Everybody loves zombies, right? The shambling, lifeless cannon fodder that can be slaughtered en-masse without the vaguest hint of moral conflict have been dominating our media for several years now – but for me, I’ve suddenly found myself rather bored of zombies, especially in a gaming capacity…
Dead Rising. Dead Island. Day Z. Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare. Call of Duty. Even The Sims 3 and Counter Strike are getting zombie modes.
I used to love zombies. I used to find the concept that our bodies could be reanimated by forces beyond our control terrifying and enthralling. There used to be a certain magic and mystique that zombies carried – they were us, yet they were not us. Something had gone wrong. And you were on the menu. Once upon a blood moon, I would stay up into the small hours scaring myself witless chasing and being chased by the shambling undead.
And yet, I’ve suffered from overexposure. The groans of the recently deceased no longer haunt my dreams.
Lollipop Chainsaw, for all its charm, was one of many things this year that has seen me grow steadily more bored of zombies. It’s not that the game is BAD per se, but there comes a point when you realise all the zombies really are is fodder; in a game where there is no inherent danger or risk of being turned into a zombie, or even dying, the zombies are nothing more than a distraction on the way from A to B. The enjoyment of zombies should be in numbers, or their primal cunning or, in the case of Left4Dead and Dead Island, sometimes their sheer speed, not having to worry about something as complicated and annoying as breathing and all. When zombies are simply there to be cut down, slaughtered and generally be no more than a minor hassle, their presence is not really “horror”. Not in the literal sense, anyway.
Modern media has had a fascination with zombies in recent years. Successful games get zombie modes or zombie mods, zombie games get released and made and heck, there’s the obligatory and totally pointless FPS version of Plants Vs. Zombies in the pipeline (nice work on that EA, shows you empathise with zombies. What with not having a soul and all!). From Shaun of the Dead to The Walking Dead, from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to Diary of a Zombie Kid. They have become either a distraction, a background noise or the punchline to dark, blackly comic jokes.
You see, zombies as antagonists should hold some kind of power – something even the early Resident Evil games got correct, to their credit. Zombies were us. Used to be us. And this meant that the zombie outside that door could be your friend, your lover, your sister or your mother. The zombie as horror works via a means of psychological warfare; that the very thing that defines us – our humanity and empathy – is the one thing that sometimes stops us cold, and becomes our undoing. Those moments when a companion has been bitten by a zombie, and is slowly turning. You know deep in your heart that it would be more humane to kill them in their human form, but you fear it will merely exacerbate their transformation into a zombie. The torment is built on a very human need for company and companionship as well; if the world is full of zombies, and you are one of the few humans left, you are isolated and alone. This, coupled with the stresses and strains of trying to avoid the undead, can have funny effects on the mental state of an individual. Zombies work when the horror of the zombie themselves is personal and identifiable. When the victims are those you have come to empathise with and root for, and their life is cruelly snatched from your grasp in an instant. It’s the guilt, it’s the fear, it’s the emotional turmoil and the terror of seeing the faces of those you love look at you with a cold stare, not knowing who you are.
When a zombie is faceless and cloned fodder for your blades and bullets, you remove arguably the strongest aspect of the nature of zombie horror – the human connection. There is nothing personal about a zombie you don’t know or recognise. There is no thrill in taking down a zombie that could be anyone from any place in any country in the world. Zombies work when the writer and director understands the very things about these creatures that still entrance many after so many decades – when they push the right buttons, and make people feel something.
When you don’t feel anything, the zombies of the video game world may as well be cardboard cutouts or stick figures. The whole idea – the very concept – of a zombie is that the world is a small place, and one day you’ll be confronted by those you knew and loved. Your life catches up with you, and death can seem merciful in the face of such chaos. As the world disintegrates, as lawlessness takes hold and the darkness in all human hearts is exposed and allowed to blossom and bloom, you are left to wonder which is the greater evil in the face of extinction. Zombies reflect us. They mirror us, and show us what we really are – cattle led to the slaughter by forces beyond our control.
Of course, it might also help if most zombie games these days were actually any good as actual entertainment. Lollipop Chainsaw, whilst nice, was a little brainless in and of itself. There was no real purpose or point, just an excuse for exploitation and cheap jokes. It was entertaining, to a point, but ultimately like a lollipop it was rather insubstantial in the end. Dead Rising 2 tried to get to the personal zombie thing as the protagonists daughter is infected (and needs to take a daily dose of a very expensive drug to not turn into one!), which SHOULD lead to an interesting game. But midst a sea of faces, the zombies themselves are nothing and the stars are the humans who are going crazy in the middle of it all. It’s also not very HARD to keep the protagonists daughter alive, which takes the risk vs. reward aspect out of it. So many zombie games just miss the mark – by being too boring, too samey or simply just not scary enough.
And yes, the repeated exposure of zombies in gaming is hard to escape. They have become the de-facto enemy of choice, the hurdles in the hundred meter dash from point A to point B. They dominate indie games, commercial games, mobile games. They are everywhere, and hard to escape, and that means we have become somewhat attuned to them. They are no longer a uniquely terrifying experience because we are bombarded by variants so often. The magic is gone. The thrill has died. I am left wondering why I pay money for a zombie horror game when the only real horror is that I have to pay £30 for the privilege of being subjected to this constant sea of mediocrity.
The real reasoning as I see it is that Zombie AI in gaming doesn’t really need to be sophisticated. It’s an unchallenging and ultimately cop-out solution as to what should be the distraction in more and more cases, because they don’t need to do much work in making them “enemies” in a visual or narrative way. We all know what zombies are, we all know zombies are ‘bad’, and therefore half the battle has been avoided altogether. It is becoming harder and harder to avoid the feeling that zombies are no more than the cheap way out.
Which is why it is somewhat heartening to see many new IPs ditch the zombies. As we come back to humanity being the enemy, and as technology is used in smarter and more interesting ways, the idea of a zombie is becoming something of a joke. A crowd of faceless humans is more potent than a crowd of faceless zombies, because the guilt level is much higher. We have slowly drifted away from the zombie as enemy, as fodder, as bean-bags filled with raspberry jam, and come back to the human element. Anyone can kill a crowd of zombies in a game – that’s easy and has no real effect on how others perceive you as a person. But to take down an entire street of normal people? That’s where you begin to see the cracks now.
I find this interesting. It’s strange that I am so bored with zombies, and yet find the nature of the human element more of a terrifying prospect. Really, the two shouldn’t be that dissimilar, but years of candid abuse and misinformation, of reckless over-usage and lack of basic understanding of the beast, have taken their toll. Zombies are nothing in the modern world – they’re a “Been there, done that!” sensation. Like The X-Factor, we’ve just seen enough of it to know the usual formulaic and standardised mechanics involved, which takes the shine away.
The industry needs to either take an extended break from zombies or be more in tune with the true horror in their being. And with the possible exception of Zombi-U (a name I still loathe!), I’m hoping we get away from zombies very soon. They’re not scary anymore. Therefore they cannot hold a place in the pantheon of horror games any longer. I’m sorry, zombies of the world. It’s not you. It’s us and how we have abused you.
Take a trip to a nice tropical island somewhere for a year or two. Maybe when we meet again, we can talk about the situation again.