Death of Zombies: The Next Theme Meme?


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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