Everywhere you look these days there seems to be a rotting corpse. That isn’t a comment on the state of violent crime in South Africa either, gaming smells a bit funny these days. It all comes down to zombies. Fast ones, slow ones, scary ones, cute ones, large, small, overweight, muscled… there seems to be no end to the permutations. But the question is: why are they here?
Some folks are getting sick of having zombies everywhere. Dead Rising, Resident Evil, Left4Dead, Dead Island, the Nazi zombies from the Call of Duty series, and Plants vs. Zombies are games that feature the walking dead and that is just scratching the pallid surface of the zombie phenomenon. Games are being released that have nothing to do with the undead (Yakuza, Borderlands)and someone seems to have said ‘hey, let’s stick some zombies in there and make a few extra sales’. The truth is that zombies, in gaming and in popular culture, have been around for a fairly long time. They may have gone underground for a while *Ba-dum tiss* but they have been a constant feature in our lives since at least since the cinema of the 1940s and perhaps even longer than that. The time of the zombie has come.
Zombies are popular. Not in the way that Twilight is popular (romanticising mythological predators and the demise of the true vampire is another, interesting-on-its-own topic altogether), they are popular because of what they represent. Zombies embody the fears of an entire society and that is why people love them. Don’t believe me? Godzilla got his start in the 1950s, just after the end of the Second World War, in the same year that a film called Them!, starring giant ants, was released. What followed was almost two decades of films dedicated to oversized monsters that, more often than not, owed their origins to nuclear radiation. Prior to and during this time the threat of nuclear annihilation was a part of global consciousness. Well, for the places making the movies certainly: America and Japan. Sure, they have made more giant creature films since then but they have not resonated with the public in the way that they did when that fear was dominant. There are other examples of this that encapsulate vampires (ascribed to sexual repression, back before they sparkled) and werewolves (dealing with communism in America) but this is all supposed to be about the undead people.
But what do zombies represent? That is the tricky part, there are several fears that zombies cover in their mindless shamble towards a living victim. The most obvious is death, unstoppable and inevitable. Almost nobody has a happy ending in a zombie movie or game and, if they do, it is only a matter of time before the threat breaks out again. The next is people. Other people, people who are not you and people who want you to be like them. The fear of anonymity, really. Societal pressures attempt to make people conform to one or another standard of behaviour and shooting open a few hundred zombie skulls (those same zombies that want to add you to the shambling hordes) is a good way to vent that. It is also an almost universal fear. A fear of viral infection and even a fear of technology also drives the zombie phenomenon. Most outbreaks in zombie games come via a virus that has been released or through a technological breakthrough of some sort (just because it sucks doesn’t mean it’s not a breakthrough).
But perhaps this is all being over-thought and zombies are simply a convenient way to integrate several gaming mechanics into a single blood-soaked package. But that doesn’t explain why even mediocre zombie games manage decent sales. Zombies are here, there and everywhere because they are a part of a shared fear, because they call to something in people everywhere. Zombies cross borders and cultures, they tell us that we are afraid of the mob, that we are frightened of dying, that we do not want to be labelled as the same as everyone else. Having zombies in games gives people like you and me, however unintentionally; a chance to work through those fears, to face up to what really scares people in the modern age. Film and game-based zombies are a semi-global, marketing-driven therapy session. Think about that next time you head out looking for survivors with nothing but a blunt object and a desire to remain alive.