A Discussion of Zombies and the Apocalypse in Video Games

Days Gone-Resident Evil 2-Publicity-Split-H 2019
Courtesy of Sony; Courtesy of Capcom
'Days Gone', 'Resident Evil 2' and the upcoming 'Rage 2' all offer new takes on the classic genre for 2019 audiences.

With this weekend's release of Days Gone, yet another post-Apocalyptic story has shambled onto video game consoles. While the PS4 exclusive title eschews the traditional walking dead for its own version of the classic monsters (here called freakers), it does cover familiar ground for those looking for their end-of-days fix.

The video game industry has a long legacy of adapting zombies and the Apocalypse, from arcade cabinet classics like The House of the Dead to more modern luminary titles like Sony's The Last of Us. This month saw not only the release of Days Gone, but also a adaptation of World War Z, which has gone from book to film to games. Gamers also saw Capcom release a remake of Resident Evil 2 earlier this year and Ubisoft took players to a colorful imagining of post-Nuclear Winter in Far Cry: New Dawn.

If all of that weren't enough in 2019, next month sees the launch of Bethesda's long-gestating Rage 2, a follow-up to the 2011 title that has serious Mad Max influences. 

Below, Heat Vision's Patrick Shanley and Richard Newby discuss the hallowed history of zombie and apocalyptic fare in video games, from Resident Evil to Days Gone and everything in between.

Patrick Shanley: As in film, zombies are a topic rife for interpretation in the video game world. From arcade classics like the House of the Dead to recent AAA console titles like The Last of Us series and this week’s Days Gone, “zombie” lore has been explored and extrapolated through games for decades. Perhaps one of the greatest offerings of the genre — and it is a genre at this point, let’s be clear — is the freedom of interpretation. Debates wage daily over what exactly qualifies as a zombie, but the central themes and aesthetics of the genre are widely agreed upon: animalistic versions of what were once human beings, thirsty for blood and violence, that now represent the majority of humanity in a post-Apocalyptic imagining of our own society. They can be fast, they can be shambling. They can be undead, they can be infected. They can swarm in hordes, they can lurk in shadows. However they are presented, the end result is the same: run and gun for survival. No other media can capture that visceral feeling of being hunted quite like video games.

Richard Newby: The first time I encountered that specific feeling that you’re speaking of was Sega’s The House of the Dead in 1996. Playing this at an arcade was my first introduction to zombies. Before Romero, or the discovery of any of the classic zombie movies at Blockbuster Video (RIP), cutting down zombies with a light gun in House of the Dead was my induction to the genre. I was by no means great at playing it, but I did learn the benefit of headshots from it, which set me up for Resident Evil 4 and a real investment in zombie games a decade later.

Shanley: Those big plastic guns that were attached to The House of the Dead cabinet really aided in the immersion. I’m glad you brought up RE4 as that was probably my first serious zombie experience in gaming. I think I was a bit young for the earlier Resident Evil games and watching my brother play them gave me nightmares, but when Resident Evil 4 hit the Gamecube, I was sucked in. The game was brutally challenging for me as a young teen, but the way it rolls out its reveals and introduces new, more dangerous versions of the infected Ganado was expertly executed. The game nailed dread and had such a cool tweak on the classic zombie formula (which is really how the game starts out before growing into so much more) really highlights the elasticity of the term “zombie” and shows what creators can do with the classic creature.

Newby: Oh man, I really devoted myself to Resident Evil 4. I got my homework done at school just so I could get home and play it. I had it for the PS2, but yeah, that was also my introduction to the all the horror and weirdness of the Resident Evil series. Having played remasters of Resident Evil and Resident Evil Zero recently, I’m glad I started with 4. The over-the-shoulder camera perspective and ability to save sans ink ribbons definitely made it easier to hop on board. And then, of course, there was the Las Plagas which, as you said, helped broaden the zombie genre. I’d be lying if I said Ramon Salazar and his Napoleon getup weren’t just as terrifying as those Ganados.

Shanley: As time has progressed, post-Apocalyptic themes have become entwined with zombie lore and 2013’s The Last of Us, in my opinion, may have done this better than any other entertainment title than save Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Have you played The Last of Us?

Newby: I love The Last of Us. If it’s not my favorite game, it’s definitely in my top five. I think, in terms of storytelling, it really stands as an example of the best this medium has to offer. It’s the pinnacle of the PS3, and so good that I got the PS4 remaster and replayed it when it was released. Even as a port, it’s one of the best games you can play on the PS4. The emotional drive of that story, the relationship development between Joel and Ellie, it’s unparalleled. I went in expecting to blast fungus zombies, but after that opening sequence, I knew I was in for something really special. What zombie games makes its players teary-eyed over seeing giraffes? It’s a game that’s so perfect and complete that I’d actually gone back and forth over whether I wanted to see a sequel or not. Of course, now that the trailer for The Last of Us Part II is out I definitely want that sequel, but I’m not sure that first game can be topped. And I haven’t even gotten to the Infected, which are arguably the most varied and horrifying enemies to come out of zombie games. Can any zombie game hope to top The Last of Us?

Shanley: Honestly, I believe The Last of Us transcends the genre in many ways. To me, Joel and Ellie’s story really reaches the pinnacle of post-Apocalyptic fiction. It’s brutal, yes, but there is genuine tenderness and the intimate relationship the characters share with each other — and that we, the player, share with them — is something that should, and is, celebrated. I think Days Gone has brief moments of that (and, granted, I haven’t finished the game yet) but as of now, I believe The Last of Us is the bar for any entering this genre. What’s really interesting is that we also have another post-Apocalyptic game coming up next month in Bethesda’s Rage 2, which has a more colorful, playful take on the End of Days similar to Far Cry: New Dawn, which we’ve previously discussed. I personally love splashes of color in my Apocalypse and it helps to broaden the genre. I know you enjoyed your time with New Dawn, but do you have thoughts on that wider trend of a “fun” Apocalypse?

Newby: I’m also a fan of the funpocalypse trend, which I think owes quite a bit to George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road. The zombie apocalypse doesn’t always have to be consistently dour and I think we may start seeing a bit more punk-apocalypse influences from New Dawn and Rage 2 within future games. The zombie genre has been reinvented so many times, while still retaining many of the core traits that make it recognizable as a zombie game. A large part of that comes from Hollywood. 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead have really been the basis of so many zombie games of the past decade and I think another reinvention could be coming soon. There’s a possibility, with The Dead Don’t Die, Zombieland: Double Tap, and Army of the Dead on the horizon that we may start seeing a bit more playfulness emerge in zombie games. Yes, survival is tough and the outlook is grim in these worlds of the living dead, but it’s a story we often find familiar. Maybe we’re ready for a postmodern zombie game with the undead carrying weapons and driving vehicles. Maybe it’s time we get to be the zombies and sink our teeth into something fresh.

Shanley: Clearly you never played 2005’s Stubbs the Zombie. Not exactly a classic, but you did get to eat some brains.