For a while, it seemed like you couldn't swing a blood covered baseball bat without hitting a zombie game. Slaughtering the undead is just good, clean, wholesome fun, and gamers relished the opportunity to put walking corpses back in the ground. However, something has changed in the gaming industry. Zombies aren't the draw that they once were, and where games like Days Gone normally would have been massive hits, now they come out with barely any fanfare, and they vanish from the minds of gamers everywhere.
Despite once being a main attraction, zombies appear to have become passé. It's not hard to see why, as all you have to do is go to any casual gaming site or app store, and you'll see a wide assortment of zombie games. The casual gaming market has oversaturated the zombie genre, and may have put the final nail in the coffin of its popularity.
The Birth Of The Zombie Craze
From the original Night Of The Living Dead and beyond, zombies have always held a high place in the canon of movie monsters. That fanbase eventually carried over to books, comics, TV, and, as is the most natural fit, video games. Aside from Nazis, zombies are the perfect canon fodder, and they can double as a subject of horror depending on the game.
Resident Evil was the first truly successful franchise to use the undead as the focal point for their series, adding some additional points of horror alongside the shambling hordes of zombies. Soon after Capcom's success, it seemed like every developer wanted a piece of the zombie action. Everything from Valve's Half-Life and Left 4 Dead series to even Call Of Duty started to feature their take on these wacky walking cadavers.
Oversaturation Of The Undead
This, of course, continued on until the casual gaming market eventually decided to dip their toes into the zombie genre, and soon zombies went from a subject of fear, to something as lovable and ubiquitous as the goombas of Mario. Plants Vs. Zombies was one of the first casual games to feature zombies so adorable that you felt less like running from them, and more like cheering as they donned their various silly costumes, or performed their ridiculous copyright-infringing Michael Jackson dances.
That opened the floodgates for other casual games to pour into the market, and it wasn't long until just about game on your phone seemed to feature zombies in some capacity. While some games still tried to maintain the illusion that these were creatures meant to be feared, games like Zombie Catchers and Stupid Zombies turned zombies from a threat into an absolutely overplayed joke.
The Casual Market Claims Another Victim
Ultimately, this is likely why your average zombie game just isn't the guaranteed hit that it once was. Slapping a zombie on the box cover used to be a surefire way to draw attention, but once people were used to seeing zombies shoved into nearly every mobile game that got advertised before a Youtube video, the appeal was soon lost.
Zombies just aren't scary anymore, they're generic enemies for your video game protagonist to put down in droves. There's no more jump scares, no more shudders brought on by the idea of the walking dead. Instead, the groan of a zombie has led to groans from the gaming audience, which has players saying, "ugh, not another zombie game," a groan that has expanded larger and larger.
Hence why Days Gone landed with a thud. They can call them "freakers" all they want, but all people saw was a game that touted big groups of zombies as its main selling point, and you need a whole lot more than that these days.
Can Zombies Be Saved?
The question now is: can zombies be brought back from the brink of irrelevance? Well, as tired as the concept may be, zombies can still be used effectively. Look at a game like Resident Evil 2. Sure, that game trades in on some major nostalgia, but it's also a game with incredible graphics and gameplay. However, that may make it the exception that proves the rule, as the game itself is spectacular, but if you removed the zombies, and turned them in any other kind of enemy, the game would still be amazing.
The way to look at the zombie genre going forward is that people aren't really drawn much to games that base everything on how spooky they are. The best zombie games and stories work when they're a background detail instead of the main focus. The best example is a franchise like The Walking Dead. The zombies may have been the running theme throughout that series, but it was the effect that they had on the characters we loved that kept people reading or watching. Knowing that, at any time, someone who we had grown attached to could turn into a mindless dead-eyed creature is compelling, and that's what can keep the zombie genre going.
Games like The Last Of Us, or even the take from Telltale Games on The Walking Dead, told stories that focused more on the human drama, and how the collapse of society turns people into even bigger monsters than the ones shambling about. This still works, and is one of the things that allows zombies to remain relevant. We no longer care about a game that lets us kill hundreds of the dead with a flamethrower, because we have dozens of those. If we get a game that forces us to make tough decisions, and see how people live in a society where the dead have risen, and life as they know it is over, then that's truly compelling.
Zombies Alone Are Not Enough
Zombies probably aren't going anywhere, but they're definitely not as big of a deal as they once were. The video game industry has a tendency to milk a cash cow until it's completely dry, and thanks to a majority of casual game developers, you likely roll your eyes now when you see the angry face of a dead person baring their bloody teeth on your app store of choice.
However, games like the upcoming The Last Of Us Part II tell a story that lets us see how zombies (or clickers in this case) affect people, and what they need to do in order to survive. That will always be interesting. And sure, there's still a place for a good old-fashioned game that lets us chop limbs off of zombie hordes with a chainsaw, as long as they're already excellent games like Resident Evil 2.
Regardless, the time has passed when you can just throw zombies into your casual mobile game and expect it to rake in the cash. There are just too many of those, and people want something more. Days Gone may not be the final game that will try to beat this undead horse, but banking solely on zombies to move units is exactly why you're going to see it sitting in GameStop bargain bins for years to come.