I have a near obsession with post-apocalyptic stories, particularly ones that feature hordes of the undead stalking the earth. There’s something about the end of the world that really fascinates me on several different levels, be it the interaction of humans with each other, what we see in ourselves when we’re left to basic survival, how we interact with the new destroyed world we inhabit, or even how survivors deal withthe new dangers present in the world’s fallen state. Plain and simple, it’s just cool, and I can’t get enough of it. That’s why I read books like Rot & Ruin or Feed, watch The Walking Dead, play Fallout and Left 4 Dead, and listen to podcasts like We’re Alive. It’s one of my favorite settings, simply because it’s so unique and has such potential for great storytelling.
Of course, while there’s an impressive amount of good entertainment media related to the apocalypse, there’s also an equal amount of the bad that we have to deal with. And because of that, I’d like to pose the question: what makes a good zombie game? What does a game have to do in order to be something unique in an increasingly crowded space within the industry?
First off, zombie games are unique in that they tend to take one of two approaches to gameplay; they can be serious and dark, like The Walking Dead or DayZ, or they fall more to the tongue-in-cheek, goofy games like Dead Rising or Lollipop Chainsaw. Of course, there are some that blend both styles together well, but most games tend to gravitate toward one or the other.
In the more serious, dark games, we see a greater demand and use of storytelling and focusing on the survivor and their struggle with the world, be it the acceptance of its state, their interaction with other humans, or even their struggle against enemies and foes in the world.
A great example of this is Fallout 3, where one has to be mindful of not only bandits and raiders, but also the dangerous mutants and feral ghouls that stalk the land. On top of that, you also see things like dangerous cannibals, friendly survivors, and get an overall sense that the world has gone to hell, and nobody really understands it any more.
And of course, the obvious example of a master course in this realm of storytelling can be found in Telltale’s The Walking Dead series, where the story is so strong that it nearly becomes gameplay in many respects, be it forcing you to make quick decisions or seeing how your choices effect the world and characters around you. It’s hard for me to think of many games outside of The Walking Dead that have had such a narrative impact on me as a player, and I attribute that in part to its use of the end of the world setting as a backdrop for their compelling approach to story.
And then there’s the ever-popular DayZ, which takes on a much more realistic, sandbox-ish approach to survival, allowing players to craft their own story while serving as an experiment into what one would do at the end of the world to survive. Players battle each other, betray friends, form alliances, and are always left wondering where they stand and what they can cling to in this world with no rules or laws. Of all of these, I feel like DayZ captures the true essence of the “every man for himself” sentiment that would surely prevail should the world take a turn for the worse like it does in our imaginings.
On the other side of the coin, we have the “fun” zombie games consisting mostly of slaying hordes of zombies through the sometimes creative use of melee and ranged combat. Be it the weapon building of Dead Rising or the odd humor of Lollipop Chainsaw, the fun zombie game is the one that gives us a powerful, over-the-top feel that makes the game lighthearted and fun, leaving us to our skill rather than making us question our own humanity or morality.
In truth, there’s nothing wrong with either approach, so long as it’s approached correctly. If you’re headed in the direction of a narrative-driven apocalypse game, then make sure you deliver an experience that simulates how one might imagine the end of the world to feel. Make me feel isolated and alone, forever questioning the world around me and my place in it. Make me feel the need to survive, and help me see exactly how dire the situation is.
But if it’s meant to be a fun, over-the-top experience, make sure the gameplay is unique, the ideas are fresh, and the game itself delivers some sort of unique design that makes me want to return to the world as a zombie-slaughtering badass.
Really, you can’t lose either way; just give me something unique and original that appeases the direction you’ve decided to take with the game. After all, even if the enemies in your game are brain dead, your ideas don’t have to be.