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The Rise of the Zombie

Zombies are everywhere in popular culture, and games are no different. We chart their rise to prominence in gaming and speculate where the living dead might shuffle in the future.

It's a few days after the announcement of Back 4 Blood, itself a new IP but also the third zombie-themed game from the folks at Turtle Rock Studios and the spiritual successor to the developer's previous efforts, the genre-defining Left 4 Dead (2008) and Left 4 Dead 2 (2009). Reflecting on the announcement and its relative lack of detail put our mind into speculation overdrive, and we started to envision what the studio might do to innovate in the zombie space for its next game. That train of thought soon dispersed, but it got us thinking about something broader - the state of this increasingly popular sub-genre, where it might go in the future, and what it is that draws both consumers and creators to games and stories about the living dead and their ilk.

Left 4 Dead 2 was the game that put Turtle Rock on the map.

And so we decided to look back at some of the incredible ways that zombies have been utilised in games over the years, and then speculate about where these undead shufflers might end up in the future. With increasingly unconventional interpretations of the living dead rising up and joining the horde alongside more traditional appearances in television, film, and literature, it's safe to say that there's still plenty of life left in these lifeless husks.

Zombies, even if they weren't called that at the time, have been in popular culture since, well, forever. There are references in religious scriptures about the dead rising, and the notion has been recycled and reused throughout the centuries. The further back you go, the less reliable the historical record, but the living dead started to come into wider prominence via Haitian folklore and in literary works like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. In the first sixty or so years of the twentieth century, when people weren't trying to kill each other en masse, we started to see the word being used to describe what we commonly know as zombies today, but it wasn't until George A. Romero made Night of the Living Dead in 1968 that our modern notion of the undead was really nailed down.

Night of the Living Dead is a true milestone for the genre.

And what a ride it has been since then. Starting on the page and eventually migrating to the big screen, we've seen countless books and films portray these mindless flesh-eating creatures in one way or another. Of course, one can intellectualise these drone-like beasts and call them the ironic and absurd reflection of a capitalist society hell-bent on consuming the latest fads and trends, but a strong metaphor will only get you so far and it's the brutal relentlessness and primal nature of the zombie that really fascinates and helps it to endure as a core staple of popular culture. We fear these soulless creatures, yet we find them thrilling in equal measure.

Their arrival in games started as soon as developers could do a decent job of animating them. 1982's maze-filled top-down adventure Entombed was a very early adventure, and in the decade that followed, we saw the likes of The Evil Dead (1984) - where players got to take control of Ash Williams for the first time - and Ghosts and Goblins a year later in 1985. However, things got a lot more interesting for zombie hunters with the widespread introduction of 3D graphics, and the mid-90s saw a steady procession of genre classics start to emerge, with the likes of The House of Dead (1995) pulling us in with light gun action in arcades the world over, and Resident Evil (1996) sending us down claustrophobic corridors in the comfort of our own homes.

Resident Evil might look cute now, but it scared the crap out of us back in the '90s.

Now this is where we wade into troubled waters, because the zombie in the most traditional sense is a dead person who has been resurrected and turned into a brainless creature that wants nothing more than food, however, we've seen creatives experiment with the style and form the zombie and they've given us some diverse interpretations over the years. In cinema, that means so-called infected turned ravenous hunters as we witnessed in 1985 with Return of the Living Dead (where we see zombies that run and talk - incidentally that movie also popularised the idea that zombies ate brains) and in 28 Days Later (2002), a trend that has since found a spot in gaming. We've also enjoyed more comedic cinematic adventures such as Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Zombieland (2009), proving that it's not all doom and gloom in the world of zombies.

In gaming, these varied interpretations have meant zombies that fired back in Doom (1993), clickers cursed with a not-quite deadly fungal infection in The Last of Us (2013), and alien-infected zombified folks in Half-Life (1998) and Dead Space (2008). The undead are happy to rise wherever and whenever, and we've seen them in fantasy settings like Warhammer, in the deepest, darkest depths of space, as well as in the kind of graveyards that many of us walk past in our daily lives.

Dead Space doesn't have zombies in the strictest sense, but they're still terrifying.

By the time we hit the mid to late noughties, zombies were firmly entrenched in geek culture, especially in gaming where they remain a fan-favourite enemy type. However, you could argue that it took their appearance in the likes of The Walking Dead series on TV (which started back in 2010) and 2013 feature film World War Z, for the undead to go truly global. The movie starred Hollywood royalty in the form of Brad Pitt, giving it legitimacy over the hordes of zombie films that came before it regardless of whether it deserved it or not (although, in fairness, most zombie movies are trash so we shouldn't judge it too harshly). The long-running AMC show, on the other hand, was itself based on a series of graphic novels and was also supported by Telltale's soon-to-end episodic game series of the same name, and that triple-bill was particularly important in bringing the undead to hordes of willing viewers.