New Game+: ZombiU and the return of old horror

December 7, 2012

Before New Game+ began proper, I wrote a few assorted columns that eventually led to the creation of this feature. One of my personal favorites was a small piece about evolution of the survival horror genre, titled “the new horror.” While it was by no means great, it was the kind of thing I loved to examine, even briefly. Recently, the genre has gone through even more drastic changes, to the point where the most famous franchises have fallen on hard times or become less about horror and more about action. That’s fine; it’s how potentially-great series grow and become something bigger (and potentially better) than ever before.

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Author: Andrew Passafiume (2009-2012)
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The problem? It often fails, and usually alienates the fans that have supported these franchises since the beginning. I could get into more details about that another time, but what I’m here to talk about is this: the survival-horror genre has evolved so much that, as a result, it has lost some of what helped define it in the first place. And I’m not talking about fixed camera angles and pre-rendered backgrounds; no, I mean the things that keep you up at night. The thought of being alone, terrified, surrounded by the unknown and with very little to help you survive. These are the games horror fans strive for, the games that make them feel helpless and, when they overcome this horror, a true sense of satisfaction you can’t get from any other representation of the genre.

Horror is best suited to games above all else because of the interactivity. You are in control, but you know you won’t always be able to win. It adds a whole new psychological layer to a genre already focused on what makes the human mind tick. Most games that bill themselves as horror have moved so far away from this that they are essentially not even of the same ilk as modern classics such as Amnesia. They suffer because they still attempt to throw horror in our faces, but can never back it up with anything more than cheap thrills and some false pretenses on what horror fans want these days.

This is where the old horror comes in. These are the games that make you cautious, afraid to open that door or go down those stairs. Games that may be archaic in nature, but often succeed in making you scared of just about anything, even if it’s your own shadow. Discussing the evolution of the genre back in 2009 is telling, as it demonstrates just how far we’ve devolved horror in this industry. And yet the old horror is still alive, even if the games that showcase it aren’t the ones we might expect. Like Ubisoft’s Wii U launch title, ZombiU.

Whatever your opinion of ZombiU is, it’s hard to deny its effectiveness in handling a trope that has become so overused that it’s easy to dismiss. I’m talking about zombies; you know, those shambling corpses that would do anything to make sure you are their next meal. Telltale’s The Walking Dead did a fantastic job of bringing back zombies in a strong way, but that was less about the horror of the undead and more about the humans that are left in a world ravaged by them. ZombiU is pure horror, plain and simple. It works on multiple levels, but most importantly of all, it allows zombies to be legitimate threats just as they once were.

The unprepared survivor may jump into ZombiU thinking it’s just another first-person action game with everyone’s favorite enemy. It won’t be long before they aren’t careful and are taken out by one of the first zombies they encounter, thinking that a single zombie clearly doesn’t pose a threat. Armed with a cricket bat and a pistol with only six bullets, they assume that has to be more than enough to take down a single foe. And if it manages to grab hold of you? There will surely be a quick-time event of some kind to knock them away. This is when they weep, knowing that they’re potentially well-armed survivor is now zombie chow.

This game works by taking expectations of the genre (and of zombies in general) and flipping them around completely. The funniest thing of all is this is how it once was. You never had to fight hordes of enemies to feel threatened. Ten zombies in Call of Duty: Black Ops II? No problem! Two zombies in ZombiU? You better run for your life. Even if you’ve been properly warned about the difficulty and just how careful you have to be, you could still be caught off guard when you think you can handle any situation. You are never safe, and ZombiU teaches you this right off the bat.

Not only is inventory management a concern again, all menus are in real-time on the Wii U GamePad. That means that unless you actually pause the game, you will almost always have to keep your eyes out for threats. A character death means losing that character and also losing all of your items, forcing you to retrieve them from their corpse (or, in most cases, killing their zombie-form). And even if you feel prepared, you never truly are. I can’t count the number of times I felt confident in how many bullets I had and how well I knew a certain area, only to get killed by a single zombie that managed to get the drop on me. Zombies are unpredictable, and your plans can never account for their presence. You just have to keep one thing in mind: If there’s an unexplored area, there will probably be zombies. And even if there is just one, it’s still a threat.

This is why ZombiU succeeds: It is essentially the resurrection of old horror. It brings back the stuff you love (and perhaps some stuff you hate) about survival horror and shows how it can be done today. You don’t need large set piece moments or giant groups of supposedly threatening creatures. All you need is the knowledge that you will never be safe. Know this, and you’ll treat every encounter as if it could be your last. You start thinking, “What if I die here? I need to start planning my route with a new character. I need to find a way to kill my zombie self.” These thoughts will constantly run through your head as you try to find new ways to fend off this old, but newly-revived, threat.

Zombies are dangerous, and if there are any remnants of old horror that needed to return, it was that idea. Zombies have become a joke, because it soon became standard to design them as such. In the original Resident Evil, a single zombie could take you down before you know it. In Resident Evil 6, you need to fight a large group of them to feel even remotely threatened. If this idea can survive all these years and return in ZombiU, anything is possible for the future of the genre.

We’ll always have our Dead Space, but it’s nice to see a return to the way things were. It’s not just for nostalgia purposes, it’s the idea that games can make those elements of horror just a little bit more frightening. ZombiU won’t change how to see horror in games, but it may just inspire you and help you remember that the old horror lives on. It’s not just a shell of its former self; instead it can be resurrected just like the undead you know you’ll always be fighting.