It’s Zombie Awareness Month. Running since 2007 and coordinated by the Zombie Research Society, this annual campaign is designed to raise awareness and prepare us all for the apocalypse which is inevitably going to happen.
It’s often mistakenly thought that the first zombie movie was George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead back in 1968. It was actually Edward Halperin’s White Zombie almost 40 years earlier in 1932 – but even that was based on a book published in 1929, The Magic Island by William Seabrook. The undead have therefore been shuffling around in our nightmares as well as our media for over 90 years and it doesn’t look as if there’s any sign of them stopping yet.
It’s believed they made the transition to video games in 1984 when Sandy White created Zombie Zombie for the ZX Spectrum. Forget the usual advice of shooting them in the head though: the player had to use a helicopter to build platforms and then fool the living dead into falling to their doom in this isometric 3D-adventure. Both technology and story-writing have improved and become far more sophisticated since then, but developers and gamers still regularly turn to the undead to get their digital kicks today.
What do you think of when you hear that word? The image we usually conjure up is that of a horde of reanimated corpses, dragging their decaying limbs towards us in the overriding desire to munch on our flesh. This traditional view has been depicted in video games with apocalyptic settings such as Dead Rising and Dying Light, along with lighter-hearted releases such as Plants vs. Zombies. They may be slow, but they have all the time in the world while you only have so much energy and limited ammunition.
The living dead don’t always fill this role in their current interpretations, however, and over the years creators have experimented with their forms to challenge players in new ways. We now have runners, crawlers, screamers and exploders among others; consider all the various types used in titles such as Left 4 Dead, World War Z and Days Gone. This variety is good because it keeps players on their toes – but it also means that aiming a gun at the skull might not be enough to save you any longer.
Then there are releases where the undead appear almost out of the blue. They ambushed Drake and Elena in the underground cavern in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune; were used by Eva to terrorise Neil in To The Moon; and stalked the player in the mines during The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Whether their presence has been introduced to cause excitement, humour or fear, it’s usually more welcome than other enemy types and our obsession with them continues.
So why is this? I’ve been doing some digging around in the graveyard for and I think I’ve found a few possible answers. Several online sources discuss the fact that developers like using the zombies as non-player characters (NPCs) because they ‘cover a multitude of programming sins’. We expect them to have a low mentality and therefore be oblivious to the impact of bullets, and so we usually put their inhuman movement down to them not being alive rather than poor code.
Programmers aren’t the only ones who love the shuffling corpses: they’re a goldmine for writers too. They can be used as a narrative element to tap into many of our fears – violence, cannibalism, and infectious viruses for example – and then taken even deeper to look at subconscious terrors including mindless consumerism, the loss of the people closest to us and confrontation with our own mortality. The living dead have got you covered If you’re looking for an enemy which can be used as a metaphor.
You can’t overlook the fact that the undead are almost guaranteed to make a profit also. Game development is an expense business and publishers are usually very risk-adverse; why chance losing all the cash you stumped up when you can go with something you already know will be popular with your consumers? Zombies are a proven commodity, so much so that themed downloadable content (DLC) has been created for titles where there were no living dead in the first place to make a bit more money.
That’s the game industry but what about the players themselves? Well, it could have something to do with what’s referred to as the ‘uncanny valley’. The concept suggests that the more something resembles a human, the more it provokes feelings of eeriness and revulsion in observers. I remember a sensation like this when visiting the AI: More Than Human exhibition at the Barbican a couple of years ago and coming face to face with a robot called Alter 3. I wasn’t sure whether to be amazed or hide in fear.
I think it’s a similar sensation with zombies. We view them as a threat because they’re so much like us – indeed, they once were us before everything went to hell – but there’s something not quite right about them and it puts our senses on high alert. Our reaction is to stop them by whatever means necessary, but there’s no need to feel guilty about our actions because they’re already dead. This means we can continue firing without feeling guilty or having to question the morality of the gameplay.
We’re not just fighting to stay alive though. There are bigger consequences at stake: we have to stop ourselves from turning into a mindless undead thing like those who form the shambling horde in front of us. Transforming into the living dead is usually depicted as something worse than death in any media, and it’s during those scenes that we’re asked to consider how much courage we have. Would we be brave enough to end it all if we had been infected?
Let’s sum up our fascination with the undead with a quote from Simon Pegg. In an article for The Guardian in November 2008, he wrote: “Zombies win out over vampires and werewolves when it comes to the title of Most Potent Metaphorical Monster. Where their pointy-toothed cousins are all about sex and bestial savagery, the zombie trumps all by personifying our deepest fear: death. Zombies are our destiny writ large. Slow and steady in their approach, weak, clumsy, often absurd, the zombie relentlessly closes in, unstoppable, intractable.”
It’s the primal nature of the zombie which fascinates and scares us in equal measure. It’s safe to say there’s plenty of life left in them yet.
Video game lover, Later Levels blogger and SpecialEffect volunteer. Big fan of wannabe pirates and fine leather jackets.