Technically my year of avoiding zombie games begins tomorrow, but the part about buying games started with the Steam Christmas sale, which has been serving as a useful dry run. Already, it looks as though my instincts are kind of off, and I need to be paying more careful attention if backsliding is to be avoided.
I am not going to list every zombie-depicting game I notice and then don’t consume, because that would be silly; I’m limiting this to things which I would otherwise have been pretty likely to play.)
Desktop Dungeons – I played the free version a year or so back, at Victor Gijsbers’ recommendation, and found it odd but engaging; in the ‘pick up if it’s on sale’ category. From the wiki: “The zombie is one of the toughest “standard” monsters in the game. It has good damage output, very high hit points, and it’s undead and therefore immune to poison.” As a roguelike, DD’s mechanical premises treat all monsters very much the same; zombies don’t solve any special need of the author.
Wasteland 2 – A turn-based (yes please) cousin of Fallout (still yes please) which is getting a lot of good press; quick research suggests that pod people are close enough to zombies (subspecies: exploding zombies) as makes no odds.
Failure Within Tolerable Limits
Crypt of the NecroDancer (purchase) – Jacq acquired this one, mainly for herself (and with no prompting from me whatsoever, I should stress), at which point it fell under the playable-until-Jan-1 heading. Given the necromancy theme and conceptual debt to Thriller, nobody should be shocked that its Time to Zombie is approx. one minute.
I really didn’t think this was the game for me – I have a shitty sense of musical rhythm, boss pattern-matching and pixel art are among my least favourite things – but it kind of gets into your head. Not sure I’m interested in developing the degree of quickfire-tactics required to play the upper levels, but the singing shopkeeper is worth the price of admission. It’s also notable for having local (shared-keyboard) two-player mode: a rare and precious thing for desktop gamers, and one which has pushed Jacq to the brink of claiming that my zombie-temperance constitutes marital neglect. Mine is a hard and lonely road.
Mass Effect 2 (purchase) – God dammit, you get a modern classic thinking it’s going to be a nice straightforward Lasers and Feelings exercise, and seven hours in you’re peering down a sniper scope and espy a swarm of unarmed humanoids charging at you with insensate groans. ‘Husk*’, declares your HUD, and at that point the phrase ‘zombie-like’ on the relevant wiki is almost superfluous. Moral: I can’t afford to skip the due diligence, and that goes double for anything where combat is a core gameplay element. (I successfully saved the galaxy before the clock ran out, but entirely failed to problematically romance any of my subordinates.)
Again, this isn’t meant to cover every non-zombie game – way too many of those – but to talk about games working in zombie-plagued territory that nonetheless don’t use zombies at all.
GemCraft Chasing Shadows (freemium browser-based) – I don’t think I’ve ever finished any of the Gemcrafts, but I do return to them periodically. A tower-defence game, this does involve killing untold millions of monsters; that said, they’re all basically big insects. Having had fruit flies get into my kitchen this summer, I have no ethical qualms about luring untold masses of mindless insectoid monsters into death-traps. I doubt this is a universal panacea – I got bored with Sanctum pretty quickly precisely because its enemies were so abstract – but for this thing, it’s the right solution.
The Long Dark (purchase) – Explicitly bills itself as post-apoc survival without the zombies. A highly promising early-access game, though at present I don’t think that it has the balance quite right – unless you play on the easiest mode, the biggest threat is always wolves, which are functionally zombies. More on this anon.
The Yawhg (purchase, not yet played) – The only thing googling revealed was some dude who mentioned a zombie ferret apocalypse on his Let’s Play. Fortunately, zombie ferrets do not qualify as zombies under my exacting standards.
NEO Scavenger (gift) – A post-apocalyptic game of immense old-schoolness and some distinctly schlockish elements (I seriously, seriously hope that The Long Dark and This War of Mine signal a trend towards more post-apocalyptic games which avoid the gonzo-SF route). But, though you might kill someone for their shoes and nutritious flesh, none of your victims appear to be zombies. Also – and I suspect that this is a debt owed to The Road – its protagonist is modeled largely as a desperate homeless person, not a stupendous badass.
Monsterhearts (ongoing campaign): Narrative-oriented tabletop RPG Monsterhearts does feature one zombie-like character class in its core rules, the Ghoul. The Ghoul straightforwardly fails my zombie test – it’s a player-character, for a start – but more than this, it takes a strongly internal perspective on the character, turning its central motivation of hunger into a focus on the sociopathic effects of addictive or compulsive behaviour. The Ghoul is a tough skin to handle well, because Monsterhearts doesn’t really work if characters become irredeemably vile; there isn’t one in my current campaign, but I’m fairly likely to play one in the next year, just because I see the more difficult skins as a challenge.
** Elegant variation is evidently an key principle in zombonymology; ‘zombie’ is a silly word, schlocky, almost camp. If your characters just call a zombie a zombie, rather than a Zed, walker, devouring corpse, ghoul, infected, husk, draugr, etc., it proves you’re Not Taking This Seriously. In particular, if the word ‘zombie’ comes up then it’s hard to avoid the problem of genre-aware characters, and you’ll be lucky to escape yet another iteration of the Vampire Mechanics Conversation (‘so garlic? Does that work?’), which inevitably makes things less scary.