Whether it’s war, nuclear meltdown, or a mysterious fungal infection, we have a fascination with the near total annihilation of humans and the destruction of society. But, where post-apocalyptic games like Fallout and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. explore alternate realities or dark fantasies of our future, the world seems most likely to end not with a bang, but with a horde – a horde of decaying, moaning flesh. While many post-apocalyptic games have seen great success, the zombie games have outnumbered them in ways that would be too cheesy to make into pun. Largely in part to the seemingly never-ending trend of reanimated corpses stumbling their way through movie screens and TVs, zombie apocalypse games have never been far behind. It’s a shame, really. I like a good shotgun blast to the zombie-face as much as the next person, but the research and social-psychoanalysis put into the zombie-less post-apocalyptic games is like reading a novel by George Orwell or Octavia Butler.
Some argue that it takes major creativity to come up with new ways to develop a zombie game, or risk marketing clichéd ideas and sub-par story lines. And there have been standouts: Dead Island features a skill tree system, and walking and running zombies, a la Romero and 28 Days Later. Left for Dead is a classic FPS, no skill tree, but it coined new versions of zombies: Boomer, Hunter, Smoker, Tank, and Witch. Both games and their immediate sequels were generally well received on this site and others, but how many times can developers put the word ‘dead’, ‘die,’ or ‘dying’ into their game title?
Dead Island, Dead Rising, Dead Nation, The Walking Dead, Left for Dead, The Evil Dead, Dead State, House of the Dead, Urban Dead, The Typing of the Dead, Dead Frontier, Trapped Dead, Isle of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Deadlight, Dying Light, 7 Ways to Die, All Zombies Must Die, Die2Nite, and of course the aptly named, Zombie Apocalypse.
It’s too hard to keep all those games straight. “Dead Nation? What’s that game?” “Oh, it’s the game with zombies.” When you hear game titles such as Mad Max or Wasteland, you can instantly differentiate that game from the others.
Last of Us is one of the very few zombie games that take place decades after the initial infection; its plot goes beyond “shoot zombies, don’t die” when most do not. However, if zombie games are a discussion of our most primal instincts, then post-apocalyptic games discuss humanity’s ability to rise from the ashes of its own destruction. The real fascination of the apocalypse is not while it’s happening; it’s when society has turned into a dystopia. Post-apocalyptic games take us out of our own microcosms and contextualize our place among the other moving cogs of the well-oiled machine we call The World. Take Metro 2033, based on the novel by Dmitry Glukhovsky: Its story line takes on a post-nuclear Russia; survivors in Moscow take refuge in the underground Metro stations to avoid being killed (or worse, mutated) by the radiation. Factions form, war rages on, and the underground communities seem hell-bent on destroying each other in a blind quest for power and dominance. That’s the real psychological trip – a community that survived together forgets why they survived in the first place.
A zombie outbreak can be a potential cause of the apocalypse, but there will come a time when zombies have worn out their welcome and another original interpretation of a highly possible bleak future will stampede into the marketplace, proclaiming, “This is what the world will look like after it ends.” I come for the gore, but I stay for the philosophy.