotlight of popular culture. From there zombies quickly became rabid agents of hyper-aggression, transmitting virally, spawning apocalypse after apocalypse. Consumer allegories and resource anxiety aside, what makes zombies so popular in videogames?
Fight or Flight
The sudden fear from spotting a threat sends adrenaline coursing through the player. Videogames thrive on this fight-or-flight response and there's nothing better for inspiring fear than zombies. Consider: Amy, Treyarch's Call of Duty, DayZ, Dead Island, Dead Nation, Dead Rising, Dead Space, Half-Life, I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1, Killing Floor, Left 4 Dead, Lollipop Chainsaw, Minecraft, Plants vs. Zombies, Red Dead Redemption, Resident Evil, Walking Dead, WarZ, and dozens more that begin with Z...
Everybody knows zombies want to kill you, possibly devour your brains. You can try running, but relentless, sprinting, mauling zombies will follow you to the ends of the earth, even with a missing limb or two. The wise look over their shoulders from time to time for fear of discovering they're surrounded. Dead Space tapped the anxieties of extremely persistent zombies with creatures that wouldn't be deterred by the player making a last stand in a tiny room or hiding in the corner. The necromorph zombies would only take to the vents and burst out from the air duct behind you.
A struggling group of survivors forms the foundation of many zombie stories, causing fear of losing friends and family to the horde. Even worse than death is the fear of infection. Inevitably the NPCs you have met or the fallen members of your party will return as undead, forcing the player to fight their former friends or die by their hands. Betrayal is at the heart of all zombie narratives, not just betrayal by reanimated humans but living ones as well. Whether it's competition for the most points in the round or the best gun in the level, there's bound to be as much backstabbing over limited resources as brain-gnawing.
As you accumulate resources, you become just as attached to your favorite gun as your fellow survivors. This emotional attachment is exploited in DayZ where the scarcity of weapons and vehicles makes you afraid to lose it all to a chance encounter with a walker.
Zombies represent the ultimate obstacle. The other, the unknown, there is no reasoning with the horde. You can outrun them at best, outwit them if you're clever, hold them back if you have enough ammo, but you can always count on more of them. Any leak left unplugged will eventually become a flood.
By far, the worst aspect of zombies is the ennui of knowing that as soon as they surround you, everything you have worked towards is undone. All those boarded windows for nothing! Not only have they defeated you, but with your objective failed you will now become one of them. You have become the obstacle. Few games have represented this transition. Dead Space provided several death scenes that transform Isaac into what he hates most before respawning. Telltale's The Walking Dead carries the most impact, with the player bitten and infected, forced to talk their young companion through the process.
So Why Zombies?
Why not vampires or aliens or mutant hillbillies? The bottom line is that zombies are narratively easy. Unlike any of their supernatural brethren, their agenda is clear. Brains brains brains. In the past century of zombie-like beings there have been few exceptions to the horde's goal of rampant and senseless killing.
A new game of Left 4 Dead means being stranded
in a remote location with a gun. No exposition necessary.
Therefore when a player first sets eyes on the archetypal zombie, there is no doubt in their mind what conflict is being presented. You don't need to waste any time on exposition or explaining the motivations of the antagonist, protagonist, or any of the other characters. As Left4Dead and Call of Duty have proven, it is engaging enough simply to be dropped in the middle of a zombie-infested area with a gun in hand, no questions asked.
What Can We Learn From Zombies?
If zombies are so prevalent only because of the simplicity of their narrative demands, we can extract the elements that can make zombie games great and apply them toward games with other themes and conflicts.
Fearless, Relentless Enemies:
When you round a corner in a modern shooter and come face to face with an assault-rifle toting human, you undoubtedly do not experience the same fear response as with a shambling corpse. Games can benefit from introducing adrenaline-inducing enemies that do not hide behind cover, hesitate when they spot you, or retreat when you press the attack.
Emotional Connection with Characters:
This can be achieved with the possibility of death of a beloved character or the persistent survival of a despised character, as The Walking Dead would teach us. The attachment with a character need not even be emotional, you can also fear losing characters for their highly-leveled utility, as in FTL or X-COM.
Emotional Connection with Resources:
Whether it's your favorite silenced, scoped, laser-pointed rifle or your souped-up car in your favorite color or the animal companion you've had since the start of the game, tension comes from fearing the loss of a thing you can't stand to be without. Customization and personality within the virtual space keep the player connected to the experience and differentiate between separate playthroughs.
Personal Goals and Sense of Agency:
As long as there's a checkpoint at your back, you'll never know fear. There has to be something more at stake than just the last 2 minutes of gameplay. On the tail of customization come the ploys to gain the components of customization, tactics of accumulation and hoarding. Every new game can bring different circumstances that force a different plan and leave a unique impression on the player. The most engaging zombie games are the ones with serious stakes and difficult choices left in the player's hands because it takes building something to really fear losing it.
Look for Nonadecimal to explore these themes later this year in an experimental zombie game. Or get a headstart by telling us about your favorite zombie experiences and help us make your perfect game.