This is From Ants to Zombies, the newest release from video game literature publisher Bitmap Books, and one that aims to be a definitive hardback database of the games that define and refine the horror genre.
Within this 650+ page tome, From Ants to Zombies contains essays for over 130 games, discussions with developers of some of the games featured to provide insight on their work, and a wide range of games featured - there's a lot to unpack, and it all starts from the front cover.
As is the case with many Bitmap releases, the visual package you get with From Ants to Zombies is stunning. The original cover art from Vasilis Zikos is punchy in its understatement, with it being one of the few sole pieces of original artwork made for From Ants to Zombies. It's a booming addition made to make the book stick out on your shelf or coffee table.
This is propelled further by the book’s unique gimmick of a glow-in-the-dark cover and spine – something which I would love to show if it worked for me. I tried all the tricks possible to bring the greenish glow of the book’s exterior to life, unfortunately no such luck.
Whether it works or not isn’t a deal breaker, as From Ants to Zombies holds better qualities in different ways.
Writers Alexander Chatziioannou and Joel Couture kick off the book with lengthy parables of the horror genre’s origins, the structure of the book, and what this chronicling aims to achieve. It’s all quite flowery, submerged in theoreticals of what fear is, what we look for in scares and spooks, and it flows rather wonderfully for a compendium.
Delving further, you’ll find that of the 130+ titles featured in short-form essays, all of them have been neatly compartmentalized into 13 different categories.
Whether it’s the horrors of deep space, how the indie movement has revolutionized horror as a storytelling element or the terrifying nature of FMV video games, all bases are covered. Hell, if a good book is your way to a frightful evening, From Ants to Zombies has a whole category dedicated to text adventures.
There’s a genuine love here, one which extends far past just giving Resident Evil its due diligence.
Each main entry is given its own essay, alongside being treated to large two-page spread introductions for each game, a tricky endeavor to pull for fans of warped spines.
However, From Ants to Zombies’ physical design allows for the spreads to be quite visible despite such a large book, with the screenshots taken for said games being quite gorgeous at times. Other times you’ll have to deal with half of the spread being a black void, with the magic happening on the other side.
As for the essays themselves, they’re brilliantly verbose. While no actual attributions are made to any of the entries – nor any credit given to the authors outside of their preface and introduction – the lexicon throughout is universal and ultimately enthralling.
There’s a genuine love here, one which extends far past just giving Resident Evil its due diligence. When there’s a legitimate case being made for something like Monster Party on NES? You’re doing something right.
A lot of it stems from the argument of humanity and how that is sewn for the player in projection and sequences. Couture specifically has mastered this specific element of discussion and is no stranger to the genre itself, with their unofficial investigation into the history of the legendary P.T. standing out particularly. It speaks to dedication, one which From Ants to Zombies needs to thrive.
With that said, a lot of it is broad strokes, sweeping statements, with arguments rarely being made, only proposed in a landscape outside of the content provided. Including the infamous FMV title Sewer Shark as a horror inclusion is more than a brave debate, and one isn’t really made here, just a rundown of how the game functions as an on-rails shooter. It doesn’t happen often, but when an outlier is shown, it sticks out like a sore thumb.
The “honorable mentions” tab, consisting of a small screenshot and title drop, at the end of each category can also put a damper on this. When curious inclusions are given their statement to co-exist alongside something like Dead Space or System Shock 2, then that’s fine, even if it doesn’t quite stick. However, there are some absolute stinkers clogging up their respective categories, and simply fitting in just doesn’t cut it.
I mean, Psycho Killer? From the creators of The Town with No Name? No one’s putting that on their backlog. It’s inclusion for the sake of inclusion and only makes an already monolithic package feel much more like a slog.
At the very least, the interviews conducted with the devs are insightful. When a developer, writer, or director is given the stage, From Ants to Zombies will sit back and let the words of folk like Airdorf, Kitty Horrorshow, and Lynda Cowles bring to mind a greater picture of the creation, one that’s quite fulfilling.
It’s the independent voices that make From Ants to Zombies what it is, but by the same token, its messaging is rather muddled.
When Couture poses the question of who From Ants to Zombies is for in the introduction, the objective is for horror fans who come across the book to broaden their horizons. Maybe someone who’s all about F.E.A.R. or House of The Dead can give Signalis a try. However, its structure and obligated time given to the big-hitters can obfuscate this goal of exploration, especially when explanations miss their mark.
As a storytelling device of the history of horror, it struggles to paint a picture when it’s chronologically restricted to the categories. When it comes to the hidden classics, obscurity is sometimes confused for accessibility. Emulator or otherwise, a lot of the entries shown here have more problems being shown in modern times than just dealing with a moral conundrum. It’s a strangely structured book which results in a product that has a lot to offer, but for who?
If you’re a veteran of the horror genre, From Ants to Zombies will enable your love of the craft, but not much to convince you to move past your comfort zones. If you’re a newcomer looking for where to start however, you’ll find arguments made for what you already know, but a strong desire to move past that. It's the perfect introduction to embrace the unknown.
And as a coffee-table compendium? It does the job, and rather beautifully as well… so long as your coffee table is in the dark.