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3 Ways to Make Zombies Fun Again
Videogame zombies used to be terrifying. They used to chill our bones, to pump our adrenaline and to make each of us feel like we could take on the apocalypse single-handedly.
But just like World War II games of the last generation, and more recently modern military shooters (is there a trend here, Activision?), the zombie card has been played so many times that it’s starting to fray around the edges. It’s time to breathe some new life into the undead genre.
Make Them Genuinely Scary Again
To me, the most frightening type of undead shambler is the one that will always catch you. It’s incredibly nerve-wracking to have that looming, gnawing fear that eventually, no matter what you do, he will find you, and he will kill you. But in a world of headshots and buckshots and BFGs, it’s hard to feel scared about undead Liam Neeson when you can just reload and unload into another round of charging baddies.
Some games have done an excellent job of introducing levels where you find yourself stripped of all of your gear and upgrades, left a crippled mess and forced to fight on the instincts of Captain Hero McProtagonist. These have led to some of my personal favorite in-game experiences, including one where I actually found myself truly wracked with fear.
After clawing (and blinking) my way from the depths of the dank Flooded District in Dishonored, I found myself in a predicament. I had been working desperately towards a nonlethal, fully stealth-oriented ghost run of the game, and in one narrow alleyway, I was forced to change my pants after a completely unexpected crowd of “Weepers” (a zombie by any other name) came charging up behind me. This was intensely awesome and horrifying all at once, because as I realized after a swift bash of the quick-load key, they were going to come find me no matter what. There were no scaffolds to teleport to, and I was conveniently dry of Dishonored’s mana, Piero’s sweet, succulent elixirs. Spamming a countless amount of respawns, I bolted to the end of the alleyway in just enough time to leap to a safe overlook. This was the first time in a while I had felt truly scared, if only to protect the integrity of my full-stealth playthrough.
It could be possible to mix zombie thrillers with the frantic quick-trigger reaction of runner games, like the indie flash darling Canabalt. In fact, this is a game that’s ripe for a beefy, apocalyptic story, seemingly taking place during an invasion of some robo-mecha-cyborg-bot-things. Devs, apply this to zombie games! Instead of facing them head-on with your chainsaw-shooting laser gun of deathface asskickery, make the player feel compelled to keep moving, always riding just on the edge of losing it all.
Zombies Should Be Unpredictable
The first few fights against the Big Daddies of Bioshock will always, always stick with me. That first moment of trepidation, where Mister Bubbles rears aggressively, hulking over his Little Sister, is followed out of nowhere by a rhino-like charge directly at you. Those guys were tough, and their animalistic combat had no rhyme or reason in a strangely measured way. When an enemy keeps you guessing as you attempt to bring him down, there’s a frantic pleasure in fumbling for the reload button, and an even greater fear when you whittle down to an empty ammo chamber.
Left 4 Dead did make use of a dynamic combat system that shaped itself and the aggression of its mobs towards your playstyle, but at the same time, you still came to knew exactly which zombie did what, and how to bring them down. Oftentimes, you can sense them coming from quite a distance in games, as well, whether through in-game buildup or through your own sight. I’m not saying that they should be filling games with more jump-scares, but the behaviors could be significantly more varied. People are unique, and as such, the undead should carry a similar varied range of abilities, rather than coming across a flamethrower in the level and conveniently being introduced to the gas-drenched Zombie Overlord of Flammability.
This can be taken one step further, even introducing individual foes that find themselves wanting to avoid combat, and running from you, as opposed to plowing mouth-first into your brain. This brings up a whole new suggestion:
You Are The Zombies
Hear me out on this one. This is a concept that already exists to some extent in modded shooters, but what if a big-budget AAA title decided to take the step of making you the brain-leeching undead yourself?
These mechanics have been seen in some form, including the decidedly non-zombie shooter of The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, particularly with its werewolf form. While the execution was iffy, it was a real treat to roleplay as a character who found himself forced to eat from the bodies of humans to survive (or risk transforming back to your original form, fully naked, and embarrassing yourself in front of everyone as you Whirlwind Sprint back home to your cabin in shame.) While in Skyrim, you could easily run from bandit camp to bandit camp, but it would be fascinating to see a game where you found yourself forced to dive into fellow humans in order to stay alive. Toss in some top-tier storytelling, perhaps playing yourself up as a normal human in the first act and finding yourself transforming over the course of the adventure, and you have an emotionally exhausting and really memorable experience on your hands.
Alternately, what if you pulled an I Am Legend (the novel, not Will Smith’s…thing.) where you’re not actually aware that you’re the beast that everyone hates and fears? A developer could have a field day putting in this intense story of isolation and personal terror as you believe you’re forced to fight and (to your personal discomfort) consume the “zombies” around you, only to find that in the shocking twist ending, you’ve been the zombie the whole time, feeding off of the terrified denizens of Post Apocalyptic Midwest USA.
In the end, yes, it will always feel immensely satisfying to take a shotgun to the head of a shambling terror, and yes, it will always feel upsetting to see one of your teammates turn to the other side, but in order to save the genre, I think it’s time to throw some daring new twists into the mix, before we’re faced with a Call 4 Dead: Zombie Warfare II.