Simon Pegg once wrote a brillopops article on why zombies should never run. It’s something that seems to have happened with zombie films and, since Left4Dead, zombie games too.
I suspect that a lot of this is due to the zombie genre meeting head-first with the FPS game. Arm the player with a machine gun and throw waves of useless shuffling idiots at them and, well, it’s probably not going to be the hardest game on the planet.
Of course, chuck super fast zombies into an FPS and another thing has to go as well – if a scratch from a zed means death the game would be utterly impossible, and so another modern zombie game cliché is born: the conveniently immune player character.
But Left4Dead was a glorious game and even if running zombies and immunity irritates the hell out of you, it’s difficult to criticize it for that when the game’s so beautifully crafted. Left4Dead even went one step further: by including a versus mode and having human players take on the role of the “special infected”, the zombies suddenly became smart – planning and executing ambushes and generally co-operating. But it’s just a game, the versus mode was incredible fun, and it’s their game and therefore their rules on how the zombie virus works.
So the trouble is essentially, slow useless enemies don’t lend themselves to a fast-paced action FPS. They do, however, suit a slow-paced survival RPG – the sort of game which is to Left4Dead what “The Last Man on Earth” (the Vincent Price adaptation of “I am Legend”) is to the Resident Evil movie. Except where black and white film has become retro pixel graphics. Or something. I haven’t really thought this comparison through, if I’m honest.
The beauty of “The Last Man on Earth” is that the problem isn’t so much that there are (well, they’re really sort of a zombie / vampire hybrid but I’m going to call them zombies because it’s easier) zombies everywhere, but that there aren’t any other humans. The zombies are pretty much ineffectual for the entire film – Price as Robert Morgan is quite safe in his house as long as he boards up the door and windows, and hangs up some garlic. Instead, they serve as a constant reminder of his loneliness – every night, shuffling around outside moaning. It’s enough to drive anyone mad.
Of course, this level of isolation would make for a pretty repetitive game – but there’s a lot to look at for inspiration. The day to day life of Richard Morgan involves travelling outside by day, clearing areas of the city of zombies, taking the bodies to the pit to be burned, fetching supplies and then at night returning to his house, checking the defences and then having dinner and putting some music on to stop himself going insane. It’s the basic blueprint of the survival RPG.
If zombies were to run about in this sort of game, not only would it make it impossible to survive but it also wouldn’t really suit the atmosphere. Finding yourself surrounded by the horde because you broke into a house, set a burglar alarm off, and failed to check if you had another escape route is a much more exciting turn of events (to me, at least) than finding yourself surrounded by the horde because they can run as fast as you but have no stamina limits to worry about.
In every good zombie film, it’s the slip-up which leads to death. I went to bed without checking the back door was locked. I came home from a supply run without checking that no zombies had followed me. I failed to keep my comrades sane, so one has walked out in the middle of the night leaving the front door wide open. Those sorts of things.
The other final beauty of the slow zombie, is that you can never be entirely sure you weren’t followed. You’ve arrived home, the streets are empty – you’re safe! But who’s to say that hours and hours ago a zombie didn’t look up and see you creeping past and begin his slow relentless trudge after you, alerting more and more zombies as he does? Who’s to say that somewhere out there, there isn’t a hundred zombies all stumbling ceaselessly in your direction? Are you really certain? Sweet dreams.