I’m not going to be the guy who with much self-congratulation observes that zombie fiction is ‘Actually About the People’, because that’s just the definition of storytelling, baby. And I won’t be the guy who pretends that computer games have developed much beyond the scope of Robotron or Pac Man, because let’s face it – Grand Theft Auto V is about as strong an artistic statement as Daytona USA. And there’s a third guy I ain’t gonna be: the guy who thinks that Daytona USA doesn’t rule hard.
So, these zombie games: what are they even saying, if anything? Do they make me think long and hard about the fragility of society? About the ravening, animal madness that lingers at the fringe of human consciousness? The answer is ‘no’ (because I’m not choosing The Last of Us). But then, Super Mario World doesn’t seem to have much to say about the human condition and Salman Rushdie played the shit out of that. So this is my cop-out way of saying that in this I’m judging these games as ‘entertainment’ because I’m too scared and lazy to engaging them as ‘art’; yet still hedging my bets. Onto the list:
In the first and most noble of the ‘Deads Rising’, zombies are less collective antagonist than they are mundane aspect of reality. They choke every space and their numbers never dwindle. And what numbers. You will gasp for roughly 30 seconds at the crowd (it’s 2006. You just bought an Xbox 360 and your girlfriend just dumped you); you’ll kill them gleefully for 10 minutes; then you’ll resent their presence for the following 8 or so hours. This is the objectively correct use of the zombie in fiction: as a catalyst for further drama. A world-wide raising of the stakes. In Dead Rising, killing these zombies buys you nothing in traditional video game reward-loop terms. This is crucial: after all, these are enemies only mildly less threatening than those found in the ego-stroking, universal-heat-death simulator Dynasty Warriors. Engaging them merely spends your most precious resource: time.
Allocating your time is everything in Dead Rising, much like in ‘life’ (call your mum), so you’ll quickly zero in on the activity with the highest return on investment: rescuing idiotic survivors. This objective will pull you through in an intricate clockwork universe, dense with secrets and detail. What results is a tense game about economy of movement and prioritising nested objectives.
Later games in the series would be farmed off by Capcom to a western developer (like, Blue Castle or something?) and place emphasis on the act of killing zombies for its own sake. And this is why all gamers are flabby, fearful, spiteful bigots: a lifetime of praise for indulging for indulging their basest, dumbest impulses. Games are rubbish. Onto the next hot zombie joint:
Zombie Tropes: You Can’t Save Everyone; Man is the Real Monster; They Just Keep Coming
Gears of War 2
The TRVE way to play Gears of War is to instead play Gears of War 2 and select ‘horde mode’, in which monster enemies of middling intelligence bear down endlessly on you and four sisters and/or brothers. It’s an excuse to binge on Gears of War’s brain-food shooting without being made to listen to excruciating dialogue delivered in a strained, nasal drawl (you know the kind: reliably gravelly when the VO actor is close to the mic, ridiculous when projected). Horde mode evokes the messy and rapidly deteriorating defense of a stronghold against a multitude.
This is all the justification I need to declare it the second best zombie game Of All Time, by the power vested in me by my own solipsism. The only failing of Horde is that it is possible (although unlikely) for a session to end in any other way than in Seven Samurai-esque failure. I’m of the not-particularly controversial belief that all games should end in failure, because that’s how life ends. You just shoot, flank, surpress, fall back, rescue, get rescued, love and be loved until you finally go down swinging.
Gears of War 3 would go on to add buildables in an effort to introduce much-needed logistical tedium and Gears of War: Judgement would utterly screw the pooch.
So, uh, to conclude: stop ironically listening to Slayer, watching Schwarzenneger films and playing woeful compromises like Grand Theft Auto V; start earnestly listening to Slayer, watching Dwayne Johnson films and playing Gears of War 2.
Zombie Tropes: They’ve Broken Through; I’m Out of Ammo; They Just Keep Coming; Live Together or Die Alone
Left 4 Dead
Both Left 4 Dead and its sequel are as entertaining right now as your sugar-addled 13 year old mind thought Golden Axe was at the time. Valve are so great at pacing, and Left 4 Dead’s pacing creates some weapons grade tension. The beats of the action are unpredictable. They throw moments of inaction into stark contrast. Any silence is deafening. You’ll shuffle hurriedly along, grateful for the respite; your guts will twist as you inch through mud waist-high mud. The elevator will take forever.
And this tension is felt no more strongly than at the iconic ‘safehouse door’. Picture this: your friend (let’s call him ‘Liam’) is the only one yet to cross the threshold. He’s dallying. You can hear the gunshots; he’s shooting the infected. “It’s not a big deal”, he assures you, “I think I saw some pills.” But you see his bloodlust for what it is: his fragile ego needs to see his kill-contribution at the top of the upcoming score-screen. He’s cocksure. You can’t help but notice notice how his health-pack is the only one to have gone unused. And now you know. You see, as clear as day: he’ll kill you all before the end.
Zombie Tropes: You Can’t Save Everyone, They Just Keep Coming, They’ve Broken Through, Live Together or Die Alone
State of Decay: Breakdown
Once more the ‘infinite mode’ is the definitive interpretation: Breakdown strips away the pretense of a narrative and leaves the player only one flavour of decision: necessary. Breakdown is the alpha and omega of zombie computer games. It invokes the drama and the tension of the best of zombie mythology and does so entirely through the use of computer game secret sauce: systems.
Even more so than in Dead Rising, Breakdown revels in the banality of its apocalypse. This is a game about chores; about watching your chosen survivor loot a filing cabinet for 15 straight seconds. The game offers nothing beyond ‘backtracking’, ‘fetch-quests’, and ‘escort missions’ – the entire spectrum of lazy critical shorthand. Terms that arise when interactions are discussed without context. But you won’t once refresh Twitter during these moments. You will be rapt, because this game is as much about the why as the what.
State of Decay plays out in your head.
This is hardly a revolution in itself. Nowadays even shiny rubbish like Shadow of Mordor makes concessions to the dynamics of systemic design. Not only would describing the density of State of Decay’s overlapping and interdependent systems require a flow-chart that I’m not I.T. literate enough to produce, it would also be pretty misleading. Because State of Decay: Breakdown is built on an unshakable foundation of common sense. It’s as intuitive as it is deep. So play it you get a chance. It’s cool.
Zombie Tropes: All of Them lol
So that’s it. The four best zombie games bar none with no room for further argument. Thanks for reading. You can find my inactive and embarrassing blog at fortress of mystery, and you can follow me on Twitter @JoyRones.