Zombies are a staple of horror wherever it appears. We’ve told each other stories about dead bodies coming to life long before there were videogames, before there were movies, presumably before there even was written language, as the oldest written records of people talking about what can be described as zombies go as far back as 5000 BCE, so it’s not farfetched to assume that even cavemen, huddled around a fire, used to spin yarns of the dead coming back to life.
A zombie is a staple of human civilization. But what even is a zombie? This may seem like an obvious question, but if you look into the subject, it appears that there’s virtually nothing connecting various creatures, which have normally been called “zombies”, for example mutants, ghouls, deranged cannibals, alien creatures and even stranger things.
So we’ll have to look deep. “Under the flesh”, so to speak. And because I deal in videogames, we’re going to discuss zombies in this medium. I intend to find out how zombies have historically been used and what distinguishes a well-used zombie trope from one merely stinking the place up. Corpse puns! We’re going to have some more of those hopefully.
This is going to be structured slightly different from the video you just watched, though examples will be largely the same. Here, I’m interested in the deeper meaning of a zombie, not simply how fun or how popular a given zombie game is. I want to find out what makes them work. And at the end of it, perhaps you too will understand this strange fascination I have with the undead.
TOP 10 Zombie games for PC
So you think you’re brave like Master Chief? Take a look at our list of the games which will make your skin crawl and your confidence dwindle into nothing. And then keep reading, if you dare, because we’ll point out exactly what makes them spooky enough to appear on this list.
Be warned, and mind the shadows. They are always listening.
|DayZ||The patron saint of zombie-riddled open worlds full of human monsters.||BUY CHEAPER||2013|
|Dying Light Enhanced Edition||Dropkick a zombie and run away before the night comes. You aren’t ready for it.||BUY CHEAPER||2015|
|Killing Floor||Lock and load and fight against the ravenous tide of undead flesh alongside your friends.||2009|
|Dead Rising 4||Being assaulted by the undead is no reason to stop being creative and making selfies. All-new chapter of one of the most popular zombie game franchises of all time||BUY CHEAPER||2006|
|Resident Evil 7: Biohazard||A dinner gone wrong leaves a family disturbed and vengeful. Better Airbnb somewhere else.||BUY CHEAPER||2017|
|Call of Duty: Black Ops 4||Take the fight to the zombies before they take a bite out of you. Friends help a lot with its ubiquitous zombie mode||BUY CHEAPER||2018|
|The Walking Dead||Everyone remembers everything, but you still have to make decisions. Head or knee cap? Do you survive Zombie apocalypse?||BUY CHEAPER||2010|
|Left 4 Dead 2||Zombie outbreaks are less scary and at the same time more challenging when friends try to help you fight your way through the hordes of zombies||BUY CHEAPER||2009|
|Last of us||This is why some people are afraid of fungi. On the other hand: a journey of a lifetime.||PC Version Soon||2013|
What’s in a zombie?
So let’s get back to that question: what even is a zombie?
Well, I think that in order to understand it, we have to first ask a different question and that is: what is the purpose of a zombie in storytelling? And the answer to that question is pretty straight-forward: the purpose is to instill fear. Fear is a mighty force indeed, but there are also many different kinds of fear.
However here, I want to propose that all phobias stem from one, fundamental fear: the fear of the other. As human beings, we’re locked in our personal perception of reality, we’re fundamentally isolated from the larger whole and doomed to perceive only a fraction of reality. And having a firm understanding that we’re mortal creatures, that which is other, is frequently also dangerous to us.
A zombie certainly combines in itself a lot of those different fears of the other: they move strangely, they’re ravenous and antagonistic, desiring to eat your flesh, they’re also “impure” and, perhaps most important of all, they move in great hordes, changing people they attack into a part of their legions. All I’m saying is that to a Roman living in the year 300, the difference between a zombie and a Saxon would be academic.
Fear is the linchpin of imagination
Of course, it’s not that easy, but the apparent similarity of a zombie to that which one could perceive as “the other” could go a long way in explaining the prevalence of this ghastly monstrosity.
While it may also serve as an apt explanation for where the first idea of a zombie came from, zombies aren’t a complete free-for-all, the very important defining feature of a zombie (though one sometimes omitted) is that it’s a dead body, which came back to life.
So what it looks like, is that there first was a fear, a deep rooted fear of “the other”, fear of “that which is not me”, which later incorporated fear of death and decay (things humans have good reasons to be afraid of) and hey presto, you have your antagonist.
A Frankenstein’s monster of everything that a person could fear. That would definitely explain why zombies are so prevalent throughout human folklore. So in the interests of being specific
I will define a zombie as follows:
a dead body animated back to life, which ravenously consumes flesh and is capable of multiplying and converting other dead bodies to zombies.
I think that’s fair. That’s precise enough that not everything will count as a zombie, but the term is broad enough to talk about widely different games and it retains that “essence of zombie”.
The common usage of a zombie
With that, we’ve narrowed the scope of what we are talking about, but that still leaves us with hundreds of vastly different zombie games. So instead of categorizing them by what their zombies are, I’m going to talk about how these zombies are used, and trust me, there certainly are good and bad ways to use your flesh-eating undead.
I’m going to rate them from the worst to the best and provide you with examples. Now this, of course, by no means entails that these games are worse for it, it just means they’re not utilizing the trope the best way they could have and they maybe should have picked a different antagonist for their game. This also is by no means objective. All good? Great.
Zombie as a mere obstacle
This category is defined by a fundamental misunderstanding of what even the point of a zombie is. Zombies in games like this usually play a minor role, but are curiously hyped up as if they were supposed to be much more relevant or dangerous than they are. Frankly put: they’re just a contrived game mechanic.
Such games include the well-known Survival game DayZ, where in many ways, the various survival meters and other players pose the real danger and the fun part is building up your base and banding together.
The PC game is fine as a survival game, but ask yourself: why zombies? Funnily enough my point is made by another game, Rust, which started as a DayZ clone and first added zombies as an antagonist and then removed them, and absolutely nothing of value was lost.
Another game in this vein is Call of Duty with its ubiquitous zombie mode. I supposed I shouldn’t rag on this one too hard, as it acknowledges the irrelevance of its zombies by relegating them to be a separate mode of play.
Though in the newest one, in CoD Black Ops IV, that’s where the main brunt of the “story” takes place, which only shines the light on how pointless they are. They could be replaced by angry badgers, and nothing would change. Actually, scratch that, it would be better, at least it would be funny.
Now again, this doesn’t mean these games are bad. CoD is a very fun and highly competitive game and DayZ certainly has a lot of charm to it, but zombies aren’t their strong suit. They may cross all the boxes on the zombie list, but they’re certainly not used to the maximum effect.
Although this is also where hundreds upon hundreds of crappy, asset-flippy Steam games come in, though they certainly have much bigger problems than misuse of their zombies.
Zombie as the force of nature
Now, this is where the author starts to understand what the point of the zombie. Zombies as the force of nature are suitably scary, not necessarily because they’re that dangerous individually, but because they represent a cataclysm that cannot be overcome by the personal strength and conviction of the protagonist, subverting the basic hero myth.
These PC games are usually framed as shooters and often include coop, to drive the point of the necessity of working together home. This includes State of Decay, which as Polygon outlines in their short video essay on the matter, juxtaposes statehood, so the state of cooperation, with decay, a foreboding realization that nature may laugh in the face of our feeble attempts.
This is also where Killing Floor and Dead Island lie, devoted entirely to the empowering fantasy of sticking together to blow zombie brains out. However, even though it’s ultimately a power fantasy, the underlying idea that a zombie represents a catastrophe that cannot be stopped is certainly there.
This is where the majority of zombie games find their place and these are usually pretty fun games. While an understanding of the importance of your zombies doesn’t necessitate quality, there’s certainly a correlation between representation and quality. These games are usually easy to spot, as they devote a lot of care and attention to their zombies and treat them with reverence they demand.
Zombie as the dark reflection of humanity.
Now you’re talking. This interpretation of a zombie goes beyond simple fear and asks the very question I asked in the beginning and reaches the same conclusion as I have: we fear that which is human. Naturally, in games where this level of understanding for zombie occurs, zombies are frequently humanized and they may not even be the primary antagonist.
The majority of games on the list occupies this spot. I firmly believe that a reason for this is that understanding the meaning and purpose of a zombie to this extent, puts one on certain intellectual grounds that make creation of a high quality product very likely.
This is where Resident Evil lies, because its zombies are not an “accident”, they’re a creation of a human organization. Resident Evil zombies are an antagonist, but it’s the underlying greed and ambition of man that opens this proverbial pandora’s box, twisting the human form into that of a ravenous ghoul.
This is also where Telltale’s The Walking Dead and The Last of Us come in. In these games zombies are often very tragic as we frequently see examples of people we care about becoming one of the infected and its usually the human groups that pose much larger threat than the shambling corpses. These games allow us to see ourselves in zombies and wonder whether the real monster doesn’t lie inside us.
Lastly, this is also where Dying Light and Left 4 Dead are, for one simple reason: they allow players to take the roles of zombies, thus humanizing them completely. A Hunter leaping on one of the survivors is not just a zombie, it’s a clever and purposeful creature, creature with its own goals and ambitions and you? You’re in their way. Are the two of you really so different?
Even if all this seems highly pretentious to you, you still want to check out the aforementioned games, simply because they’re pretty damn good. Not necessarily because they understand the principle of a zombie, but I think that’s certainly a factor.
Zombie as comic relief.
There’s also one last special category and this is one I’m personally very fond of. Fear is a powerful force, but it’s also a shackling force. In the words of Frank Herbert: Fear is the mind-killer. There’s a lot of value in de-mystifying fear, in making it approachable and ultimately in dispelling its power. And the way human being have always done it, is with comedy.
Zombies from these PC games are goofy and silly, but make no mistake, they’re still zombies—ravenous, flesh-eating corpses out to get you. These games don’t treat zombies as a mere punchline, but as a joke in and of itself. This kind of humor is often dark, because it works as a defense against fear, not a substitution of it. Humans are also usually only minor actors in these games, because a joke needs clarity to land.
The fantastically goofy Dead Rising series is here, with its many slapstick moments and over-the-top actions sequences, as well as Plants vs Zombies, where human characters are done away with completely, in favor of player adopting the roles of sentient plants, in what I can only summarize as a masterful feat of personification.
Want more? Check our Article about best horror video games on Steam
On a hippy trail, head full of zombie
That I think covers all common usages of a zombie. I remain in awe of this creature, that staple of horror that exhibits all our fears and yet loops back to the true scourge of this world: humankind. A creature, whose understanding can maybe tell us a lot about ourselves, in the end.
Hopefully you got a new perspective out of this. Happy Halloween everybody.