They’re everywhere. Closing in from all sides. When one falls, another instantly takes its place. Inescapable. I’m speaking, of course, of games, movies, and TV shows based around a zombie apocalypse, which have been enjoying a nonstop stream of popularity; they’re the go-to monster for a property. There’s even a romantic comedy about a zombie that falls in love. Zombies are a useful antagonist because it’s so easy to dehumanize them. You don’t have to worry about developing their character, or working out their motivations; they’re dead, they want to feast on the living. But around that basic premise game designers can build very different tones for how they, and we, deal with the end of the world.
In the Left 4 Dead games—a personal favorite of mine, although they share virtually no connection to a classic zombie scenario—there’s a group of survivors who must work together for the game to work at all. Whereas in most Z-worlds (starting with the classic Night of the Living Dead), one person eventually turns on the rest as the pressure of the situation mounts, putting his own interests ahead of the others (and usually getting killed for it). Gun, ammunition, and supplies are easy to find, and the game is less about struggling to find meaning and more about getting to the finish line as quickly as possible. It’s a high-adrenaline, run-and-gun romp that has more in common with Rambo than Romero. There are no hard moral choices in Left 4 Dead; indeed, there’s virtually no choice at all, except in terms of what gun to carry. It gives you lots of scares, but no horror.
The Walking Dead from Telltale Games is the exact opposite. Combat is perfunctory, and you’re constantly faced with impossible choices, the consequences of which might not play out for several episodes. If you screw up a fight (which in most cases are based on simple button mashing), you die, and then go right back to try it again until you get it right. But a choice about whether to steal a box of food from a seemingly abandoned station wagon? Or which friend to save when you can only save one? No matter which choice you make, someone’s going to blame you for the decision you made, and the only way to be a hero is by keeping one little girl alive for as long as you can.
The differences between the two are as obvious as an ’80s action movie is from a novel. L4D is strangely optimistic; people leave weapons and supplies behind in safe houses for the players. One guy is willing to give them anything they want from his gun store provided they get him a six-pack of Coca-Cola. The four survivors tease each other, but the game forces the players to work together. TWD is populated exclusively by psychopaths or people with post traumatic stress disorder. In fact, the heroes of L4D more closely resemble the (human) villains of TWD—people who realize that human civilization is gone, never to return, and that they are completely free to kill as much as they want (and there’s lots of killing to do). The protagonists of TWD, on the other hand, are holding on to their morality as hard as they can and watching in horror as it slowly slips from their fingers.
Now, to say that one game is more realistic than the other is complete nonsense. TWD might be more psychologically nuanced and character-driven, but also takes place in a world where the laws of thermodynamics do not apply. Which game you choose to enjoy (and I enjoy both) depends on whether you want to mow zombies down with an AK-47, or suffer a lot while you try to save Clementine. One just works harder to present you with the illusion of choice.
As for myself, I think a zombie apocalypse will be more like Zombies, Run! an exercise app with no real interaction other than, well, getting your butt off the couch. In the world of ZR, civilization has collapsed but groups of survivors have grouped together and are trying to rebuild as best they can. You, as “Runner 5,” have no personality at all; you just go on runs to collect supplies for the base, and the other characters talk to you (usually encouraging you with the great job you’re doing…this is an exercise app, after all) about their hopes and fears but always with the idea that although terrible things have happened in the past, things are going to get better. Sam Yao, your dispatcher, is usually chipper and always ready with a joke, but disappears for a few episodes when dealing with the death of a loved one. Other characters take over for him and express concern about his mental health. Contrast this with L4D, where the nonstop murder affects the characters not in the slightest, or TWD, where everyone is either suffering from clinical depression or is a sociopath.
In the end, all three games are equally “on rails.” No matter how selfless or selfish you are in The Walking Dead, you’re still going to end up in that security room, talking to Clementine. The Left 4 Dead team will get to the helicopter, because that’s the only way out. And you’ll never get eaten while out for a jog for Abel Township in Zombies, Run! What kind of hero you get to be depends on what the game defines as heroism: vanquishing, sacrifice, or contributing to something larger.