Social Apocalypse: The Rise of the Zombie
The fortunes of the zombie have waxed and waned over the years, but the living dead have never been as popular as they are now. Films (Zombieland, Resident Evil, Diary of the Dead), TV shows (The Walking Dead), Books (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and, increasingly, video games. It's not just zombie apocalypse-based games like Dead Rising and Left 4 Dead, but games completely unrelated that are jumping on the bandwagon: Call of Duty entries World at War and Black Ops both feature zombie modes, while Red Dead Redemption has recently added a zombie-laden DLC. Even indie games are dipping into zombie mania, with games like Plants vs. Zombies and Zombie Driver holding that fort.
So why have zombies enjoyed such a resurgence? At first glance, they would appear to be one of the least interesting of all adversaries. However, like the vampire (also on a wave of popularity, mostly thanks to Twilight, but also films like 30 Days of Night and shows like True Blood), zombies can act as a metaphor as well as the villains. Zombies can be seen to represent many things. They encapsulate fears regarding death and the afterlife, as well as trepidation towards scientific advancement – in Resident Evil, for example, people return from the dead due to a virus designed to reinvigorate dead tissue. George A. Romero's zombies, particularly in Dawn of the Dead, represent modern consumer culture – the implication that capitalism turns us into mindless drones who buy whatever we're told. Considering the current economic climate, and it's partial cause by people spending money they don't have on things they don't need, it's not a stretch to consider zombies as a representation of shared guilt.
A more direct explanation, one well underscored by the “Z-Day questions,” is that a zombie apocalypse represents the ultimate survival fantasy – a new social aspect to the zombie phenomenon. It's a common conversation between friends to identify and plan for all zombie-related eventualities: an emergency plan, if you will. For example, myself, my girlfriend, and two of our good friends knew exactly how we'd barricade our home. We knew the best store for canned food. We knew a military surplus store for decent clothes and helpful equipment. The sheer amount of zombie media, and the stark similarities between most of them, mean that anyone can be a zombie expert; there's a sense of satisfaction in that, and having your zombie plan in place.
Back to the “Z-Day questions”, these are a series of questions to ask as more of a popular approach to the emergency plan. The questions include where you would go and with whom, and (the fantasy element) what your primary and secondary weapons of choice would be, as well as your soundtrack. These questions definitely highlight the light-heartedness of zombie apocalypse preparations, and suggest that the whole affair is a way of dealing with the daily threat of a real apocalypse. As horrific as a zombie apocalypse would be, its unlikeliness and fantasy elements make it far more digestible than, for example, nuclear apocalypse.
In terms of video games, zombies are the perfect enemy. They are without number, for a start. Being both mindless, and wanting to eat your brains, there are no gray areas when it comes to killing them. As nearly all zombie media demonstrates, entertainment is derived from ending them in creative ways (see especially Dead Rising). Zombies are great because the rules already exist, and are known to virtually everyone. There are minor differences in approach, of course. The traditional, slow, shuffling zombie, versus the new, fast, aggressive zombie, for example. As a general rule though, zombies need their heads destroying before they kill you. This is some of the simplest of gameplay, but it's incredibly accessible.
Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 have, arguably, tapped into the modern social aspect of the zombie apocalypse far better than any previous game. L4D understands that one of the many joys of surviving a zombie apocalypse is doing so with friends. It's no coincidence the second Z-Day question is “Who do you take with you?” and most people's emergency plan details where they'll meet up with friends. In fact, most zombie media relies on the interactions and relationships between survivors for drama: in the best examples, the zombies are fairly incidental. L4D is immediately accessible, letting you get into a game literally within seconds. You and your friends then take on the roles of a small cast of survivors, and must help each other through a series of stages (which change slightly every time) in order to win. The only thing L4D can't offer, something that no game can as yet, is an open world where you and your friends can make your own survival plan. Choosing where to camp, when and where to gather supplies etc. would make for great entertainment, and the ultimate survival fantasy. But for now, Left 4 Dead is the best way to experience the social apocalypse.