Whether it's action, horror, RPGs, strategy or even puzzle games, zombies are all over everything like the stench of a rotting corpse buried beneath the floorboards of our office (R.I.P. Steve). But here on #HistoryOfHorror, we have to ask, why are they so common? What is it about zombies that calls to both developers and audiences? What makes the idea of them so, well... infectious?
A History Of Zombies: When There's No More Room In Hell, The Dead Shall Walk Our Games
Zombies have been around since the very earliest days of #VideoGames. Like most #zombie plagues though, they started slow. The first game to feature our undead friends on center stage was Zombie Zombie for the Spectrum VX in 1984 (also notably, the first game to feature two-channel sound). Back then, the shambling undead were little more than a vague collection of pixels, who had to be led to their deaths by tricking them into falling off high platforms.
But it wasn't until the release of that groundbreaking #horror-themed FPS Doom that zombies truly rose from their graves en-masse to overwhelm video games. Within the next few years dozens of games featured the walking dead, including the severely underrated Zombies Ate My Neighbors, Alone in the Dark 3, House of the Dead and of course, the influential survival horror title Resident Evil.
Since then, the plague has spread prolifically. Almost every horror game and fantasy title features some form of zombie or zombie-esque enemy, even modern shooters are in on the action, with zombie modes thrown in Call of Duty games like a candy bar in your shopping cart.
But Why All The Zombies? Let's Look Behind The Gravestone
To truly unearth the reason why zombies feature so heavily in video games, we have to talk about what they mean to both developers and players.
To the developer, the zombie is a godsend in terms of both AI and modeling. Enemy AI programming is one of the most difficult tasks in video games, one which, in many ways, we still haven't mastered. In the era of multi-million dollar AAA gaming, customers demand realistic AI, and they're quicker to notice when that elite commando runs straight at you without bothering to take cover, or can't get up a wall he should really be able to climb. Enemies with human-level intelligence require human-level AI that has to react dynamically to a variety of situations.
Zombies don't require such complexity. They're idiots, everyone knows that. When you make an enemy a zombie you don't have to worry about having them react with fear to a thrown grenade, or set up complex flanking movements. Zombies stagger or run towards us, they try and take a bite out of our face, and maybe they're drawn by loud sounds.
In terms of modeling and animation, zombies are fantastic for developers. They're humanoids and they move clumsily, so they don't require any particularly special animation. If a zombie moves a little strangely, no one's going to notice or even care. Zombie models are basically just people with a bit of gore added and some parts hacked off, so they can (and often are), made from already existing human NPC models with some alterations.
And Why Do We Love Them?
In the early days of the cinematic zombie, the undead represented a mirror held up to man. In Night of the Living Dead, they were a way to illustrate that we become monsters under pressure, our unthinking prejudices let loose by Cold War era paranoia and the collapse of our immediate systems of society. In Dawn of the Dead, zombies are our unthinking voracious consumerism under the excesses of the 80s.
These days though, the zombie has lost its oomph as a vehicle for societal critique. Rather than being a horrifying mirror of ourselves, the zombie is a person with their personhood removed. We like zombies in games because they're fun to kill. You don't have to worry if a flesh-hungry ghoul has a wife and kids at home, no one's going to make a Spec Ops: The Line about the evils of undead war crimes.
Zombies offer the chance for mass slaughter without any annoying moral questions getting in the way of our escapism, but they also offer a different kind of combat. If you shot the arm off an unarmed dude charging at you, then had to blow his head off for good measure to stop him, that'd be gruesome. Parents would be in uproar, Germany would almost certainly ban it. But zombies are a unique kind of enemy. They're a humanoid with a specific weakness, one that can viscerally show damage done to it in a way you couldn't really do with, say... a heavily armored soldier.
But in this world where zombies are everywhere, in every conceivable form, from hulking brutes to staggering suicide bombers, can zombies be scary again? Can we make video games that tackle the abject horror of the worst kind of life-after-death, when the undead are dragging so much baggage along with them like spilt entrails? Or will zombies become just another generic enemy, slowly fading away as gamers grow tired of them and move onto something less grotesque?
Only time will tell, though if any game can do something with the zombie, I'm betting on The Last Of Us Part 2.
What do you think of zombies in games? Do you love them, or wish they'd just crawl back in their graves? Let us know in the comments!