Here’s a complaint I hear a lot: “there are too many zombie games!” or “oh great, another zombie game.” The first one is a non-issue. How is “too many” even quantified? Hundreds of games come out a day, there’s too many of everything. So instead I’ll be looking at the second one. Usually, this is said with a dismissive attitude, as though the game instantly loses value in the viewer’s eyes. I want to challenge that notion.
First of all, this isn’t about personal preferences. If you get grossed out or are just scared of zombies in general, of course you will dismiss the entire theme. Rather, this is aimed toward those who are otherwise interested in a specific game genre but turned off by games that are zombie themed.
So why does this happen? People don’t want to play the same game. Players seek out a new game for new experiences and the word zombie is a flag to them that this game is not original. The genre became a victim of its own popularity.
This isn’t a fault of the zombie theme. If a game offers you nothing in terms of originality, gameplay, or story, you’re probably just playing a bad game. Derivative asset flips are an unfortunate side effect of the genre’s popularity, not the main product. Fair enough, you might say, maybe it is unfair to write off the entire genre. But why would we need more zombie games?
The zombie genre excels at this: immediately creating a high stakes environment. This is why the genre is so popular, and why entertainment forms that come out of it can fall flat or be the greatest entertainment of the year. Utilized correctly, this environment provides a gripping tale of complex human behavior like The Last of Us or Telltale’s The Walking Dead. The zombie apocalypse should be used as a tool to the good writer, not a crutch. But writing doesn’t stop with the characters. The environment should live and breath this incarnation of society and tell a story of it’s own.
Outside of narrative-driven games we have the more cut and dry zombie experience. The one fueled by a single goal: survive. These games are driven purely by mechanics and gameplay, and this is something easily overlooked. Mechanically, this gameplay must be driven by the lizard brain; a pure and instinctive adrenaline fueled desire to live. Every reload should be calculated. Every step should be taken with caution. The player must always be in danger, barring the brief downtime in a safehouse. This sort of gameplay is executed almost to perfection in titles like Left 4 Dead and Dying Light. But survival doesn’t have to purely reflex-based either. Survival can be a battle of the wits, managing resources, making tactical decisions, and dealing with other people. We see this exemplified in games like DayZ, Project Zomboid, and State of Decay.
This is what the flood of low-effort steam greenlight submissions are missing. This is why almost every game with zombies in the title on the mobile marketplace plays like a game that has nothing to do with zombies. These entries have lost sight of what make the genre great: exceptional gameplay and phenomenal writing. These games don’t come from a place of respect for the genre, but one of exploitation.