Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Zombie Apocalypse Video Games -- A Brainless Genre Thus Far

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.

And now we come to my point: can anyone name a game that matches these very necessary considerations in its focus? In every zombie title I've seen so far, it's all about the same damn thing as every other lame-ass shooter ever made: pumping every vaguely humanoid shape in sight full of lead, with progressively more damaging weapons. Since they've been so popular in the last few years, let's take a closer look at Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising -- especially since they were originally advertised as survival horror games.

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.

Where in god's name do all those frickin' guns come from? In Left 4 Dead, it's as if the U.S. Army rounded up all their firearms everywhere and dumped them out of a helicopter all over the country. Shit, there's fewer guns and less ammo in Doom 3, and that takes place at a high-tech, high-security corporate-military installation in the future! A similar statement could be made regarding Valve's other best-selling title. Or what about the mall in Dead Rising, which has apparently managed to congregate every last bladed-weapon store in the country within a four or five square-block area? How convenient for the player to be stuck in a building just spilling over with objects specifically crafted to dismember and kill other human beings. Being an LotR nerd, I'd like malls a lot better if they were all so armed to the teeth.

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.

Further still -- since when are the walking dead so incredibly easy to kill? One solid whack with a baseball bat in either of the titles I've mentioned and they are down for the count. Whatever happened to "removing the head or destroying the brain"? I'm certainly not good enough with an Xbox controller to be getting head shots every single time one of the Infected bites the dust. Hell, I'm not even that good with a mouse, and I'm a lifelong PC gamer. And I'm not even asking that a game be quite so strict with its undead cause-of-death conditions. For example, take a hint from the Thief games -- if the players KO a zombie but fail to dismember/behead it, it could get back up a few seconds later. That way, there's still incentive for precise attacks (since decapitated zombie = permanently dead zombie), but it wouldn't interrupt the flow of intense encounters with tedious targeting difficulties. Anyway, the point is that if Shaun of the Dead is taking the rules of the genre more seriously than you are, I'd say you need to sort some shit out before releasing that game.

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.

Create a realistic, dynamic environment, with the scope of Grand Theft Auto IV and the physics of Half-Life 2, in which players must seek out suitable shelter. Considering the level of interaction we can now have with in-game environments, it wouldn't be hard at all to let players enter a given structure, assess the situation, and then slightly modify it to their needs, like barricading entrances, or putting up curtains to hide interior movements. This is probably one of the most talked-about aspects of the zombie apocalypse, and is absolutely necessary to any true zombie horror game. And unless you happen to wander onto a military base, there should be absolutely none of this ready-made impregnable Fortress of Solitude bullshit (i.e., no "safe rooms").

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.

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