Why, Zombie? Why?
With their groans of sorrow, disease-ridden skin, slumped posture and filthy clothing many a gamer has commented on the prevalence of zombies in videogames. Like a sole candle burning on a night-time coastline what few synapses are firing in the gamer’s brain are insufficient to shed light on this popular epidemic.
Largely it’s the correlation between ruminations on the undead and the inability to attract a mate that holds them back. It’s basic biology. So allow me to valiantly sacrifice my future progeny by postulating on why so many games resort to zombies.
Brains and the lack thereof
I’m no A.I. programmer: my failed toaster wife is testament to this. In fact I’d go further to admit I don’t fully understand the basic A.I. involved in Pac-Man. So I may be wrong, but surely it’s simpler to program the A.I. for an enemy zombie than an enemy everything-else?
In terms of navigation there’s no strategic movement required for a zombie. There’s no flanking or sophisticated combat involving intelligent use of the surroundings. It’s only ever a direct line: the shortest path between the two points of their mouth and your skull. The swarming hordes of Left 4 Dead don’t concern themselves with factoring in opportunities for the player to retaliate. They see you, they bum rush you, then they eat your bum.
In the absence of self-preservation, there is no backing down or falling back. They’re already dead, so why would there be behavioural shifts from aggressive to defensive? That said, watching that final enemy limp away in defeat while firing off shots seems a different kind of brain dead, especially when Good Hero is using a pile of their former enemy allies as waist-high cover. I’d rather they lay down their gun, formally resign from Evil Corp Industries and begin writing to their mother seeking forgiveness, all in one smooth procedurally-generated animation. Again, I’m no A.I. designer.
Zombie A.I. can fail. Zombies are allowed to bump into corners, get clogged in doorways and generally fail at moving. Seeing a stray zombie in the horde walk right off the rooftop and plummet to its second death adds a little flavour to the apocalypse. Zombies straddle the line between horror and comedy much like an audition episode of Britain’s Got Talent.
Walk into a room of Locust in Gears of War and it’s action stations! Get behind cover! Pop out intermittently and pow, pow!
Sneak into a room of patrolling guards and study their paths, waiting for the opportune time to slink forwa- oh no! Spotted! The alert has been raised! Everyone’s guns have snapped onto you and it’s action stations! Get behind cover! Pop out intermittently and pow, pow, pow!
Walk into a room of zombies and maybe two will see you. Perhaps one of them will even react. As zombies have no tactics themselves, you’re able to deal with them in tactical ways because of this slow reaction.
A heaving throng of zombies becomes a jungle through which you hack a course. Chop towards the sparse areas and get through quickly? Or lob some explosives into the dense pockets to clear house and fill the air with giblets? Escorting survivors through the jungles of Dead Island or even across the infested shopping mall of Dead Rising, as the few alerted zombies lurch onward you’re afforded time to survey the situation and prioritise a response. These moments of concentration unlock that Zen spot in the back of my brain where the warm feelings dwell.
Think of those moments in Resident Evil where the zombie is closing in with a raised machete. You aim for the weapon, you fire. You aim along its arm to the head, you fire. You drop his friend to his knees, saunter up and kick off his head. Once you establish your points and running order a fluid response becomes Tai-Chi dismemberment. It’s good for the soul.
The trigger for aggressive zombies is proximity rather than line of sight (except in games where it’s not). But common to the different flavours of zombies is that they’re interesting to attack from both short and long range. And they’re always there, in the background, with some more around the next corner. Zombies are both a passive and active threat.
The Faceless Horde
On a more general note you may notice humanoid enemies in videogames often have their faces partially, if not completely, covered. Be it a soldier’s helmet, funky face-paint or grey skin and black eyes, obscuring the face dehumanises the enemy. This is especially important when, compared to modern warfare games like Battlefield 3, the fidelity of violence exacted on zombies is more intense. Mutilation and vivisection are common verbs when communicating with the undead.
This abstraction lends itself to powerful suggestion. Fewer explicit details about their story means greater speculation on the zombies’ past. Appealing to the famous exception to this rule, I didn’t particularly care for Bub the zombie from Day of the Dead. Once named, he was elevated above his anonymous brethren and lost more than he gained.
Here’s an excerpt from Giant Bomb’s zombie wiki page included only to contrast the writer’s warped views with my own warped views.
The Walking Metaphor
Having called upon His holy name, let’s talk about why George A. Romero remains king of the genre. Zombies are fun but hollow. They’re empty vessels which when imbued with purpose can become walking metaphors. Look at any of the …Of The Dead films to see how it’s done. In Day of the Dead, Bub is fed human flesh as a reward during an experiment, which reflects some of ethical issues surrounding medical research. Land of the Dead pastiches economic inequality with the zombies becoming absurdly civilised in comparison to the humans’ mistreatment of each other. An original draft of Dawn of the Dead included a scene where human foetuses were farmed and fed to zombies in what could have been an incredibly misjudged rephrasing of the abortion debate.
And of course Dawn of the Dead’s zombies in a mall becomes a metaphor for rampant consumerism. This was homaged/ripped off (depending on whose legal team you speak to) by Dead Rising with the added punch of every psychopath skewering the uglier aspects of American culture.
In my eyes, Silent Hill 2 remains videogame’s literary pinnacle in this regard. James’ repressed anxiety over his wife’s terminal illness and subsequent sexual cravings are born out as the undead scantily clad nurses tormenting him. Compare this symbolism to the necromorphs from Dead Space which represent a concept artists desire to draw creepy monsters with pus and melting flesh and, like, you know, totally rad, evil stuff.
Zombies are easy: that’s what I suspect motivates their inclusion in most videogames. Much like the uninspired student on the night of Halloween, constrained by budget and lack of materials, any droll outfit becomes a costume with the prefixing of zombie. Simply dirty up some existing assets and you have a quirky, if completely droll, twist to the franchise:
You play football? Zombie Football Player!
You have a bikini? Zombie Volleyball Player!
You have a toy gun? Zombie Soldiers!
You have a Stetson and stirrups? Zombie Cowboy!
You have a suit and inflated sense of self-importance? Zombie Politician!
You have to quickly generate revenue to save your failing studio? Zombie Space Cops!
You have no idea what to do with Liu Kang? Zombie Liu Kang!
You like killing Nazis? Well I happen to know a trick that never gets old.