The evolution and persistence of the zombie in gaming
Everywhere you look today in gaming you can – and most likely will – see the presence of the zombie. It defined the survival horror genre in the 90’s with the likes of Resident Evil and has become so pervasive during the decades since, that it’s even made a popular, albeit strange and unlikely, yet on-going appearance in the blockbuster Call of Duty series. From hack and slash to action/adventure, there is no genre – nor console – that this creature hasn’t infiltrated and often dominated.
The zombie is without a doubt one of today’s most prevalent, popular and maybe important gaming trends. Whether you like it or not it’s there–you just can’t escape its reach. However, this is no recent fad, nor is it a brief trend; for many, the zombies conception into realm of gaming was in 1996, when it came kicking and screaming from the womb of the Resident Evil franchise, but in actual fact, the zombie has been present in gaming since the days of the Commodore 64—an early console which was released in 1982, 14 years before Resident Evil hit the PlayStation.
The zombie was a big part of pop culture in the 1970’s and 1980’s; countless films were released during these decades, including classics like Dawn of The Dead and The Crazies. The zombie/horror genre proved as popular as it was lucrative, with many of the films proving to be box office hits, so it comes to no surprise that game developers were quick to jump on the zombie bandwagon, developing titles like Zombie Zombie on the ZX Spectrum—a UK home computer similar in significance to the commodore 64–and The Evil Dead on both the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64. These two titles were released in 1984, meaning the zombie has been munching digital flesh for around 28 years. How many trends can say they have been around that long?
In the past decade or so, the role of the Zombie in games has greatly diversified, and this may be the key to its prolonged stay: it was once strictly the players arch nemesis, a true enemy that tapped into the players irrational fears, providing as much in-game danger as it did real discomfort. It was simplistic, but it did it well.
In this form, the zombie sent a real chill down the player’s spine. Those found in the original Resident Evil titles were truly the thing of nightmares and I’m not ashamed to say I was too scared to play those games alone.
My primary school friend and I would often meet during the summer holidays to play Resident Evil 2. We would play together for around five, maybe ten minutes, before screaming for his father to save us by emptying a clip into the torso, head and even limbs of a groaning, horrific creature–known as a zombie. I was around 7 then, fast forward 15 years and zombies are as prevalent in gaming today as they were then, more so in fact: the fingers on both hands probably isn’t enough to count all of the on-going franchises that revolve around the zombie, and the players attempt to exterminate them—they are a persistent bunch.
But things have changed since 1996. We are all grown up now, and long gone is the child who previously screamed at the television. Today we laugh at our past fears. We now know, well I should hope that we know, that once the lights go out, these in-game terrors will not incarnate under our bed or burst through our bedroom door with the intention of chewing on our extremities. We are now aware how ludicrous these fears were, and today many titles reflect this. The zombie as we knew it has undergone a metamorphosis–completely altering its role. Now, it is often nothing more than a weak target, easily disposed of with the swing of a melee weapon and a tongue in cheek one liner, usually containing a four letter word, with fear never being a factor in the encounter. It is present to keep us busy, and on our toes until an inevitable boss fight. Our cannibalistic counterpart is as likely to be viewed in a humorous manner, as it is horrendous.
Lollipop Chainsaw is a prime example of this: a game which doesn’t take itself seriously and, in a sense, chuckles at these fears. The zombie does, of course, pose some threat in this title, but there is no fear associated. They sing and dance and are ultimately slain by a lollipop sucking, chainsaw wielding…cheerleader. This is a stark contrast to the likes of Resident Evil, which creates quite a different atmosphere and feeling within.
Whether we like to admit it or not, even as adults, we holster ludicrous and often ridiculous fears within and as a result not all titles branch down this comical route–some still tap into the fear that was originally felt. Resident Evil, although it has taken a more action orientated approach, departing from its survival horror roots, does this, but in order to remain scary, the zombie has had to evolve somewhat. The corpse that shuffles at a snail’s pace and is baffled by doors and staircases are just no longer scary. So they changed.
Resident Evil 4 integrated this evolution beautifully. The zombie no longer shuffled towards the player at a snail’s pace, or walked into walls with its back turned; they behaved in a way the player didn’t expect, effectively catching you off guard and injecting a new, fresh fear. They were fast, dodged headshots, climbed ladders and through windows and were, altogether, a much more intimidating and awkward adversary. This allowed the zombie to continue into modern gaming, and at the same time remain scary, somewhat leaving behind its laughable stigmas which could have deemed it redundant. The fast agile zombie with twitchy reflexes has become the norm.
Now, Resident Evil 6 is just around the corner, and with this new instalment, the zombie again manages to remain threatening with the addition of new offensive and defensive abilities. Not only do they run and leap at the player, but they now utilise weapons and armour. The thought of a walking corpse packing a Teflon vest and a 9mm is sure to test anyone’s nerve.
The zombie was once the bread and butter of the survival horror genre, but now it can be found across a wider spectrum, in various forms appealing to different crowds. It can be found in a host of new, successful IP’s, including last year’s Dead Island, Left for Dead, Dead Nation, Dead Rising and many more popular titles and franchises. Some titles use the zombie as a gimmick to tickle the player’s funny bone, and some have the player as scared and on edge as I was 15 years ago, not only has the zombie become a trend, it’s also become somewhat of a paradox.
With the constant announcement of new and promising titles like ZombiU on the Wii U, as well as the continuation of the hugely popular Resident Evil franchise and a reoccurring appearance in one of the biggest selling franchises on the market—Call of Duty—in the horizon we see no sign of the zombie onslaught easing off.
The zombie has been around for a long time, and thankfully evolution and change has allowed it to adapt to stay relevant and fresh in the world of gaming, which itself is ever evolving and often unpredictable. However, amongst all of the uncertainty, there is one conclusion that a gamer can come to; zombies have had an important role in gaming from very early on, and it is a certainty that they will be predominant in games of the future. Whether causing terror or hilarity, our brain dead, flesh eating chum is going nowhere fast, and I don’t mind.
By Adam Raja