Now that people have cooled down a bit since the release of Left 4 Dead 2, I've decided to bring out this bone to pick, which started bothering me when I first played the original Left 4 Dead. Keep in mind that, though I'll criticize some titles more heavily than others, my opinion here isn't directed solely at any particular game; this post is rather about a void that all zombie (and even most horror) games to date have failed to fill.
So, when you talk about the impending zombie apocalypse with friends, family, the person next to you on the plane, etc., what are some of the general topics you tend to discuss? For me, it's mostly about finding three things: food, defensible shelter, and adequate weapons. Granted, there are other concerns as well -- namely, not getting et by the walking dead. But since most depictions of the "Infection" or "Zombocalypse" or whatever the hell you want to call it involve slow, brainless, shambling corpses, it's generally assumed that actually encountering them will only be dangerous if they get you cornered or if there's loads of 'em (especially if both occur simultaneously). The focus, therefore, is on either escaping densely populated areas or, failing that, finding someplace to hole up and survive until... well, whenever. Hence the long, detailed discussions concerning points of entry, escape routes, visibility of the nearby terrain, and so on. Having a plan, as they say, is paramount.
Well, I guess if you're talking solely about the "not getting et" part of the zombie apocalypse, you're welcome to call them survival horror. But last I checked, survival is mostly not about the threat of getting et. It's more about eating something yourself, and finding sufficiently clean drinking water, and not succumbing to hypothermia or heat exhaustion. And not getting an infection your immune system can't handle. And not getting killed by other fauna on this planet far more numerous than humans (poisonous insects, arachnids, snakes, etc.). Even excepting the last couple as dependent on geographical location, I still can't think of any game that bases success on the acquisition of basic human requirements. Now, I'm certainly not suggesting some kind of 3D first-person Oregon Trail, but I'd love to play a zombie game that factors those things into the gameplay instead of just handing you a gun and shouting "SHOOT 'EM IN THE HEAD!!" Which brings up another of my problems with zombie titles to date: specifically, the players' acquisition of and inexplicable proficiency with weapons, and in some cases the combat in general.
So, I get into Left 4 Dead, and the heaters are just lying strewn about the room in front of me. And, now that I've seen them and picked some up, I am by default an expert marksman with every last variety I encounter. I'm not ashamed to say that my personal knowledge of how to use firearms basically includes two concepts: "point," and "shoot" (generally the latter is achieved by the pulling of a trigger). If this shit ever went down for real, and I got stuck in a room with a bunch of zombies and an unloaded weapon, I'd be a dead man. End of story. (Give me a good hefty sword any day.) Point is: zero realism. I want a game in which, assuming the player character is your average person, the situations in three of the four screenshots here result in a quick, gruesome death 100% of the time.
The reason none of this sits well with me is that it simply doesn't compare in entertainment value to the way people talk about the zombie apocalypse in everyday conversation. What makes it even harder to bear is that these kinds of survival dynamics wouldn't be hard to implement at all. Here are a few ideas.
Make the player actively search for food and water. As the time since a player's last drink or meal increases, decrease things like strength, movement speed, weapon accuracy/damage, and so on. Death should ensue if these needs aren't met within a reasonable amount of time. If you want to get really serious about it, make them test the substances in question to make sure it's edible/drinkable, or suffer the consequences of food poisoning and such. And, if you want to make things exceptionally difficult, do away with "health packs" and other such instant-recovery items -- make the player tend a wound and wait until they heal over time.
Limit the quantity of firearms and other items specifically crafted for killing and maiming. I repeat: The player is not a space marine. Nor are they a cyborg, a super-spy, or a ninja. They are a normal person with a normal life, meaning they probably don't own anything that can be described as nothing else but a weapon. On the contrary, this game's weapons should literally be items that can be found in the average household: baseball bats, pots, pans, kitchen knives, table legs, and maybe, maybe a hunting rifle or shotgun with a handful of ammo if you're really, really lucky. This is not a first-person shooter. It's a first-person survivor. For interest's sake, you could randomize the starting location in a given city so players don't get bored wielding the same old garden-variety shovel every game.
Concerning encounters with the undead, implement a detection system that measures the player's "footprint," determining how likely the player is to be attacked, and by how many enemies at a time. Various factors would go into this: visibility, noise, noticeable changes to the environment, etc. Plenty of games have already done this in other contexts -- the Thief series and Hitman: Blood Money being just a couple of examples. Any game that reacts logically to the player increases not only the realism, but also the tension of making decisions. Do you really need to carry that shotgun, or would a quieter and only slightly less effective cricket bat do just as well? Are you sure you want to turn on all the lights in your hiding place on the off-chance a single zombie gets in, taking the risk of attracting a whole horde of them instead? In video games, more detail almost always increases the suspension of disbelief.
Given some of the incredibly dynamic game environments and physics we've seen lately, I can't believe this sort of a game would be particularly difficult to produce. It wouldn't even need to be particularly demanding of your hardware -- the Source engine and Half-Life 2's graphics still look pretty damn good almost six years later, and that's what the Left 4 Dead games run on. Until this true zombie survival game appears, however, I'm done with the pretenders that are currently out there. Guess I'll just have to keep playing Thief and perfecting my ideal fortifications in the meantime.