They’re everywhere in video games right now, it seems. A recent email alert from the iTunes store linked me to a page that must have had 20 zombie iPhone games ready for purchase. Call of Duty: World at War’s Nazi Zombies practically drove map pack sales for months, and I’ve thought about picking up a used copy of the game explicitly to have access to it again. The speculation that the zombies are returning in Black Ops consistently pops up in gaming news.
Age of Zombies is the top selling PSN Mini. Borderlands had a zombie-themed DLC add-on. Crackdown 2 tossed some zombie-like creatures in for good measure. Red Dead Redemption is going to have zombie DLC. Fat Princess is rumored to have a zombies mode coming, for chrissakes. Is enough enough?
Not for me. Zombies and video games are the perfect mix. Among other reasons, zombies work in video games generally for the same reason that Nazis will always make the best opponents for first person shooter titles: you don’t have to feel bad for killing them because, hey, they’re zombies. You don’t have to take anyone’s crap because you enjoy slaughtering thousands of them. You’re not engaging in violent behavior. You’re training to ensure the survival of your species, ladies and gentlemen.
My fascination with zombies began when I was in ninth grade, with the original Dawn of the Dead. A friend of a friend was insanely into George Romero, which is how the film wound up on a Saturday afternoon watch list. Not only had I never seen gore of that ridiculously in-your-face nature before, but I’d never really encountered zombies before, outside of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, but that was before I knew to call them “zombies.”
The question I could not stop asking the friends I saw Dawn of the Dead with was “But how did things get that way?” I couldn’t image how society could ever fall apart to the point where the walking dead would outnumber the living. It seemed so simple: shoot them in the head. The army could drop snipers and pallets’ worth of ammunition on rooftops, and the snipers could use megaphones and call out to the zombies to come get dinner and then plunk them off one by one.
I try and ignore the running zombies nonsense, though it’s worth noting that more often than not the further we get into this sub-genre the more we call them “infected” rather than “zombies.” Old-fashioned shambler zombies are so much scarier to me, because life or death comes down to thinking smart and planning ahead. As long as you act calmly and rationally, you can win. Note that in all the Romero zombie films things are usually fine until the humans start acting like idiots.
I’m less picky about runners or shamblers in video games, because in the end gamers handle them both the same way. The cinematic rules still apply: it’s about thinking ahead, and playing smart, and this translates into highly satisfying gameplay.
Cooperation and communication are the bedrock of successful first person shooter multiplayer gaming. Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time with multiplayer FPS titles can attest to the stark and immediate difference in team-based matches when we play with friends versus random pick-up groups of strangers online. Zombie-based cooperative games don’t make this behavior an option, but a bare necessity.
In Nazi Zombies, as long as you keep your cool and repair boarded-up entrances and cover the angles, a team of four can survive for a very long time to the point where lack of ammunition or clear communication become the enemy, not the zombies. Handling Left 4 Dead’s zombies also comes down to players’ ability to work as a team, covering each other during reloads, organizing attempts to get to a fallen comrade, and calling out when the “special zombies” require “special attention.”
In single-player games, zombies require a careful, methodical approach even when we’re talking about runners. You can’t get your back against the wall. You need to keep moving from areas of greater to lesser zombie density. The zombies in Dead Rising are only truly a threat if you allow yourself to get cornered, or are ill-equipped with not enough weapons. The same goes for the zombies in Resident Evil, well, up until Resident Evil 5, anyway. I like it when video games require me to think a little and plan ahead.
The out-of-touch like to look at video gamers and think of us as slothful zombies of another fashion, just numbly playing our video games. In reality, we are all training for the day when our superior hand-eye coordination constitutes the line between the survival of the human race and a world full of shambling corpses. It’s going to happen, sooner or later – caused by radioactive satellites, rage viruses, biowarfare experiments, or the plain-old End Times – and the video gamers will be ready because we know how to cooperate and plan a few steps ahead.
In keeping with both my zombie fascination, and the shiny new toy which is my 3GS iPhone, my hosts here at Gamer Limit have decided to indulge me with some reviews of the best iPhone zombie-centric titles, so pardon me while I go get some practice in such that I can save all of you who don’t play the zombie games when the apocalypse comes…