Why we can't quit zombies

If media scrutiny is supposed to reveal our innermost fears and insecurities, you’d think that the thing that humanity worries about the most revolves around the dead coming back to life. The zombie horde is legion, appearing in an almost absurd number of high profile games--to the chagrin of many. And yet for all the eye-rolls and criticisms, the game industry keeps producing and consuming zombie games in droves. That type of oversaturation doesn’t just happen without a reason. The truth is, we can’t quit zombie games because we love them.

Let's get the obvious reasons why we love zombie games out of the way. Yes, it’s likely that publishers who throws millions at games want to rest easy in knowing they’re producing something the market responds well to. Zombie games are popular and proven. Why not give people what they want?

But there’s more than an economical, practical reason that zombie games keep resurfacing; many of these reasons are mechanical. Zombies are versatile. Nathan Drake can’t kill a small nation of henchmen without us kind of wondering if it violates the good-natured character that Naughty Dog builds up. But a mindless swarm of things that aren’t human anymore? Yeehaw, go for the head, dude, and try not to miss, OK? Supplies are scarce. At the same time zombies make way for difficult and powerful situations where we have to kill people that once meant something to us, like in The Walking Dead.

Either way the zombie apocalypse is overwhelming. This means you should bring some buddies, and if Left 4 Dead or Zombies and Call of Duty have taught us anything, it’s that braving the horde is more fun (if not safer) with a friend. Aesthetically the vast horror of a post-apocalyptic setting is something we also adore. It’s not just that we get to explore what we already know in a new context, like in Fallout, but that we also get to be the hero in what feels like a new, untamed frontier.

And that frontier always has danger lurking around the corner. If you so much as get scratched by the undead, that’s it, you’re screwed. You’ll be one of them shortly. The tension then becomes palpable, because it’s not enough to keep yourself alive. As if surviving wasn’t hard enough, as if it wasn’t hard to juggle the desires and expectations of strangers you may not know, but nonetheless have to depend on. What these other survivors end up showing us is that maybe, just maybe, humanity is worse than the undead--I mean, geez, look at the people behind the Umbrella Corporation. Yikes.

So far, that’s all kind of obvious. I think there’s a deeper reason we love zombies as much as we do, why we can’t quit zombie games--and it does involve the reflection of deeper fears and anxieties.

Think about how zombie outbreaks usually happen: viral plagues that cause overnight pandemics, or bioengineered terrorist attacks. The Jetsons-like future many of our parents envisioned made it seem as if it used to be easy to predict where science might take us, and that future was bright and chipper. Now it’s practically impossible to keep up with the pace of scientific discoveries and all we’re left with is a subconscious fear that we don’t know what we’re capable of anymore...but it’s probably not good. Zombies reflect that. They also reflect the constant paranoia of societies afraid of terrorist plots that never seem to arrive. But when they do arrive, the consequences will be felt by everyone--even after death.

Zombies also capture the darker aspects of our culture. Where we might decay, the things that persevere through the apocalypse are our suburbs, our malls, and artifacts like billboard signs advertising the latest and greatest things to buy. These things haunt us in ways that the undead can’t, and at the same time they provide us with havens and resources that we need to pilfer in order to survive. We hate that part of our culture and what it might say about us, but we need it to sustain ourselves for another day.

Beyond that, the zombie itself carries on the spirit of the culture that created our reality. A zombie never stops being hungry. Contrast that to what seems to be an endless desire to consume in real life, and the endless search for instant gratification. We want that new iPhone so that we can stay plugged in to our barrage of notifications and emails and Tweets. And we eat each other alive to enjoy those everyday conveniences. It’s not just people in third world countries, but our very own countrymen--who we may not always want to help because some people believe they “should” pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Not much changes when you’re a zombie except that then, you have to consume just to stay dead. Damn.

You know that kid at parties who talks too much? Drink in hand, way too enthusiastic, ponderously well-educated in topics no one in their right mind should know about? Loud? Well, that kid’s occasionally us. GR Editorials is a semi-regular feature where we share our informed insights on the news at hand. Sharp, funny, and finger-on-the-pulse, it’s the information you need to know even when you don’t know you need it.



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  • Redeater - October 28, 2012 1:15 p.m.

    I would assume game designers love zombies. I mean, it's quite literally the dumbest AI ever. Until they start programing something like enemy......cucumbers...or something, it isn't going to change.
  • Scuffles - October 28, 2012 4:04 p.m.

    *goes to patent AI cucumbers "on a phone or mobile device" *waits to sue everyone!
  • Fitter89 - October 28, 2012 1:33 p.m.

    I can't quit zombies because I'm waiting for that perfect zombie game. In our minds we all know what the perfect zombie game will be, It's just that nobody will make it!
  • GamingBear - October 28, 2012 2:14 p.m.

    If you are on the same wavelength for me, and for you welfare I hope you are not, then the zombie game I want realised is a fully scoped, fleshed out, realistic experience. Not one where you go about murdering everything in sight but more survive.
  • Eo1spy - October 28, 2012 2:26 p.m.

    DayZ might fit the bill for you.
  • Person5 - October 28, 2012 4:31 p.m.

    Except if it was truly realistic the zombies would be slow, I'd look forward to a DayZ with twice as many zombies but with an extremely reduced speed.
  • Scuffles - October 28, 2012 4:01 p.m.

    Or that game developers can slather in a bunch more gore and violence and get away with it because "its not people its teh zombeiz". Zombies are that ethical grey area.
  • elsnichkum - October 28, 2012 4:53 p.m.

    But redeater, they already have enemy cucumbers! Dragon Quest IX has cruelcumbers!
  • t_skwerl - October 28, 2012 5:08 p.m.

    I don't think there is an oversaturation of zombie games. Never have. In fact, I believe there's a dearth of zombie games. Aside from the most popular ones (The Walking Dead, Resident Evil, Left for Dead, Dead Rising, House of the Dead, maybe Lollipop Chainsaw). The others are cute (Plants vs Zombies) add-ons ( Call of Duty, Red Dead Redemption), or just plain suck. I'm just saying you can count the good ones on both hands. Bring me more zombie games. I'll be over here sharpening my machete.
  • chris-dibella - October 28, 2012 5:11 p.m.

    True, but at the same time redeater, they have to be coded so they don't walk into walls forever or something.
  • Redeater - October 28, 2012 7:46 p.m.

    Not true! Look at the "zombies" in Goldeneye 64. :)
  • Sy87 - October 28, 2012 7:59 p.m.

    I have to agree with some of the others, a good zombie game hasn't really been made aside from Day Z. I don't think gamers got their fill of zombie games because when we pick a supposed zombie game we instantly judge something about it. RE screwed the thought in my mind and when they get close they have to add random stuff to the good part to weight it down. COD zombies is fun but just not zombies for most and to small a setting. L4D is fun too its just I don't find 28 days rage zombies the ones I want to fight, plus not enough survival. Day Z is by far turning out to be the best zombie game so far. Though everyone has their own interpretations while some are stupid, namely those thousands of zombie movies including the so called talking zombies. I say the visual medium is over saturated. Games we still hold out for that one great game. Dam I went on a rant again.
  • nintendo365 - October 28, 2012 11:07 p.m.

    didi you REALLY just say that L4D didnt have enough survival? I dont know what fucking L4D youre playing, but when its on hardcore or Realisim modes theres too much survival. Its basically choose the 2 best shooters and everyone else has to scavenge for them. If that game isnt survivalist as fuck- I dont know what is.
  • Aarononymous - October 28, 2012 9:22 p.m.

    This all easily could have been copy/pasted from an article on Cracked from 2 years ago. Analyzing the zombie phenomenon is almost as old as the zombie phenomenon itself.
  • theintellectual - October 29, 2012 2:04 a.m.

    Like most articles that attempt to analyze the phenomena of zombie popularity, I think this one is effectively spinning it's wheels in the mud. Zombies will continually remain material for video games and movies for the very simple reason that unlike other famous monsters, they're still SCARY despite the test of time. There's a simple unnatural-ness about them that staggers right into the uncanny valley; they look like people, only they're totally unlike people. They're totally devoid of life, intelligence, and reason despite closely resembling something that should by all rights possess all three. The idea of getting ripped apart and eaten alive by a creature that physically resembles a normal person in all ways but mannerism is simply scarier on a baser level then the wider implications of consumer culture or whatever pseudo-sophisticated nonsense you want to talk about. Or some such bullshit.
  • AuthorityFigure - October 29, 2012 2:29 a.m.

    They're not scary anymore, they're comedic. They've been delegated to guiltless, slapstick-like violence.
  • theintellectual - October 29, 2012 5:18 a.m.

    Guiltless? As opposed to what? Nobody feels guilty about mowing down thousands of Russians/Terrorists/Nazis/Drug Dealers/Civilians in any given given shooter, and it isn't like any of those aren't common targets of cavalier slapstick violence.
  • Thedigitalg - October 29, 2012 1:20 p.m.

    Didn't you get the memo? Zombies haven't been scary since the 80s.
  • AuthorityFigure - October 29, 2012 2:26 a.m.

    I think they're popular because they allow guilt-free violence. If we slaughter civilians, we have to consider that they are individuals - if we slaughter zombies, we only have to consider that they're people-shaped monsters, and there's no hesitation in inflicting harm. It's got nothing to do with them being scary (because they certainly aren't anymore).