Breathing Life Back into the Zombie Genre

Yes, I know, you see what I did there.

The Genre as We Know It

The zombie game genre has been getting a lot of attention lately. Between the Resident Evil games,the Left 4 Dead series, Dead IslandThe Walking Dead, and even Nintendo’s new ZombiU game for the Wii U, zombies have been and are continuing to be a centerpiece for a large selection of games. What’s interesting about all of the above-mentioned games is the lack of similarity between titles. Sure, the Resident Evil games are similar, and the Left 4 Dead games bear a striking resemblance to one another, but that’s to be expected. The big difference lies in the gap between Resident Evil and Left 4 Dead, or any other title above.

What’s really interesting, though, is that none of the games have what matters most: realism. Sure, some of them have realistic graphics and gore, or realistic character movements, or even realistic AI, but in a real zombie apocalypse, I certainly don’t plan on standing around saying, “Wow, look at how well that zombie moves! It’s so great!”

The Missing Element

So what are they all missing? For the answer, we have to look at the prime example of what a zombie story should be: The Walking Dead (the TV show on AMC, not the game. The game looks awful, but we’ll discuss why later).

What is so intriguing about The Walking Dead that keeps people tuning in each week? Is it the high-quality special effects? Sure, maybe some people watch to see the cool zombie makeup. But there isn’t a whole lot of zombie action every week. Is it the chance to see zombies move realistically across a landscape? Again, no. The reason people keep watching is because they want to see what happens next to the characters. They want to see what the humans will do next. Not just where they’ll find shelter, but who they’ll befriend, who they’ll alienate, and what moral dilemmas they’ll find themselves in this week. In a real zombie apocalypse, the choices of people are what matter the most. It’s the drama and tension created by real people making real choices that impact other people.

Now, of course The Walking Dead isn’t a true story. The people in it are actors, but their parts are all written by humans who have to put themselves in the characters’ shoes and determine what choices those people would make, then script them in a believable way, and ensure that the outcome makes sense in a real-world kind of way.

For example, say the main group of survivors find themselves in a cabin surrounded by walkers. They can’t just have a dragon come out of nowhere and kill all the zombies. That doesn’t make sense, even in a world where zombies exist. What they can have is a group of passing survivors who stop and help the main cast escape their impending doom. That does make sense. Of course, the passing survivors could always decide it was too dangerous to help the main group and just go on their own way. That would also make sense.

So what am I saying here? I’m saying that the reason people tune in to a zombie show isn’t just for the zombies. It’s just as much, if not more, for the humans. And that is what makes a true zombie story.


Back to the Point

OK, so let’s bring this back to the gaming world. So far, zombie games basically consist of heroic characters shooting big guns, blowing off zombies’ heads, and always making the easy call (which is usually just “shoot it”). The Walking Dead game does do some interesting things with making you choose which members of your party you want to help and things like that, but the rest of the game is unfortunately no good (again, we’ll talk more about why shortly).

I know what you’re wondering now. So Mike, what does it take to make a good zombie game, then? Well, I obviously wouldn’t pose this question if I didn’t have an answer, so let’s go ahead and talk about that.

To make a good zombie game, all of the important elements of a real zombie apocalypse need to be in place, and they need to be balanced. A lot of games make the mistake of including some or all of these, but failing to balance them properly, ending up with a lopsided, repetitive game.


Keys to a Successful Zombie Apocalypse

The key elements of a successful zombie apocalypse are as follows:

  • Humanity: People are getting desperate; watch out
  • Survival: Food, water, and shelter are all scarce; find them or die
  • Combat: Zombies (and, sadly, other humans) will try to kill you; don’t let them
  • Narrative: The story will (supposedly) drive everything; control it

The problem, again, is that these elements are wildly unbalanced in many cases. I’ve listed them in order of importance according to a real-life zombie apocalypse. If real zombies actually come to kill us, that is the order that would dominate our daily lives.

Other people would become our biggest threat, and our only ally. As mankind struggles to survive, people will change, morals will disappear, and nothing will be off-limits.

When we finally get in with a safe group of people and don’t have to worry about other survivors harming us, we face the problem of survival. We need food. We need water. We need a place to hide at night. We need transportation. We need to stay alive.

While sneaking around and hiding would obviously be preferable, there is a nearly 100% chance of facing a zombie or a fellow man to the death. Someone will die. Don’t let it be you.

And finally, when all is said and done, look back at the story you’ve created. Do you care about that? Probably not so much.


This is Not a Simulation

You see? The four elements of a realistic zombie game are right there. Now you can compare those to the games above and see what’s wrong with each of them. Now, let’s break this down even further. Let’s take the strengths of the existing zombie games and apply them to the framework I’ve laid out.

There’s a game called Arma II that very few people have every heard of. One of the most popular mods for it is a zombie mod called DayZ. This mod basically creates and open, online world and lets you go wherever you want and do whatever you please. You have to scavenge for food, transportation, shelter, and more. You can fight other humans. You have to fight zombies. It almost seems perfect. But it isn’t.

DayZ is built on an existing military simulation game. Military simulations don’t make great zombie games. I want a game built from the ground up. Sure, the weapons are nice, but they aren’t exactly suited for zombie warfare. And to be honest, the combat system seems a bit wonky, even for a military sim. The world could also use some expansion, in my opinion. While it is huge, it’s very monotonous. Lots of trees and countrysides. Location is important, too.


Location, Location, Location

OK, enough of what’s bad. Let’s go with what’s good. First, let’s establish a setting. In my opinion, there are a lot of great places to be when a zombie apocalypse starts, at least for the purpose of creating a compelling game.

The setting will be a giant open world. There will be different cities, which will all have a different look, feel, and way of life. You’ll get to pick your starting area, and from there you’ll have to make it on your own. A few of the environments would include a large city (a fictional New York City lookalike), full of skyscrapers and shops to hide out in; a nearby rural area, complete with a few farms, barns, and other fun places to hide; and a small town with lots of open road and a few heavily populated areas. Each of these cities (and more) will be connected by long, dangerous highways. Obviously, you’ll need to gain some sort of transportation if you’re going to make the journey.


Survival of the Fittest

If you’re going to survive, you’ll need food, water, shelter, and supplies. DayZ has a great inventory system (although the actual management could use some work). Limiting inventory space depending on what kind of backpack you have, forces you to make the decision between that bottle of water, those bandages, and that extra clip for your pistol. It makes things very real and very intense. Food should take time to consume. A bandaging system like DayZ has would be nice, but could frustrate some players.

Other elements impacting survival could include things outside the player’s control, such as weather conditions (occasionally flood parts of the map for additional fun).


Fight Me Like a Man!

Another important feature is the combat system. If the combat sucks, you’re probably going to be screwed no matter what you do. For this purpose, simply take the excellent combat system in Left 4 Dead II and implement it. First-person, fast-paced, with lots of realistic gore. The weapons choice needs to be a little more limited to start out, and then work up to more powerful weapons as you progress (Left 4 Dead II is really good about this, too, despite the linear nature of the game). There would also need to be a few more zombies than DayZ has.

Oh, and all fallen survivors should come back as zombies after a certain period of time, based on things like how the virus causing the apocalypse reacted with the current weather conditions.


Keep it Secret, Keep it Safe

The ability to setup camp in abandoned buildings would be key. It would give players a safe place to hide, store their goods, and respawn.


Oh, the Humanity!

You’ve probably noticed that I left out the top item on my list of key elements. Yeah, I was saving it for last. You know what isn’t human? An AI bot. It can’t argue with you outside of its programming, if at all. It can’t betray you outside of its programming. It can’t do anything outside of its programming. Programming is lame.

This game would have to be an MMO (I vote we call it The Walking Dead Online due to the large role of the human element, like in the show). There’s no other way it could work. The human factor is the most important factor. Fight together, or fight each other. Shoot the living. Loot the dead. Keep your hideout hidden, or someone might walk in and raid the place. Hide those bodies, or zombies might be attracted to them. As long as the gunshot didn’t already bring them swarming your way, that is.


Allow Me to Demonstrate

The beauty of the human element is that in the zombie apocalypse, things go from black and white to shades of gray. Something that is wrong in today’s society may become acceptable, encouraged, or even necessary to survive.

Let’s say someone in your group is being reckless. He’s walking around shouting, threatening to fire his weapon. Do you talk him down, or put him down? Do you attempt to talk him out of his foolishness, possibly at risk to yourself and your group? Or do protect yourselves by turning on him? Do you shoot him, drawing the attention of the horde, or get close enough to kill him silently, possibly endangering yourself as you approach the madman? If you do get near him, will he shoot first? If he does, will he attract a horde? What do you do?

It’s choices like that that keep people flocking back to The Walking Dead. It’s choices like that that make a zombie game truly terrifying.

The undead aren’t scary. The living are.

In the event that someone at a major game studio reads this and wants to make it, please get in touch with me. I’d really like to work on this as a producer or director or something. I have no technical or programming abilities, but hey, you guys didn’t come up with this idea, so no offense, but I don’t trust you to get it right. Just let me handle that, OK?