Cannibalistic Media

There’s little theme to this, other than I’m unhappy with how most games handle zombies. It’s mostly a dump of three separate posts I never bothered finishing.

So, Cannibalistic Media. No, this isn’t about my disregard if my favorite comic or game is ruined when made into a movie; good or bad. Screw films. This is about something far more controversial, yet less talked about: zombies in games, and how game developers are ruining zombies with their adaptation of the zombie menace. Why the double standard? Simple. I care about games. Movies? Not as much.

And I love zombies. We all do. They’re us, and we’re the ultimate villain, mindless machines of consumption, bottomless stomachs, followers, etc. etc. etc. blah blah blah. You know all that. But what you may or may not think about is the use of zombies in games versus other mediums. Traditionally when talking of zombies, we think film, as in George Romero, right? (Possibly Shaun of the Dead, but it’s inspired by Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and following films.) Even zombie movies without zombies (Signs, 28 Days Later,) do a better job than games of making their ‘zombies’ something to fear. So the question is begged, where do game developers go wrong in making “zombie games?”

Games make zombies cheap targets, and some games exploit that. The closest any game has come to using zombies as something to fear is Resident Evil, and even then only when you were worried about running out of ammo because, let’s face it, otherwise you were never really worried about a zombie killing you. Dead Rising tries to overcome this hurdle by letting zombies do what they do best, organize better than any union me and my fellow twenty-somethings will ever see in our lifetimes. By traveling in hordes, Dead Rising’s zombies properly overcome their weakness of slow movement by using the classic tactic of ensuring there’s a zombie almost everywhere you go, therefore they don’t have to travel fast. It’s just enough to evoke a tiny bit of dread when you have to jump on a platform unreachable to zombies just to chug some milk and get some health back, and then you look over the sea of rotting flesh you have to contend with to reach your real destination… But the problem with Dead Rising is the mass killing of zombies by its Mall-of-America-Made-Rambo, Frank West. Zombies themselves don’t present much of a problem for the player, and that’s by design, making killing zombies is as easy as hitting the attack button until they die, or when finesse is added, a few extra buttons for sake comedy or gore.

For another example of zombie gameplay that almost works, Halo 3’s implementation of Infection gameplay (created by gamers as a metagame in Halo 2’s multiplayer,) succeeds in a few places after a little fine tuning. Without radars, players often have to fight one zombie for his life, while another zombie comes from behind and takes a slice of the player, or with proper fine tuning, players have radar, but any time a zombie is near, the players radars are swarmed with red dots, indicating zombies everywhere, helping to add to suspense. By working together a group of players can hold off the initial zombie for some time, but eventually someone gets too cocky with a boring game of ‘everyone slaughter the green guy,’ and they slip, becoming a zombie themselves. As the tide turns, players begin to die and turn into zombies, and eventually you reach the end game of the zombies hunting for the last survivor. Of course, the games inevitably end when either the last player alive survives a time limit, or is killed by the zombies.

The element of players working together, when it happens, is probably the purest element of a zombie game put to play, but again it lacks numbers of zombies needed to make it worthwhile, and the ability to not fight, when the player knows he’s going to lose. The player doesn’t have the ability to plan at all, as the Infection mode is just a afterthought in the game. Looking at these examples, what we’re playing now aren’t “zombie games” as in a correlation to other zombie fiction, but “games that feature zombies.”

A game about surviving a zombie apocalypse cannot be based on combat. The aforementioned zombieless zombie movies do a better job than games that feature zombies because the movies’ faux-zombies present a constant threat that is rarely imminent. Even when the threat is imminent, it’s not the threat of ‘a’ zombie. Anyone can avoid a few zombies they can see from across the room, but being surprised by a zombie calls for a different tactic. The more zombies there are, the harder time protagonists typically have unless they either make a plan, or have help. There we touch on three key factors in beating zombies that are directly relatable to gameplay elements: Evasion, Intelligence, and Teamwork.

Evasion is key in that zombies, generally slow and stupid, are their most effective when in large numbers and constantly pressing the protagonist(s). If the protagonist is constantly killing zombies with abandon while up close to them, then why should they fear the zombies? They obviously pose no threat. So zombies should be tough to kill unless players are attacking from a distance or have very strong weaponry (explosives, mass-attacking weapons such as flame throwers, etc,) and even then sheer numbers should make surviving against the zombies for an extended time (on equal ground) a difficult task. Any time the protagonist fights zombies, he needs to be aware that the fight could cost him his life.

Protagonists also need to be able to gauge the chances of their survival for not only narrative purposes, but to honestly have a chance of survival. Protagonists will need to be able to determine when methods of brute force will obviously not work, and they will need to figure out alternate methods to achieve their goals. Jumping into battle and constantly dieing until you think to look around defeats the purpose of trying not to die. In this respect the save system in *Dead Rising* ‘almost’ made sense. Sure people complain about it, but compare the fun in playing from your save point in *Dead Rising* to the cheapness you felt when you realized dying in *Bioshock* carried such little penalty. The ability to resolve situations where attack means certain death is a very important point of difference between humans and zombies. I know some gamers just like to run and gun, but that’s not what a ‘zombie game’ should be. That’s for ‘games that feature zombies’.

The most important difference is the ability to work together. Sure zombies gather around people and chase them, but that’s hardly conscious teamwork, it’s happenstance at best. (Let’s not get started on smart zombies from movies like Land of the Dead.)

Knowing that zombies don’t work together, are not smart, but can easily overpower a protagonist in most situations are the exact reasons that zombie fiction is so popular. To apply the typical game mechanic of killing numerous enemies to zombies, anything that makes zombies unique is lost. By sheer force of unstoppable will until a precise death, and numbers that alone should make them unbeatable, zombies captured the public imagination. By making them goombas, video games have made them boring.

Players should fear zombies. Players should fear death.

The obvious question is, how do you go about addressing these differences if one were to make a ‘zombie game’ with the more traditional zombie roles in place, and what kind of game would that be? Let’s partake in a mental exercise.

First, let’s assume that we’re dealing with, at most, two types of zombies. I’m sticking to fast and slow types, both only killable when the brain is injured. A key factor in making players fear death, is making death a truly bad thing. I’m against the school of thought that a player shouldn’t die, I just think that a careful player, acclimated to your world, should be given reasonable cues to see dangerous situations, and be able to differetiate between danger and certain doom. If they still act like they’re Mario with a star, well, let them die. That’s okay. What’s important in making a zombie game is that proper fear of zombies is maintained while the only methods of success are by using the three key factors.

While I enjoy a good rampage as much as the next person, my main assertion that zombie games can not be based on combat with zombies is one I stick by. *Dead Rising* provided many slapstick gimmicky laughs, but at the end of the day if I want to rampage, I stick *Grand Theft Auto* in, or possibly even *Oblivion*. By making zombies disposable bad guys, rather than a near-unbeatable multi-bodied entity for consumption of flesh, we get rid of the very reason for making them zombies. There is no fear, or worry, or even dread… You simply pick up your shotgun and run. Zombies as a group shouldn’t be so easily stopped, or even stoppable at all when numbers add up, and that’s what Bungie taught us with their adoption of proper zombie gameplay in *Halo 3* under the name Infection. For people to indefinitely hold off zombies for any extended period of time is impossible. Eventually a player slips, and the zombie scores a victim. Soon, a few more are converted, and eventually the tide turns with zombies outnumbering and killing the humans.


Rushing into a fight like you’re Rambo trying to save downtrodden Taliban P.O.W.s is pretty much ‘out’, in most cases. That’s not to say a mad dash for safety isn’t an option, just probably not the safest one, and it’s important for players to be able to gauge if that’s a plausible action or not. If the typical player is wrongly convinced that the only option for survival is running and gunning you’ve either made a few bad decisions in game or level design, both by allowing that to be seen as the most likely possible solution, and by allowing it to be a completable task.

The Caveat: I’m no dummy. Now’s a good time to point out that hardcore players will insist on doing everything their own way. If that includes killing all of your zombies, and they’re able to do it, it’s okay to reward badasses, just make sure they truly earned that reward. Killing ‘a’ zombie is as easy as shooting him in the head. Killing a dozen surrounding your character with a machete should either be a miracle on damn clever playing.

Also, I’m largely against allowing a player to control a zombie after converting from a human, as this no doubt leads to people intentionally dieing. Isn’t it better to just allow that express action, to let player(s) be a zombie, rather than to set up a game for multiple humans and have it botched by meta-gameplay?

But regardless of what you decide to do post-death, eventually players will die, and expect their characters to become zombies. How do you handle that? My opinion:

Player to Zombie Conversion Possibilities:
1. Instant conversion:
1a. ‘One bite converts’ zombies, players instantly convert on death.
1b. Zombie attacks/bites do damage amounts, players instantly convert on death.
2. Extended conversion:
2a. After a player is bitten (or dies) they are given a time limit during which they still retain control of their body. Over time the player (due to stress factors, availability of the easy kill, or other factors,) loses control, attacking other humans until they are completely a zombie.
2b. Players have two health meters, a ‘current health’, which determine their life (and/or a host of other stats,) and a ‘max health’ (the total amount of health they can possibly have in their peak form.) Typical injuries affect current health, while zombie bites affect both. ‘Max health’ could theoretically be raised to normal levels by a ‘zombie cure’ while the player is still alive. The player turns into a zombie when their ‘current health’ is depleted.