(For 2015, I am trying to avoid playing any games or consuming any static media with zombies in them. My reasons, and other fun things like ‘what exactly counts as a zombie?’, are explained here.)
Around mid-April I took a trip to Zion National Park via Las Vegas. This means traveling through a lot of terrain that really, really looks like Fallout: New Vegas, and particularly the otherwise-indifferent Honest Hearts expansion, which is entirely set in Zion. A great deal of my reaction on reaching Zion Canyon was: hunh, when I played HH the colours felt artificial and oversaturated, but in fact they kind of nailed it. Over and over I realised, oh right, this is where they got that bit from.
I got a proper itch, I can tell ya. I’m thoroughly fascinated by games set in fictionalised versions of real geography, and what I really want to do is re-open HH and see how reality influenced the design, what was adopted, what was changed, what feels right and what couldn’t be pulled off. Alas, F:NV has a goodly number of effectively-zombie feral ghouls; even though they’re not prevalent in Honest Hearts, it can’t be played as a stand-alone.
It helped that I was still traveling after Zion, which meant that playing an AAA-scale game was a good deal less feasible. Along similar lines, I’ve been having my regular wistful urge to replay Torment, a game so centrally concerned with death and identity that it could scarcely not have zombies (usually this urge fizzles out when I remember how fucking awful the Baldur’s Gate combat system was and how annoying it is to juggle all those discs, but still).
Speaking of which, I’m avoiding (for now) the otherwise promising Pillars of Eternity, which includes a progressive continuum of undead. Here, lead narrative designer Eric Fenstermaker discusses the trope:
One of the strengths of the Eternity setting, in my opinion, is its ability to put a new spin on the familiar. Let’s be honest, you’ve seen undead before in a video game or two. I bet you’ve had a virtual conflict with a skeleton or perhaps even a zombie. But no matter how many times we see them, they’re fantasy RPG staples – it’d be weird not to have them, and many people would really miss them were they omitted.
So we did some thinking as to how we could have undead but have them be our own special brand of undead that makes sense in this world.
Oh, man. I feel a rant brewing. How do you even start on that set of assumptions?
How narrow a definition of fantasy; how swiftly staples turn to shackles. The idea that fantasy, genre of the impossible, shouldn’t feel weird. Somehow fantasy CRPG has become a stock recipe with a lengthy and known list of ingredients, and removing any of them – even if only in one game! – is an injury to the audience. (I love RPGs. I love fantasy. I love computer games. But I love them for their breadth, for their open possibility, for the possibility of things new and unexpected. I even quite like magic swords and elves, but I would like them infinitely more if they weren’t mandatory.)
…and evidently the role of a writer is to come up with narrative justifications for features that have already been determined. Taken on those terms, this is a decent job – vampires, ghouls, zombies and skeletons are just different stages of the deterioration of an undead’s body and mind. A vampire that doesn’t feed regularly becomes steadily more ghoulish, and so on. That’s… neat. Clever. Has potential.
Only potential, mind. There are ways that it could be compelling and fruitful, but they would all require that it become central to the story, rather than a detail of background lore. (Most obvious way to do this: the player character begins the game as a vampire.) More likely, however, it becomes a weak apology, our own special brand, a superficial Our Monsters Are Different in the same camp as the zombonym: a patina of originality on a wretched old saw.
The Girl With All The Gifts (novel). Visiting my parents. I don’t get back across the pond all that much, and when I do I find small kindnesses prepared in my old room: little bottles of last year’s home-made damson gin with Temperance-themed labels, an assortment of stouts and porters for Jacq, a pile of whatever books they’ve read recently that they think I’d enjoy. (On holiday I typically pack three books and end up finishing them all by the time I reach wherever it is I’m going. When it’s the UK I can at least restock in Hay-on-Wye.) I started Girl on a bright, chilly spring morning, sprawled over the bed in a nice warm yurt. It’s evidently a version of the Super Power Girl Raised In Abusive Science Facility story; zombies are suggested by page three, and some quick flicking-ahead gave me abundant confirmation. Zombonym: hungries, mode, a version of the Cordyceps parasitoid fungus.
Does This Count, I Dunno
“So the Dwarf Fortress guys have a Patreon now. Should we throw a buck or two their way?”
“Well, DF has given me hundreds of hours of enjoyment, is one of my favourite games of all time, has produced a whole host of entertaining derivative works, and somehow I haven’t ever got around to paying a damn thing for it, so, yes, that seems more than fair.”
Some hours pass, and then I remember that, yeah, DF has no shortage of zombies. Zombie elephants, even. I don’t know where a Patreon fits in; I am not playing the game this year, nor am I technically buying it, since it remains free. Honestly, I’m paying the developers back for experiences I had years ago. But there’s no question that I am materially supporting the ongoing development of a game with zombies in it.
I am a member of a small Minecraft world. (Minecraft is not just a zombie game, it is in many respects the zombie game.) My good compatriots know I’m on hiatus, and that’s fine. But I also have a handful of large-ish constructions not too far from the central village, and so the other day the world owner checked in with me about whether it was OK to build something in my general vicinity.
So the question here is: how much are the social elements of the game part of the game? I’m not logging in to Minecraft, so in that sense I’m not playing the game. But I’m still engaged in its willing suspension of disbelief, the idea that I have a stake in virtual properties. The discussion’s premise was that my 1:1 replica of the Yellowstone Inn is something that I have an interest in, and that other players should respect that interest. Chatting about it on those terms – even though my response was ‘sure, go for it, do whatever you like’ – is in some sense part of the game. This is kind of a wanky point; I’m bored just talking about it. But there it is.
Technically No Foul
The Sorceror’s Cave (board game). First published 1978, this is an early version of the D&D-lite ‘explore a dungeon by laying down map tiles’ mechanic; an unwieldy size and punishingly random, it’s still kind of charming. One of the official variant rule-sets mitigates the elimination mechanic by letting eliminated players become zombies, acting effectively as an NPC antagonist; several of the treasure cards in the base game refer to zombies for the purpose of this variant. Still, I was assured that there were no zombies otherwise.
The base game also includes the swarming, corpse-eating Ghouls (though it’s only one card, which never came up in our game). ‘Ghoul’ can refer to a number of different configurations of monster, not all of which fall into the zombie definition; but the weight of evidence here didn’t really support anything else. Even so, the general rule for multiplayer tabletop games is that I don’t quit mid-game if zombies unexpectedly emerge, because it’s pretty antisocial to do so. (For the record, I opted for the lone-Hero approach, acquired the One Ring, then fell through two traps in succession and ended up stuck on level 4.)