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Zombies as a Force of Nature

In this article, game designer Sande Chen explains why zombies are a force of nature.

[This article originally appeared on Game Design Aspect of the Month under the topic of Forces of Nature.]

I hate zombies.  In general.  Despite origins in Haitian folklore, our perception of the undead as shuffling, brain-eating, animated corpses is shaped by films.  Zombies are a horror archetype, which means there are variations on a theme.  There could be speedy zombies, vegan zombies, even sentient ones, but for the most part, they aren't.  Zombie attacks are usually portrayed as a never-ending nightmare.  If you saw the episode of Game of Thrones, "Hardhome," then you saw wave after wave of unrelenting zombies scratching their way through barriers to kill humans.

Here's the thing:  If zombies aren't sentient, then they aren't villains in the sense that vampires can be.  Sure, zombies have a goal and motivation to do what they're doing, but these kinds of zombies are not sentient enough to be pining over lost loves or plotting nefarious schemes to kill the king.  Zombies are a force of nature, like a disastrous typhoon, shark attacks, swarming bees, a stampeding herd of buffalo, a downpour of frogs, or attacking birds as in Hitchcock's movie The Birds

 

Jon Snow battles the White Walker, HBO

 

In "Hardhome," the zombies are controlled by the White Walker, who are using them as a weapon of choice.  It's like Percy Jackson controlling ocean waves.  If you think of zombies as a force of nature and pattern their actions based on real-world phenomena, what would you come up with as a system?  There's a lot of interesting animal behavior that can be used for inspiration.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

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