Shambling, directionless, single-minded creatures whose potency is measured not in individual quality but sheer population, zombies just never get old. I suppose we are all children of George Romero, and while cinema-buffs will talk about the racial overtones and subversive themes of Night of the Living Dead, what resonates with me is the apocalyptic isolation of rag-tag survivors against a world that wants to eat their brains.
In a way, I think that’s what video games are all about.
With the possible exception of Nazis, I have a tough time thinking of a more desirable antagonist for the imaginary violence I recreationally reap. I have said it before and I’ll say it again, as long as I have ammunition and artillery, I will fire my weapon straight and true into the zombie horde, and I will do so with maleficent glee. If I were forced to commit to a single vote on the topic of favorite gaming bad guys, zombies would be asked to slouch toward the podium to accept their award and then try to eat its metal brains.
I’m not sure any creature is better suited to both the medium and the technology of video games. Their mindlessness not only makes them menacing and intimidating, but really absolves the usual litany of complaint associated with NPC smarts. No one wants a zombie to go get help when his nearby buddy is felled like an overripe watermelon by a sniper rifle shot to the head or to dive behind a nearby dumpster for safety from a hail of bullets. They should merely glance up at the assault and commence to shufflin'. Their glorious evilness is the simple fact that they will walk through the fire and let it burn.
— You’re welcome, Buffy fans.—
I could go on about how nice this simplistic single-mindedness must be for game designers who don't have to worry about complicated artificial intelligence, but actually I’m more pleased about not having some poorly coded AI ruin a game experience for me. If there's one suspension of disbelief buttressed by tungsten cables, it is the one where zombies wander directly into the line of fire. Largely harmless when alone, and even comical, the beauty of zombies is that they give license to replace intelligence with sheer force of numbers.
One zombie won’t kill you. Ten thousand will, and what’s worse is that you feel like maybe, just maybe, you should have even been able to hold their decayed multitude back regardless of the size of the force. They paw harmlessly at blockades, leer menacingly through windows before accidentally breaking through, creep slowly in for the brain eating kill. They are a slow motion nightmare, the kind where you are running from the unknown as though your legs were mired in molasses, and when the inevitable bite comes there is no intelligence, no sympathy, not even a sense of victory or loss. Only isolation, hopelessness and pain.
Video games, frankly, get off on this stuff. The idea of one man pitted against a world gone evil and mad is about as core a concept as you can get. Zombies call forth a purity of the form that is relieved of narrative and technological expectations. Give a man a shotgun, a never ending supply of ammo and a zombie horde waiting to soak up bullets, and you have got yourself a game as pure and ideal as any.
That's what makes a game like Dead Rising so ridiculously and simply phenomenal, and while I may take exception with other elements of the title, it is the quintessential zombie game. Its proportions are ridiculous and its occasionally irreverent whimsy in the face of apocalypse is spot on, but underneath all the veneer exists that rotten core of a world totally doomed. Fight as long as you can, but even if you win you're still in a world over run with freaking zombies, and eventually ... .
Left 4 Dead has this clear undercurrent as well. These games, and a handful of others, illustrate what is great about the villain. The hive-mind that can turn its million eyes upon you and seek destruction through the epic weight of its forces. To me, when I think about zombies, I think about the legends of South American fire ants that devour livestock still alive, or sticking my foot into a river and having it ravaged by piranha. Aside from convincing me to stay the frak out of South America, it is the fear of being overwhelmed, and worse the fear that no matter your strength, no matter your resolve, eventually attrition will break you right the hell down. And, when it does, it's brainsville for some hungry zombies.
So, I never get over zombies, because I think the fear, or at least the uneasiness, they elicit is so primal that it can’t exactly be gotten over. They represent and are even emblematic of an irrevocable doom that we all seem to have at least a preoccupation with if not an outright phobia. They are more than a symbol of our mortality. They are the horrible terror of a helpless beyond. Unlike vampires who are basically damned but still get to be cool and have a ton of sex, one fears not just what a zombie is, but what it once was and lost. It is ourselves stripped of thought, of will, of freedom, of life, but still slouching toward desire.
Still, every time a game developer gives me a shotgun, a chainsaw or a small tactical nuke to use against zombies, the push back against that dark resonates in a primal way with me.