If you’ve followed this blog for long, you know that I heart zombies. I have a preference for the staggering, stupid kind, but I can find something to love about any of their diverse cousins. To satisfy me, they have to be grotesque and terrifying in their relentless pursuit of fleshy snacks. With the help of my imagination, their putrescence and dead-eyed stares must chill my blood.
Video games have come a long way, obviously, and zombie games have thankfully benefited from the advances in graphics and motion rendering technology. Just the leap to 3D graphics enabled zombies to finally stir panic in my gut, as the undead horde approached and I ran low on ammo for my digital sidearm.
My first experience of fright in a zombie game happened at a friend’s house. I had no idea what awaited me. I didn’t have a game console at that time, so he introduced me to his PlayStation (PS1) through some other games first to impress me with its graphics. Then he said: “Do you like zombies?” Well, duh, of course. He started a game called Resident Evil. Even if you don’t play video games, you’ve probably heard of it or the bajillion sequels in the franchise it spawned, including some entertaining popcorn movies. The first time I experienced a terrifying video game zombie was when I heard one eat a person over my friend’s impressive stereo system. When it turned its dead gaze to the camera and began reaching toward me on the screen, part of me wanted to scream and sprint to turn on the lights. I wanted more.
The Resident Evil series never produced that kind of terror in me again. I think they tried to give the player too many weapons to use against the undead. To keep the game challenging, the zombies mutated into virtually invulnerable, rotting bulldozers. No thank you. Those weren’t the zombies I loved. In fact, it temporarily ruined zombie games for me. I tried a later game in the RE franchise and quit early on when it became necessary to use grenades and rocket launchers on the enemies. That’s not why I wanted to play zombie games. Where was the building dread and the overwhelming tide of decayed enemies? Why didn’t the game keep me on the run and counting every round of ammunition?
Years later, I tried Dead Island. I was still jaded from my RE experiences, so I only rented it for a few days. But I was reluctant to return it. Despite its frequent, buggy gameplay, I enjoyed the desperate attempt to survive a tropical island full of zombies and barbaric human warlords. The earliest levels were by far the most fun as I defended myself with canoe paddles, broomsticks, and the occasional meat cleaver at the tropical resort my character had briefly enjoyed. Although I progressively ran into mutated zombies, none seemed as ridiculous as those in the Resident Evil series. The zombies were challenging in larger numbers, and it was fun to simply run around the island and attempt to survive by luring them though obstacles, fighting only when I’d reduced the groups to ones or twos. As much fun as the earlier levels were, eventually the mechanics to keep the game challenging overpowered the fun. Point-blank shotgun blasts to zombies’ heads were insufficient to kill them. Sneaking up on them didn’t allow me any advantage. I felt cheated of the opportunities to use stealth to my advantage once the enemies became faster and more tenacious.
Dying Light gave me what Dead Island couldn’t. Perhaps it was the jump to the next generation of consoles, but the zombies genuinely looked and behaved like the zombies I enjoyed in my favorite movies. They were stupid and could be lured into fires or off the roofs of buildings. Only when I ventured close to them could they detect me and come shambling with open-mouthed moans. I could quietly sneak around them or close to attack from behind. They stayed quiet until something drew their attention, whether me or some of their clumsy brethren. Some would catch on fire and stumbled into a fuel spill, causing an explosion. The obviously acted independently like zombies whether or not I was nearby, as evidenced by the sounds of falling bodies and overturned trash cans in the distance. By the time I got used to dodging the hordes and confronting smaller groups, I was introduced to the next levels of zombies. It wasn’t as awkward a transition as in previous games, and usually it was possible to figure out a way to avoid the more dangerous varieties. Coupled with the night-time mechanics of the game, I was able to be terrified again by a zombie video game. But there was still something missing to complete my zombie experience.
State of Decay managed to combine some of the fun fighting aspects of Dead Island with survival mechanics I hadn’t seen before in a video game. Its graphics were dated, since it originally came out for the Xbox 360, but it was easy to forgive the cartoony feel of the game once the tension mounted. For the first time in a zombie game, I felt responsible for and emotionally invested in other characters. As I scrounged for food, weapons and other supplies, my new zombie apocalypse survivor family all went about tasks of their own: scrounging, rescuing stranded companions, fortifying our headquarters, and more. I had to switch between characters as one got injured or fatigued. I had to budget time and resources and sometimes make hard choices between two different characters that needed help, often resulting in the death of one if they weren’t rescued quickly enough. The game should have stopped at run-of-the-mill zombies and only increased the zombie population as more and more of the living in surrounding areas perished. Of course, it didn’t, and there were more menacing types of zombies that plagued the survivors. There was a central plot in the game that involved a variety of complex characters and factions with the effects of the player’s choices impacting future events. Would I embrace the help of the military? Would I side with one of my fellow survivors over another? Would I help a mercenary band of hooch-distilling criminals for the right price? I enjoyed every minute of the tension each choice provided, since I knew any choice would have repercussions later.
Obviously there are plenty of zombie games I didn’t mention. Some of them I’ve avoided playing because they looked like they would disappoint me, or I didn’t mention them because I tired of them quickly once the novelties had worn off. Others I just haven’t gotten around to playing yet. If you’ve played some you would recommend, kindly list them in the comments section.