Ever since I was about 10 years old and owned a single movie—a VHS tape of a dupey, scratched Night of the Living Dead (still the definitive version imho)—I’ve been fantasizing about the perfect zombie video game.
In my first version, the player ran through the rooms of a farmhouse, hammering windows and doors shut against the electronically moaning zombie hordes. I even wrote this up with pictures (it looked quite a bit like Berzerk) and sent it to Atari. Thankfully they never acted on it or the E.T landfill would be even deeper.
Now that zombie survival-horror is ubiquitous on all the platforms (with at least 6 titles released or announced in ‘07-‘08), you’d think I’d be happy as a ghoul licking a marrow pudding pop, but still I haven’t found a game that scratched that zombie itch.
Many titles get it right in bits: Resident Evil has the lighting and atmosphere, Silent Hill has the skin-crawling creepiness, Dead Rising has the slapstick, Manhunt has the sneaking, Alone in the Dark has the items management (though is apparently crap otherwise), other horror and fantasy games have glimmers of what I want to see. The problem is that most focus on the action—especially that panicked moment when you’re surrounded and down to your last two shells—but they ignore (or misfire) on the elements that complete the zombie experience: wish fulfillment, existential dread and isolation. Without these a zombie game is just a darkly-lit first person shooter with a visually monotonous enemy.
So society has just crumbled. You no longer have to pay your phone bill, and you can pillage at will (survival demands it, so no guilt). What do you want to do? What do you want to own? Sandbox-style games try to offer this level of freedom but the choices are usually tedious and samey. In my perfect zombie game (PZG) I want to walk into any building, go through the medicine cabinet, read diaries, and raid the fridge (always with an eye out for the undead kindergartner that’s going to jump out of a cupboard). And the scenery should tell you something about the previous occupants: how long they held out, what they did wrong, and how hard they died. Small, enclosed worlds—like the shopping mall in Dawn of the Dead and Dead Rising—allow for this kind of deep texture. My PZG features a series of these limited but deeply realized environments: a suburban town, project housing, a skyscraper, an ocean liner, a survivalist bunker, a ski lodge, etc., that you have to explore thoroughly (and the “enclosed” aspect won’t feel artificial when you’re trapped by thousands of walking corpses). For a change of scene you could build up your character or solve a puzzle to open up new areas or just die and respawn as someone else.
You’re reduced to hiding and foraging. You just blew away your undead Mom, and you’re not real sure what the difference is between you and them anymore. In most zombie games this line is too clear and you just shoot at anything that’s blue-green. A few upcoming games will allow players to control zombies or switch sides when they’re killed, but this just downplays mortal anxiety and makes it fun to die. My PZG would have lots of grey area. You’re bitten, maybe you have a brief window to cauterize the wound or hack-off a limb, but more than likely you’ll be a shambler in a matter of hours or days. The game should make you face your impending doom. Maybe you have to finish what you started, save an NPC, or secure an escape route. Maybe you have to do this as you’re blacking out and losing control (like the fear effects in Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem). Maybe this is happening to a team-mate but you still need them to watch your back…until they’re too far gone. And then—after the inevitable—you need to dispose of the bodies. No convenient video game corpse fadeouts. Just another one for the fire.
So you’ve shot all your neighbors, boarded up the transom and laid in enough spam to feed a WWII landing party. You’re safe. But is this living? This is where the game could work in a Sims element and force the player to take regular risks or watch their characters go all Shining. In my PZG the more secure you are, the more reckless your character(s) would become. This could be a simple meter and it could also be reflected in the game’s control and player’s perceptions (ex: slower movement, longer weapon loading time, decreased vision/sound clarity).You might have to send them out on regular supply missions to keep them sharp or there could be mini-games—map study, ham radio repair, corpse disposal, escape route preparation, etc. that would provide something for every gamer’s taste.
All right, so this is my PZG circa 2008. I think it has the potential to make a gamer hate what he’s becoming, long for the smile of a stranger, and wonder if the dead aren’t the lucky ones. Good times. So who’s going to build it for me?