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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 next.

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It's a few days after the announcement of Back 4 Blood, 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 had us speculating, and thus 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.

The Rise of the Zombie
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.

The Rise of the Zombie
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.

The Rise of the Zombie
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.

The Rise of the Zombie
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.

Regardless of how you like to consume your undead-filled entertainment, it's clear that we're in the golden age of zombified entertainment. The dead have risen in child-friendly games like 2009 pair Minecraft and Plants vs. Zombies (and later in the 2014 shooter set in the PvZ series subtitled Garden Warfare), and they've dominated the multiplayer space in their own unique way. DayZ (2012) is a particularly important milestone, as this post-apocalyptic sandbox simulation was a big part of the movement that spawned the battle royale genre, which you might say came full circle when we were once again fighting zombies in Call of Duty: Black Ops 4's Blackout mode late last year. Dying Light (2015), the parkour-centric open-world adventure by Techland, was full of fast-paced undead, and the formula proved so popular that a sequel is on the way (this time, interestingly enough, with a stronger focus on choice-based gameplay and a story penned by the industry's favourite scribe, Chris Avellone). Dying Light also spawned Bad Blood, an adversarial multiplayer standalone that borrows last-player-standing mechanics from the likes of PUBG but with an undead twist, which sprinted into Early Access on Steam last year.

The Rise of the Zombie
Dying Light's parkour traversal proved a real hit with players.

Speaking of Techland, the studio captured the spirit of B-movies rather well in Dead Island (2011), much like Capcom did before with the Dead Rising series which started back in 2006, and both of these sandbox games have an emphasis on improvised weapons. Microsoft's State of Decay (2013) pulled a more straight-faced trick that involved base building, and indie games such as Project Zomboid (which has been in Early Access for what feels like forever) delve into the sandbox element and try and push the envelope in terms of granular detail. It's the co-op action games that tend to do best, though, and the four-player extravaganza otherwise known as Left 4 Dead landed in the same year as Call of Duty's first foray into the genre with World at War's Zombies mode (2008). Killing Floor (2005) and its sequel (2016) also focus on teamwork, although they put bloody gore and action at the forefront of the cooperative sub-genre.

In between then and now we've seen seminal single-player adventures like The Last of Us riff on zombie themes, without going full-zombie. Indeed, Naughty Dog's action-adventure was so impactful because of the human element explored in the narrative as much as it was because of the tense stealth-driven gameplay. TLoU came one year after Zombi U (2012) experimented with roguelite elements, and a year before horror master Shinji Mikami gave us The Evil Within (2014, and a sequel in 2017). Meanwhile, the Resident Evil franchise that Mikami started back in the '90s has also enjoyed something of a renaissance, finding its feet following a couple of more action-oriented series entries, culminating in an extremely well-received remaster of Resident Evil 2 earlier this year.

The Rise of the Zombie
In The Last of Us the most dangerous things you'll meet are fellow survivors.

Board games are another area where zombies are popular (both original games like Dead of Winter and video game adaptations), and traditional video games have also made some room for the first round of VR and AR experiences, which look to explore this exhilarating sub-genre from new perspectives. You could argue that VR shooters are merely an evolution of light gun classics like The House of the Dead, but AR is altogether more interesting as it blends the real world with the digital realm. Another way to experience the zombie apocalypse is the increasing number of immersive theatre experiences that are popping up, placing groups of "players" in pre-prepared scenarios and then watching them cack their pants as they work their way through the staged environments.

Which pretty much brings us up to today. In early 2019 we're staring down the barrel of Days Gone, The Last of Us: Part II is a bit further off in the distance, there's a game version of World War Z quite close to completion, Dying Light 2 looks like it's coming along nicely, and if you're after space zombies of a fashion, GTFO could well end up being an absolute treat. Oh, and after the success of Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (2017) and the RE2 remaster you can bet your bum that Capcom has plenty of zombie-filled plans up its sleeve. Let's throw a wildcard in the mix while we're at it, and note RTS game They Are Billions, which along with the rise of VR and AR experiences, proves that there are plenty of directions still to explore. These games might not all focus on zombies in the strictest sense of the word, but they're all exploring the same fertile ground.

The Rise of the Zombie
Days Gone's zombie-like enemies are controlled by group AI that makes them particularly frightening.

Looking to the future and what it might hold brings us back nicely to the game that started this whole train of thought. Back 4 Blood is yet another zombie-themed game in the making, and we can't wait to see what Turtle Rock does in the space that it was so instrumental in helping define a decade ago. It's a bit baffling that we didn't get see anything of the game, however, as it's a much more competitive genre than it was ten years ago and the designers at the studio will know that. As we saw last year with Overkill's The Walking Dead, simply dropping four players in a zombie co-op shooter doesn't cut the mustard these days and we're going to need to see some innovation if Back 4 Blood is going to really dazzle us, especially when it comes to zombie design and mission structure.

Over the years we've seen runners and shufflers, deformities and monstrosities, and a bunch of other variations that further spice up the overall dynamic of the genre and give players something to think about beyond the old staple nugget of advice that follows the genre around like a ball on a chain - "shoot them in the head" - it's good advice but isn't always enough these days.

Different enemy types have been created in order to challenge players in a multitude of ways because with familiarity comes a sense of safety. A good example is how we've seen numerous bloated enemy types spewing acidic juices all over players in order to lower health and/or obscure vision (our favourites are the ones from 2012's Diablo III because the eels that come out of them once you've smashed them up are brilliantly disgusting). These lumbering brutes are often supported by nippier enemies with a lower profile that makes them harder to spot - especially in the heat of battle when your attention's focused elsewhere. Throw in a mix of bullet sponge heavies and even armed brutes with enough smarts to fire back, and these days it's never a case of simply taking shots at a slow-moving horde as it shuffles toward you.

The Rise of the Zombie
This handsome fella is called a boomer and he pukes acid on the player.

Clever designers have also tried to unnerve us by giving us deadly opponents that hit closer to home. Days Gone, for example, raised a few eyebrows recently when people realised that there would be child-like zombies to deal with, but that's a trick we've seen before in the likes of Dead Space 2 (2011). To this day, we still shudder when we hear a low whimper in any zombie game, as it reminds us of Left 4 Dead's witches, another undead-type that we've seen deployed in various ways. Then there are those that rely on speed, and fleet-footed enemies, like the so-called freakers seen in Days Gone and the infected in Dying Light, provide a completely different challenge to, say, the zombies that keep crawling after you even after you've put them down (as we saw recently in the RE2 remaster).

It's not just the zombies themselves that developers can innovate with. Perhaps the cleverest part of the first two Left 4 Dead games was the AI-director and the way that it kept players on their toes. That kind of AI-driven gameplay could be about to make a comeback in Days Gone (although in a single-player context), but we'd like to see more experimentation in this area. Looking beyond AI, what other genre mashups might developers come up with in the years that come, using digital alchemy to blend disparate ingredients to create something new and exciting? We mentioned They Are Billions earlier, but we think that there's also room for games that explore turn-based tactics, and while we're already seeing this kind of innovation in the indie space, it won't be long before that experimentation finds its way into the mainstream.

The Rise of the Zombie
In RTS game They Are Billions, the horde is massive and overwhelming.

Whether your zombie enemies are infected by a man-made chemical weapon, controlled by a parasite or nanobots, or have succumbed to some sort of natural infection, there's no sign that they're going away anytime soon. On the contrary, our collective enjoyment of zombified entertainment has ensured that we're going to be fighting waves of the undead for years to come. However, that's also because it's not just consumers who love zombies, creators are fond of them too, not just because of the simplicity and universality of the threat they pose, but because zombies are a blank canvass to work with. They offer a series of preconceptions that give creatives the chance to toy with audience expectations and explore different narrative themes within the wider framework of an overarching narrative that, by now at least, we're all very familiar with.

The undead as we know them rose for the first time more than 50 years ago in George A. Romero's seminal motion picture, and since then we've walked down a series of well-trodden paths as writers, directors, and game makers have explored the genre in new and interesting ways. Based on the simplicity of the concept you'd be forgiven for assuming that zombie games were a boring trope that has been done to death, but looking back over the last thirty-odd years of games and ahead to those still yet to rise from the grave of development proves that this is most certainly not the case. Zombies are here and they're here to stay, and just to be safe, you should definitely still aim for the head.

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