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Talkingship – Video Games, Movies, Music & Laughs | November 17, 2017

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Designing the Perfect Zombie Video Game part 1

A couple of guys that were up to no good started makin' trouble in my neighborhood.

Zombies are a mainstay in movies and videogames. These shambling masses of flesh and teeth have invaded our culture and our love affair with them doesn’t seem ready to wane any time soon, at least not until someone decides to make them glitter in the sunshine.  Since they are here to stay, we might as well make the most of them, which leads me to try and come up with what I think would be the greatest zombie video game of all time.

WHAT’S THE APPEAL?  The first thing we have to do in deciding how to make the best zombie game in history is to make sure that we understand what makes zombies intriguing in the first place.  A mindless horde of flesh eating creatures makes for a nice tension builder in any movie or game, but if that was the only thing that endeared us to zombies then rabid squirrels would have become a monster movie icon long ago (squirrels are terrifying – don’t try to tell me different).  There is something else about zombies that intrigues us and if we’re going to make the greatest zombie game in history we are going to need to identify it.

First, we must consider that zombies were formerly humans, just like us.  Seeing them walking around, their faces bloody and ripped apart with bones peeking out from behind rotted strips of flesh, reminds of us our own mortality.  Not only is this a creature that will kill us, they are a walking reminder of our impending death.  That’s creepy, and it should be capitalized upon in any entertainment medium by tricking the viewer into identifying with the zombies themselves.  In our zombie game we are going to want to reinforce the idea that these used to be human beings, just like us, that were overcome with the disease.  Then we are going to want to create this connection throughout the game.  It is easy to let the player sink into a mindless, horde smashing orgy of murder in a zombie game, but this is a mistake.  Once a player loses all attachment to the zombie’s humanity, the frightening nature of the zombie is lost.

Second, the thought of being eaten alive, especially by other humans, is deeply disturbing.  In any zombie game we understand that if they get us they’re going to eat us.  That is terrifying, and you will never fully capitalize upon this terror unless you exploit the hell out of it.  The player needs to be in constant fear of being killed.  In a videogame, where dying leads to a continue screen to try again, you all but lose this driving force behind what makes zombies frightening.  If they can kill us and we just get to start over, there is really nothing frightening about them getting to us anymore.  On the other hand, trying to punish players for dying is largely frowned upon in gaming these days.  Finding a perfect balance in which the player is scared of dying, but death does not hurt their game so much that they become frustrated, is going to be a necessary challenge to overcome.

Third, zombieism as a disease presents several plot possibilities that are next to impossible to achieve in any other setting.  The most obvious of which is having people that the main character knows being turned into zombies that they then have to murder. It is a trope that has been done to death (forgive the pun), but leaving it out of a zombie story makes you feel like something is missing. The best zombie stories are not about the zombies at all, but rather how they reflect our own condition – throwing hordes of former-friends-turned-zombies at the character is not an effective way to take advantage of this setting.  We need to find a unique way to do this while at the same time telling a larger story about feeling as if others are turning against you.  That taps into a deeper, more emotional fear that our zombie story can exploit.

THE RULES OF THE ZOMBIE SETTING: Since zombies are so popular in current media, we have a lot of examples to look at to see what works and what doesn’t.  The first thing to do is list the common rules of the zombie medium that are normally followed. Once we identify them we can feel free to break them, but only if the story requires it.

The disease will spread fast.

Rule # 1 = The disease hits suddenly and is catastrophic.  In almost every zombie related film or game, the disease is a world ending apocalypse.  Once it starts, it spreads incredibly quickly, and in many stories it doesn’t require local transmission to spread – it’s almost as if there is a religious, end-of-world catastrophe happening everywhere, all at once.  In designing a Zombie video game, the first question that needs to be asked is what time frame are we starting?  Does our story start at the beginning of the disease, or does it start in a post apocalyptic setting?  Deciding this will help figure out which sort of zombie virus/disease/religious apocalypse we are dealing with and then tie that in to the story we tell.

IN OUR GAME: We’re going to start right at the beginning with a disease story that is tied to terrorism.  One of the major themes of our game is going to be the fear of others turning against you (addressing the 3rd point from the above section) and we want to have our protagonist experience every moment of this apocalypse.

Rule # 2 =  Zombies eat people (brains).  Is there even a point to a zombie game if they don’t? The devil’s in the details with this rule, as we need to debate a few points before we move ahead. Do our zombies crave brains? Can they sustain themselves by eating animals? Do they eat voraciously, or can they be satiated? These are important questions to answer to solidify the rules of our setting.

IN OUR GAME: Our zombies crave human flesh, and only human flesh.  They don’t need to eat brains, and they can not be satiated by eating animals.  They also are not interested in eating dead humans – within five minutes of a human’s death, our zombies will lose interest in eating their flesh.  This opens up a storyline in which religious minded characters think the zombies are actually consuming souls, but we’ll get to that later.  Finally, our zombies can be satiated, which ties into another part of the plot that we’ll talk about later.

Rule # 3 = What kills our zombies? This is a rule that we have a little more freedom with than the others. Zombie media throughout the years have gone different ways with this.  In some tales, you have to destroy the brain, in others it seems like there is no stopping them and even cutting off their limbs will only result in still twitching digits crawling their way over to you.

Osama Bin Ladened

IN OUR GAME: You have to destroy the brain.  Creating an enemy that can’t be destroyed makes them too powerful, but games with zombie hordes that can be taken out with just a few simple swipes of a knife doesn’t tap into the vicious nature of these creatures.  We want them to be strong, but not strong enough to make it impossible, and forcing our protagonist to focus on head shots is a good way to create tension.

Rule # 4 = Zombies do not attack each other.  Nothing makes me angrier than watching a zombie movie and seeing a background shot of one zombie munching on another, or even worse, munching on themselves!  If they could satiate their hunger by eating each other than this would be the quickest end to an apocalyptic disease in history.

IN OUR GAME: They don’t attack each other either.  However, late in the game we will introduce a weapon that is a liquid spray that puts pheromones onto anything it is sprayed on that tricks the zombies into thinking it is a living human.  This will allow our character to spray enemy zombies and then watch as the other zombies around turn on it and begin devouring it.

Rule # 5 = How does the disease spread?  In most zombie settings, the disease is spread by even a single bite.  This leads us to assume that the disease is an extremely virulent condition that is transmitted locally, through body fluids.  Every bite means instant contraction, and it is only a matter of time before the victim turns into a living dead creature.  This presents a problem in video games as sticking to this rule can limit the action in the game or make it too difficult.  The way a lot of games get around this is by making the main character resistant to the disease.  It is an effective explanation, but one that feels a little like an easy way out.

IN OUR GAME: Since the plot of our game is going to be based around terrorism and the use of the disease as a weapon, it needs to be easily transmitted.  Our zombies can transmit their disease via bite, but we’re going to do something that other zombie media haven’t tried yet. In our setting, the disease isn’t fully understood, and we will play around with the expectations of the player. Early in the game one of our characters will get bitten during an attack. The character will get sick, as we are used to seeing happen in countless other zombie tales, and the player will expect that the sick character will succumb to the disease. We will play with this assumption, and then allow the character to heal.  Doing this will help along the plot, but will also tell the player that their previously conceived notions about the zombie apocalypse don’t matter here.

REQUIRED VIEWING/PLAYING: Movies and videogames have dragged this genre through the gutter, over and over and over.  The majority of what has been produced thus far is rehashed garbage, but there is plenty of brilliant examples out there that we need to make sure to pay close attention to.  Two things we should strive to do is pay homage to the ones that came before us, and learn from their successes and failures.  In this section, I’ll take a look at some of the more famous examples in both movies and games, and we’ll decide what we can learn from them.

George knows his zombies!

GEORGE ROMERO’S FILMS: This man is the Godfather of the zombie setting.  It’s true that zombie lore existed before him, even appearing in movies, but Romero defined the genre with his movie, Night of the Living Dead.  All of the rules of the zombie setting that we discussed above were put into place by Romero, so we will need to make sure that we pay him the respect he deserves. That being said, the only movies that he has made that are worth paying attention to are his first (Night) and his second, Dawn of the Dead.

In Night, the zombies played a frightening backdrop to a much more interesting story about racism.  While we might look at this sort of zombie plot as a cliche today, this was the first time it was done.  The zombies are scary, but the clear point of the movie was to discuss how each of us treat each other.  The real enemy in that movie was in the house, fighting the zombies and each other.

Dawn focused much more on the zombie menace, helping to expand upon the world ending disease while still staying true to the rules set up in the first film.  A lot of commonly seen cliches in current zombie media were started in Dawn of the Dead (shopping malls, anyone?)  Even still though, this movie was also ultimately a study of human behavior.  The zombies themselves were meant to represent American consumerism as they wandered aimlessly around the mall, and the true enemy ended up becoming the humans themselves as a gang of violent people showed up at the mall, trying to take it over.

If we are to learn anything from Romero’s best films, it is that the zombie menace is only a backdrop for a story about how humans deal with each other.  The zombie’s relentless desire to consume us is an allegory for how human nature leads us to hate one another.

IN OUR GAME: Our game will mirror the lesson learned from Romero’s films.  Everything from the opening cinematic to the ending chapter will focus on how it is the living humans that represent the biggest danger.  The zombies are the gun, it is the human that pulls the trigger.

Just plain scary.

RUNNING ZOMBIE REVOLUTION: One of the biggest debates in the zombie-lovers community is whether or not zombies should be allowed to run or if they should always shamble and moan.  Movies like 28 Days Later (yes, it’s a zombie movie even though they have human rabies) and the remake of Dawn of the Dead employed zombies that could sprint towards the survivors.  The reason this was controversial was because people like Romero himself dismissed this advent in zombie lore as a mistake.  In his opinion, zombies would not be able to run because their muscles and tendons had decayed.  Still though, it’s scary when a horde of zombies come running at you, and we want to scare people.

IN OUR GAME: Our zombies can run, at least at first. There’s no reason to think that a freshly dead zombie wouldn’t be able to run, since by Romero’s own logic it would be the muscle and tendon decay that restricts movement.  We are going to be starting our game from the very beginning of the zombie plague, so we’ve got ourselves a batch of fresh zombos, and these kids can RUN!

THE WALKING DEAD: Robert Kirkman’s excellent zombie apocalypse comic series has been turned into an equally excellent tv series on AMC. While the series hasn’t broken down any of the former rules of zombieism, it has shown just how good a story can be when it is told in a zombie setting. This series should provide a lot of inspiration for us as an example of how to utilize the setting to tell a very human story.  The times where this series stumbles is when it focuses too much on the zombie mayhem and not on the human stories that the series has been built on. When the shit hits the fan, the viewer (player) should be invested in the effect the shit has on the characters, not just the mayhem itself.

IN OUR GAME: We  must take Kirkman’s lesson to heart. The story we tell must be character driven. Two of the masters of this genre, Kirkman and Romero, have shown that the best way to make an effective zombie-based media is to focus on the human stories.  However, is this true for zombie videogames? Let’s look at that next.

RESIDENT EVIL: One of the most successful zombie based video game franchises of all time has been the Resident Evil games. The series has been effective in creating a good mix of survival horror, action, and scares. I have personally always felt that the storyline of the series has been a bit muddled, with too much reliance on creating bigger and badder creatures, but that’s just one opinion, and clearly not the opinion of most people as this series has done incredibly well. A decision that we must make in our game is whether or not we are going to follow Resident Evil’s lead and create mutant zombies that act like boss enemies the way that Resident Evil does.

IN OUR GAME: The zombies are only a weapon, not the main enemy. That is a rule we want to stick to as it will help us tell a more effective story. Creating zombie bosses just to create more effective and challenging gameplay will put a major strain on the story.  This is where making a zombie videogame versus simply a zombie movie becomes challenging. We should always remember that story comes second behind fun gameplay in a videogame, but there is no reason to think that we have to start creating zombie boss creatures in order to make things fun.

One of the best zombie games ever made

LEFT 4 DEAD: In the history of zombie videogames, there has been nothing that has changed the game as much as Left 4 Dead. Valve’s co-op masterpiece took the zombie setting and crafted an unbeatably entertaining multiplayer experience. Instead of just plopping players into a first person zombie massacre, they allowed them to play as the zombies too. This revolution in gameplay, with a team of humans going up against a team of zombies, made for an incredibly good time.

IN OUR GAME: Our focus will be on the single player experience, but to forego a jaunt into the multiplayer realm in this day and age of games would be a mistake. Co-op play would lend itself well to this game, and we can use Left 4 Dead as inspiration to design a multiplayer versus mode.

DEAD ISLAND: This open world game is one of the best recent entries to the zombie media. The storyline left a lot to be desired, but being able to explore an entire island that was overcome by zombies was just plain fun. Scavenging through destroyed buildings for tools of survival, and the possibility of finding unique items, was addictive.

IN OUR GAME:  We are going to take a lot of our inspiration from Dead Island, except we are going to focus a lot more on the scavenging aspect. Protecting our family will be a driving force in our game, and going out into the world to try and find supplies to keep our family safe will be of utmost importance.

That is the end of part 1 of this article.  In part 2, we will decide on the various gameplay aspects of our masterpiece as well as decide on the basic structure of our story.  Then, in part 3, we will go through the plot itself, detailing how we will utilize what we have learned in parts 1 and 2 in a mad dash towards our explosive ending!