The use of zombies in video games is getting the worlds most inventive artform stuck in the mud, ready to have its brains eaten out, Sam Brooks writes.
The Last of Us. Resident Evil 7. Days Gone. State of Decay. Metal Gear Survive. Dying Light. The Evil Within. 7 Days to Die. The Last of Us Part II.
Those are just some of the zombie games released in the last decade. The Last of Us is maybe the most acclaimed game of its generation, with the sequel looking to well, not exactly continue to be the most acclaimed, but making a fair stab at the most talked about.
Zombie games are, to be frank, some of the most popular games out there. And thats a problem, not just because these games are often all very similar, but because theyre allowing developers to sidestep some of gamings most important contemporary discussions.
One clarification up front: by zombie games, I dont mean survival horror games, where zombies are one of many enemies to either shoot or run away from. I mean games that use zombies as the main target of violence.
Because a zombie by any other name still dies when you shoot it in the head. In The Last of Us, theyre called Infected. In the Mass Effect series, theyre called by a variety of names (husk, ravager, marauders), but theyre still reanimated things that used to be living and shamble around. Darkspawn from Dragon Age? Basically zombies. Even the demons in, say, Doom, are basically zombies: mindless, without depth or character, and most importantly, giving us no reason to feel guilty about slaughtering them en masse.
These are husks from Mass Effect. But theyre zombies. Just damn zombies.
That lack of guilt is important. On the whole, developers dont want their gamers to feel bad. Feel challenged? Sure. But actually feel bad for playing the game as intended? Absolutely not. Get out with that. Gamers want to press buttons to make the guns go blap-blap-blap in morally uncompromised bliss.
Unfortunately, that desire is often at odds with the games that developers actually want to make. Over the past two generations of gaming, developers have actually begun to address violence in their games a bit more. It came to a head with an unlikely suspect: the Uncharted series from developers Naughty Dog. The first game was released for the PS3 back in 2007 as a sort of Tomb Raider clone. You played as Nathan Drake, a wise-cracking treasure hunter looking for his ancestors lost (plundered) gold. Over the course of his journey, however, he had to murder literally hundreds of mercenaries, which seemed at odds with his wisecracking nature.
The reaction to Uncharted: Drakes Fortune brought the term ludonarrative dissonance (great name for a drag queen) into gamings lexicon. The phrase refers to when the narrative of a game conflicts with the narrative of a gameplay. So Nathan Drake is just a fun, wisecracking guy out for treasure according to the story. But according to the gameplay? Hes a mass murderer the likes of which the world has never seen. The debate over Uncharted got to the point where people were claiming the gameplay was Nathan Drakes fantasy, or a story hed tell. Sure! Whatever you need to tell yourself in order to sleep at night.
After Uncharged, a few developers started to address the realities of video game violence. The most famous example was Spec Ops: The Line which was essentially, Apocalypse Now: The Video Game. You played as a returning soldier from Afghanistan who gets stranded in Dubai, and have to find your way out, but surprise! PSTD takes hold. It was a game that constantly called into question the violence you were committing, the soldiers and civilians you were killing, even as it forced you to carry it out. (Its worth pointing out that while this was fairly revolutionary in mainstream gaming, exploring the role of the observer is something pretty much every artform has been doing for decades.)
In Spec Ops: The Line, you play a PSTD-affected solider in the midst of hallucinations as he tries to get home.
Despite how well-regarded Spec Ops was critically, audiences didnt appreciate it. Were playing the game the developers gave us, so why should we feel bad about it? was the general response. An opportunity for gamers to interrogate the place of violence in games was lost, and developers shied away from trying anything so challenging again.
Which brings us back to zombies. Its easy to see why zombies have become such a prolific part of gaming. While Im sure that their general cultural prominence is part of that, the main reason for gamings love affair with zombies is simpler and a lot more insidious: It allows games to maintain the same gameplay theyve always had without having to address the morality of that gameplay.
Heres how the developer of Dead Rising 3 (the third entry in a tremendously successful survival-horror series) described the game: Its an excuse to have that fantasy because [the target is] a zombie. People like to think, What if there were no laws? What would it be like to stab that zombie? Could I kill this zombie? Theres something thats animalistic, something thats interesting.
Its a throwaway line in a throwaway interview, but its telling. Replace zombie with human, and suddenly youre looking at a very different game entirely. No doubt Dead Rising had zombies built into its DNA from the very beginning (not a great sign), but can the same be said of all the zombie games on the market?
Left: Grand Theft Auto 2 (1999). Right: Grand Theft Auto 5 (2013).
Games are tending towards the real, the immediate, the visceral. As graphics become increasingly photorealistic so basically, people look like people it becomes harder to enact violence on characters in those games. Thats a huge reason why the violence of the Grand Theft Auto games less palatable as the series progressed. Its easy to kill someone when youre doing it in 16-bit. Its less so when youre gunning down quasi-realistic avatars of people with actual voices and not just midi squeals.
A key component of many of triple-A games these days is violence. Not every game is a Grand Theft Auto splatterfest or a Last of Us style gloomparty; it can be as simple as Crash Bandicoot spinning into a technicolour creature or as complicated as managing the logistics of an entire invading army. The patterns are simple: You press a button at the right time, and a virtual life is ended. Whether its a silly creature, a lumbering thing that used to be a person, or a human being who cries out their loved ones name as they are gunned down, the cycle is the same.
Thats not to say theres no other reason why developers make zombies the primary bullet sponges in their games. Zombies are inherently quite scary and can lend games a tension that they might not have otherwise; the player character isnt just trying to stay alive, theyre trying not to turn into a mindless undead thing. Artists can go wild with designs; as horribly ugly as the Infected are in The Last of Us, theres also a strange fungal beauty to them.
The Last of Us Part II beautifully crystalises these issues. To put the games strengths and flaws aside for a moment, lets address the clear theme of the game: violence, and the cycle of violence. The game is, no spoilers, about people caught in a cycle of violence and being either unable or unwilling to break out of it. It ruins the lives of literally every character in the game.
A comparatively mild example of the violence in The Last of Us Part II.
It feels good to kill the Infected. Although they clearly used to be humans (many of them are feral shambling corpses while others are people overgrown with fungus), theres no guilt in killing them. Theyre dead anyway, maybe even worse than dead.
On the other hand, it does not feel good to kill the humans in this game. Even putting the narratively important characters aside, youre put up against humans who bleed when you shoot them, who yell when you hit them, and whose teammates scream their name when you kill them. The game goes to great lengths to humanise them more than the mooks in other game, and its definitely intended to make the player feel bad.
The game can only give us so many zombies to kill before it gets monotonous though, and Naughty Dog is clearly aware of this. When the game throws people at you humans youre not meant to feel bad shooting it goes to lengths to dehumanise them. Theyre cultists, theyre cannibals, or theyre morally depraved in some other way.
Violence is built into the DNA of The Last Of Us Part II. As I said in my review, Naughty Dog is hamstrung by both genre and mechanics in exploring that violence. Its a post-apocalyptic shoot em up with people and zombies in it of course the gameplay is going to involve shooting those people and zombies. To go deeper, it needs to get into the heads of people (and by proxy, players) who are enacting violence in that world. Unfortunately the exploration and depth stops there. Its a Faustian pact Naughty Dog have made: itll have one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time but its stuck investigating this same theme, with the same miserable tone and design of a hundred games before it.
And for me, thats why we need to stop making zombie games. Violence is part of the very fabric of gaming, and theres a lot to unpack there removing zombies from games isnt going to fix that. But its a place to start. Theres only so much depth and so much variety a developer can play with when their game is set in a world overrun by zombies. Its going to be dark, its going to be depressing, and theres going to be some exploration of the darkness of the human soul. Weve had enough of that, yall. Theres depth and profundity in happiness as well lets see those games, lets turn the light on in some human souls instead.
Video games are one of the most imaginative artforms weve got right now, which is why its sad to see so many of how triple-A developers have leaned into the zombie trend. Its relying on old mechanics, old tropes and old designs to satiate gamers who want to play the same thing, but a little bit better. Weve come a long way from Mario jumping on a lizard creature to end its short, 8-bit life. Lets prove it.
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Reviewed and Recommended by Erik Baquero