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Building a Better Zombie

June 28, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[In this article, based on a talk given at the Nanocon Workshop On Integrated Design at Dakota State University, Westwood College game design professor Totten takes a look at how zombies arose in popular culture, how they're used in other media, and explores how they have been used in games -- and how they could be deployed even more effectively. You can learn more about Totten's first book here.]

There exists today a dichotomy between the reputation of the zombie in traditional media -- understood here as books, television, and film -- and that of their video game counterparts.

Critical reviews of contemporary zombie media exemplify this. AMC's The Walking Dead has been lauded as a zombie story to "hook even zombie haters" by the Wall Street Journal's Nancy deWolf Smith.

Meanwhile, editor Jen Bosier has called zombies a product of laziness on the part of game developers -- easy to program and requiring little narrative justification. Grievances with game zombies also include critics who feel that zombies promote unimaginative shooting mechanics or that zombies would "be so much scarier if not in every game."

Indeed, zombies seem to pervade gaming not only today, but also through the history of the medium -- often as cannon fodder or gimmick enemies. In titles like Castlevania and other horror-themed games, zombies are the first enemies encountered -- simple to both dodge and kill. Super Mario Land features Pionpi, an enemy based on the Chinese jiang shi zombie, that reanimates seconds after Mario has jumped on it.

Modern games likewise utilize zombies as a way to turn games into power fantasies: players mow down ghouls with the tenacity of Bruce Campbell, action star of the Evil Dead films. If game designers are using zombies as either cannon fodder or gimmick, it is no small wonder their relevance is rotting away.

To return zombies to prominence in games, this article investigates where our fear of them came from and how other media utilize that fear. This investigation, dubbed Necroludology, will be done with the goal of transforming ludic zombies from cannon fodder into devices that embody dramatic game mechanics.

Necroludology emphasizes the roles of zombies in both historical and modern myth. Through examples where zombies have been utilized effectively, such as George Romero's Dead series, World War Z, Resident Evil, The Walking Dead and the board game Zombies!!!, common themes can be extracted. This paper will focus on a sampling of these themes that can educate zombie game design. These themes are:

  • The zombie as a personal antagonist
  • The zombie as a natural disaster
  • The zombie as a definer of space
  • The zombie as a time limit
  • The zombie's effect on mental health

Focusing on these themes as parameters for zombie design, this paper will investigate the history of zombies to discover the origins of these themes and dissect them to understand how they can create terrifying game mechanics.

A Focused History of Zombies

When one considers the history of the modern zombie, they are often directed to the role of zombies in West African Voodoo religion. This manifestation of the zombie is typically understood as a person that has been drugged or has had some kind of curse placed on them that has lead to their death. They are buried and resurrected by a sorcerer, or Bokor, who can control the corpse as a slave.

Paranormal author Brad Steiger in his book, Real Zombies, The Living Dead, and Creatures of the Apocalypse, argues that voodoo zombies and the modern zombie have little to do with one another. Touting voodoo zombies as the titular "real zombies" of his book, Steiger denies even Romero's zombies as the real thing. Discussing the modern zombie, he likens them more to vampires and other flesh-eating horrors. Indeed, the link between voodoo zombies and our modern zombie is largely etymological.

The word zombi itself has been traced to many origins, including the Cuban fumbi or the Central African nzambi or zumbi, among others. The first two terms refer to spirits of the dead, while the zumbi refers to vengeful corpses called revenants that terrorize those that wronged them in life. This dualism has caused Hans W. Ackerman and Jeanine Gauthier to argue that the traditional Voodoo zombi is actually one of two varieties; the zombi as a soulless body and the zombi as a bodiless soul. Considering this, the Voodoo zombie begins to resemble the walking dead of other cultures that may prove better precedents to our modern flesh-eating zombies.

The idea of dead bodies rising from the grave and terrorizing humans is not limited to Voodoo belief, but has in fact appeared in writings dating back to Mesopotamian cultures. In Tablet VI of The Epic of Gilgamesh, the wrathful goddess Ishtar threatens to raise the dead who will "outnumber the living" and "devour them" unless her father Anu agrees to release the Bull of Heaven. Several thousands of years later, the Book of Revelation features dead bodies rising from the grave and terrifying the living.

This fear of corpses reanimated by supernatural means spread like a plague as civilization expanded. Northern European legends abound with tales of the previously mentioned revenant. Revenants in literature can be separated into those reanimated by demonic possession and those who reanimate of their own volition. The formation of possessed revenants is of particular interest, as demons are said to enter and exit through the corpse's mouth, the same vector as the modern zombie's virus. The demon wearing the corpse as a shell further causes it to walk slowly and with a shambling gait. Other similarities to modern zombies appear in stories such as one, reported by Thomas of Cantimpre (1201-1272), of a woman killing revenants by destroying their heads.

Similar monsters also appeared in Norse and Middle Eastern cultures. Icelandic cultures call their particular brand of revenant the draugr. Like revenant legends, the corpse's identity in life is an important element of the tale, as it often provides the foundation of their undead antagonism. In the Grettis Saga, an unpopular shepherd named Glam is killed violently and returns as a draugr. He terrorizes the countryside nearby his grave until he is subdued by beheading at the hands of the saga's hero, Grettir. Other sagas highlight draugrs whose victims also fall to draugrism, repopulating entire regions with the walking dead. The draugr's relationship with geography should be noted, as one element of their stories is a jealous guarding of their resting place, often littered with treasure.

Eastern cultures likewise dabble in myths of the undead. One Thousand and One Nights is one of the first pieces of Middle Eastern literature to mention the ghul, spelled "ghoul" in English. Ghouls wander at night and consume human flesh. Other tales describe ghouls as demons that can change shape and suck blood, taking the form of those they most recently consumed. Chinese folk tales likewise tell of the jiang shi, rotting undead that sleep in coffins during the day. Jiang shi hop around at night with arms outstretched, eager to eat the life force of the living. The classifications of these monsters can be difficult and have led to their being utilized in both zombie and vampire stories.

Indeed, the zombie's relationship with the vampire cannot be ignored when tracking the historical development of the zombie. Both vampires and the revenants are stock characters of the Gothic Novel that appear in several seminal works. Examples of such works include The Vampyre by John William Polidori, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley, and Dracula by Bram Stoker. The Gothic-like architectural settings and claustrophobic atmospheres of these novels have remained in the popular consciousness to this day, finding their way into horror films like those created by Hammer Film Productions. Indeed, their stylistic similarities have caused characters from both to be featured in the same works of fiction or mixed with one another.

This relationship is important to the development of the zombie, helping them move from ancient undead monsters to the viral cannibals we know today. In Frankenstein, a scientist creates a sentient being from previously dead elements that pursues the scientist and his friends as revenge for having been created with a hideous visage. This novel features a Gothic/Romantic take on revenant stories. Frankenstein's monster is born from dead tissue and brought to life through the work of Victor Frankenstein. Initially he is unintelligent but benevolent. As he experiences the cruelty of humans he decides to take revenge on his creator.

Shelley's story of a vengeful reanimated corpse was a direct influence on twentieth century writer H.P. Lovecraft, who wrote Herbert West - Reanimator in 1922 as a parody of Shelley's novel. Reanimator tells the tale of Herbert West, a medical student at Miskatonic University who develops a serum for reanimating necrotic tissue. In a series of morbidly comic scenes, he reanimates dead bodies with varying degrees of success, culminating in a coordinated attack by the resultant zombie horde. Reanimator is often considered the first modern zombie story to feature scientifically reanimated corpses that are uncontrollably violent and animalistic.

Decades later in 1954, Richard Matheson published the novel I Am Legend, the tale of the final human left alive in a world of disease-created monsters that prey on the uninfected. It is here that the Gothic literary proximity of vampire and zombie is its most influential. Despite the author calling the monsters "vampires", the novel depicts an apocalypse as a result of worldwide pandemic. It is this novel that George Romero claims he "ripped from" when developing the story for his seminal film, Night of the Living Dead.

The theme of the worldwide disease pandemic combines with the image of reanimated corpse as animalistic monster to generate the modern zombie. Romero's film came at a time when the public's only exposure to zombies were films such as Victor Haperin's White Zombie (1932) and Jacques Tourneur's I Walked with a Zombie (1943). Though Romero himself utilized the term "ghoul" to describe his film's antagonists, evoking connections to the aforementioned Arabic proto-zombie, the film's monsters quickly became known as "zombies." Night of the Living Dead redefined the archetype of the zombie from a hypnotized slave to a flesh-eating monster.

Indeed, Romero's template helped establish a genre that has flourished since the late 1960's and through modern works such as Max Brooks's World War Z and The Walking Dead. It is not their history that maintains their cultural presence, however, but the elements of our psyche that keep us watching for these undead stalkers. It is also these elements that can be utilized to create interesting gameplay.

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Luis Guimaraes
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Zombie are also representation of collective insanity.

"The lack of rational thought has always scared me when it came to zombies, the idea that there is no middle ground, no room for negotiation."

But that is rarely depicted (if ever depicted) in horror media, maybe because most zombie media has little intention of being scary. Mainstream zombies have not much reminiscence of human nature beyond being a human body.

The weakest point about zombies holding back their horror factor is that they have no emotions and suffering, which should be always used together in zombie depictions. The fact the human soul is absent in every zombified appearance, tells the audience that there's nothing from the original person remains there.

Suffering and it's emotional representation is key for actual psychological disturbing depiction of a zombie outbreak. The unpleasing sensation that all the zombified person minds are trapped in an eternal horrifying nightmare of violence and insanity is the aspect lacking holding back zombies from entering actual horrifying territory. Until then, there won't be anything lasting to think about once the game is shut down.

The closest exemple I can think of is the Which from L4D. That aside the REmake is a masterpiece in it's overral atmosphere and turns the zombies, once creepy furniture in the original games, into real treats.

Also, horror games must step on the common, the natural, the average daily life, and then disturb and subvert it to strengthen the horror and terror effect. It's relatively safe to affirm that the action flick, the combat trained protagonist, the power fantasy, and the cannon fodder zombies are the "average daily life" when it comes to the gaming universe.


Also, what makes zombies so "underused" in games is that they're tailored to the genre they are mostly used in, which is the mainstream genre of today: the power fantasy.

Robert Boyd
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I think that's one of the great things about the Siren games - the zombies in that series (or Shibito as the game calls them, aka Death People) exhibit lingering remnants of their past life.

Christopher Totten
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Very interesting take on the article. I agree that the psychological aspects of the outbreak are typically much underused. In terms of "collective insanity", I love that successful pieces of zombie media, such as Dawn of the Dead, take the time to depict not only the threat of zombies, but also the effect of zombies on the people alive during the ordeal. Where the zombies are now part of the landscape, they also allow the aggressive and animalistic parts of the human psyche to come out. While, as Freud pointed out, the zombies are a mindless part of that, what becomes even more terrifying are the humans who also enact those instincts through their free will.

Luis Guimaraes
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Yes that's pretty much one of the best tools that come with the zombie outbreak package. Thou not exactly about zombies, the sequence from The Mist in the store is just one of the more effective in the subject of collective insanity. That one really scary situation.

Shay Pierce
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I didn't read this article so forgive me for chiming in, but I really want to see someone making a game where the enemies are Philosophical Zombies: ... That is all.

David Navarro
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An argument could be made that that's already the case in every game...

Matt Robb
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The history section seems more like somewhat of a history of the undead in general. Taking that into account, it seems a shame that Planescape: Torment wasn't cited in the protagonist section. Awesome representation of player-as-undead and the alterations it can allow in the typical genre formulas.

Christopher Totten
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I'll have to check that out. Thanks for the suggestion!

You are right about the representation of the undead: the "undead" specifically became "zombie" as we know them today following the Romero movies. Undead zombies were a part of Voodoo traditions, but were very different from the cannibalistic rotting corpses we see in popular media. The "modern zombie" is very much an amalgamation of lots of other traditions of undead characters, but each can give insight into the origins of what makes the modern zombie scary when it is used for horror purposes.

Daniel Magnan
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Very interesting article. It is funny that this article came out when it did. Brian Mitsoda, the lead writer for Vampire: Bloodlines, is making a turn based survival zombie rpg with the focus being on the humans. The game is called Dead State.

"We are so sick of most zombie games. Yes, we get it, killing zombies is fun. But thatís not what the zombie genre is about. Itís about survival, first and foremost Ė the struggle of the survivors faced with adapting to a world that has succumbed to an unfathomable event. "

The kickstarter is here:

Christopher Totten
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I've seen that Kickstarter! I'm very very very very excited about that game.

As a side note thanks for reminding me to pop onto Kickstarter and back that one.

Daniel Magnan
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Thanks. I'm glad I could help. I am very excited about it myself.

Daniel Magnan
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double post.

Charles Tolman
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Anyone who is interested in another variation on the Zombie Apocalypse might want to check out the manga, I Am a Hero. It is highly unusual in its depiction of zombified humans having retained some portion of themselves, their memories and personality, after the transformation. This allows the author to create some truly gut-wrenching moments, both in terms of horror and in terms of pathos.