Death of Zombies: The Next Theme Meme?

By Jim Rossignol on December 1st, 2009 at 9:39 am.


Are we at the end of gaming history? Is it just zombies from here on out? Or will there be something else that will seize the imagination of game designers and give us a new theme? I’d say that post-apocalypse and zombies have dominated the last couple of years, but is it possible to predict the end of the undead? Some thoughts below.

Zombies are definitely symptomatic of the times. On the surface they’re apolitical, because anyone could be a zombie, and zombies are the creation of mechanical processes – disease, supernatural effects – rather than social or political effects that create Nazis or terrorists. Undead Labs’ (and formerly Guild Wars’) Jeff Strain told Eurogamer they were a “guilt-free meat puppet”. He went on to explain that “That no-rules, no-guilt mentality is something that people really resonate with.” But there’s plenty of analysis that argues the interest in zombies runs deeper, and as zombie movie-maker George Romero points out, they’re a useful vehicle “to criticize real-world social ills—such as government ineptitude, bioengineering, slavery, greed and exploitation.” As such, the zombie is a kind of universally useful antagonist, well-suited to both mindless splatter, and deeper commentary.

So does that mean they’re set to dominate gaming for the foreseeable future? I say no. I suspect that zombies are in fact an imaginative resources that is going to seem depleted way faster than the traditionally maligned fantasy, world war II, and space marine vs aliens themes. My issue with the zombie archetype is that it is largely without a villain, and we need specific villains beyond the nebulous problems which Romero points to. Zombie fiction might comment on elements of human existence, but zombie gaming is about survival, and as such is only ever a story about the protagonists. The games which focus on the drama of staying alive are the ones which are making the most of the zombie ideal, and reward us with the most visceral thrills. The “guilt-free” slaughter might hold us for a while, but ultimately neither kind of zombie game is going to provide us with the same interesting choices that a game with an intelligence working against us will. We need more from our simulatory enemies than bad skin and a hunger for brains.

Like the zombie movie boom, I think we will soon see a slump. This meme can only shamble so far.

So what will come next? Giant robots plz.

My childhood daydreams re-enacted…

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133 Comments »

  1. StalinsGhost says:

    Giant robots aren’t quite so ambiguous. Someone has to take the fall for creating them. Unless they’re from space – then they’re fair game.

  2. Jockie says:

    Well, the Resident Evil games (although they’re now moving away from ‘zombies’) have always had villains. From evil corporations responsible for the outbreak to specific horribly acted villains like Albert Wesker.

    That said the Resident Evil games rarely give any deeper insight or commentary, the stories have always been a load of ludicrous nonsense to justify slaughtering a load of zombie types and big monsters with tentacles. But without it’s villainous antagonists there would have been much less of the standing around and chatting and they’d have been very different games I suspect.

    I’m not worn out on zombies yet, I’m interested in the Zombie RPG that Doublebear are making, because there still isn’t a game that lets you live out the “What would you do in a zombie apocalypse?” scenario.

    • Lilliput King says:

      “I’m not worn out on zombies yet, I’m interested in the Zombie RPG that Doublebear are making, because there still isn’t a game that lets you live out the “What would you do in a zombie apocalypse?” scenario.”

      Exactly. Seems like even though the zombie theme is a popular one these days, no-one has really used them to their full potential.

    • AndrewC says:

      Which is to put them on treadmills for a truly renewable source of power. Seriously – the zombie invasion is the solution to all our society’s problems.

    • Davee says:

      And that’s exactly why I am interested in DB’s ZRPG too.

  3. diebroken says:

    Mutant zombies? Well either that or monkeys…

  4. monkeybreadman says:

    Movements in the force. Zombies are the current vogue, aliens, monsters and robots are the other flavours with Nazi sprinklings. They’re an easy way of making games, and making it past censors.

    No difficult moral questions have to be asked blowing the head off a zombie.

    • monkeybreadman says:

      Maybe a game where nature turns on mankind for all the damage its caused. End of level bosses could be the last surviving Bengal Tiger, Polar Bear, Orangutans, could even have a boat chase with a crazed blue whale that spawns leatherback turtles!

      The front cover of the DVD case would have the question ‘Would you kill to survive?” on the back it could have “SHIT YEAH!!!!!!!” with some guy shooting a wild eyed Panda

    • pimorte says:

      I live in Australia, and zombies definitely didn’t make it past censors here.

  5. Frankie The Patrician[PF] says:

    I’m TIRED of killing zombies…in fact, I’ve been pretty much tired of it back in the days of Resident Evil II. GImme more games with the reversed perspective, I say. Stubbs The Zombie was ace. Braaaaaaaaaaains…

    *waiting for L4D2 to hit the 20 euros pricetag, so he can get some more versus*

    • Lilliput King says:

      You missed out! The recent steam deal had the four pack going for £17 per copy.

      Actually what with steams peculiar pricing for those on the continent that might not have been the case for you.

    • Frankie The Patrician[PF] says:

      dunno… the early holiday one was 28 euro’s and I didn’t check the 4-pack as I probably wouldn’t find 3 other people willing to pay their share. It’s ok, I’m not in a particular rush – Eve Online, just finishing Champions Online download (13 pounds from D2D), Torchlight, Wolfenstein etc. :D

  6. skalpadda says:

    Isn’t it mostly just the games that focus on the “film zombies” that are without a proper villain? I mean, Half Life has a good mechanic around zombification and big bad guys to boot, Fallout has the feral ghouls, STALKER also had the irradiated/brain scorcher zombies, hell even Mass Effect had the Husks. Then again STALKER and Fallout 3 are mostly survival games, so I suppose those fit the idea.

  7. CMaster says:

    Careful what you wish for there, Jim – making Giant Robot movies/games big might mean they ressurect the Neon Genesis Evangelion movie.

  8. Moni says:

    I think games missed out on the super-hero movie boom (now entering the post-boom satirical stage, see: Kick-Ass).

    I’d like to see someone combine the absurd destruction of Red Faction Guerilla with the meaty-punchyness of Batman. Damn it, I want to punch a man through a wall.

  9. Gnoupi says:

    In a way, we have had same with WW2. A few games started on this theme, it was more or less fresh then, the idea was nice, “reliving the war like if you were there”, with games like Medal of Honor or Call of Duty. But following this trend, plenty of other games went into this direction, leading to the overdose that everyone knows.

    I guess simply that in a few years we will have the same overdose, seeing that most of games now include zombies just for the sake of it (one of latest CoD, Borderlands soon, any *something* shooter now is zombie shooter, etc). I wonder indeed what will come to replace it, when everyone will have enough.

  10. phil says:

    Giant Robots? A little Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow isn’t it? In any case EDF is already the Citizen Kane of Robot shooters, anything else would be an insult to it’s majesty.

    I’d say Werewolves are the new meme. I give it two years before silver bullets and were-morphing abilities replace shotguns and aiming for the head as our default gamer responses.

  11. Taillefer says:

    Would you like to be running from giant robots as they tear up your city?
    Or be the giant robot tearing up the city?

    Either way, scale is something really underused in games (in my experience). Everything is so human-sized vs human-sized.

    • Taillefer says:

      Or, well, contrast of scale. If you are playing a big robot thing, you tend to be pitted against other big robot-things so don’t feel like a big robot thing.

  12. Drag D says:

    I want Nazi robots (not necessarily made by Nazi , the robots could be Nazi because they decided to ) and also Nazi aliens.

    • Solario says:

      I’d settle for the marvel villain, Swarm, who is a nazi made of bees.

  13. bookworm8at says:

    A believable Zombie AI is easy to code, yet they look like humans.

  14. Igor Hardy says:

    Neat little movie this Panic Attack! Although after a great, suspensful start it just gets more and more silly.

  15. Broken says:

    Shogo sequel please Monolith.

  16. Sagan says:

    Well zombies are pretty boring enemies. After you have shot some, the only thing that can come next, is that you shoot some more. It’s like you once said, that Left 4 Dead really is a sequel to Doom. Even the environments in zombie games have to be boring.

    Also I don’t think robots will ever come back. If they do it has to be now. Because soon everyone will know enough about robots to realize that fighting them is totally unrealistic, as illustrated by this xkcd comic.

    I think what might happen is, that we get a nice balance of aliens, zombies and humans to fight. So unless someone comes up with something new, I don’t think there will be a new wave of games about one kind of enemies like we get with zombies right now and got with nazis before.

  17. Lobotomist says:

    I think the next thing odd to be: MUTANTS

  18. Jockie says:

    Well, it was a bit of a disappointment in terms of the gameplay, but I did enjoy that in Spore the ‘enemies’ were basically horrific mutants created by yourself or other people. In the second phase of the game I did love the fact that one of the Epic monsters was a horrific abomination I’d created in about 5 minutes in the creator. Would be interesting to see that kind of user generated content in another game.

  19. pignoli says:

    I predict the next gaming meme to be:

    MONSTROOOO!

  20. Dan Sunderland says:

    A few people have mentioned the lack of a proper zombie MMO- I’ve had lengthy discussions with some of my gamer mates about how this would play out, and it still fascinates me. I got a taste of it when during the pre-launch event for Wrath Of The Lich King there was a (flakey, but hilarious) zombie outbreak among the player population.

    Feeding directly into the player’s “griefing” lobe was a genuine idea, as it created a tireless ravenous horde of zombies, trying desperately to spread their disease. I remember I’d finally got the materials for a belt I’d been after for ages, and after spamming chat for a while, myself and another random had to try and find a quiet enough spot in Orgimmar to craft this belt (takes about 30 seconds without interuption). I ended up holding the door blowing away zombies while this guy crafted away, it really stuck out as a standout moment for me, so epic yet so trivial.

  21. Dinger says:

    Don’t knock zombies out just yet. The Meme exists because of the technology. The Aliens/supersoldiers of the last decade were there because games couldn’t support more than a couple AI entities. With more AI entities, you can make threats in numbers, not in quality, of opponents, but as long as they’re run by AI, they’re not going to be believably human. Hence Zombies.

    Then you can go figure out what commentary you want to make.

    In an ontological sense, all computer-controlled human entities are Zombies.

  22. Ragnar says:

    More steampunk please.

  23. Jason Moyer says:

    I could go for a transformers game that doesn’t suck. Preferably using the original toys/comic/toon rather than the Michael Bay reboot stuff.

  24. Raven says:

    A deluge of games like Armoured Core and Mech Warrior, et al.?
    Yes please!

  25. Richard Beer says:

    Zombies, giant robots or aliens, it’s not actually that different.

    We are living in apocalyptic times. The capitalist system we know and thought we loved has turned out to be a vampire squid, and we’re still paying massive bonuses to the people thrusting its blood funnel into anything that looks like money. Climate catastrophe is almost irrevocably upon us, but we’re still led by people who put short-term business interests and their own national interests first. We’re fighting an eternal war against an abstract noun (‘terrorism’) that is used to justify an incessant military build-up, invasion of foreign countries and flagrant shredding of civil liberties.

    In short, the world is fucked, and we all know it. That’s why any kind of theme that involves survival against the odds is in vogue, be it aliens, zombies, giant robots, killer viruses or cyber-attack pandas. And it’ll stay in vogue until something changes for the better (i.e. a really long time).

    • Ybfelix says:

      I heard that in WWII and Cold War people felt pretty grim too.

    • Richard Beer says:

      Oh yeah. I grew up with the threat of nuclear war hanging over my childhood. I’m sure it’s a large factor in my fascination with anything post-apocalyptic, from Mad Max to When The Wind Blows to anything written by John Wyndham.

      Actually there’s an idea. Triffids!

    • golden_worm says:

      Plants vs. Zombies? Hmmm. might just work.

  26. MultiVaC says:

    I don’t see why zombie games are incapable of having villains. Anywhere there are people you are bound to find bad people, especially when society has collapsed from a zombie outbreak. 28 Days Later had villains in the form of the desperate soldiers, and Land Of The Dead had the rich people living in the tower as antagonists.

  27. AndrewC says:

    Well, zombies are ultimately about staving off inevitable entropy and, as such, the genre being a success is reflective of a social shift towards depression and the removal of the belief that ‘things are getting better’. Having single ‘big bads’ makes defeating the evil a really specific, and thus mangeable, achievement after which the world is really good again. In the ‘big bad’ model of games the world is a good place with a removable bad thing in. The ‘zombie’ model suggests that the world itself is bad and the only solution is to remove ourselves from it. Conclusion – we need a specific enemy to feel better about ourselves, and the bigger and more powerful the enemy is the better we feel about ourselves.

    It makes you think!

    Anyway, if not that then processors being able to handle large and complex crowds have only been available during ‘this’ generation of hardware, and so games involving ‘hordes’ become popular. What is the next development hardware advances will allow us?

    Worlds complex and responsive enough to make simply interacting with them (rather than having them be a static backdrop to exploding things) entertaining, maybe? Leading to proper and real explore-em-ups?

    Friendly AI good enough to make escort missions fun? I think that might be neck and neck with the heat death of the universe, though.

    Or giant robots.

    Giant robots!

  28. Lu-Tze says:

    Supernatural tells us that shooting at ghosts with rock salt shotguns whilst listening to AC/DC is the new black.

  29. Ybfelix says:

    Maybe it’s being content with zombies that hampered the progress of AI in games.
    And players are guilty of this too, some people just never get over 3D space invaders.

    • Tei says:

      This discussion about AI and zombies is old. AI is tons of different things. AI could be the flock movement of some birds. How a zombie navigate a level, jump obstacles (fast zombies jump over everything) and manage to look real. People have this weird idea that AI serve to make NPC’s look smart. If you want to make NPC’s look smart, add small snips of Kant philosophy to his dyiing cry.

  30. plugmonkey says:

    I can’t last much longer simply because, despite zombie games representing a tiny fraction compared to sword and sorcery, or car racing, or generic warefare, and despite games featuring zombies being infinitely more varied in the way they play than most other video game scenarios, the internets are swamped with people bitching about them as if you couldn’t buy a game without a zombie in if you tried.

    Zombies aren’t the latest meme. Bitching about zombies is. It’s right up there “Fuck you Activision/EA/Atari/.

  31. gulag says:

    Bring back Shodan.

    What games are really missing at the moment are decent villians. Zombies reduce everything to ‘Use gun on head’ gaming, without ever giving you a good reason to want them dead(er) other than the simple equation of ‘it’s us or them’. A good villian is like good sauce, you’ll clean it up with gusto.

  32. Captain Haplo says:

    The next big theme:

    Sentient, organic giant robot zombies.

  33. Schmung says:

    Vampires are due a comeback of some sort, aren’t they?

    • Richard Beer says:

      True Blood? Twilight? That other movie about teen vampires that’s a shameless Twilight rip-off?

      They’re already back!

    • Sagan says:

      Bioware or Obsidian should do a vampire RPG targeted at girls. It would sell insanely well.

    • Starky says:

      I’m afraid the Vampire won’t be making a comeback for a while yet. Not until Twilight is a distant memory.

    • Clovis says:

      Wow; how was this not mentioned earlier? With True Blood and Twilight out there, ya, there should be some good vampire games coming out. I want to play a vampire version of GTA. A storyline and stuff would be nice, but I mainly want to skulk around a city and feed…

    • Schmung says:

      Still waiting for someone to make an open-world cyberpunk vampire game. :(

    • AndrewC says:

      Matrix Online, surely?

  34. l1ddl3monkey says:

    So. Bored. Of. Zombies.

  35. Gap Gen says:

    If we’re going by current FPS tropes, a legitimate question for any villain is: “Can I conceivably kill a million of them without dying?” I’m not sure giant robots fall into that category, unless you’re a gianter robot.

  36. kafka7 says:

    How about a game with human beings in it?

  37. Carra says:

    If the Giant Robot movies suck as much as the Transformers franchise then I’ll pass.

    We need more western games!

  38. Tei says:

    There can be a transition from a old tired meme to a new old tired meme.
    Like the Borg or Strogs, we can have zombies with tecnological enhancements (see Killing Floor), or Zombies that are part.. .I don’t know… fungus, or big blobs the player has to burn with a flametrower. You can always kill “Stormtroppers”.. people behind a shield, so you don’t see his face, and this make it easy to dehumanize him.
    Our catarsys need dehumanized humanoids. If zombies are really old, we can easily change to a new tired meme. People are already suggesting old tired new memes as new meme, like robots and vampires of wheredogs or mutant aliens or demonic vikings or tchulu ghouls.

    • AndrewC says:

      The world really would be better if there were confused dogs with no sense of direction. Also monsters with the sniffles. I want them.

    • Tei says:

      Sorry, I mean wherewolfs. You can make anything awesome putting where in the name (whereworld, wherecows, wheredogs )

  39. Lilliput King says:

    In terms of games as fantasy fulfillment, a zombie apocalypse was always top of the list.

    Next is being an astronaut. We need more games like Shattered Horizon, basically. Single player preferably, and not too high-tech either – clunky space suits is the way to go.

    I’m imagining something like that 1953 Journey Into Space radio series. Or 2001, that might actually be more achievable.

  40. Solario says:

    Bring. back. Cthulhu.

    I want insane fishmen followers and swarms of shifting flesh creatures with multiple, horrible, insanity-inducing eyes and tentacles that stretch out from its horrible visages and an end-boss that is so huge and unknowable, that you wouldn’t be able to see its entire body on your screen.

  41. Schmung says:

    Someone earlier said something about steampunk I believe. A genre ripe for gamification if ever there was one. Sure there’s an engine out there capable of doing really , really pretty steam by now and that’s about all the motiviation some devs need.

  42. Solario says:

    Oh yeah, and a well-designed shooter with a 50′s Sci-fi aesthetic. Fuck spaceships, I want rockets!

  43. Redd says:

    How is this not automaton apocalypse survival?

    And the next trend comes from whatever movie themes were hot after zombies (as consuming kids grow into producing adults) , so time travel and werewolves.

  44. Taillefer says:

    Somebody should make an MMO which is all about surviving the first few days/weeks of a disaster, after which the server is reset. Start off by randomly generating a city for people to populate, let them get accustomed to the layout, buy supplies, prepare for what is to come.

    But the players don’t know what kind of disaster will hit the city. It could be a zombie outbreak, earthquake, inter-dimensional monster invasion, War of the Worlds, Tsunami, or giant stompy robots! But they basically live out the event as it happens and see how long they can survive during/afterwards.

    Server resets, new city, new disaster.

  45. shiggz says:

    like fashion once they run out of ideas they’ll just start looping back and with minor variations.

  46. Richard Beer says:

    Red Dawn.

    The “Wolverines!” level in MW2 reminded me of how much I Ioved Red Dawn when I was a kid. We totally need a game where you’re a member of some indigenous resistance movement fighting an asymmetric guerilla war against a ruthless, powerful invader. It doesn’t have to be the Russians, it could be the Nazis in France or Norway, or… well, Iraq or Afghanistan I suppose, although that might offend too many Western Sensibilities to be commercially viable.

    Maybe just turn the invaders into aliens and dehumanise them, like V or Battlefield “Travolta is a giant penis” Earth.

    • Richard Beer says:

      Incidentally, I don’t mean “Half Life 2″, I mean an open-ended RPG or FPS/RPG that involves careful strategy and missions to blow up trains, sabotage bridges etc.

    • Clovis says:

      I just watched Che Part I and II, so I was thinking the same thing. 80 dudes land in Cuba and a few years later they’ve overthrown a government that had thousands of well armed soldiers and were backed by the US. I want to play that game.

      It’d be nice if it played on the most important aspect of that kind of warfare: the low morale of the soldiers. It’d be nice to see soldiers actually surrender or run away in games, since that’s how most battles are won.

  47. leenull says:

    talking about zombies and WWII. Shame this movie never got made:
    Worst Case Scenario – trailer1
    Worst Case Scenario – trailer2
    Great trailers though :)

  48. Captain Bland says:

    http://www.omnivoracious.com/2009/06/neither-a-contract-nor-a-promise-five-movements-to-watch-out-for.html

    Great article by China Mieville from earlier this year, about potential new literary movements..the first of which is called ‘Zombiefail ’09-ism’. It’s a great list really, funny and exciting. I really think Jim is right on this one.

  49. Akimbo says:

    Zombies All The Way Down

  50. Vitamin Powered says:

    I’m going to agree with AndrewC and Dinger that the zombie genre has seen such a take off recently due to the technological capabilities of our PCs allowing for it. Instancing has reduced the bottleneck of creating masses of similar objects significantly.

    So what will be next? Multicore computing might suggest better AI and physics as definite possibilities, and id tech 5 seems to point to a future that can seamlessly handle high res close up textures (for instance, a face) as well as large scale worlds.

    Heck, giant robots are a definite possibility; post-rending techniques and better streaming may make battling 20 story bots obscured by smoke and atmospheric haze across a ruined city the next in-thing.