A Year Without Zombies

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.

Why?

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 2Skyrim, 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.)
clem2

“Zombies are not only a legitimate artistic choice and a potent narrative tool, but fascinating in their own right, Clem.”

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.

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40 Responses to A Year Without Zombies

  1. Andrew Plotkin says:

    Large swathes of the structure of _Hadean Lands_ exist as they exist because Adam Thornton said “I am completely tired of dragons.”

    Just a warning. Or threat.

    • I anticipated that at least one person would respond with either ‘well then I’m playing nothing but zombie games’ or ‘I’ll make a zombie game just to show you.’ If I am to perversely inspire anyone, I’m glad it’s you.

  2. Joey Jones says:

    I got about halfway through reading the walking dead comics before giving up: the inclusion of zombies serves as an excuse to kill human bodies and justify a life attitude of paranoia and hostility.

    • I think there are real-world situations in which an attitude of paranoia and hostility is the only reasonable option. I think that all of them are vastly scarier than the scariest zombie story, and zombies are the mall-ninja version.

      • I was just reading the CDC response plan for a bioterrorism attack using smallpox. It’s the most reassuring thing I’ve ever read about such a thing and it’s _still_ scarier than zombies ever could be.

  3. I came late to the zombie world…like the past year late, so I need a bit to come around. I can see it getting old eventually. There’s certainly nothing logical about it. I think the combination of stupid horror shlock plus somewhat serious story lines and acting make for decent entertainment. But I get it.

  4. busterwrites says:

    Your points are all, um, on point. I wish you success, and hope you’ll let us know how you did!

    As violence continues to be the primary cause of and resolution to conflict in entertainment (particularly in gaming), zombies are certainly the cheapest and easiest solution. Though I still prefer zombies over most other baddies, simply because they are nothing more than non-living corpses. The games I can’t and won’t play anymore are the ones with people as mooks. When the supposed hero kills hundreds-possibly-thousands of people and the game doesn’t acknowledge you’re playing a homicidal psychopath, well, I’m out.

    • I can see that. But I’d rather kill a bunch of dudes and feel squicked out about it than kill a bunch of zombies and feel indifference. The latter is a lot creepier, really, because it relies on my implicit acceptance of ‘no, it’s totally fine to kill them, they’re not really people.’

      I suppose what I’m getting at is: I want the kill-tons-of-people mechanic to have consequences for the tone of the game. I think a lot of designers really, really don’t.

      • busterwrites says:

        I’d say it’s the players who want to shoot things and feel indifference, and designers choose to cater to them. Since that indifference isn’t going away (because Power Fantasy), zombies are the best form of target practice I can come up with.

      • Jason Dyer says:

        @buster: You should play Tower of Guns; it’s all robots and gun turrets.

  5. Ey!, what about games that has avoidable zombies? That is, not to abandon them but try to avoid just the “zombie mission”. That could be a possibility with RPG games that has zombies in some zones or missions. It would be fun to be: no, I pass on that mission guy, I don’t want zombies inside my “Skyrim” or “Dragon Age” or whatever. Don’t know if that is possible, but that is why it is interesting.

    • I think that’s fairly unlikely to obtain, given the ways in which zombies are typically used. I’ve certainly never come across a game where it would be the case. And in general, I’m sceptical about claims like ‘it doesn’t have to be violent! You can do a pacifist run!

      • krofpt says:

        I know it’s not what you meant exactly, but I think “pacifist run” can work well when it’s a central part of the game’s message and not a gimmick or excuse; something like Undertale, for example.

  6. cendare says:

    Since your definition involves “a person’s body”, I guess that means Attack of the Yeti Robot Zombies is still okay, assuming that yetis aren’t persons. ( http://ifdb.tads.org/viewgame?id=bt9tjt1fg2ucbxgc ) Zombies done right!

  7. Molly says:

    Good luck with this! I remember you weren’t too happy with zombies in the past, so I’m glad that you’ll get to avoid them in the future.

    This reminds me of a post someone made about zombies on another board. ‘Scuse me while I dig it up.

    • Molly says:

      Ah, here it is:

      Zombies are a fad, but they originally caught on because they’re a very versatile metaphor for being caught between the fear of alienation from mass society and the fear of joining it. Vampires (alongside werewolves) have come to represent threatening immorality, especially of a sexual sort. Those are popular, potent ideas, and the thing that makes them different from other types of undead is that they’re not about mortality. Death, for a zombie or a vampire, is a metaphor for a much different kind of transformation.

      On the other hand, take ghosts, for instance. Ghosts have always pretty much meant the same thing. Just like a person “lives on” in the memories of those who survive them, a death can leave behind ill will and bad blood that can cause very real problems for the living. Extend this to the concept of a burial ground, and you encounter the idea that the past was vanquished by the present, and to broach the topic of whether or not that was fair is to question the foundation of society – a dangerous question, regardless of the answer. Mummies extend this concept even further: mummies are already entombed, buried and inert, and only trouble the living once they are disturbed. If a ghost is a lingering inherited grudge, and a graveyard is public guilt, then a mummy is an ancient controversy that was dropped rather than settled. Dig them up at your own peril.

      Skeletons, of course, are much simpler; they simply represent the inevitability of death itself. This is why animated skeletons are so implacable. And, while they’re less common, a lich is still not a modern invention, and represents the abstract idea of perverting the natural order of things.

      So all these monsters represent harm that can come to the community. But zombies and vampires are unlike the others in that they are invasive – they’re encroaching threats, not potential ones that can be warded off by just leaving them alone. They’re about the future, not the past, and they also involve the fear of personal change, not merely the fear of retribution but the terrifying knowledge that you could become the very thing that seems so horrifying to you now.

      And that’s why if the monster fad continues, smart money says the next big thing will be Frankensteins. But the fact that Frankensteins are made of corpses are pretty incidental. Their origins speak of the human cost of creating something new and uncontrollable, but the human cost is not the scary part. The scary part is that in studying the creation of man well enough to repeat it, we will find proof that mankind is monstrous. To meddle in God’s domain is to destroy faith – not faith in God, but faith in ourselves. That’s the sort of fear our society could do with more of, frankly.

      Holy hell but that was a lot of words. Well, I hope you find it interesting, even if it is tangential to this conversation.

  8. Really late response, but I really enjoyed this post. You put your finger on all the problems with zombie stories in an exhaustive fashion.

    I don’t share your active hatred for zombies, but neither do I like them. In fact, I’d say my attitude is one of 100% neutrality. At one point, there must have been some interesting things to be said about the walking dead as a symbol of our own mortality, or the horror of facing corrupted and mindless versions of your family and friends, but they’ve all been drowned out in a slew of guilt-free mass killing.

    As I see it (just my opinion here), a zombie game could be made interesting if the player is presented with at least a small chance that zombies can be cured. That could present a real moral dilemma, as in “do you gun them down to save yourself, or avoid violence even though it places you at risk?”

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  23. Dae says:

    New reader; I know this post is, well… right at a year old… but I feel compelled to comment because the only thing that stopped me from yelling “fucking THANK YOU” as soon as I got the gist was the fact that I was sitting in an open-plan office area and try to be at least somewhat considerate. I am unspeakably weary of zombies for every reason you’ve listed here, but the “weakest apocalypse” reason is the one that has inspired me to multiple rants (mostly to my very patient significant other, due to a mutual friend who’s obsessed with zombie apocalypse scenarios). It’s neither scary nor interesting and it makes my suspension of disbelief break out in hives.

    …Anyway. I’ll refrain from making this comment a whole rant and just say I might try this, myself, in 2016. It pleased me to an inordinate degree to see someone else articulating a similar irritation with the trope.

    • Glad you appreciate it. (An advantage of this project: seeing how many other folks consider zombies The Worst.)

      Fair warning: it’s pretty exhausting, at least if your normal media consumption is vaguely similar to mine. Though this might have a lot to do with how asceticism really doesn’t agree with me.

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  26. michael says:

    hi

    i stumbled on your amazing posts about crusader kings and found this. i see where you’re coming from and appreciate why you’re doing it but do you not think that the lengthy and varied list of things zombies are capable of being is perhaps a reason for their resurgence?

    from a gamer pov (i play no games outside ck2) i can imagine zombies are especially boring but there i’d argue that it’s because they so blatantly highlight the shortcomings of ai. if you’re not playing multiplayer and you’re shooting things, they might as well be zombies.

    anyway i really enjoyed reading, thanks.

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