The post-apocalyptic and zombie genres are rife throughout the gaming industry; they are genres that many find intriguing. The world is at an end, the human race is lost and there are constant struggles every hour to survive. Why is this the case? Well, that is a whole different conversation for another day, but what makes a game within this genre stand out?
When I think post-apocalyptic, Fallout 3 springs to mind almost immediately. The open-world setting, the morality system and the ability to do as we please. Want to take on a mission and then once complete kill the person who gave you said mission? Be my guest! It was this choice that makes Fallout so re-playable, not to mention the amazing scope that the game was able to accomplish. When I think of zombie games though, nothing quite stands out as the upper-echelon, the gold standard of the genre.
Zombie games come in many forms, from the co-op first person shooter Left 4 Dead, to the tower defence game Plants vs. Zombies and then the latest game I have been playing, Dead Island. Now, in some ways every one of these titles has its positives and in all respects are great games, but do they set the bar within the genre? No, even though they all do something different, none take zombies to the next level.
As I said, my time recently has been dedicated to Dead Island and the entire time I was playing my mind-gears were cranking away thinking about the possibilities this game has to offer. Not only that, but the ideas it could offer the entire genre. Dead Island tries so hard to hit all the right marks but sadly technical issues, voice acting, and not defining the message the game wants to send holds the game back.
So what would make an amazing zombie game, a game that stands atop the mountain as the very best? It needs to take the genre, make some tough decisions and be willing to stick its neck out to really make the game memorable. So, I have compiled a few ideas that I think would improve on what Dead Island has tried to achieve, in turn making it something that is remembered for decades to come.
In a world with no law enforcement or governing bodies, nobody controls anyone anymore. It is all about survival and who you choose to align yourself with. See, choices in a zombie-driven world should really matter and these choices should affect the game in big ways. For example, if I want to be the hero, hold out in a stronghold and protect the ones I care about, then that choice should be there. Basically allowing us to be the good guys and finishing the campaign accordingly, maybe you could bring stabilization to the general vicinity you inhabit. But then, what if you want to be the man who takes control of the world and turns this terrible situation into something that allows themselves all they ever wanted?
How about allowing us the choice to start our own government, where you create your own laws and those who break them are punished accordingly. This is the completely dark take on the aftermath of the world and this is something that hasn’t been touched before. The world has ended, this isn’t a happy place anymore and the ability to allow us (if we choose) to save or rule the area would definitely be a massive choice. Choosing who you surround yourself with, should of course be something else we can control.
In Dead Island I found a married couple, the husband had been bitten and his fate was decided. However, I couldn’t end the husband’s life before he turned, it wouldn’t let me. This took me out of the world around me and made me realise that they were holding us back, nobody wants to turn into a zombie and in my world I wouldn’t hesitate to stop them. These small options of choice, like sending certain people to hunt and how to deal with enemy encampments etc, allow the world to have a sense of realism and that what we are doing actually matters.
The aftermath of the world is a dark place, people have lost loved ones and many are left with nothing. That true, dark, sombre vibe is something The Walking Dead provided in abundance. See, everything has to provide a sense of realism; (Dead Island had me searching for a stuffed teddy bear for a middle aged woman!), that doesn’t take us out of the world. Realistic content also brings with it some very gruesome details, this game certainly wouldn’t be for children
Imagine playing through a world where you encounter someone evil enough to torture you, like really torture. In The Walking Dead comics characters have had severed limbs and lived to tell about it, this idea was also incorporated in The Walking Dead game by Telltale. I think they were on to something, the idea that something so catastrophic can happen, yet it doesn’t end the story or restart you from a checkpoint. It actually provides a whole new take on the game. Picture yourself with one arm; you have to use this as a new mechanic entirely. You cannot have as many weapons, certain weapons cannot be used and if you were the barbarian killing everyone to survive, maybe that isn’t the safest option anymore.
As you know everyone is scavenging for anything they can find to survive, there are not many weapons about, and those you do find won’t last long. The system of weapons breaking after long use makes sense and I think the focus should be melee weaponry. Let’s be honest, guns are going to run out of ammunition and when they do, they are no longer a viable option.
Now to reference The Walking Dead TV show for a change of pace. I think there should be an “outside the box” way of thinking towards what can be used to defend ourselves. In the TV show when some of our heroes were captured, with no way to defend themselves against the enemy, they went to extremes. Actually breaking an arm of a zombie in half, until the bones inside the arm were able to be seen, then they used them as a brutal weapon. Does this sound disgusting? Maybe, but desperate times when you are without a weapon, call for desperate measures. What about the option of going through the entire game and only using this killing method. Trophy, perhaps?
The world is in turmoil and when things get to this point, I think many will become immune to acts of this nature. Maybe even allowing fences to be your unwilling ally, allowing hordes of zombies to crowd on the other side while you take them out through the fence with sharp objects. The options are endless and if everyday weapons could be used, including some weapons that really make our stomachs turn, this could add that brutality of the world around us.
When it comes to consequences in gaming I feel one of the best games to truly change your game on your gameplay ability, was the PS3 exclusive, Heavy Rain. Now, imagine this incorporated into an open-world zombie adventure; this could make each story playthrough different in many ways. Let’s say you are captured and if you can escape in a certain timeframe then you are free, if you don’t, there is no game over or check point screen. The consequences for such an action could be minor like your character having his weapons taken, or possibly even tortured. But, if you don’t get out in time and you now cannot warn your friends about the enemies, well they are now in grave danger because you couldn’t step up and escape on time.
Heavy Rain wasn’t afraid to pull the punches and would kill characters off if you didn’t time things correctly or you didn’t do what the game asked of you. I would love more of this mechanic and if it was incorporated into the game, it would truly give that real survival aspect that zombie games have been missing.
The main aspect of a zombie movie, game or TV show is, surprisingly, not the zombies. It is the deep, mature narrative that runs around the prospect of an apocalypse type situation; it brings up the very true nature of humans and that is what makes it so intriguing. There are no governments, no daily chores and no daily pleasantries that we take for granted. This setting means we shouldn’t be given a narrative that doesn’t fit the world, for example the characters in Dead Island seem to be jovial at certain times and the side quests have little to no depth whatsoever.
I would rather there were a significant bevy of side missions with deeper narratives, which were more in-depth and almost strong enough to be an actual bite sized story of their own. I would rather have that than an infinite amount of repetitive tasks that games have been all too happy to give us these days. I think gamers can deal with a mature tale that can really catch their attention; TV shows have already proven that deep, dark narratives capture audiences. So can gaming.
The greatest thing about the post-apocalyptic zombie world of gaming is that the choices are endless. There are so many cool aspects that could be given a unique twist, allowing developers to cross the line and really make a game that is memorable. Some of us appreciate a mature narrative and I think this is a genre that can really push the envelope. It is a world that doesn’t exist and writers imaginations can run free to develop a world that will shock, yet mystify.
I believe gamers are ready for a world like this and I think it has been proven games like this can be created, for example Skyrim, Fallout 3 and Heavy Rain. Games that provide an impossible amount of content and extremely deep story, making you personally invest and care about how you play.
Zombies may be common place in the world of gaming, but still I yearn for someone to take a hold of the genre and give us something truly remarkable. Until then, we can only wait.
Jamie Briggs manages Analog Addiction where you can find all his latest reviews, interviews and features and also like them on Facebook. Also follow his daily life on Twitter @AnalogAddiction and their videos on YouTube.