303: How Games Get Zombies Wrong

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I think playing Fallout New Vegas on hardcore mode with zombies would be pretty cool (much like Red Dead Redemption did with Undead Redemption). You're really just swapping Post Nuclear War Apocalypse for Zombie Plague Apocalypse. Swap radiation with some sort of infection rating. Change the animals to zombies and add lots more of them. The different factions are just groups of survivors. Survival is about scavenging for food, finding safe places to sleep. Making contact with other survivors and gaining their trust. Companions could react to your infection rating by either fleeing or attacking you. Settlements would refuse to let you enter if your infection rating is too high. Dead companions would join the zombie horde. Make it something that effects mammals as well as humans and you can add zombie animals as well. Your main mission might be just to find out what happened as opposed to any sort of cure. Want to go extra mean, have it that once you're infected you will eventually die, taking anti-biotics will stop the infection for a set amount of time then they wear off. Want to be less mean, your mission is finding a cure.

Its the devs fault for not trying to convey the kind of worlds people are into. It's survivor horror, and yet you always play the swat team, or the person with the right kind of checkered past to get through it.

As it stands now though, no one conveys the danger of the zombies secondary and tertiary threats to your life, you aren't just trying to not get bit, you are trying to live. Which is pretty hard to do when ghouls are around every corner, there is no supplies, you have to revert to a survivalist mode, which most people have zero background in. If average Joe were to wake up and the power, water and electricity were off after a huge party and there was no food and his car broke down. What is he going to do about it with what he knows, now compare that against zombies massing the streets. This my friends is day one of an average guy in a zombie world.

I think there's a lot of potential for a story-driven, single player game based in a zombie apocalypse, in which you struggle to survive, need to find food and shelter, and must avoid close contact with zombies to avoid being bitten/infected. It would be a very different game to a fast-paced FPS like Left 4 Dead though, obviously.

And regarding L4D, that game did had a great atmosphere partially because everything was in the dark and the survivors really sounded like they were frighten and disgusted by the creatures that were hunting them. That's mainly the reason why I prefer the original. I mean, 4 people having fun shooting zombies in broad day light? It's the fucking apocalypse not some day off work.

I agree completely sir. I liked Left 4 Dead 2 despite that, but the first game is a far better concept and I still enjoy it more.

haha, the captcha this time is "infectious". How appropriate.

I've never really believed in a threat from a creature that lacks cognitive conditioning. A creature that cannot think and develop strategy cannot become a predator. Ants for example reproduce naturally so mass numbers can be a strategy for survival, zombies don't survive, they just 'consume'(can't digest so eventually they won't be able to cram any more brains down their throats).

Comparing zombies to natural disasters is an interesting concept, they even share the same cons as a life ending entity:

People survive, even the greatest natural disasters only take out a small number of us and if we're prepared for it(hurricane), it has even less effect.

Also, as an unthinking entity, basic defense stops them in their tracks. A wall will stop zombies, guaranteed, because climbing is a problem solving skill that zombies can't develop. Granted, without a functioning nervous system, they shouldn't be able to stand due to an inability to feel balance.

The analogy of pinball has a serious flaw.
Pinball is a terrible, boring, repetitive game. No one likes to play pinball, unless thay are rurned on by blinking lights.

This is probably the best-written and best-thought-out article I've ever read on The Escapist.


Minecraft sure gets zombies right.

I have just 1 thing to say that covers all those points:


The game that is a perfect zombie survival experiance. Free and multiplayer!!

Zombies are fictional creatures used as a plot device. From the original night of the living dead, to shawn of the dead, zombies only exist as an unusual circumstance for character interaction. In games that interaction is usually combat. Solving the world's problems by shooting zombies is a fun excuse to shoot something. If you want a psudo-realistic zombi game, go play rebuild on Kongregate.


Thanks, that is an exceptionally fun and unnerving game! I'm on Day 26, doing fine with lots of food, but I need more recruits and hope they become builders. It got pretty intense when I only had 1 pack of food! Thankfully, I can save the game and quit to strategise another day.

Thanks, once again for the recommendation. :)

Some interesting points that are poorly communicated, in my opinion. However, there is one major point that I think the author misses about the basic nature of current gaming. Games are designed and constructed as amusement-park thrill rides; the intent is always to have fun and escape from reality. Now granted, this, I feel, is the prime reason it is difficult for gaming to ever gain any credibility as an artistic medium(and will certainly have extreme difficulty being taken seriously as a medium for education or information), this is simply how games currently are done, and it is how the gaming community currently desires games to be done. If the expectation ever changes to more use games as a means to explore reality(something which they definitely have the potential to do), rather than solely to run away from it, then the ideas here may be more reasonable to implement. But, as it stands, a zombie horror game that truly mimics what a zombie apocalypse would actually be like would just not be much fun, and fun, because of the thrill ride expectation of games, is the entire point of gaming.

Gaming, as a medium, has lots of potential for many different possibilities and experiences. There have been many comments on a lot of different alternate ways games can be designed to elicit different reactions, different modes of expression, different experiences, and experimentation with reality. All these things are possible, but they will likely not be realized because games are always treated, constructed, and expected to be amusement-park thrill rides.

EDIT: I just felt I need to clarify that I don't think there is anything wrong with the creation of games as thrill rides. However, I feel that to make more credible what the author is proposing, we need to expand our thinking and expectation of gaming beyond being just being a thrill ride. We need to realize games can be much more.

I think if/when a game comes out that really manages to encapsulate the psychological drama of a z-pocalypse as you've mentioned, it will actually be worth playing, unlike much of this other fodder. Maybe that will be the Zombie RPG I keep hearing about.

L4D is definitely fun and a good game tho :D

I am reminded of the church event in Left 4 Dead's Death Toll campaign, where another "survivor" makes trouble for the group by calling the zombie hordes.

Oh Church Guy...you annoying, annoying Church Guy...

Although I agree that the L4Ds were pretty decent. When ya think about, sure you beat the level. Only for your rescue vehicle to crash, you get dropped off/abandoned, or even worse wind up with the military [and we all know they don't exactly have to be friendly with the survivors]. The focus is quite nicely on the characters, which is great.

Well, at least we're finally at a time where the technology behind games could actually make this side of the apocalypse work.

I'm thinking the engine behind Oblivion and Fallout would work. Maybe an MMO would work as well. The hardest thing to do is to give the PC a reason to trust others without forcing them to.

I ran a modern paper and dice zombie apocalypse campaign for a while.

I quickly found that after the first couple weeks in game that there were only two places to go. Either Resident Evil with mutations or 28 days later with clash of factions. Zombies, even the fast ones, don't really pose a threat once the player made their own strong hold. What did cause a threat? The group of rednecks with ridiculous trucks and fire power. The gun store people that were camped out with nearly unlimited weapon capacity in the short term.

I also ran into the problem of what would happen after a month or two. Unless the zombies are magic and can generate energy without eating, and move that energy without blood, the vast majority will either devour each other or starve.

At the end, my intent was to move from a zombie story to a post apocalypse story. Yeah the zombies started it, but humans would finish it.

Well at least there is one thing that call of duty zombies did get right: the game never ends, just like...the game.

Read World War Z by Max Brooks, it's definately the most complete and most "accurate" zombie story ever!

I believe that the in-development game Project Zomboid (http://www.projectzomboid.com/) will be more to the author's tastes.

this looks v.nice, wait for a product to look at :)

"You cannot win against the zombie menace. In the end, the horde always triumphs."



Damn!!! Ninja'd!!!


what makes a good zombie game is the feeling of desperation and that everything is dead... i thought that dead rising was a bit like this a first but then... ya know...

I didn't notice that zombies games failed, I was having too much fun playing them.

Not all zombies are the same. Many works of fiction paint them from anything from re-animated dead corpses to simply virus-driven cannibals.

This is an incredibly important distinction.

A walking corpse is a walking. Freaking. Corpse. It is realistically no threat, because practically any weather will either cause it to rot (warm) or have it become incredibly slow/frozen during cold weather due to lack of body heat. No need for guns or panic. Not to mention the fact that the muscles of the dead will have atrophied and be practically useless. Also, do you know what happens to people who cannot feel pain, like zombies cannot? They die, often quite young, because they don't understand the dangers of simple things (anything that causes pain) and do not seek to actively avoid it.

Now, within the re-animated dead corpse "species" (just humor me with this terminology, I don't think they even classify as anything so I'm just using a familiar term from Biology) you have several different "classes" such as reanimation through magic. Each type will have it's own (massive) drawback. Some will be able to bleed to death, which will eliminate THAT type of "outbreak" fairly quickly through day to day injury. For those that can't, they will likely also sustain enough injuries throughout their daily shambling that their bodies become useless through injury. Hell, they may even succumb to natural disasters or natural predators. If a bear isn't scared of a hunter with a gun, do you think it will be scared of an atrophied corpse?

All of this is ignoring the fact that if all they want to do is eat, they will eventually turn on each other and eliminate the zombie population without any help from our guns.

When you discuss the realism of a zombie outbreak, you have to take into account a ridiculous number of things. But when it all comes down to it, one glaring detail remains.

Zombies are not, and never will be, a threat. There's no "realistic" or "correct" way to approach it, because the job would be done on it's own. That's why the unrealistic scenario is bound to creative works for exploration. It is actually incredibly unlikely that the "horde" would win in this case, because to do so they would have to trump the ultimate power.


P.S. Many of these points work for virus-driven craziness too. Feel free to debate them, but keep it polite please.

I still don't understand where the idea came from that zombie is like a spreading disease.

Zombies used to be a dead (or sometimes even living) creature (most often human) being controled by a bokor. (read vodun/voodoo priest(ess))
That is their mythological origin, but somewhere along the line, somebody took the trademark quality of the vampire or werewolf to transform it's victims into a creature like itself and applied it to the zombie, and now we have 8 gajillion games/movies/comics/manga/anime/novels/tvshows about this whole viral zombie thing, and I've gotten sick of it.

I am now inclined to automatically enjoy any media more if it presents zombies in a non-viral manner, no matter how bad it might be, it will compare favourable to ANOTHER BLOODY ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE SCENARIO!

Myths change over time to suit their uses.

Solved that compelling mystery for you.

But I do agree with what I think is the central point of this author's article was, and that's that video games haven't really done the essence of the contemporary zombie story justice. Most of them are goal oriented (and the goals are all accomplishable), which takes away from the nihilism that these stories need.

I'd love a nice triple A game where my only goal was survival. It'd be a bit less of a point A to B action game mind you. Almost a better looking and better presented Oregon Trail with zombies. Hell that could be the name. Oregon Trail With Zombies.

It'd be part Resident Evil, part Oregon Trail, part Harvest Moon, and yeah I'd probably be the only person in the universe to buy it.

EDIT: Just for your information, I'm not even that big of a fan of the zombie genre. I'm pretty fucking sick of it and have been. With that said, I think there are a lot of elements of the traditional contemporary zombie narrative that should be explored by games, and haven't really been.

A note on "negative reinforcement":

You don't want to reinforce them. And you're certainly not doing it negatively. "Reinforce" means you are attempting to get them to continue that behavior. And what you're doing isn't "negative", it is "positive": you are applying something (instead of taking something away), in this case electricity to the brain.

What you're really doing is positive punishment. Punishment because you are trying to decrease the unwanted behavior. Positive because you are adding something to their experience (electricity to the brain). Let's whip out the grid so you get a full understanding of the ideas:

.decreases likelihood of behaviorincreases likelihood of behavior
presentedpositive punishmentpositive reinforcement
taken awaynegative punishmentnegative reinforcement

Any time you are attempting to decrease the likelihood of a behavior (such as make bad zombie games), what you're doing is punishment. Punishment takes two forms: positive (the addition of something undesirable; electroshock) and negative (removal of something desirable; money, i.e., a fine).

If you are trying to increase the likelihood of behavior, what you're doing is reinforcing a behavior. Reinforcement also takes two forms: positive (the addition of something desirable; have a candy bar) and negative (the removal of something undesirable; let's turn off that high-pitched whine).

/psychologist rant

Thank you...Thank you so much!

I just finished my version of this same rant and found yours before I had to send it off...

I will include the latter portion of my rant, however, here:

I would request that you cease attempting to associate psychological tenants with your narratives. Your presentation of them here is unpalatable. First because you incorrectly applied them in title. Second, because you completely misapplied them in form. Have fun shocking the industry, but please do so under your own pretext. There is a new generation of psychologists coming into the world, and we don't need our jargon associated with this nonsense.

Well at least there is one thing that call of duty zombies did get right: the game never ends, just like...the game.

Read World War Z by Max Brooks, it's definately the most complete and most "accurate" zombie story ever!

Of course, that's not saying much.

The Battle of Yonkers is one of the most blatant examples of Plot Induced Stupidity I have ever seen.

I'll still take my "shoot-zombies-with-guns" over cowering in fear and pondering about the human condition, thank you very much.

What I was thinking. The article has mentioned many other sources we can have zombies alongside watching the effects the outbreak of zombies has on society, so if you want that sort of thing, then you have plenty of choices. When it comes to games involving zombies (or infected, if you will), I'd rather just shoot/beat/impale or otherwise "kill" them too.

So, I'd have to wholeheartedly disagree with all this and say that (in my opinion) videogames are doing zombies just right, thanks very much. For games, that is, anyway.

Hooray for the Great Texas Heat. A zombie outbreak out here would never reach the rest of you, and the heat would destroy the zombies that do show up. Add in the persistent wind that impairs movement to those of us with thinking brains and working motility systems, the bugs that will come out of nowhere at a whim, and the notoriously bad drivers from just across the border, any infestation would pretty much end itself in about a week.

On the other hand, if it started else where and came out here for a vacation--no worries! Close the door to Zombie solicitors, and don't let them in, let them desiccate in that lovely heat.

too many people writing freaking essays in response to this. brevity people, brevity.

I love this guy. He has a flavor of awesome.

That said, I can actually see how a good game of zombie apocalypse WOULD work. Okay, it's probably going to be alot of hardship to pull through to either a downer ending or something only moderately stable, BUT because I've read the survival guide, here's how I see things.

The game could be about your survival through the massive world of walking dead, and your ability to keep an eye out on the bads, to make sure not to attract them at the wrong moment or even how to lure or bait them so you can escape, will mean the difference between life and death. Maybe you're unarmed, and maybe you've found something that'll protect against some bites and scratches. Maybe.

But this wouldn't be a 'kill shit to live' game. This would be an 'adapt to survive' thing. In Zombieland tradition, you could be playing the equivalent role of Columbus. Never draw attention to yourself, remember the double tap, and don't forget lots of running. You have no destination, only travel and survive, but maybe you can run for the rest of your life without dying. It worked for Yossarian in Catch-22. It can work for you!

A game built more for paranoia and keeping yourself alive and clean of infection would be actually kind of fun. And as an added bonus, if you get bit...the game lets you CONTINUE as the zombie you're doomed to become. That sound play-worthy to you?

Why can one never win in a zombie apocalypse? Wouldn't someone survive if they can outlast the zombie plague, or-unrealistically-send all of the zombies to outer space?
Also, L4D points a little toward how other surviving humans are the real threat, it just lacks emphasis. Dead Rising also has a few experiences about how humans create the real danger in the zombie apocalypse.

Chuck Wendig:
How Games Get Zombies Wrong

Oh, dear, game industry ... you seem to have failed your Zombie Aptitude Test. Let's review where you went wrong.

Read Full Article

While i agree with the majority of your points in this article, i somewhat disagree with your central thesis, that the game industry has zombies totally wrong. I definitely agree with all of your commentary on the concept of a zombie, and how the industry is only using them as another enemy. this is definitely true.

however, for the entire article, you're assuming that every zombie apocalypse story can only be about the uprising. the majority of zombie-related video games focus their attention on the post-apocalypse. While zombie rules still apply, post-apocalypse stories are only about the survivors. Notice how these are the only people left. it is impossible for for a zombie population to continue growing when there are no humans left to convert.

There's only a few games i've played that deal with the uprising or sub-apocalypse, and Deadrising comes to mind. this is a game that applies to and agrees with your central thesis in every way shape and form. If you're begging for a game about the fear and uprising in zombie games, then you're truly talking about something that's going to start off with tens of thousands of npcs running around at all times, which simply wouldn't work all that well when applied to a video game if most tripple A studios tried to handle it. It could definitely be done, but i doubt that it's going to be done well.

Ok, one or two decent points, but buried in far too much annoying filler to pad it out to 3 pages.

then dont read it? yeesh. such entitlement.

I thought it was a great read. thanks for the perspective.

Good points, shit writing.

Oh, and about pinball: It doesn't matter. Games have become much more complex and much more entertaining than pinball now. They have endings and resolutions. In fact, even the movies you cited have real resolutions, even if the zombie problem itself has yet to come to an end.


Ok, one or two decent points, but buried in far too much annoying filler to pad it out to 3 pages.

then dont read it?

How do I know if I want to read it or not until I've read it?

This article reminds me a bit about a game I played a while back called rogue survivor. (check it out if you get the chance) Basically your dropped into the zombie apocalypse with nothing, and your usual first course of action is to:
1) Raid Stores for food
2) Get a follower
3) Barricade yourself in and cry yourself to sleep
4) Wander outside and get shot at by civilians because YOU HAVE FOOD (assuming you survive more than 2 days on your first try, and food starts to become scarce)
The game is really good about it too and there are tons of things to worry about. It pretty much covers what your talking about right here.

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