Zombie Survival Games Need To Die
A new zombie survival game is announced and I'm already bored. Zombie survival games are built from a blueprint, with a series of neat squares for devs to check off as they scrap together their clone. Watch me write the review before Early Access kicks off (they’re nearly always EA titles): “Gameplay consists of survive, shoot, scavenge, and lifeless PvP, culminating in gameplay that makes C-SPAN look like a Disney Marvel movie. The game is full of bugs, but that’s okay because [Generic] is in Early Access and these days broken products are just an inevitable consequence of an over-saturated industry.” Zombie survival may be the most tired trope in gaming and I have more enthusiasm for Britain’s toast sandwich.
I want to blame George Romero just to point a finger. But it’s really not his fault, at least not directly with the gaming industry. Maybe I should tie a knot for AMC’s The Walking Dead, which was marketed with a shaved leg and the promise of a good time. But I ought to really wag my pointer at DayZ for ushering in the craze. And it wasn’t even the “Z” that generated buzz. It was limitless ways players could troll each other: pour bleach down their throats, make them strip with handcuffs, pit two noobs to a fight to the death with M4’s pointed at their grey-washed boxer briefs.
Because zombie survival games have rarely been about the undead. They serve as a backdrop excuse to strip players of the social contract, free to kill, maim, and trick each other with no laws. And I love that setting. That’s a hardcore no-rules policy reminiscent of old school MMOs like Ultima Online. But you don’t need zombies to pull it off. There’s not one zombie in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road but it manages to be a book brimming with horror compared to a game like DayZ.
Some survival games have wisened up and recognized what players want from a mainstream zombie experience: less undead, more PvP. Daybreak realized no one cares about surviving hungry neighbors so they split H1Z1 in two after it crawled out of its beta-pre-alpha early access release: H1Z1: King of the Hill and H1Z1: Just Survive. Which game version does better? King of the Hill doubles Just Survive's playerbase, because players want PvP and new opportunities to troll.
And H1Z1 isn’t alone. Xaviant Games had an epiphany and turned survival scavaneging into a battle royale, i.e. The Culling. And Rust was another game that knew zombies have been rehashed like the same commercial back to back. Facepunch Studios repeatedly told players that worm-infested hands were just a placeholder while they figured out what the hell to do. And they did. But why zombies in the first place? What is the craze all about?
Like all cultures before us the beginning of the 21st Century is obsessed with apocalypse, and since nuclear annihilation is locked in a suspect Russian silo we turn to fantastical doom: alien invasion, natural disasters, and religious myths only one eclipse away from obliterating all life. And then there’s zombies, the opportunity to slaughter your neighbor whose dog defecates a little too close to your fence.
But zombie survival games don’t offer a commentary revealing some underlying impulse in the human psyche. It’s far more basic. Everyone daydreams about how they would handle the zombie apocalypse. Each of us thinks we would somehow fare better than our friends, and over drinks we go into extensive details about what weapons we would use, where we would go, how boats and oil-rigs are the safest spot. So we play zombie games to live out the collective fantasy. Except the experience collapses into who can murder who better.
Rarely do zombie survival games capture the feeling of a noisome end of the world. I’ve only played a few and they seem underappreciated (even if they have over 10k Steam reviews). No game comes close to replicating the sense of helplessness amid the undead like Project Zomboid. And 7 Days To Die is one of those rare titles where zombies pose a threat to players, forcing them to band together in small voxel constructed villages.
Survival games with an emphasis on PvP don’t need zombies. Stop using it as a backdrop. You want some settings for a novel apocalypse: Waterworld, space stations, E.V.O.: Search for Eden, a labyrinthian city (e.g. Blame!), Hell (some kind of warped Dante’s Inferno), Heaven (don’t let God catch you clubbing an angel!), as a microorganism in the body. These aren’t exactly the greatest ideas. But I want to show that the box isn’t confined to zombies and crash landing on a distant planet. Nor does it have to be set in another medieval fantasy world.
Zombies are tiring and it’s a theme that plays it safe: boring. No one gets ahead by playing it safe. Bury the zombie in the backyard and move on to the next apocalypse.