Posted By | On 30th, Nov. 2010 Under Editorials

I think part of the wild popularity of the zombie genre – in film, comic books, TV shows, and prose fiction – is part of the zeitgeist for our generation: we’re stuck in a world that values our identity as consumers rather than individuals. Marketing is an appeal to a disembodied representation of all of us, cleverly disguised with words like demographic and target audience. Marketing exploits it by offering individuality through the use of their products: you’ll stand out if you wear their jeans, or drink their soda, or buy their car. And so I think zombies are, in part, a reaction to this. We don’t want to be a faceless, identity-stripped consumer corpse shambling around turning everyone else into one, so the allure of fighting off the extreme representations of them – or watching others do the same – is strong.

Zombie games are an empowerment of that ideal, more so than any other medium’s take on the subject. We actually get to test our survival against the agents of assimilation by reverting to the persuasive power of an automatic shotgun. There are a plethora of games that have come out that exploit this, too. Resident Evil, of course, the original games of which are still some of the most frightening and tense survival-horror games the industry has produced, Dead Rising, Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare, Killing Floor, the awesome over-too-soon chapter “We Don’t Go To Ravenholm” in Half-Life 2 and Left 4 Dead all tackle the undead in their own ways. Some consist of shuffling undead, some are populated with rage-driven infected, and others are the weird fallout of biological experimentation, or the result of alien parasites or any other source, which are all pretty much ridiculous.

Perhaps, out of all of these games, the ones that show their strings more than any others are the ones that are intended to be cooperative. Namely, the Left 4 Dead franchise. Billed as the ultimate survival-horror/zombie-horror experience, it pits up to four players (or eight, if you play versus) against hordes of infected and a few boss infected, with specific and damaging special abilities. The game is well-designed, with great lighting effects and map-building, intelligent AI, and the whole thing was designed to be played cooperatively, which is something that the majority of game designers seem content to ignore nowadays.

But the problem with Left 4 Dead isn’t that it’s a bad game – far from it – but that it is merely the best representation of a game genre which hasn’t come close to the survival fantasies that a ten year old could create. At its roots, the game is deeply formulaic. Go here, along this route. Yes, the AI will choose different times to send hordes, from different directions, and the ammo dumps will be in different places, and the tank will spawn somewhere around here, but you can’t be certain exactly, but that’s not quite enough. Most of the fun in playing Left 4 Dead happens through the people you’re playing with, if they die in a humorous way or if they, for some reason, keep getting targeted with extreme prejudice by the jockeys.

All of this makes for an endlessly replayable experience, and it’s even better when you’re playing Versus against a clever opposing team, but as good as the game is, you can’t help but see the strings. There isn’t a single Left 4 Dead player that hasn’t, at one point, thought “Man, you know it’d be so cool if…” followed by something awesome. It’d be awesome if we had to make our own safehouses, and we’d have to find nails to board up this hardware store, or if we could booby-trap the car before we set off the alarm (that, though, would require an AI change, so the horde would actually charge the car, and not go immediately for the survivors, even if they’re six floors above the damn thing), or, or, or.

The problem with Left 4 Dead is that it was designed to give a tense, fun, and replayable experience. In order to make it tense, fun and replayable, the designers, every step of the way, chose to go the safe route. Players couldn’t become infected; they were immune, because if a player got infected, it might make that player annoyed. The designers found that players often as not chose to go the same route at the early stages of development, so they took the choice away from us in order to make that single route as good and fun as it could be. They made sure that ammo dumps occurred, while still being random, at predictable intervals so players would always know that they weren’t far away from replenishing their supply. They made predictable set-piece choke points in every few levels, in order to give the players something to be tense about. They made it so that the damage we take isn’t really harmful, unless it’s overwhelming. Nicks, scrapes, cuts and bites – even direct gunshots from our teammates – are brushed off like it’s nothing a couple of bandages and a bottle of pills won’t fix.

Many of these changes, on their own, aren’t damaging. In fact, taking each of these examples on its own seems laudable. It’s good that designers have the annoyance of the player on their mind, because so often it gets ignored, and a game comes out that’s been lazily designed and is so full of flaws that it’s damn near unplayable until the third patch comes out. But a real problem occurs when you take them all at the same time. Left 4 Dead was, if you’ll excuse the pun, playtested to death. Anything that could annoy the player, anything that could ruin the supposedly immersive experience or leave a player at the mercy of a griefer or might ruin the pace of the game was removed. What was left is a fun, replayable, sanitary and safe experience.

It’s an irony I find at once both amusing and irritating. I don’t want my zombie game to be safe, I want it to be dangerous. I want designers to explore new ideas within the genre, try to take the ideas that any gamer would have after a session of L4D and implement them into a game that we truly haven’t seen before. One of the keys to the George A. Romero zombie universe is that nowhere is truly safe. Yet at the end of every 12-15 minute level in L4D, there’s a safe house there, waiting for us. It’s stocked with magic-fix medkits, all the ammo you could ever need, fancy brand new guns that never jam and can be reloaded by a complete novice with robotic precision – every time – without regard to the psychological situation of the players. Sure, the facial animations change with the context, but without it having an effect on the gameplay, what’s the point? It isn’t exactly like things like that haven’t been implemented into games before, it’s simply that were it implemented in Left 4 Dead, it might annoy the player.

I’d rather be annoyed than bored. I’d rather be so frustrated that I put my fist through my monitor and leave the room in a rage than be comfortable with the fact that I’ve pinpointed the strong areas of the map with such precision that I barely need to use a medkit, even on the hardest difficulty setting. I want to be scared, I want to be lost, I want to be on my last few shells and not know that there’s a perfectly safe, well-stocked area just around the corner that never exhausts its ammo supply. I want to rummage through cupboards in a dangerously exposed house covered by a friend with a single bullet and a baseball bat only to find shotgun shells that don’t match the gauge of the one I’m holding.

What I really want is a game that doesn’t expect the players to make it through. I want it to be so hard that when players talk among themselves, saying “I made it three hours into that game before I starved to death,” is an impressive way to end the first playthrough.

We’ll never get there by making the game experience as safe as Left 4 Dead. Designers, take some risks. Talk yourself through your own survival plans and talk to your friends about theirs. Go through the practical implications of it, and next time you hear some pimpled 17 year old pitching an idea for a game that’s “like Oregon Trail, but with zombies,” do us all, and the industry, a favor, and listen to him. It might just become the greatest game ever made.

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  • Bravo!!!! Well written article. Finally someone has come forth and challenged designers. Problem is, will they listen. Most of the zombie games are as said in the article, made not to frustrate the gamer. Too many games are becoming like this, especially shooter games. Call of Duty series, totally awesome graphics, but my 11 year old beat it in three days. Come on, 60 bucks for three days. Now the GTA game Liberty Series is still one that I am playing and enjoy. The map is enormous, you are not guided to go one way just to get to the next level. I believe using the same engine used in that game, but instead of beating up cops or civillians, you can pick up weapons and steal cars to run over, kill, getaway from zombies. In that game you can travel from the airport to the underground tunnels to across the river, swimming. The graphics are great and it could start as a beginning of chaos, where you are trying to survive and you have to battle zombies, people trying to survive, make alliances, etc.. Make a game where if you get bit or scratched, woops you turn game over. Frustrating but fun.

  • You bring up some very interesting points in your article. A lot of food for thought. I’m not totally convinced but your argument about zombies being used by us to push back the advertisers and marketing people leaves me thinking…
    About the game, yes It would be interesting to meet such a challenge. But the final question is: Will it sell? No money no honey. With all of my activities I can’t spend 3 hours in one sitting on a game. I need a quick fix. But that’s just me. As for the rest though, I know if it annoys it just won’t sell.

  • Problem is no one but hardcore gamers would play. So either the game maker makes no money OR we all shell out $1,200 per copy?

  • I think part of your problem is that you know the games so well by now. Even a difficult game will become recognizable after playing it 600 times.

    Maybe a continually expansive game is what you are looking for? An MMO perhaps, where it can be updated time and time again.

    What I really think you want is the fucking zombie apocalypse.

  • A mod for Fallout: New Vegas in hardcore mode would cover most of those bases.

  • There already is a game like this… Nazi Zombies

  • Your Comment… Exactly what I’ve wanted from zombie games from the beginning. A video game version of the pen & paper RPG All Flesh Must Be Eaten, but with a Call of Cthulhu sensibility. The goal isn’t to kill all the zombies or “win”, but survive as long as possible in a sandbox environment, where food, water, and shelter are as much of a concern as the walking dead. In CoC, you’re *expected* to lose your sanity or get eaten… that’s half the fun; what’s important is how it happens.

  • yea gta 4 was awesome i am kinda dissappointed at the way rockstar put zombies in red dead but out of all there games that deserved it gta 4 would have been the way to go.

  • So what you’re complaining about is that Left 4 Dead was too “safe” for a survival horror zombie game?

    “They made it so that the damage we take isn’t really harmful, unless it’s overwhelming. Nicks, scrapes, cuts and bites – even direct gunshots from our teammates – are brushed off like it’s nothing a couple of bandages and a bottle of pills won’t fix.”

    What this tells me is you’ve never played L4D on anything but normal difficulty. Try playing the game on expert. One swing from a normal infected zombie is 20% of your health. One swing from the tank and you’re down from full health or dead from low health. The witch will 1-shot you at full health.

    The other problem with this whole article is that nobody else wants to play games that are frustrating for the sake of being “hardcore.” Easy is more frustrating that difficult, but games that punish you just to laugh at you failing aren’t fun. That’s why nobody makes them.

    Good old “gaming journalism” still as bad as ever…

    • @ Brett: No, I’ve played it on all the difficulties, many times. What I said still holds true – the damage doesn’t matter unless it’s overwhelming; the only difference that a higher difficulty makes is that taking “overwhelming” is much easier, and generally happens a whole lot faster.

      This goes for other people as well, not just Brett – the game I’m imagining – or, rather, the elements I would like to see in a game, are not being argued for for the sake of being “hardcore”. The simple fact is, if you ask anyone who’s ever seen a zombie movie or played a zombie game, they have an idea of what they would do in the event of a zombie apocalypse. All I want is a game that recognizes that and nurtures it, rather than leading us by the hand because they’re afraid we might not buy the game.

      Which is where the argument against a Safe experience comes from. If we want to play safe games, they’re all over the place, but I am one gamer who’d like to be treated like the mature, experience gamer that I am. I have another article that ties into something like this, about how the franchise mindset kills creativity and, sadly, leads to even gamers being so used to being treated like children that they’re complacent with whatever the industry shits out on us. http://gamingbolt.com/your-favorite-franchise-sucks-the-hidden-cost-of-a-franchise-dominated-industry

  • RF

    I’d like a Zombie game with more of a free roam feel to it.

    Specifically, I’d like to see a game that is played online by multiple people in room based gameplay (Multiple games running with only a handful of people in each one) in a sandbox environment on the scale of grand theft auto but more FPS style where the game evolves around the player until one of two things happens. The zombies are wiped out or they overrun the city.

    Populate the city. Populate it densely. We’re talking New York population density. When the game starts, a single zombie is spawned randomly somewhere in this massive city, so are the players. The players have no way of communicating with each other across city except for their mics which only function like a normal human voice so you only hear them if you’re close enough.

    That 1 Zombie attacks people turning them into Zombies. The infection spreads. Have police in the game that can fight the Zombies but not actively seek them out until Zombie outbreak becomes noticable. The police also will react negatively towards players if they attempt to break into gun stores for weapons or anything too early. The zombies themselves wont actively seek out the player any more then they will the npcs in the game and wander aimlessly until the player is found.

    Players need to find food, shelter, etc and keep themselves alive. Possibly try to wipe out the Zombies before the infection spreads too far. If players find each other they can work together or betray each other and steal their supplies. Basically turning the game into a true survival sandbox.

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