Gaming rEvolutions: Modern Era Zombie Games

Written by on May 6, 2013 in [, , , , , , , , , , , , , ]

My previous Gaming rEvolutions article detailed the emergence of the zombie in video games. These beasties began as one of a cast of thousands of minions bent on consuming all in their path. They then took center stage as the main villain in later survival horror gaming. All of the previous game types are still around today while new game styles continue to be introduced.

Game companies decided players should shamble a mile in the deteriorating shoes of the undead. World of Warcraft (2004, Blizzard) helped usher in this era by creating an entire ‘race’ of undead known as the Forsaken with their very own starting city. Another game chose a more humorous approach to the zombie ‘life’. In Stubbs the Zombie (2005, Wideload Games) gamers play as the travelling salesman - turned murder victim - turned zombie. This unlucky creature spends the rest of the game creatively wreak havoc and devour anything that gets in his path.

The Half Life franchise inspired mods allowing players to travel through the Half Life world in zombie form. These zombies can mutate. These mutations allow the zombies to upgrade their abilities and the weapons available to them.

More recently Left 4 Dead (2008, Valve) allowed gamers the chance to play as a zombie in the multiplayer “Versus” mode. The game, inspired by several cult classic zombie movies, gave players the chance to walk/shamble in the shoes of a zombie. Versus mode allowed for endless zombie versus human multiplayer battles online.

These unfortunate creatures in all of their many forms have become so popular that game developers have begun to use zombies as a quick fix way to add interest in games of other genres. Many games developed “zombie modes” and DLC to cash in on zombie popularity. Call of Duty: World at War (2008, Treyarch) rewarded gamers for beating the first person shooter by unlocking a new game mode where players could do battle with Undead Nazis.

Other games chose to add value to their original games by adding new DLC bursting with zombie fun. The fourth expansion pack to the action/adventure game Red Dead Redemption (2010, Rockstar) treated players to new ghost towns and cemeteries filled with zombies and a new co-op multiplayer mode that challenged players to take on endless zombie masses. The first DLC pack for the role playing shooter Borderlands (2009, Gearbox Software) added a new area filled with zombified characters based on the villains found in the original game.

While most zombie gaming focused more on the shooting and action elements of the zombies apocalypse, some newer games choose to use zombies as an avenue to help gamers discover more about the human side of survival. Games like The Walking Dead (2012, TellTale Games) and the forthcoming The Last of Us (2013, Naughty Dog) have taken survival horror to a new level. The Walking Dead uses quick-timed decisions to force gamers to custom shape their game experience. The choices made in character dialogs become a catalyst to analyzing ourselves and our own humanity. The game focuses on what we are willing to do to survive.

The philosophical options boil down to two extremes. On one side there is the deontologist philosophy. This philosophy believes that the end result cannot justify or absolve the means. Morality and ethics are a person’s duty and must survive at all costs. The deontologist questions, “If I choose an inhumane path to save myself, haven’t I already lost myself?” Travelling in The Walking Dead’s world gone mad, as a plague devours loved ones and mutates them into the walking dead, an innocent girl by the name of Clementine serves as true north for a player’s moral compass. If a player strays from the humane path, Clem is affected by it. It is up to each player to decide whether to hold onto their humanity or allow their fear to guide them in a different direction.

The other extreme in philosophy is shared by utilitarian individuals and consequentialists. Utilitarianism believes one must do what needs to be done to maximize happiness and reduce suffering. In other words, the happiness of the many outweighs the suffering of the few. Consequentialists believe that one’s choices should be morally assessed solely by the results they bring about. In other words, the end justifies the means. All of the rest of the cast of characters in The Walking Dead tempt the player to choose one of these philosophies to guide the way. Survival is the only option, but at what cost?

The Last of Us appears to focus even closer on relationships. There are zombies in the game but the story spotlights the relationship between a young girl born after a fungal virus has robbed so many of their humanity. All she has ever known is the aftermath of this apocalyptic world. The gamer controls a character that has become something of a father figure to the girl. He knows all that the world has lost and this may make the world an even tougher place to live for him. Together they must survive. At PAX Prime last year one of the developers made clear that this is first and foremost a game about three things; survival, love and humanity. A seemingly large leap from the early years of zombie games which focused purely on survival.

Zombie games through the ages have entertained for a variety of reasons. The zombie is an easy mindless, soulless target for a gamer’s virtual vengeance. They are symbollic of the decay and deterioration of society and it’s humanity. The zombie has become so popular, in fact, that they have invaded games of all genres. The zombie game can be pure action, adventure, survival horror, a shooter, DLC, or a bonus game mode. Zombies can provide a shallow yet rewarding experience of wading through endless armies of the undead or a more though provoking experience that questions the very meaning of survival. In the end, the zombie game will continue to entertain as it always has. With luck and a little innovation game developers will find creative ways to ensure the continued evolution of zombies in gaming.


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Author: Melisa Snyder View all posts by

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