I go into this post knowing full well that I’m treading into the territory of many impassioned fanboys and that they will absolutely troll the hell out of me because of it. But it’s exactly reasons like that which made me feel the need to write this post. I find it so ironic and hypocritical that a large portion of the gaming community constantly complains about repetition, developers redoing the same thing, and the industry being afraid to change. The fact is that all of these claims are true, yet a large percentage of gamers, even while voicing these complaints, continue to support these practices month after month and year after year. So I want to pose this question: Why are people still buying zombie games?
Personally I hate zombies. I hate zombie games. I hate zombie movies. I don’t watch The Walking Dead. I just don’t like them. But I respect the significance they have to world culture from a historical, mythological, and entertainment standpoint. Zombies are a key part of gaming and pop culture in general in the same way that guns, aliens, and magic are. Without them, the world would be a much less interesting place. But can we please admit that it’s one of the most overplayed genres in gaming. Between that, war, and special ops, I’ve summed up like 70% of all first person shooters. That may be an exaggerated number, but when you think about it you have to admit that they sure do make a lot of zombie games. Even games that have nothing to do with zombies get zombie modes. Every year they make a new Call of Duty and every year it gets a Nazi zombie mode for God knows what reason. Now obviously it does sell, which is the fault of the consumers not the developers. But it’s important to consider just how much we’re missing out on as far as gaming, specifically gaming plots, because of this attachment to the overuse of the zombie genre in games.
It’s not hard to understand why developers tend to go for zombie plots. It’s an easy crutch. Even if it didn’t tend to automatically sell, it also justifies putting all your eggs into gameplay and graphics while having to do little as far as writing is concerned. It’s always the same general plot. Scientist creates virus that accidently (or not so accidently) gets released into a populated area and can’t be contained (until it is). Virus has turned all of humanity (except of course you and a few NPCs to run gun shops) into flesh eating monsters that seem to be very far into decomposing no matter how recently the virus struck. Or not nearly decomposed enough if it’s a post-apocalyptic plot. Most of the time you’re not getting Uncharted or Mass Effect level story and character development in zombie games. There are of course exceptions to the rule. Let’s not forget obvious examples of extremely well-made zombie games like The Last of Us. “Wait those aren’t zombies, they’re cordyceps.” Shut up. I hate you TLoU trolls so much.
The idea here is that developers are using zombie games as an excuse to give you a very visually pleasing and standard, even if well done, set of gameplay mechanics without having to worry about the normal criticisms that other games in genres like FPS and hack-n-slash are often plagued by. They can just softball it in and everyone is still happy. Dead Rising 3 (Do we really need a Dead Rising 4?) is a great example. That franchise is not even trying to make sense any more. Now it’s gone to the modders and DLC so you can be Ryu, Iron Man, Buzz Lightyear, or whoever else you want with light sabers, laser guns, and technologies that don’t even belong in that universe. Now I understand that on some level it comes down to fun. And yes it is quite fun super-suiting through zombies in a mindless rampage of power. I still remember playing Dead Rising (2006) and loving the katana because I could unrealistically slice through zombies like butter. But at some point is anyone ever gonna ask the question of whether or not it’s okay to keep throwing large sums of money at Capcom for doing literally the same exact thing over and over and over again? Oddly enough it does seem a little ironic to ask that question in reference to Capcom. Especially when you consider the fact that the two most demanded games of Capcom are another Mega Man and as many Street Fighters as they are willing to make.
I’m a person who puts story at level with gameplay when judging a game. I would never say a game was great and definitely worth buying just because the gameplay was good. On the same token, I would never say a game was great and definitely worth buying just because the story was good. Unless of course that single aspect was monumentally good and the price was uncharacteristically low. Many people do not judge games in that same way. The bulk of the modern gaming community seems to put most, if not all, of their eggs into graphics and gameplay. As long as those two things don’t suck it’s usually considered a good game. This is especially true for FPS titles. That’s depressing when you consider how many really well written and well developed games there are that make less money than the same re-done name brand pieces of crap year after year. Let’s talk post-apocalyptic games as a key example.
Not all zombie games take place in a post-apocalyptic setting, but many of them do. I find this especially depressing personally because it often prevents developers from going in other directions when constructing post-apocalyptic games, which happens to be one of my favorite storytelling genres. There are so many other things you could do in post-apocalyptic settings that are really interesting, entertaining, and have nothing to do with zombies. Look at the Fallout series for example. Yes there are some mutants which could be defined as some form of zombie in places, but that’s not the bulk or focus of the franchise. Mad Max is another great example. And even if you didn’t much care for the game, the setting (talking about the movies as well as the game) is an excellent one. We also have examples like Terminator, Dredd, and the upcoming Horizon: Zero Dawn. There are so many options outside of zombies and we are barely getting a fraction of those in games because of the common practice of defaulting to the undead. Even Borderlands, which is admittedly not post-apocalyptic unless you count the alien civilization that the ruins on the planet depict, went for a zombie DLC.
7 Days to Die is a textbook example of zombies being used to allow a developer to softball in a plot. When I read the description of this early access game on Steam, I noticed two things. First, the game sounds awesome. Even from that introductory paragraph this sounds like a game that would be a ton of fun with a variety of things to do, giving you hours of hopefully quality gameplay. The second thing is that it in no way sounds like zombies are an integral part of what makes this game interesting. If you remove the two instances where zombies are referenced in the description, it still sounds like it would be a really fun game. So the question is why did zombies have to be included at all? Why not make a game about robots, aliens, monsters, or whatever else? Why automatically is it necessary to make a post-apocalyptic game about a specific theme of enemy at all? I would love to have played a game that sounds exactly like this one that’s just about surviving against other people and natural enemies such as wild animals and conditions. I would argue similar things could be said about a lot of zombie games. Other than justifying the frequency of enemies, would The Last of Us not have been just as powerful if it was just about surviving in a collapsed world filled with lawless people? A decent portion of the game is spent fighting against other humans already. Were/are zombies a must or was it just easier to do it that way? Go back and look at all the really well written zombie games you’ve played and decide how many of them required specifically zombies to be good games. Some of them definitely will. But I would be surprised if many of the ones that you remember for having great plots do. Having not watched The Walking Dead personally, I can’t say for sure, but I have heard on multiple occasions that it’s the characters’ interactions with each other that make that show good, not the zombies.
My goal here is not to call for an end to the zombie game genre. Far be it from me to try and destroy an institution that some people clearly enjoy and that makes a profit. Though arguably that same description could be used to describe a number of things such as prostitution and slavery. Just saying. My intent here is to bring to light the fact that we as a community of gamers and more importantly consumers continually allow ourselves to be sold games that are a combination of mediocre and overdone instead of demanding something new. We could easily move developers towards making different types of post-apocalyptic games with much more creative and original or at least not nearly as overdone plots if we wanted to. I for one believe that we aren’t getting the games we could be getting simply because it’s currently easier for developers just to go on making zombie games and that should change. Yes there’s always Fallout, but is one franchise a balanced comparison to the number of zombie games out there and yet to come? I think not.