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. Clovis says:

    The next big genre will be Adventure Games. This will happen.

  2. The Sombrero Kid says:

    i suspect we’ll follow the 80′s – now movie curve pretty close and move onto pretensions of seriousness and John Everyman protagonists in relatively realistic scenarios while still winning the day, it will be a mixture of luck and hard work, then we’ll move onto glorifying the comic book industry, desperately raiding it for scraps of originality after the doldrums of the 90′s while not doing the things that are truly awesome about it i.e. giant robots.

    call of duty 6 is a sign that we’re heading for die hard or speed instead of commando.

  3. nayon says:

    Shiny vampires.

  4. Vandelay says:

    Ironically, the music that video uses is from 28 Days Later.

  5. spliter says:

    hm… what we’ve been through already?
    Space dogfights, Air dogfights, zombies, post apocalyptic themes, modern warfare, world war 2….
    I’d say that robots actually would be a good idea. oh… and myaybe aliens. I’m not talking about the green dudes with lazer pistols and whatnot , I’m talking about the real aliens, I can’t get enough of them. (and I am aware there are several games existing about them and there’s one on the way, but you can never have enough aliens, they kick both pirate AND ninja ass, especially if you can play as an alien)

  6. EaterOfCheese says:

    Clearly the next big thing will be steampunky airballoon ballast & blunderbuss battles.

  7. Psychopomp says:

    Will the next big thing be games other than MILITARY SHOOTER:MODERN ACTION MOVIE being able to make 300 million dollars?

  8. PetitPiteux says:

    I hate that zombie meme. It got old after the first couple of films, and I have been avoiding it since (with admittedly increasing difficulties). Narratively speaking, there nothing whatsoever there.

    So whatever comes next will be better. Yes, even pirates (‘yarr!’).

    • Jimmy says:

      Or just combine…
      I have been wasting valuable uni study time playing Zombie Escape on a Pirates of the Caribbean escape map. Incredibally good fun but dangerous when your time is your own.

  9. hoff says:

    Hmmm… I mean, yes we do have L4D which is kind of a big deal. But have zombies really ever been “out”? The nineties had its Resident Evils already, zombies are a default villain in any game you could squeeze a colorful set of enemies into (Half-Life had zombies, Thief had zombies, Earthbound had zombies, Zombies Ate My Neighbors had zombies,… I could go on).

    Zombies have always been a subgroup of the horror genre, sometimes popping up more popularly. But they never ruled the meme scene but rather stayed a constant niche, kinda like pirates or ninjas.

  10. Isometric says:

    Why you do this robots?? :(

    Robots are the way to go.

  11. noom says:

    Swans. The next big meme will we swans.

  12. Hulk Hogan says:

    scary foreigners
    black people
    imperial guardsmen
    pigs who walk on hind legs, they’re called humans
    everyone in australia the land of mad max and shaun of the dead
    carpool simulators

    this is the future

    of my anus

  13. Gutter says:

    Zombies AI are easy to code. “Track target and run to target” is easier to do than “track target, hide behind a barrel, shot, check health, shot”. Gamers would not accept their robots to be mindless target practice, it wouldn’t feel “roboish”.

    • Nerd Rage says:

      Depends on the complexity of the robots. If they’re all 1950′s Lost in Space type, I’d buy the extremely simple zombie-like AI. If we’re going all futurist with it though, no, a real AI would be nearly god-like and… sigh, resistance would be (effectively) futile.

  14. Pattom says:

    Aw, after Dino D-Day I was lookiing forward to more thunder lizards in games. :’(

  15. FernandoDANTE says:

    Bipedal Giant Robots are fucking lame. We already have two horrible Transformers movies to prove that, we don’t need any more, THANK YOU VERY MUCH.

    Zombies FTW.

  16. Clovis says:

    Sounds like we’re gonna’ need some Robot Insurance.

  17. Wulf says:

    Games tend to follow movie at a rate of about 1-2 years behind, sometimes with dramatic speed leaps, sometimes not. 1-2 years back, zombies were all the rage in movies, too, and we even had indie movies about zombies. Then was the ‘year of the vampire’, and currently we’re on the ‘year of the werewolf’, as there are many werewolf movies being released and in the works, this seems to culminate with Freeborn which will probably redefine the werewolf genre.

    Now, I’m not sure what you can do with a sparkly vampire, so I doubt we’ll see many of those, but we may see a dystopian, gritty setting, akin to Bloodlines, we might even see a new Kain game (holy crap!), and that would be fun, wouldn’t it? So after developers get bored of zombies, we’ll probably see some angsty vampire heroes, angstily angsting about their antihero angst in their angsty dark world of angsty angst… and so on. Or we might get Kain.

    After that, hopefully we’ll see some things from the year of the werewolf, as it seems to be very easy to make a rather deep werewolf/shapeshifter character. I’m endlessly amused (and I like being amused) how people keep telling me that for the first time in Twiight (New Moon) they’ve seen characters that aren’t entirely wooden, that the shapeshifters are slightly compelling, even if they don’t get enough air time and Edward returns to fuck up the movie or whatever else (I have no idea, I can’t bring myself to watch New Moon yet, it is Twilight after all).

    So, we migh get a few RPGs featuring around colourful, extroverted, clever werewolf packs, focusing on the dynamism of shapeshifting, the usefulness of animal senses and so on. And you can do a lot with a werewolf after all, a detective who’s able to follow scents and possesses supernatural strength is only the beginning. As I said though, Freeborn will open a few eyes, there (if World of Darkness hasn’t all ready).

    Anyway, zombies for a bit. Enjoy them while they last, because things could get very emo, and potentially even very sparkly with the upcoming vampire age that’s ready to hit us.

    (Also, sorry Jim, the year of the robot in which robots were re-envisioned from killing machines to heroic creatures with depth and emotion was a while back, culminating in the rather beautiful and incredible Iron Giant. This had shockwaves in the videogame industry as well, and it’s why we see the odd good guy mechanical man now.)

  18. Chaz says:

    Seinfeld could be the next meme, we’ll have “games about nothing”.

  19. VHATI says:

    There will be no death of zombies.

    Other things that wont die listed here.

    Post apocalyptic worlds.
    alien invasions.
    Invading alien worlds.
    Oversized weapons and hairdo(japan exclusive)
    Oversized armor

  20. Lucas says:

    The recent popularity of Zombies thematically strike me as a backlash to the trend of increasing realism. Except in special cases, game characters are inherently zombie-like, especially in older games with more limited art and tech constraints.

    I feel like we’re ready for games that toss the pretense of realism entirely in favor of better game design and mechanics. Like why marry FPS death and respawning with realistic anything? Why not make the player unkillable and deter progress or resolve scoring in a different manner entirely? Geographies of progression would be more interesting than the repeating binary pass/fail we’ve accepted.

    • Impossible says:

      I’d like to see this as well, but with a few exceptions (Geometry Wars, Rez), themed games are much more appealing to people than abstract ones. This is even the case in the indie scene. People would rather make and play something that has some sort of theme, even if building an abstract game purely focused on mechanics might lead to more interesting\fun gameplay.

  21. minipixel says:

    >So what will come next?

    Moderately evil bananas!

  22. Lucky Main Street says:

    Yes to giant robots! PLEASE YES!

    Also: giant monsters. Giants: Citizen Kabuto really peaked my interest back in the day, and I’ve been waiting for something with giant monsters that’s less fantasy based. I would be very happy if we entered our Godzilla phase.

  23. stilgar says:

    The next big thing will be the eco-apocalypse, as the world dies outside we will want to play games about it inside.

  24. the_fanciest_of_pants says:

    I’ve always loved zombies.. and I’m afraid I always will. It’s a shame there’s so few examples(proportionately) of good zombie fiction in any given genre however…

    If anyone is feeling that zombies are getting old, I beg you to read World War Z by Max Brooks. Best zombie storytelling ever in my humble opinion, it’s a shame films about them are so uniformly sub-par.

  25. Caramelcarrot says:

    I think the trend is that zombies usually happen in times of Republican US governments, vampires during Democratic governments, taking account development lag-time. So I expect vampires will be back in some guise.

  26. Doug F says:

    Hm. I’ve been wanting to try and make a turn-based tactics game to try out Unity, and I’d been leaning towards Zombies as at least the initial enemies, for a lot of the reasons listed here. I want something inhuman/nonhuman, and something a plucky group of characters could hold out against as the player learned the game. I had thought about aliens, but if I’m going to get compared to X-Com I’d like it to be because I managed to get the gameplay right, not because I ripped it off thematically as well as mechanically.

    Robots are my other consideration, but it’s harder to scale them from easy enemies at first to harder enemies as the game progresses. The linked XKCD comic seems pretty accurate in that regard.

    Zombies, though. Basic zombies are easy enough to deal with in small numbers early on, and difficulty can be increased by some combination of more zombies and harder zombies. Or harder undead in general – the “villains” could be necromancers causing the whole mess, and who knows what other nasty things they could create.

    Demons are another possibility. hmmm.

  27. invisiblejesus says:

    CCP is still working on that World of Darkness MMO, and last I heard they were doing quite well financially. If that actually comes out reasonably soon it could kick off the aforementioned vampire and werewolf crazes. Though I’m a little skeptical of werewolves as a dominant genre; I’m not familiar with Freeborn, but I think it’d really have to completely change how people see werewolves. It’s just not a genre that’s ever caught on in the way that vampires or zombies have. If a game or movie comes out that changes that, sweet.

  28. Jeff Strain says:

    Hey Jim,

    I actually agree with most of what you are saying here. It’s unfortunate that my “guilt-free meat puppet” comment has been propagated so widely, because I think the real essence of the zombie genre is not shooting and hacking at the undead, but instead the ramifications of societal collapse and the necessity for teamwork and human connections to survive. Certainly in the context of an MMO, it is the “survival” aspect of the zombie genre that is interesting, rather than the “carnage” aspect.

    Jeff

  29. SteveHatesYou says:

    I hope vampire squids are the next meme.

  30. Impossible says:

    My new goal in life is to make the Giant Robot game that makes western developers adopt giant robots like COD did for WWII or L4D did for Zombies.

  31. James F says:

    What if they used giant quadrupedal robots then?

  32. clive dunn says:

    BISCUITS!!!

    The great war of the biscuits will start and we’ll just be the screaming refugees stuck in the middle of it all. God help us all………

  33. Jakkar says:

    I disagree. Zombies as a theme is a tired thing, but zombies as an ingredient is universal. Nothing is complete without zombies. Everything, on some level, depicts zombism – hypnotised villagers, rotting ghosts, hordes of mind-control-chipped scifi soldiers – one way or another, almost everything has ‘zombies’. It’s something we love for many reasons, and often chilling and exciting.

    I am tired of all the zombie-focused games, but more because they’re not very good than because they have zombies in them -they remain among my favourite fictional components to a game, film or any story.. And I don’t think they’ll vanish. Merely return to their place as a part of a world, rather than the point of it.

  34. Gabbo says:

    Since most games don’t even come close to actually using zombies in the way a George Romero film uses them, perhaps they should work on that first before abandoning them altogether.

  35. Caiman says:

    Developers got tired of everyone comparing the AI of their soldiers to the ones in Half Life, so now it’s all zombies, all the time and they hand the AI duties over to the intern.

  36. Bret says:

    And the ability to render tons of enemies means the military can swarm you!

    Excellent.

  37. Melf_Himself says:

    I solved the problem…. Necromancer Archvillain controls zombies.

  38. Heliocentric says:

    And you can’t spell necromancer without romance, so there is a love interest sorted.

  39. Eagle says:

    Oh damn, this mean the next big thing will be environmental disasters .. :(

    But I hope for giant robots idd.

  40. dingo says:

    I never fell for that Zombie craze.
    To me there is lack of motivation since there is no one to “blame” for it usually.

    Now seeing that trailer and speculating that this was an alien attack (the ships) using robots I would happily grab a gun and start hunting them since I would take such an attack on mankind personal!

    I definately want some bad guy to blame and hunt down in line of “Independence Day” or “Duke Nukem”.
    Even better if I get attacked on my home soil (like in Modern Warfare 2, World in Conflict and the upcoming “Homefront”) to really start my blood boiling. :)

  41. Ninja says:

    imo the Zombie “meme” won’t be over until somebody creates an uber realistic zombie game.

    I’m talking REAL zombie survival. Not running forward and shooting zombies. I’m talking Stranded Mod on Garrys Mod, with the added tension of thousands of zombies tearing through walls in the next room.

    At that point I’ll be willing to say “Okay, they’ve done as much with Zombies as I care to see them do, lets go onto the next thing”

    Until that point there won’t have been a zombie game I’m truly fond of (I didn’t mind l4d or L4D2 much, even though I love Valve and TF2), because i like games with more strategy than twitch skills and knowledge of level layouts.

    I’m thinking Standed Mod + dead rising or something of the sort. Massive open world area to travel around in, zombies realistically placed and realistically proportioned, and on top of finding weapons to fight off zombies, being forced to make decisions based on how much hungry your character is, or how thirsty, or how tired.

    Since a Zombie invasion isn’t likely to happen (Knock on wood) I’d like a game that makes me feel that I’d know what a zombie invasion would be like. The “idea” of a survival horror game starring zombies and the poor sap that has to live with him is cool, but so far most Survival games have been more about shooting zombies in the face with randomly found weapons, and less about surviving.

    Maybe I’m just some crazy guy trying to prepare for the apocalypse, or maybe I’m just a guy who wants a zombie game that isn’t as fact paced or twitchy as L4D. Who Knows.

  42. Piratepete says:

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    The Minister Parts 1 & 2 and ‘The Boy’

    Written by my own fair hand, with Part 3, the finale out soon!

    Please feel free to leave comments and check out some of my other stories on the site.

    (Shameless plug)

    I’ve just realised that this is my first post on the RPS forum so this looks like spam but I’ve been on RPS since Jim was in short pants. I just didn’t know there was a forum until last week.

  43. Enshu says:

    How about…Daleks?

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