Zombie Awareness Month has come lurching upon us once again.
Running since 2007, this annual campaign is coordinated by the Zombie Research Society. It’s designed to raise awareness of the living dead and help prepare us for the inevitable apocalypse. While Zombie Awareness Month is the perfect time to play appropriate video games, it’s also an opportunity to educate yourself.
It’s often thought that the first zombie movie was George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead back in 1968. However, it was actually Edward Halperin’s White Zombie almost 40 years earlier in 1932 – but even this was based on a book published in 1929, The Magic Island by William Seabrook. The undead have therefore haunted our nightmares for over 90s 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 isometric 3D adventure Zombie Zombie for the ZX Spectrum. Forget the usual advice of shooting them in the head though, because the player had to use a helicopter to build platforms and then fool the creatures into falling to their doom. Both technology and story-writing have improved 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 the word ‘zombie’? The image we usually conjure up is that of a horde of reanimated corpses, dragging their decaying limbs towards us with the desire to eat our brains. This traditional view has been depicted in releases with apocalyptic settings such as the Dead Rising and Dying Light series, along with lighter-hearted titles 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.
But the living dead don’t always fill this role in their current interpretaitons. Over the years, creators have experimented with forms to challenge players in new ways. We now have runners, crawlers, screamers and exploders, among many others. Consider all the various types used in games such as Left 4 Dead, World War Z and Days Gone. This variety is good because it keeps us on our toes, but it also means that aiming a gun at the skull might not be enough to save you anymore.
There are also releases where the undead appear almost out of the blue. They ambushed Drake and Elena in the underground cavern in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. They were used by To The Moon’s Eva to terrorise Neil, and they 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 that of any other enemy type because our obsession with them continues.
So why is this? I’ve been doing some digging around in the graveyard and have come up with a few possible theories. Several online sources discuss the fact that developers like using 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 their undead status rather than poor code.
Programmers aren’t the only ones who love shuffling corpses because 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. This then enables us to dive 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 too. Game development is an expensive 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? 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 just to squeeze a bit more money out of consumers.
And what abut the players themselves? Well, our obsession 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 provoked feelings of revulsion in observers. I remember a sensation like this when visiting the AI: More Than Human exhibition at the Barbican in September 2019 and coming face to face with a robot called Alter 3. I wasn’t sure whether to be amazed or whether it was safer to hide in fear.
I think it’s a similar feeling 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 bad or having to question the morality of the gameplay.
We’re not just fighting to stay alive, though. There are far bigger consequences at stake: we must stop ourselves from turning into a mindless undead thing like the members of the shambling horde in front of us. Transforming into the living dead is normally depicted as something worse than death in most media, and it’s during those scenes that we’re asked to consider how much courage and compassion we have. Would we be brave enough to end it all if we were infected?
I’m going to 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 equal measure. I think it’s safe to say there’s still plenty of life in them yet. Now, to the Crown!