The Gaming Dead: Searching for the Perfect Zombie Game

Opinion by Mark Delaney,
The flesh eating, leg dragging, skin peeling, relentless hordes of zombies are one of the games industry's favorite plot points. For me, my first brush with undeath was back on Super Nintendo's Zombies Ate My Neighbors, one of the few games I played on the console. Since then, we've seen more genre games than the number of zombie extras on an episode of The Walking Dead. Some have been deadly serious brooding survival epics, some others have been silly and light comedy-horror hybrids. What none of them have been so far, however, is perfect.

Not a perfect game mind you — that probably isn't achievable — no, what I mean is the perfect depiction of a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by braineaters. I'm a part of what seems like the minority of gamers that doesn't at all mind the deluge of zombie games. I don't tire of them, for one. More than that though, I welcome more attempts at giving players the best depiction of zombie fare we've ever seen. Plenty have offered memorable tries, but they have all, so far, lacked various aspects of the genre that hold any of them back from achieving perfection.

Zombie fans have endless opportunities to play and replay their favorite titles.Zombie fans have endless opportunities to play and replay their favorite titles.

What makes the perfect zombie game? The idea of such a genre title will mean different things to different people. To me, the perfect zombie game would play a lot like Robert Kirkman's comic and its accompanied television series, the aforementioned The Walking Dead. Kirkman's world embodies one of the most realistic (I assume) depictions of what such a plague would do to humanity. With most of the world ravaged and left rotting in a yard or alley — or worse — the pockets of life that do remain have to deal with problems that are all at once physical, emotional, and interpersonal. Obviously every game with zombies in it deals with the physical consequences of living day to day in such a world. Don't get bitten. Don't get injured. Don't get killed, of course.

Games like Left 4 Dead and Call of Duty's Zombies give players intense and action-oriented scenarios through which they must survive. They even encompass another important part of surviving in such a world: making friends. You wouldn't want to lone-wolf such a despairing existence. Finding trustworthy allies whom you can lean on when you're in trouble is a crucial step to not falling victim early in your post-apocalyptic life. Where those games falter is in their tone. L4D never wants to be taken seriously. Neither does the increasingly ridiculous CoD Zombies mode, and that's totally okay if such an angle is what they're going for. But that also means, for me at least, they are less than perfect. Any world where undead outnumber the living by more than 2:1 isn't going to have a lot of room for jokes about cola and "my buddy Keith". They're light, meant to be exciting games experiences, and plenty see them as that. But as zombie stories, they fall well short of perfection.

On that note, we can also cross the Dead Rising series off the list, as it's even wackier than the two just mentioned. Dead Rising does possess one key aspect of my ideal zombie game, at least. It gives players an open world, albeit a small one compared to other sandboxes in video games. Still, giving players a large area to explore for survivors and supplies is a key component to the fullest zombie survival experience. They nail that part of it, but things like the combo weapons, boss battles, outfits, characters, story (see: everything) are just too goofy to allow me to bask in the somberness of an unforgiving, unrelenting, undead world.

Arguably one of the best zombie titles ever, but still lacking the full feature set for perfection.Arguably one of the best zombie titles ever, but still lacking the full feature set for perfection.

There are a pair of series that seem to have a lot of what I'm looking for, and those are Dead Island and Dying Light. Both having been developed by Techland, they're quite similar to each other. They have open worlds, survivors to encounter, and supplies to gather. What they tried for and lack, sadly, is any effective emotional resonance. The debut trailer for Dead Island famously bait-and-switched gamers into thinking there was a heartfelt core within the game. There wasn't. The characters were caricatures and the story got so bad, my only sadness came from having waited in line at midnight for it. Dying Light offers a lot of what the original does, adds parkour, and again fails to deliver a feeling of hopelessness for the world.

I will add, however, that I decided to write all of this because of Dying Light. As the sun set on Harran and my character Kyle Crane looked out a barricaded window into the dingy alleys of the city's slums, I felt a bit of that atmosphere I'm always looking for. I was nervous about the rapidly encroaching night, as anyone who has played can tell you why, I loaded up the supplies I could from the house I had scavenged, and I wondered if I should just rest until daylight. In that moment, I knew I had come close to what I was looking for, but it was only a moment. I call it my "Night of the Living Dead moment" because it reminded me so much of Romero's seminal genre film. Dying Light is a great game, but later elements like the grappling hook and the off-the-mark story stole that feeling from me, and left me with a more polished but equally unaffecting Dead Island.

Without an open world, that also means the effectively emotional The Walking Dead from Telltale is discounted too. That game achieves a more realistic level of sadness and despair than any of its genre counterparts, but it does it all in an adventure game. No open world, no survivors or supplies to be found outside of the extremely linear story. Even if we assume life after the world falls apart would most definitely suck as it is shown to in Telltale's licensed adaptation, having options as gamers to do all of these other things with our character are key to the perfect zombie game.

Clementine's story is the best written within its subject genre, but the gameplay style impedes it from being the perfect zombie game, as well.Clementine's story is the best written within its subject genre, but the gameplay style impedes it from being the perfect zombie game, as well.

By now I can rule out a great long list of games that just don't fit. All Zombies Must Die!, Resident Evil, Zombie Apocalypse, Zombie Driver HD, Red Dead's Undead Nightmare, Deadlight, Plants vs. Zombies — obviously the list could seem nearly endless due to just how often this medium returns to its zombie well. Kirkman's The Walking Dead, in print and on AMC, gives me all of what I want, it's just not a game. Character drama, scavenging, a world that feels alive and vast, communities at war, fragile alliances, occasional psychopaths who use the opportunities afforded by the end of the world to exact their twisted power trips on others. It has everything I want. It would be the perfect zombie game if it weren't for the fact that it's only a comic and TV series.

There is one game, though. One game that comes very close, and thankfully a sequel is coming soon to hopefully move closer to perfection. State of Decay, the debut title from Undead Labs, was a surprise hit on XBLA when it released in 2013. It went on to receive the Xbox One re-release treatment, too, thankfully for fans. State of Decay checks almost all of the boxes including some new ones I didn't always realize I had. Base-building and interacting with other communities, an open world, permadeath and interpersonal conflicts, scavenging, survivor recruitment, player freedom, and a somber tone. The thing that holds State of Decay back from being what I would call the perfect zombie game is how many of its great attributes simply lack some polish. Losing a beloved character to the hordes was tough because as the game lets you play as anyone favorites would surely develop. But they were little more than avatars, most of them lacking much personality and character models being reused frequently.

Voice acting and driving in the game were also blemishes, which affect the game's tone and immersion. The story needed a lot of work too. But in terms of its complete feature set, State of Decay is the closest thing to the total package I've ever played. That's why I'm so hopeful its sequel, currently pegged for 2017, will improve on what the first one lacked and finally achieve zombie gaming perfection.

Could this be the best — and dare I say perfect — zombie video game?Could this be the best — and dare I say perfect — zombie video game?

It seems if I could somehow take different aspects of the genre's many examples I could give myself what I'm looking for. The tone of The Walking Dead + the open world of "Undead Nightmare" + the mood of Dying Light at night + the survivors and resource management of State of Decay = my ideal zombie game. It's a formula that's harder than it looks on paper. Maybe State of Decay 2 won't be the game that gives me everything I've ever wanted all in one box. There will surely be more opportunities in the future. Things like H1Z1: Just Survive, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard and PS4's Days Gone indicate the obvious; hordes of zombies aren't going away anytime soon. Like a crucial tank of gas or an untouched food pantry in the post-apocalypse, I'm worried but hopeful that what I'm looking for is out there in the world somewhere, waiting to be found.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He has written for GameSkinny, Gamesradar and the Official Xbox Magazine. He runs the family-oriented gaming site Game Together.