You wake up to the sound of your alarm. It beeps its same old brain grating klaxon, forcing you to consciousness through the force of sheer annoyance. Your reach a hand out, clumsily smacking at your nightstand until one of flailing fingers hits the right switch and you’re again treated the sound of silence.
Except, there isn’t silence. Outside there is a din of commotion. Car alarms, screams, and the guttural moans of something that sounds human mix together into drone of horror. You throw off your covers and bring your feet the floor. Taking wobbly, groggy steps you rub the morning fog from your eyes and peer out the window. The scene that greets you is beyond comprehension. Smoke billows into the sky, rising from infernos that look like a lighter’s flicker in the distance. The streets are littered with debris and bodies, oh so many bodies. The blood, the gore, it layers the street in sheet, and amongst it are the living dead. Some are crawling. Some are crouching over corpses yet to rise, devouring them like butcher’s meat. Most are shuffling aimlessly. But in the eyes of them all is a hunger, deep, resolute and ever searching for prey. Welcome to the zombie apocalypse.
Why hasn’t anyone made an open world zombie game? We’ve had our crime games, or cowboy adventures and our virtual nuclear holocausts, now someone needs to give us a title that accurately reenacts the full zombocalypse envisioned by so many fictions. Where is Dawn of the Dead for PS3? The Walking Dead for Xbox 360? Hell, I’ll even take Zombies of Mass Destruction for the Wii.
Now granted, some are already ready to call zombies a fad well past its welcome. Most every major release nowadays seems to incorporate them in some way, be it the Nazi zombies of Call of Duty, the flood in Halo, or the husks of Mass Effect. That said, one could also surmise that the reason the undead keep rearing the decaying heads is because it’s just a great concept to work with. Zombies are in essence a blank slate upon which most any sort of gameplay, story and social commentary can be painted. Here’s what I think should be included in the next portrait.
1. The Big City (Examples: Grand Theft Auto)
This should be obvious, especially since I say from the get go I want an open world game, but just in case you missed it, I want an open world zombie game.
What form this world takes is negotiable, but having something metropolitan is a must. Any fan of zombie fiction knows that in a post-zombocalypse world there is nothing more terrifying than a city. The large, packed population coupled with countless places to hide and lurk make it a nightmare for a survivor. In fact, in his brilliant Zombie Survival Guide, Max Brooks explicitly states that if you’re in a city your chances of survival can drop as substantially as 90%. It’s a made up figure, but it’s scary nonetheless.
For the purpose of a game a city could be a perfect starting set-piece to begin in. Imagine waking up in the middle of such a place, unarmed and tasked with trying to escape the hordes out to kill you. It was scary in Resident Evil 2 and 3 and I’d venture to say it would be a jarring experience again.
2. Beyond the City Limits (Oblivion, Fallout 3)
With cities being so lethal, the obvious goal would be to escape them. This would of course mean that when you reach the city limits there has to be somewhere else to go. An expanded countryside would be another key ingredient.
Think about playing Oblivion for the first time. As great as it was to explore the various cities, castles and towns, it was out in the wilderness that much of the adventure was found. Imagine walking the plains, solitary undead dotting the horizon. As beautiful as the country can be, the persistent presence of mobile corpses would be a constant reminder of your dire straights. Most importantly, out of the city you’d find people, which leads us to our next point.
3. Varied and Meaningful Interactions (Fallout 3, Mass Effect, Dragon Age)
You are not the only survivor of the zombocalypse. Pockets of humanity still remain and even more than your interactions with the living dead, your interactions with the simply living will be what tempers the quality of the game.
In many cases this may just mean fighting off packs of roaming bandits. If there is one consistent element across the great zombie fictions, it’s that the fall of society turns most people into jerks. Desperate to survive but to stupid to try and rebuild, violent nomads will be a constant threat as they try to take what you want.
There will also be good honest people just trying to live a day longer in a world gone to hell. How you react to these folk will be more meaningful. Will you join them? Help them and work yourself to reestablish a civilized world? Or will you be a bandit yourself, murdering and robbing anyone pitiful enough to cross your path.
I think Fallout 3’s morality system would work well here. That said, I’d love to see it coupled with some of what Bioware does in many of its games. Namely, I’d prefer to see the consequences of your actions be more permanent. In Fallout 3 nuking Megaton might render you the baddest douche in the wastelands, but it was still possible to come back from that morally. Comparatively, Mass Effect and Dragon give you less of an opportunity to make up for your misdeeds.
Now granted, Robert Kirkman and George Romero haven’t written video games, but honestly I salivate over the thought of either of them gracing a game with their brand of undead goodness. Romero’s earlier films are the defining zombie movies and Kirkman’s Walking Dead comics are probably the best zombie-centric works of fiction this side of World War Z. They both do a great job of showing what it would mean to live in a world ruined by the undead, the way such a crisis would affect people, and the futility that accompany trying to reclaim the life you had before.
Assuming they’re unavailable though, give the project to Bioware. Bioware probably has the best dedicated writing staff of any developer. Even if the basic plots are relatively standard (save the world from big baddie!), their dialogue and characters are always interesting and great. Zombies are similar in that it’s not the idea that defines the experience, but the characters fighting through it. In the end it’s all about people.
5. Gameplay (Fallout 3, Dragon Age)
I want gameplay? What the hell is that supposed to mean? It’s a game of course there should be gameplay!
That bit of poor wording aside, I’m drawn to either one of two poles. On the one hand, I’d love to see a game where you play a solitary wanderer in a zombie world. For that purpose Fallout 3 would be an excellent template. I think there have even been some mods on the PC that transform it to be closer to what I’m envisioning. That said, basic zombie survival strategy dictates that making it on your own in the long term just isn’t viable. Again, it would be a game so realism isn’t a must, but I do like to maintain it where possible.
Incorporating a Dragon Age style strategy RPG template to the gameplay could have its advantages. You could primarily control your character and then also have allies to order around. One might argue that Mass Effect would be a better example to work from, since there would shooter elements involved, but honestly Mass Effect has never felt very strategic to me. When dealing with an undead horde, running and gunning doesn’t work. You’d need more methodical, strategic thinking and Dragon Age serves as a better example of that.
6. Rigor Mortis and Headshots
I like the modern, fast zombies but at heart I’m a traditionalist. Zombies are dead and therefore their bodies are stiff and slow moving. Are there advantages to having fast zombies? Yes, Left 4 Dead has certainly shown how intense they can make a game. But what I’m looking for are hordes more similar to Resident Evil and Dead Rising. They’re scary not because they’re capable but because they always outnumber you. You can kill ten but there’s a thousand more already coming for you. They surround and overwhelm you.
And they can only be killed by a shot to the head. Most zombie games allow you to blow them away like regular people. This was fine back in the Resident Evil days when accurate aiming was nigh next to impossible, but there’s no excuse to keep botching this detail with modern technology. Think of how much more desperate zombie games would be, even with the slow zombies, if they just kept coming until you plugged them in the head. Every bullet would count for more and you’d really have to develop some skill to succeed. This may make such a game less accessible, but to hell with accessibility! Was Demon’s Souls a bad game because it required some thought and skill?