6 min read

Zombies Bring Games to Life

Rather ironically, the games industry is completely overrun with zombies. Serious and silly, hardcore and casual, all types of games love the undead. Why is that? Spanner Spencer of 100% Indie looks at the power of zombies in games.

Rather ironically, the games industry is completely overrun with zombies. Serious and silly, hardcore and casual, all types of games love the undead. Why is that? Spanner Spencer of 100% Indie looks at the power of zombies in games.

What is it about zombies that’s so captured the imagination of the entire games industry? No matter where you look there’s a flesh-eater hiding around a corner, to the point at which it seems there’s nothing more that can be done to make the undead entertaining.

But as Halloween approaches, 100% Indie has been looking over the epic catalog of zombie games that have been submitted to the initiative, and we’re forced to admit that zombies are, quite simply, great.

Rising From the Grave

The zombie we know and love today stems from George A. Romero’s classic 1968 horror work, The Night of the Living Dead. But that’s not the grave that this character trope originally crawled from. The concept of the dead returning to unnatural life dates back to… well, assuming you don’t count one of the main characters in the Bible, African folklore.

The word refers to a revived corpse that, specifically, remains under the control of its resurrector and exist in something of a mindless torpor. And right from the outset, games have looked toward the living dead for their sheer entertainment value. The good stuff -- the flesh eating and bite-transmitted viral infection -- are the Maestro Romero’s addition to the mythology, but it was a long time before games really embraced that magical convention.

The controversial 1975 driving game Death Race is one of the earliest examples, though only as a scapegoat when the developer was faced with legal action from puritans and parents riled about the effects of violent video games on their church-addled kids. The studio claimed that the humanoid characters that players were tasked with running over in their car (as per its inspirational movie Death Race 2000) were, in fact, zombies and not people. Which, apparently, made it alright to plow them down (an interesting turn of events we’ll investigate soon).

The ZX Spectrum home computer played host to one of the first zombie-specific titles in 1984, with Zombie Zombie. From there a host of antagonists came and went throughout video games that featured some semblance of zombification, though our modern interpretation of the living dead didn’t appear full-force until the Resident Evil series perfectly captured the essence of zombie movies within a game some 14 years later.

But they’ve never left the fringe of interactive entertainment, until, in more recent years, they’ve become a staple diet of the hungry gamer.

Why Do We Love Zombies?

You know what’s interesting about the really great zombie films? They’re not really about the zombies at all.

What Romero really did was invent a narrative device -- the flesh-eating, brainless zombie -- that removed all man-made concepts of ethics and morality, and then put human characters in this situation to see how they reacted.

In Night of the Living Dead he attacked Middle America where, until then, it had felt completely safe: in its homes. A band of real people were confined in the established sanctuary of a country home that, suddenly, was no longer safe. It became a fortress and a prison, surrounded by a world stripped of all humanity, and we got to watch how the living reacted. It wasn’t pretty, but it was damn entertaining.

In Dawn of the Dead he took to the neon temple of the avaricious consumer, the shopping mall, which had become a thriving trend in the late 70s. All of a sudden, zombies had become a socio-political statement, loosed upon the world to process and proclaim our pervading feelings of institutional disapproval. And the undead creatures evolved, once again, into animals far more perfect than we; a zombie can’t be bought or bargained with, it doesn’t screw over its fellow zombies (as Dr. Logan pointed out in the spectacular film Day of the Dead, they are not cannibals, as they’d don’t attack each other), and all undead are reborn equal. It suddenly makes you wonder which of us is the real monster.

Put this to use in making a game and its narrative becomes immediately enriched, and offers dramatically justified methods of making a social statement without sacrificing entertainment value in the slightest. And yet, despite this surprising hidden truth about the nature of the living dead, there’s another, more basic reason that zombies make games better.

Killing Zombies is Fun

Can you technically kill a zombie, given they’re already dead? Maybe that’s a debate for another day.

Anyway, the interesting thing is that killing zombies isn’t just fun; it’s socially acceptable. If you’ve made a violent game, involving hacking humans up with a chainsaw or blowing their brains against the back wall with a shotgun, or perhaps chopping off limbs with a shovel and beating other people to death with them, it’s hard to justify that gameplay mechanic to squeamish parents.

If those ‘enemies’ are already dead, however, and imagined to be suffering some kind of torturous, waking afterlife that consists of rapid decomposition and an unslakable hunger for raw brains, giving them both barrels in the face or a crowbar in the ear becomes an act of mercy. Gory, sadistic, savagely entertaining mercy.

And every subsequent non-murder only adds to your chainsaw-wielding saintliness until not even the most objectionable religious nutbag could deny the depth of your charity.

Zombies are an enemy whose slaughter comes with a Get Out of Conscience Free card, irrespective of the imaginative brutality you apply to the task, and that’s a valuable asset for any game maker. By the way, this goes for robots too, but smashing machines is slightly less fun than brutalizing dead flesh. Weird, but true.

So next time you’re feeling like the zombie is all played out, over, under and through, stop and consider the just how beneficial the undead can be to your project. From social commentary to immediate audience engagement and gratifying our natural blood lust, the zombie is an flesh-hungry savior that players never grow tired of meating. Er, I mean meeting.





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