I don’t generally do New Year’s resolutions, but here’s the one I’m planning on. For 2015, I won’t buy or play anything that features zombies. (This is mostly a computer game thing, but I also won’t play RPGs or consume static media with zombies.) If I inadvertently find myself in the middle of something and zombies unexpectedly show up, I’ll quit.
There’s a standard philosophy thought-experiment, the P-zombie: a person who externally seems to behave exactly as a normal person would, but who has no conscious mind. Betraying my analytic roots somewhat, I’ve always found the overt question of whether such a thing is possible to be less interesting than the question of why someone might be motivated to believe in it. Thus also the more familiar kind.
- Zombies are cheap. In many, many games, zombies appear because they’re easy to draw, animate and make AI for: they avoid the uncanny-valley problem because they’re meant to be uncanny. I fully appreciate that a great deal of game design – and particularly indie design – is about avoiding difficult things wherever possible. But that’s an explanation, not an excuse.
- The zombie apocalypse is the weakest apocalypse. The threat of apocalypse is an actual non-fictional thing. There’s climate change, peak oil, peak water, near-earth objects, toxin accumulation, supercalderas, plus there are still enough nukes lying around to end civilisation several times over. On a less global scale, there’s economic collapse, conquest, genocide, colonialism, poverty, homelessness. Postapocalyptic fiction has potential to get us to think about this: but the zombie apocalypse has become a formulaic, often escapist fantasy that avoids the genuinely uncomfortable in favour of squick and headshots. Triffids would be better at this point.
- Zombies are proxies and excuses. Carmageddon was a game about street-racing and scoring points for killing pedestrians. In order to get rated in Europe, it changed the pedestrians into zombies and made their blood green. It was still fundamentally a game about killing pedestrians, but zombies acted as a fig-leaf. If you want to make a game about killing people, own up to it.
- Zombies serve as begging-the-question ethics exercises – ‘but what if your loved ones turned into rampaging mindless horrors and you had to kill them?’ Well, duh, obviously in your contrived example your contrived solution is the right one. Why this contrivance, pray tell?
- Zombies are the othered enemy. We have a culture that cheerfully divides human beings into those whose deaths must be treated as deeply, individually serious, and those whose deaths can be written off as regrettable but basically inconsequential or necessary. Zombies serve that motive. In particular, the central threat of modern zombies is: a faceless, innumerable mass of mindless, violent, contagious people bent on tearing society apart. That is… just the tiniest itty bit problematic.
- Zombies are boring. It’s possible to make them interesting. (You can make anything interesting with enough work.) But the vast majority of the time, they’re just convenient mindless killers.
- Zombies are not actually all that scary if you de-stress the Mindless Inhuman Horde element. Largely this is because we know how they work by this point. (I suspect this has a lot to do with their popularity: they’re homeopathic horror. ‘Oh no, the disgusting mortality of the human body!’ ‘Can we fix it with violence?’ ‘Yes. Yes we can.’) There are a number of scary things buried in there, but most of them have been bled dry by overuse. Boring territory is safe territory, and vice versa.
- Zombies have appropriation roots. The Contemporary Zombie Synthesis owes as much to European vampires (via I Am Legend) as it does to Afro-Caribbean beliefs; regardless, the word and a good deal of the concept entered the culture through racist-as-fuck stories. If we did not continue to be racist as fuck about traditional African and Afro-Caribbean belief systems, I’d be all ‘yeah, cultural exchange happens, whatev.’ I await the day when you can set up a hounfour in small-town Oklahoma and be welcomed as a valued member of the local faith community.
- Zombies are horrendously over-used. Here’s the thing: I really dislike zombies. I think they’re crap and I have thought this for a very long time. Over a decade ago, when I attempted to write the worst game in existence, I made it a zombie game. But looking at my Steam library and restricting it to things I’ve actually played, 47% have zombies. That doesn’t represent every game I play, but it’s a decent cross-section of the more mainstream ones. Of the games I’ve spent most time on over the past few years – Minecraft, Fallout: New Vegas, The Sims 3, Dwarf Fortress, Crusader Kings 2, Skyrim, XCOM, Mount & Blade – only CK2, Mount & Blade and Sims 3 lack zombies (the latter only because I don’t have the Supernatural DLC).
- Zombies are adolescent schlock. Which is fine, but I don’t want pizza for every meal. (And for reasons above, I think that zombies are more resistant than other adolescent pulp to being repurposed to more substantial ends.)
I’m not opposed to violence or heroic action within games, per se. If games are art, if games are a fundamental medium for telling stories, then violence has an important place there. On a less theoretical level, I enjoy plenty of game violence and don’t think that this makes me a bad person. But I think that games have become ridiculously focused on a very narrow, limiting version of what violence is, and I think zombies are a big part of facilitating that.
I’m going to find this tricky, I think. I love a lot of things that have zombies in them – even games where zombies are ostensibly a central element, like Telltale’s The Walking Dead. But this is kind of the point: zombies have become way too much of a standard element, to the point where even a crappy, overused idea has a bunch of good expressions just on the throwing-shit-at-a-wall principle. It should be trivial to avoid zombie games. In reality I expect it’ll be tricky. Updates as events warrant.
Is this kind of arbitrary? Sure. Do I think it’s possible to use zombies in interesting ways, or to subvert the trope, or what-not? Absolutely. This is an experiment rather than a long-term commitment. Much of this is not so much ‘arglbargl boycott awful thing’ (though, yeah, that’s a factor) as it is ‘I wonder what happens if I remove this part.’
What counts as a zombie? A zombie is a person’s body, still recognisable as such, that has lost its individuality and become a near-mindless monster capable only of simple servitude or killing people. It might be undead or not, but the state is at least semi-permanent. Killing a zombie might challenge your squeamishness or bravery, but never your ethics.
(According to this definition, numerous things called ‘zombies’ aren’t. Most of the zombies in the paranormal webcomic Skin Horse are not zombies for purposes here: if you’re capable of forming a civil-rights movement, you’re not a zombie. Feral ghouls in Fallout count as zombies: normal ghouls don’t. There’ll probably be some edge cases: splicers in Bioshock come awfully close.)
Do you think this will change anything? Get real. Me in particular? Nah. This is more of an exercise in curating my own consumption. I have friends who tried only reading books by women or people of colour for a year; none of them were advocating that white men stop writing books, nor did they imagine that the publishing industry would be magically transformed by their actions. Rather, they felt that the prevalent culture skewed the things they read in ways they weren’t happy about, and wanted to rebalance things.
I’m not a huge believer in effecting change through consumer demands, or in asceticism as a mode of moral improvement. But I have my own canon and I would like to take a more active role in shaping its contents.
Isn’t this kind of belated? If it is, I’ll be ecstatic. keep thinking that surely we must have hit Peak Zombie by now, but then I always find myself mistaken. I feel that we kind of reached Peak Zombie around 2010 and then hit a plateau, and that unless something changes zombies will always be there, stacked up like cordwood in the closet, a standard tool ready-to-hand for any creator with no better ideas.
Isn’t it unfair to exclude games just because of a minor zombie component? Well, part of my beef is with omnipresence – the fact that zombies get into fucking everything. Often they just get thrown in as a low-level, inconsequential mook, and kind of my point is that I want there to be fewer games that require low-level inconsequential mooks. The crapness of zombies doesn’t correspond all that well, negatively or positively, with how prominent a role they play in the narrative.
Game devs are just following the market! Yeah, I get it. Indie devs, in particular, often have the choice between doing something that pushes a lot of obvious genre buttons or doing something that doesn’t pay the bills. I’d like more artists to forgo the obvious more often, but I’d also like to live in a world in which forgoing the obvious paid the rent. So, yeah, I don’t think you’re necessarily an asshole for putting zombies in your game. Doesn’t mean I have to like it.
Speaking of which, aren’t there issues in gaming more important than zombies? Why don’t you do this for games with… Maybe at some point I’ll try that. Right now I’m trying this.
Do bundles count? Hrm. I’m not eager to spend a huge amount of time researching the zombie content of the half-dozen games in a bundle that I don’t actually expect to play for more than five minutes. Compromise: I do due diligence on the games I actually want; the others only disqualify the bundle if they’re obviously zombie-oriented. (If I end up playing them and zombies show up, they still get abandoned, of course.)
Doesn’t a Jan 1 start date conveniently avoid the Steam Christmas sale? I’m starting the no-purchases part from whenever the Steam sale begins.
…and other games? Board games? This is a bit different. I don’t play very many computer games multiplayer. In a tabletop RPG I can always say ‘guys, can we not do zombies?’ and, given the kinds of RPG and player culture that I generally play, they’ll go with it. Board games are different – their mechanical elements are kind of fixed, but at the same time if you leave mid-game you might be screwing things up for everybody. So in that context the rule for Unexpected Zombies is: finish the game, don’t play it again.