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Building a Better Zombie

In this article, Westwood College game design professor Christopher Totten takes a look at how zombies arose in popular culture, how they're used in other media, and explores how they have been used in games -- and how they could be deployed even more effectively.

[In this article, based on a talk given at the Nanocon Workshop On Integrated Design at Dakota State University, Westwood College game design professor Totten takes a look at how zombies arose in popular culture, how they're used in other media, and explores how they have been used in games -- and how they could be deployed even more effectively. You can learn more about Totten's first book here.]

There exists today a dichotomy between the reputation of the zombie in traditional media -- understood here as books, television, and film -- and that of their video game counterparts.

Critical reviews of contemporary zombie media exemplify this. AMC's The Walking Dead has been lauded as a zombie story to "hook even zombie haters" by the Wall Street Journal's Nancy deWolf Smith.

Meanwhile, videogamewriters.com editor Jen Bosier has called zombies a product of laziness on the part of game developers -- easy to program and requiring little narrative justification. Grievances with game zombies also include critics who feel that zombies promote unimaginative shooting mechanics or that zombies would "be so much scarier if not in every game."

Indeed, zombies seem to pervade gaming not only today, but also through the history of the medium -- often as cannon fodder or gimmick enemies. In titles like Castlevania and other horror-themed games, zombies are the first enemies encountered -- simple to both dodge and kill. Super Mario Land features Pionpi, an enemy based on the Chinese jiang shi zombie, that reanimates seconds after Mario has jumped on it.

Modern games likewise utilize zombies as a way to turn games into power fantasies: players mow down ghouls with the tenacity of Bruce Campbell, action star of the Evil Dead films. If game designers are using zombies as either cannon fodder or gimmick, it is no small wonder their relevance is rotting away.

To return zombies to prominence in games, this article investigates where our fear of them came from and how other media utilize that fear. This investigation, dubbed Necroludology, will be done with the goal of transforming ludic zombies from cannon fodder into devices that embody dramatic game mechanics.

Necroludology emphasizes the roles of zombies in both historical and modern myth. Through examples where zombies have been utilized effectively, such as George Romero's Dead series, World War Z, Resident Evil, The Walking Dead and the board game Zombies!!!, common themes can be extracted. This paper will focus on a sampling of these themes that can educate zombie game design. These themes are:

  • The zombie as a personal antagonist
  • The zombie as a natural disaster
  • The zombie as a definer of space
  • The zombie as a time limit
  • The zombie's effect on mental health

Focusing on these themes as parameters for zombie design, this paper will investigate the history of zombies to discover the origins of these themes and dissect them to understand how they can create terrifying game mechanics.

A Focused History of Zombies

When one considers the history of the modern zombie, they are often directed to the role of zombies in West African Voodoo religion. This manifestation of the zombie is typically understood as a person that has been drugged or has had some kind of curse placed on them that has lead to their death. They are buried and resurrected by a sorcerer, or Bokor, who can control the corpse as a slave.

Paranormal author Brad Steiger in his book, Real Zombies, The Living Dead, and Creatures of the Apocalypse, argues that voodoo zombies and the modern zombie have little to do with one another. Touting voodoo zombies as the titular "real zombies" of his book, Steiger denies even Romero's zombies as the real thing. Discussing the modern zombie, he likens them more to vampires and other flesh-eating horrors. Indeed, the link between voodoo zombies and our modern zombie is largely etymological.

The word zombi itself has been traced to many origins, including the Cuban fumbi or the Central African nzambi or zumbi, among others. The first two terms refer to spirits of the dead, while the zumbi refers to vengeful corpses called revenants that terrorize those that wronged them in life. This dualism has caused Hans W. Ackerman and Jeanine Gauthier to argue that the traditional Voodoo zombi is actually one of two varieties; the zombi as a soulless body and the zombi as a bodiless soul. Considering this, the Voodoo zombie begins to resemble the walking dead of other cultures that may prove better precedents to our modern flesh-eating zombies.

The idea of dead bodies rising from the grave and terrorizing humans is not limited to Voodoo belief, but has in fact appeared in writings dating back to Mesopotamian cultures. In Tablet VI of The Epic of Gilgamesh, the wrathful goddess Ishtar threatens to raise the dead who will "outnumber the living" and "devour them" unless her father Anu agrees to release the Bull of Heaven. Several thousands of years later, the Book of Revelation features dead bodies rising from the grave and terrifying the living.

This fear of corpses reanimated by supernatural means spread like a plague as civilization expanded. Northern European legends abound with tales of the previously mentioned revenant. Revenants in literature can be separated into those reanimated by demonic possession and those who reanimate of their own volition. The formation of possessed revenants is of particular interest, as demons are said to enter and exit through the corpse's mouth, the same vector as the modern zombie's virus. The demon wearing the corpse as a shell further causes it to walk slowly and with a shambling gait. Other similarities to modern zombies appear in stories such as one, reported by Thomas of Cantimpre (1201-1272), of a woman killing revenants by destroying their heads.

Similar monsters also appeared in Norse and Middle Eastern cultures. Icelandic cultures call their particular brand of revenant the draugr. Like revenant legends, the corpse's identity in life is an important element of the tale, as it often provides the foundation of their undead antagonism. In the Grettis Saga, an unpopular shepherd named Glam is killed violently and returns as a draugr. He terrorizes the countryside nearby his grave until he is subdued by beheading at the hands of the saga's hero, Grettir. Other sagas highlight draugrs whose victims also fall to draugrism, repopulating entire regions with the walking dead. The draugr's relationship with geography should be noted, as one element of their stories is a jealous guarding of their resting place, often littered with treasure.

Eastern cultures likewise dabble in myths of the undead. One Thousand and One Nights is one of the first pieces of Middle Eastern literature to mention the ghul, spelled "ghoul" in English. Ghouls wander at night and consume human flesh. Other tales describe ghouls as demons that can change shape and suck blood, taking the form of those they most recently consumed. Chinese folk tales likewise tell of the jiang shi, rotting undead that sleep in coffins during the day. Jiang shi hop around at night with arms outstretched, eager to eat the life force of the living. The classifications of these monsters can be difficult and have led to their being utilized in both zombie and vampire stories.

Indeed, the zombie's relationship with the vampire cannot be ignored when tracking the historical development of the zombie. Both vampires and the revenants are stock characters of the Gothic Novel that appear in several seminal works. Examples of such works include The Vampyre by John William Polidori, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley, and Dracula by Bram Stoker. The Gothic-like architectural settings and claustrophobic atmospheres of these novels have remained in the popular consciousness to this day, finding their way into horror films like those created by Hammer Film Productions. Indeed, their stylistic similarities have caused characters from both to be featured in the same works of fiction or mixed with one another.

This relationship is important to the development of the zombie, helping them move from ancient undead monsters to the viral cannibals we know today. In Frankenstein, a scientist creates a sentient being from previously dead elements that pursues the scientist and his friends as revenge for having been created with a hideous visage. This novel features a Gothic/Romantic take on revenant stories. Frankenstein's monster is born from dead tissue and brought to life through the work of Victor Frankenstein. Initially he is unintelligent but benevolent. As he experiences the cruelty of humans he decides to take revenge on his creator.

Shelley's story of a vengeful reanimated corpse was a direct influence on twentieth century writer H.P. Lovecraft, who wrote Herbert West - Reanimator in 1922 as a parody of Shelley's novel. Reanimator tells the tale of Herbert West, a medical student at Miskatonic University who develops a serum for reanimating necrotic tissue. In a series of morbidly comic scenes, he reanimates dead bodies with varying degrees of success, culminating in a coordinated attack by the resultant zombie horde. Reanimator is often considered the first modern zombie story to feature scientifically reanimated corpses that are uncontrollably violent and animalistic.

Decades later in 1954, Richard Matheson published the novel I Am Legend, the tale of the final human left alive in a world of disease-created monsters that prey on the uninfected. It is here that the Gothic literary proximity of vampire and zombie is its most influential. Despite the author calling the monsters "vampires", the novel depicts an apocalypse as a result of worldwide pandemic. It is this novel that George Romero claims he "ripped from" when developing the story for his seminal film, Night of the Living Dead.

The theme of the worldwide disease pandemic combines with the image of reanimated corpse as animalistic monster to generate the modern zombie. Romero's film came at a time when the public's only exposure to zombies were films such as Victor Haperin's White Zombie (1932) and Jacques Tourneur's I Walked with a Zombie (1943). Though Romero himself utilized the term "ghoul" to describe his film's antagonists, evoking connections to the aforementioned Arabic proto-zombie, the film's monsters quickly became known as "zombies." Night of the Living Dead redefined the archetype of the zombie from a hypnotized slave to a flesh-eating monster.

Indeed, Romero's template helped establish a genre that has flourished since the late 1960's and through modern works such as Max Brooks's World War Z and The Walking Dead. It is not their history that maintains their cultural presence, however, but the elements of our psyche that keep us watching for these undead stalkers. It is also these elements that can be utilized to create interesting gameplay.


The Zombie as Personal Antagonist

One element of the effective zombie tale is the importance of the zombie's human life. In much of the genre's literature, significant drama is gained by having one or more characters fear for their loved ones. Heavy psychological tolls stem from watching friends and family join or get consumed by the zombie horde. AMC's The Walking Dead has shown several examples of this in its brief first season alone. One character, Jim, is heavily traumatized after he watches zombies consume his family. "The only reason I got away was because the dead were too busy eating my family" says a shaken Jim in the episode "Vatos". Later in the same episode another character, Amy, is bitten and dies, leading her sister Andrea on a story arc involving an emotional breakdown and suicide attempt.

Such episodes are also linked to a main character getting bitten yet remaining alive through their gradual transformation. In The Walking Dead, Jim is bitten in the attack that takes Amy, but his wounds are minor enough that he experiences the slow sickness and transformation. Transformations like Jim's in zombie stories lead to increasing tension and dread for both characters and viewers alike; questions of when they will turn and what could have been done to save them are common in these situations.

Indeed, the impact is stronger with a slow but intense illness than it is with instantaneous transformations like those found in movies such as 28 Days Later. Frank's quick transformation and death midway through 28 Days Later lacks the emotional impact of Jim's suffering and raises far fewer questions of whether to keep the infected alive or put them out of their misery. Indeed, zombies who were transformed gradually garner much more emotion than anonymous members of the horde.

The focus on individuals' deaths is not new to tales of the living dead, but has rather been an important part of these legends for centuries. Revenant stories by William of Newburg (1136 - 1198) are filled with accounts of the monster's life before rising from the grave. In these examples, the revenant rises from the dead to terrorize those that wronged them in life, such as the revenant that returned after falling to his death while watching his wife in bed with another man.

Other revenants, who were wicked in life, return, rising to continue terrorizing those around them. Chinese jiang shi legends likewise focus on the death and burial conditions of the undead person as reasons for rising. Among these investigations are descriptions of the chemical composition of the burial soil, the spirits present in the corpse, and whether they were buried prematurely.

Our personal fears of zombies go far beyond our relationships with the deceased, however, as some writers on the genre have noted deep allegorical connections. In his article for CNN, Doug Gross in his article, "Why we love those rotting, hungry, putrid zombies", writes that zombies have been used to embody our societal fears over the last 50 years.

Likewise, George Romero himself has stated that he prefers to use zombies as a medium for commenting on modern society. In Night of the Living Dead, a family's unity collapses as their daughter turns -- expressing contemporary fears of the breakdown of the nuclear family. Other films in the Dead series lampoon topics ranging from consumerism to modern dependence on social media. Zombie writer and expert Max Brooks continues the tradition by using his own work, including World War Z, to comment on everything from disaster preparedness to financial crises. Quoted in Gross's article, Brooks states:

All the other problems are too big. As much as Al Gore tries, you can't picture global warming. You can't picture the meltdown of our financial institutions. But you can picture a slouching zombie coming down the street.

These allegories are hardly the work of modern zombie stories. It is notable that the zombies' origins reflect the fears of the day: radiation for Romero, terrorist nerve gas cocktails in 2007's Planet Terror, and viral epidemics in many other modern zombie works. It should be noted that while today we are aware of bacteria and viruses that spread diseases, ancient cultures believed that diseases were the result of an imbalance in bodily humors, sins of ancestors, and demon infestation. It is no small parallel that possessed versions of the revenant receive a demon through the mouth in the same way that modern zombies bite those who they intend to infect with their virus. These fears eventually evolved into dependences on science in Frankenstein and Herbert West and to the modern fears expressed by Romero and Brooks.

Unfortunately, video games have few instances of terror-inducing explanations for their zombies. There is rarely time to explore how someone was zombified; the outbreak has already filled the screen with zombies. Often, these monsters are either character models with no memorable features or are twisted mutations no longer resembling humans.

Resident Evil is one of the few games to walk players through a zombie's slow transformation. Pages from the "Keeper's Diary" found throughout the game recount a scientist's transformation into a zombie. After an accident in a basement lab, the Keeper discusses spreading, itchy blisters and his confinement in the game's mansion. Eventually, the Keeper's grammar worsens and he discusses increasingly hostile feelings towards test subjects and workers. The journal ends chillingly with an account of killing a coworker and then eating him and the lines, "Itchy. Tasty."

This example from Resident Evil has a great impact on the player, whose interaction with the mansion begins when it is largely abandoned. For players unaware of the antagonistic Umbrella Corporation and their viral experiments, the journals provide hints into the dark forces at work in the game. "Meeting" the scientists that have become your zombie enemies adds significant narrative context to enemies that would have otherwise simply been obstacles in the player's path.

When Resident Evil came out, cutscenes in games were a relatively new phenomenon and often saved for major game events. Thus, inventive storytelling devices like found journals were essential for explaining rich backstory material. According to Richard Rouse III, "In horror, the way the audience fills in the blanks will be far more disturbing than anything the writer could possibly come up with. Thus, minimalist game storytelling fits perfectly in the horror genre."

Studying these precedents, game designers can maximize the drama of personal encounters in zombie games. Resident Evil did a lot of great things with the zombie as a personal antagonist; hopefully games today can learn to do the same. Instead of anonymous bloodbaths in zombie games, the impact of death can be felt in the way of Final Fantasy VII's Aerith or Mass Effect's party members. If treated as such, injury via zombie can become a dramatic element of many games.


The Zombie as a Natural Disaster

Obviously, players cannot be present for the reanimation of every zombie. This is why the anonymous hordes must also be used as more than simply cannon fodder. For every zombie that carries with it a personal history, there are thousands more that simply pursue human victims. Today, the most common scenario played out in zombie media is the "zombie apocalypse", an outbreak of such large proportions that the entire world is consumed. The way that this scenario plays out in zombie media varies: some are devastating struggles for survival while others turn life into an action movie. On Facebook, groups bearing names like "The Hardest Part of the Zombie Apocalypse Will Be Pretending I'm Not Excited" have memberships numbered in the tens of thousands. This attitude shows that zombies have done little to scare moviegoers and gamers.

Several misconceptions of zombies come into play in modern games. One is the idea that one person can rise to become the action hero of the zombie apocalypse. The flip side to Gross's argument that zombies embody the things that truly scare us is that zombie heroes often become what we wish to be in our daily lives. In films like Army of Darkness, Shaun of the Dead, and Zombieland, common-man heroes rise to take on shambling hordes. These heroes all share personal or economic troubles that audiences can commiserate with. Their victories bring to life the fantasy of shooting your problems in the head. This attitude is the bane of characters like Roger in Dawn of the Dead and other would-be Rambos in similar media. As Matthew Weise points out, Roger becomes "drunk with his own power" to the point of carelessness, eventually succumbing to the plague himself.

The other misconception is the idea that zombies are evil or somehow antagonistic. In a 2006 interview, Max Brooks stated, "The lack of rational thought has always scared me when it came to zombies, the idea that there is no middle ground, no room for negotiation." Brooks's statement outlines zombies and the zombie apocalypse as elements of an overwhelming natural disaster rather than individualized enemies. Neurologist Sigmund Freud claimed that vampires, werewolves, and other similar monsters were embodiments of the id, the part of the psyche that holds chaotic base drives. Of the id, Freud stated:

It is the dark, inaccessible part of our personality, what little we know of it we have learned from our study of the dream-work and of the construction of neurotic symptoms, and most of that is of a negative character and can be described only as a contrast to the ego. We approach the id with analogies: we call it a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations... It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but it has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle.

When masses of id-fueled zombies form a pack, they can tear across landscapes like a storm. In the Walking Dead comic book, the character Dr. Eugene Porter, a zombie expert, claims, "[Zombies in a herd] are a force of nature. They don't operate on logic or reason." World War Z goes as far as marking masses of zombies on maps -- color coding zones according to their concentration of the undead. These zones are demarcated by color: white is completely overrun while other colors show places for dropping supplies and landing planes. Tales of reaching survivors eerily recall stories from Hurricane Katrina relief efforts just two years before the publication of World War Z.

Games such as Left 4 Dead hint at the spread of zombie viruses over large territories, perhaps other games need to do this as well. If game designers can find ways for players to deal with entire "weather" systems of zombies, games could push zombie drama in similar ways to their counterparts in other media.

The Zombie as a Definer of Space

While zombies move like weather systems on large maps, they also move in packs on the much smaller scale of cities and towns. Zombies traveling in hordes will linger around places where human survivors can be found, creating definite safe and unsafe zones for the trapped survivors. Even in ancient tales of the draugr, an emphasis was placed on their relationship with place: guarding treasure hordes in their graves and infecting geographic regions. Matthew Weise, in his essay "The Rules of Horror", references Night of the Living Dead and other George Romero movies as users of this mechanic. Of Night of the Living Dead, he describes how the film's survivors barricade themselves in a farmhouse and flee from room to room as their defenses are breached. Weise calls this mechanic the "shrinking fortress."

In my prior Gamasutra article, "Designing Better Levels through Human Survival Instincts", game spaces are broken into three size-related categories: narrow space, intimate space, and prospect space. Narrow space is defined as small spaces where players feel claustrophobic and unable to move. Intimate spaces are of a comfortable size, with everything in the space reachable by the player avatar's inherent abilities. Prospect space, on the other hand, is large to the point where the player feels exposed to enemy attack.

Effective zombie yarns revel in the contrast between intimate and narrow space. Safe zones are precisely that: they feel safe and secure against oncoming hordes. While Night of the Living Dead's farmhouse always maintains a sense of tenuous defense, Dawn of the Dead's shopping mall becomes a fortress of false security -- the ultimate intimate space. In their shopping mall wonderland, the survivors have everything they could ever want at their fingertips: guns, food, clothes, appliances, etc. They enjoy these finer things as the world goes to hell around them. Hell, of course, eventually breaks in.

Once zombies recapture the mall, the filmmakers made a point to show previously important spaces for the survivors, such as the gun store, become a haven for the undead. Where these spaces were once intimate spaces, they then become unsafe with zombies. Were a survivor to attempt to get new guns, for example, they would need to fight through the tight crowd of undead and hope they can get through. These once intimate spaces become narrow with zombies. One could even say they are "corrupted" spaces. This corruption could work in games as resources are constantly battled over.

In a recent GDC China presentation, I showed a whiteblock level for a zombie game that utilizes zombies as level elements rather than enemies. Created as an exciting "hook" to the begin the game, the player encounters zombies in increasingly tense situations. These encounters begin with the player sniping stray zombies from high above, learning how to dispatch them with a headshot, and eventually attempting to defend against larger invading hordes. As the defenses in the player's fortress defenses are overrun, the player must run outside and hope to find a way to escape the mayhem. These encounters are designed to teach helplessness against the zombies. The design of levels is spacious but intimate, the player can move about however they wish. Once zombies rush into the fortress, they form barriers that the player cannot breach. In these levels, the zombies are not treated as enemies, but rather as elements of the level itself -- as alternative architecture.

Other games have precedents for this. One such precedent is the original Resident Evil. In this game, zombies of initially unknown origin inhabit a mansion that strongly evokes imagery of the "haunted house," creating an ambiguity to their source. Adding to this atmosphere are narrow hallways and tank controls, setting the gameplay in both a psychologically and physically narrow space. When the player encounters zombies, they are often in tight corridors such that the player must make the decision to spend bullets killing them or run by. If the corridor is tight enough, then the zombie becomes an actual wall of the corridor. If the zombie traps the player in a dead end, then the narrow space becomes increasingly narrower. The zombie in this situation becomes a shambling, clawing, biting barrier.

Another example of this barrier behavior occurs in the board game Zombies!!! As part of every player's turn, they must place tiles, which must then be populated with zombies. Additionally, players roll die at the end of their turn to move the indicated number of zombies one space each. Having players control the hordes turns them into tools for blocking or attacking opponents. With this mechanic, players build barriers to prevent their opponents from reaching rescue or supplies. Zombies in this game require a roll of four or above on a six-sided die to defeat, so combat can be risky. When players run into a barrier-horde, the element of risk increases.

When zombies are used as barriers in games where combat requires precision, they can change player movement patterns. Playtests of the aforementioned whiteblock zombie level showed that approaching walls of zombies could herd players. When players reached the exterior portions of the level, the developers ensured their reaching the next portion of the level by blocking incorrect routes with zombie spawners, scripted objects that dispense enemies. While in this case the tactic bordered on railroading, forcing the player onto a path, for a linear intro/tutorial level it proved to move players along while providing excellent drama.


The Zombie as a Time Limit

As great as zombies are at backing a human into a corner, they also excel at keeping them on the go. The approach of zombies is a tense experience: you hear the moan or wail and then watch as the horde shambles over the horizon. You struggle to start your stalled vehicle or gather supplies as they approach, knowing that you are now working under a time limit.

The time limit is a useful method for creating drama in many types of visual media. Entire movies are based off the concept of racing against time. Likewise, games utilize time limits to dramatize in-game puzzles and fight sequences. Some are incredibly effective while others are merely annoying.

One series that has always used the "countdown clock" well is Metroid. At the end of the first game, players could only celebrate their defeat of the Mother Brain briefly before a countdown clock and message about the building's imminent destruction flashed across the screen. To escape the explosion, players had to navigate a precise series of jumps upwards to the exit. Many of the Mario games even utilize this mechanic by having a timer. When the warning jingle sounds, the level music drastically raises its tempo.

In zombie media, the approach of a zombie horde becomes a powerful indicator of a ticking clock. In Max Brooks's World War Z, multiple characters have chases with zombie hordes. The significance of Brooks' zombies is not only that they are a visual threat but also an auditory one. Their moan is a double threat as it indicates a zombie has found prey and calls other zombies in the area. For human characters, this means that audible moans indicate the proximity of zombies.

This is a rather simple element to add to a zombie game, as time is a classic dramatic component of many games. As zombies do not give numeric time limits, perhaps they can indicate their coming with sound or ground vibration. In this way, they can a terrifying part of a survival horror game's atmosphere.

The Zombie's Effect on Mental Health

In a real zombie apocalypse as well as effective zombie stories, the combination of losing loved ones, being overwhelmed, feeling trapped, and rushing to escape can take a toll on survivors. Over time, the mental health of those "lucky" enough to survive can seriously deteriorate. Games, in their power to elicit emotions from players, can also take part in this play of mental health and tension as a game wears on. In many cases, these mental health effects can prove to be more dangerous than the zombies themselves.

Much of our fear of zombies comes from their abject nature. Literary critic Julia Kristeva developed the concept of abjection in psychology and art in her book Powers of Horror. Kristeva's concept of the abject describes how certain things create horror because they are outside of the typical human "symbolic order."

A popular example of this is a human corpse. Corpses are cold, lifeless human bodies where there should be warmth and movement. The most common perception of a human is one that is alive, so corpses are unnerving for many. Add to this the understanding that all humans will eventually become lifeless corpses and facing the abject corpse becomes facing one's own mortality.

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