What’s with all the zombies in videogames?

Feature Ryan Lambie 24 Jun 2013 - 06:43

Zombies have been a part of gaming for almost 30 years. With The Last Of Us out now, Ryan looks at why zombies are such a popular enemy...

When George A Romero unleashed Night Of The Living Dead on an unsuspecting world in 1968, he probably didn’t realise the kind of effect it would have on popular culture. Yet this modest horror movie - and its 1978 sequel, Dawn Of The Dead - not only spawned an entire movie subgenre, but have provided the inspiration for countless videogames over the past 20 or 30 years.

When did zombies first appear in videogames? Sandy White's Zombie Zombie, an isometric 3D adventure game for the ZX Spectrum, may well have been the first. Released in 1984, it saw the player attempt to clear a city of the undead in a highly unusual manner: not by shooting them in the head, but by fooling them into falling to their doom.

One year later, rotting corpses emerged from the ground and terrorised a lance-throwing knight in Capcom’s classic - and horrifyingly difficult - side-scrolling action game, Ghosts 'N Goblins. In 1986, a small French company called Ubisoft released its very first computer game. Called Zombi, it was loosely based on Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead (Zombi was that film’s name in parts of Europe). As in the film, the game featured a group of four s survivors, who the player had to guide away from the zombies in a shopping mall and up to a helicopter on the roof of a building. 

Zombi, although largely forgotten for several years, was suddenly revived in 2012 with ZombiU, Ubisoft’s survival horror game for Nintendo's new-fangled Wii U. It’s fascinating, in fact, to see how much the gaming landscape has changed in the interval between those two games.

Technology and graphics have steadily improved, while the presence of zombies in games has become more ubiquitous than ever. Actually, you could argue that, although everything about videogames has become more sophisticated since its earliest years, game designers are often using zombies in games for the same reasons Sandy White used them in Zombie Zombie.

Zombies fulfil two functions - one technological, the other psychological. First, the process of making convincing AI enemies is exceedingly difficult and expensive; for every game you can think of with believably smart enemies for the player to gun down, you can probably provide at least five examples of games where the bad guys are so stupid, they’ll walk into walls, get stuck on chunks of scenery, or stand stock still in a corridor while you fill them full of lead.

Casting non-player characters as zombies covers a multitude of programming sins. Zombies in movies are defined by their slow movements and reactions, herd mentality and obliviousness to the impact of bullets, which is pretty much how AI characters in games behave in any case. With non-player characters cast as zombies, with all the ragged clothes and distorted features we might expect, we can subconsciously put their inhuman movement down to their undead status rather than poor programming. 

Then there’s the second, psychological reason why zombies make great videogame enemies: they’re perfect cannon fodder. Given that, in the context of a game’s virtual world, they’re already dead, shooting them is less blatantly psychotic than gunning down supposedly living soldiers. The old law that zombies have to be shot in the head also adds to their appeal - simply put, zombies make for wonderful target practice; they move, but they’re not too smart. They’re human-shaped, but not really human.

It’s little wonder, then, that so many developers have put zombies in their games over the past decade or so. In fact, the undead are one of the most prevalent enemies in the medium: whether it’s the survival horror of the Resident Evil series, with its varying flavours of infected zombies, the Call Of Duty series’ Nazi Zombie modes, or Sega’s gun game franchise House Of The Dead, zombies are pretty much everywhere we look.

What’s less clear, though, is whether developers can keep using zombies as bullet sponges in their games for much longer. Just as some have argued that we’re getting weary of vampires in movies after the Twilight series, it could be that we’re due for the onset of zombie fatigue any day now.

A short while ago, Polish developer Techland announced the forthcoming game Dying Light. Apparently unrelated to its own Dead Island survival horror vacation titles, Dying Light is instead a kind of zombie-filled Mirror’s Edge. In the face of an incoming zombie apocalypse, the player has to fend off the undead with improvised and self-made weapons (a bit like Dead Island or Sega’s Dead Rising series), and if all else fails, take to the rooftops and run for his life. From what’s been shown so far, it all looks perfectly entertaining. But is the game arriving just as zombie games have passed their saturation point? 

It’s worth comparing the zombies in videogames to those in Romero’s movies for a moment. In Night Of The Living Dead, Romero used his zombie outbreak not merely as a means to terrify - though the movie remains an exhilarating thrill-ride - but as a means of satirising human nature. As the wave of undead sweeps across America, we see groups of bearded rifle enthusiasts gather to counter the menace. But rather than get on with the task grimly, they treat it like just another hunting expedition, laughing, drinking beer and posing with the corpses of their undead enemies. The final scene - which still has the power to startle even now - makes us question whether the most mindless creatures are the zombies, or the guys with rifles.

Dawn Of The Dead shifted its sights to consumerism, imagining the masses who file into shopping malls every day as little more than brainless ghouls. “This was an important place in their lives,” one character observes, as zombified humans shuffle towards a mall, repeating some sort of muscle memory from their recent past.

Videogames are, by and large, shorn of all this. This is worth noting, since games have proved time and again that they can satirise and pass comment just as incisively as movies - yet almost all videogames use zombies as a convenience, or an entertainingly grisly theme, rather than for any further purpose. Naughty Dog's The Last Of Us, with its desperate protagonist growing increasingly weary in an apocalypse of fungal zombies, is one of the few exceptions to this rule. 

The more valid question, perhaps, is what sort of antagonists could take the place of all those zombies. In the 70s and 80s, when the 2D shooter was king, extra-terrestrials were the enemy of choice, and even today, the humble space invader serves as the unofficial icon of gaming. Yet even those invaders were a solution to a technological limitation; back when videogame screens could support move a mere handful of pixels around at a time, it made more sense to create an object that looked menacing yet abstract - creator Tomohiro Nishikado based his Invaders on sea creatures such as crabs and octopusses - rather than attempt to make something that looked human. Nishikado originally intended for Space Invaders to be a cowboy game, before he opted for a space theme in the wake of Star Wars’ blockbuster success.

We may soon reach the point where we no longer need zombies as our enemies. AI technology may become so sophisticated that we’ll see the first truly convincing soldiers in games for the first time. But even then, zombies may remain the target of choice. Most of us don’t want our enemies to be too smart. We don’t necessarily want them to be so clever that they can outsmart us at every turn. We wouldn’t want to face a pang of guilt if they tried to surrender, or begged for mercy when we trained our guns on them.

Games are meant to be pure escapism, for the most part, and zombies provide the perfect release valve. They’re just smart enough to provide us with a challenge, but not so smart that they become an irritation. They’re a recognisable enemy, rather than an amorphous alien blob of teeth and tentacles, which makes them a satisfying quarry.

As gaming continues to evolve, we’re sure to see new enemies of every kind appear in the coming years. But whether we love to shoot them or are a little weary at the sight of them, zombies are almost certainly here to stay. 

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