The use of zombies in video games is getting the world’s 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 that’s a problem, not just because these games are often all very similar, but because they’re allowing developers to sidestep some of gaming’s most important contemporary discussions.
One clarification up front: by “zombie games”, I don’t 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, they’re called Infected. In the Mass Effect series, they’re called by a variety of names (husk, ravager, marauders), but they’re 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.
That lack of guilt is important. On the whole, developers don’t 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 ancestor’s 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: Drake’s Fortune brought the term “ludonarrative dissonance” (great name for a drag queen) into gaming’s 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? He’s 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 Drake’s fantasy, or a story he’d 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. (It’s 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.)
Despite how well-regarded Spec Ops was critically, audiences didn’t appreciate it. “We’re 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. It’s easy to see why zombies have become such a prolific part of gaming. While I’m sure that their general cultural prominence is part of that, the main reason for gaming’s love affair with zombies is simpler and a lot more insidious: It allows games to maintain the same gameplay they’ve always had – without having to address the morality of that gameplay.
Here’s how the developer of Dead Rising 3 (the third entry in a tremendously successful survival-horror series) described the game: “It’s 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? There’s something that’s animalistic, something that’s interesting.”
It’s a throwaway line in a throwaway interview, but it’s telling. Replace “zombie” with “human”, and suddenly you’re 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?
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. That’s a huge reason why the violence of the Grand Theft Auto games less palatable as the series progressed. It’s easy to kill someone when you’re doing it in 16-bit. It’s less so when you’re 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 it’s a silly creature, a lumbering thing that used to be a person, or a human being who cries out their loved one’s name as they are gunned down, the cycle is the same.
That’s not to say there’s 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 isn’t just trying to stay alive, they’re 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, there’s also a strange fungal beauty to them.
The Last of Us Part II beautifully crystalises these issues. To put the game’s strengths and flaws aside for a moment, let’s 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.
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), there’s no guilt in killing them. They’re 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, you’re 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 it’s 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 you’re not meant to feel bad shooting – it goes to lengths to dehumanise them. They’re cultists, they’re cannibals, or they’re 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. It’s 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. It’s a Faustian pact Naughty Dog have made: it’ll have one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time but it’s stuck investigating this same theme, with the same miserable tone and design of a hundred games before it.
And for me, that’s why we need to stop making zombie games. Violence is part of the very fabric of gaming, and there’s a lot to unpack there – removing zombies from games isn’t going to fix that. But it’s a place to start. There’s only so much depth and so much variety a developer can play with when their game is set in a world overrun by zombies. It’s going to be dark, it’s going to be depressing, and there’s going to be some exploration of the darkness of the human soul. We’ve had enough of that, y’all. There’s depth and profundity in happiness as well – let’s see those games, let’s turn the light on in some human souls instead.
Video games are one of the most imaginative artforms we’ve got right now, which is why it’s sad to see so many of how triple-A developers have leaned into the zombie trend. It’s relying on old mechanics, old tropes and old designs to satiate gamers who want to play the same thing, but a little bit better. We’ve come a long way from Mario jumping on a lizard creature to end its short, 8-bit life. Let’s prove it.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.