For such a fun holiday, video games have a lot of trouble doing Halloween justice. Sure there are exceptions — Destiny just did a pretty good job, and Costume Quest is fun — but for the most part it's a time of year that games struggle to really celebrate. Unless, like right now, we're talking about Undead Nightmare, the most Halloween video game experience of them all.
An expansion to 2010's Red Dead Redemption — and released just in time for Halloween of that same year, on October 26 — Undead Nightmare manages to capture everything about the spirit of Halloween without having to rely on replicating or mentioning the actual day. It's dark, but also light-hearted. It's gross, but in a fun way, never slipping into horror for horror's sake.
To recap: Red Dead Redemption is one of the best video games ever made. A sprawling Western adventure set across the plains of a fictional frontier America (and Mexico), it told the tale of John Marston, a tired old gunslinger blackmailed into doing one last job for The Man before he can retire in peace with his wife and son. Cue lots of riding around on a horse shooting bad men.
You know how Treehouse of Horrors is one of the best things about The Simpsons (or at least used to be), because every Halloween it took the people you loved and the places you knew from the main show and dropped them in batshit crazy, self-contained nightmares/comedy routines?
That's basically what Undead Nightmare is, only for Red Dead Redemption. It featured the same characters and the same map, but threw out the very Western tale of ...redemption and the frontier spirit of (most of) its inhabitants. Instead, its world is full of zombies, and Marston must survive long enough to find a cure to the infestation so that he can save his wife and son.
The plot change is thorough: there are now zombies everywhere. The random bad guys who used to shoot at you from a distance are now racing to try and eat you. Many of the characters you spoke to as important characters in Red Dead are now just...well, they're also trying to eat you. Instead of being one of the few good men left on the frontier, you're now just one of the few men, period, forced to continuously evade the undead while scrounging for clues and scavenging for ammo.
Which is totally unlike the main game! In Red Dead Redemption, it's a relatively civil affair. There are towns and villages across the map where you can buy stuff, replenish your stocks, have a drink and enjoy the company of plenty of good (or at least, not instantly murderous) people.
Undead Nightmare's shift in setting, though, is more than just a shift in setting. It completely changes the tone and style of the game. At its very core it's still a GTA-like experience of completing missions in an open world, but so many other important aspects are flipped. Combat used to be based on cover and movement when you had people shooting at you, but now that zombies are simply running right at you, the action gets a lot more frantic.
Ammo for your conventional firearms, plentiful in the main game to the point that it's never really a concern, is now worth its weight in gold since none of your kills are carrying any of it. Or, it would be worth its weight in gold if there was anyone left alive to care about gold.
Even the world itself has changed. An ill green moon hovers over the horizon, and with even the game's animals infected, your relationship with the open world is reversed: once an inviting landscape begging to be explored at a leisurely pace, it's now a hellish, zombie-filled cage where every hill you cross could be your end (a nice touch, since by re-using the same map the allure of exploration has been significantly diminished anyway).
Yet as bleak as the world can get — and some story missions (like Bonnie's search for her father or a sasquatch genocide) are heartbreaking — Undead Nightmare's tale is also streaked with slapstick, in-jokes and black humour, many former characters existing as zombies not to terrify the player, but to provide a laugh or two at the contrast between their flesh-eating selves and their living counterparts.
Those surviving cast members from the main game who aren't yearning for human flesh are still changed. With their situation and motives now very different than those in Red Dead, some of Undead Nightmare's residents come to life in all new — sometimes perverse — ways, essentially presenting the player with all new characters to explore and deal with.
Even the game's systems are in on the joke; ammo for your traditional weapons may be scarce, but you're equipped with a new firearm, a custom blunderbuss, that you're able to load by scooping up body parts from zombies that you've dealt with. With no shortage of zombies, there's no shortage of ammo for at least one of the game's guns.
Halloween in the US is a holiday where, for one night at least, a country that likes to pretend it is "good" allows itself to revel in its darker side. All the evils of the world, some of man's darkest fears and taboos from centuries past, are recast for just a moment as a cheap gag. That's exactly what Undead Nightmare does to Red Dead Redemption, and is why it's so successful, both as a Halloween experience and as DLC to a story-rich game.
It doesn't sit at odds with the main game, or try — like so many other expansions — to shoehorn more story or missions into a tale that already has one of gaming's great endings. Instead, it basically says "you know what, fuck it, let's just throw Red Dead Redemption out the window and make Dawn of the Dead out of the pieces that survive". And for that, it ended up being both a trick and a treat.