The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct left such a bad taste in my mouth, especially after the numerous pleasures of Telltale’s episodic outing (which actually hits every single rule I’ve outlined below), that I couldn’t help but reflect on the rules of zombie fiction that are so often ignored by games about zombies.
That’s not to say that there aren’t many good games out there about zombies (Left 4 Dead succeeds despite ignoring most of these), but rather that a lot of games use zombies without fully grasping their fundamental appeal.
1. A bite must mean death
How many zombie films have you seen in which a character is beaten to death by zombies rather than eaten? Furthermore, how many films have you seen where a character survives a zombie bite? For some reason, most zombie games skip right over this fairly crucial bit of zombie lore. But zombie stories play around with our fear of infection – many of them are inspired by the panic inspired by AIDs and HIV, both rational and irrational – and to remove this element is to remove a fundamental part of what zombies are meant to represent.
2. The zombies' past lives must be acknowledged
Killing a zombie doesn’t have to be easy or fun. Most zombie games have a very limited batch of zombie models, bar a few specific zombies who will be dressed in a way that denotes their prior occupation (this is a big issue in Survival Instinct). This is actually a pretty common problem across a lot of games, but it’s particularly important, with zombies, to remind the audience that they used to be individuals, and that they could have, potentially, been friends or allies were they still alive. The most obvious way of achieving this is to turn an in-game ally into a zombie, but there are better ways of handling it – think of that attic scene in Telltale’s game, for instance.
3. Humanity’s new values must be debated and decided
This one is almost always ignored. To get into what I really mean here, I’m going to need to spoil Telltale’s The Walking Dead Episode 4, so if you haven’t played that yet, skip ahead to the fourth point. Alright? Alright.
Towards the end of Episode 4 of The Walking Dead (and here comes the spoiler), there’s a moment where you’re given the choice of either letting Ben, a character who has held you back, made bad decisions, and arguably gotten other characters killed, live or die. In a world where law and order has broken down, you’re asked there and then to decide where you think the value in a person like Ben lies – should people like him be dropped by the wayside, or is the sanctity of human life worth holding onto? Has the world changed so much that it’s perfectly alright to kill someone just because they’re not as good as you at navigating it? It is, to my mind, the most important question the game asks of you, and it’s a shame that other zombie games don’t get you to seriously think about things like this (with the possible exception of Day Z, which simulates a world in which every survivor is heavily armed and an arsehole). And for the record, I pulled him up.
4. Sacrifices must be made
Did you read the Left 4 Dead comic, The Sacrifice? It wasn’t a bad story, and it outlined just how important sacrifice is to Left 4 Dead. The game’s best moments don’t always come from everyone getting through a level alive – the ‘go on without me’ moments are, I would argue, more memorable. And hell, if someone sacrificed their life for yours in Day Z, you’d likely remember it much more fondly than the hundreds of friends who shot you in the back. In Survival Instinct, you can essentially order other characters to sacrifice themselves off-screen if you’re in a weirdly anarchistic mood, but that’s about it.
5. Zombies have been done to death – the story must be unique
Pun not intended in that heading (if it had been I probably could have come up with something better, right?). The point is – if any reviewer covers your game and says ‘the real beauty of it is that the zombies aren’t the real enemies, it’s other people’, congratulations – that’s the exact way everyone has ever reacted to every piece of zombie fiction ever. Of course, that can be a part of it, but then look at the greatest piece of zombie fiction of the last 15-odd years, Shaun of the Dead. Who were the real enemies in that film? The zombies! So I guess what I’m saying is, could someone please make Shaun of the Dead into a videogame?
By James O'Connor