(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.)
They dog my heels. I was reading A.S. Byatt’s The Virgin and the Garden, a turgidly literary novel about England around the time of Elizabeth II’s coronation (yes, that sounds like the most boring thing ever, but there are seams of quite lovely writing and character observation running through the thing). Halfway in, a character calls churchmen inauthentic ’embalmed zombies.’
I have begun to develop a flinch at the word, a paranoid hypersensitivity. (Did you know that Men at Work’s Down Under has a zombie reference – possibly to the cocktail – in its very first rhyme? Nor did I.) There was no possibility whatsoever that actual zombies might appear, but for precisely that reason I resented the intrusion. At this stage I’m getting just as tired with works in the zombie penumbra – things that acknowledge or reference or draw upon the trope without fully instantiating it – as I am with the things I’m not allowed to play.
And the annoying thing is that I then wasted half an hour of my life figuring out whether this was an ahistorical, post-Romero use of the word (the book was published 1978 but is set in 1952, between which dates the cultural meaning of ‘zombie’ shifted considerably) but failed to come to anything conclusive. The insult comes in the middle of a rant about the unprincipled, accommodating niceness of the English in which the word ‘sheep’ is also deployed, so it smells like a Romero zombies-as-middle-class-conventionality figure – but the analogy doesn’t match as closely as all that, so I ended up nowt but a handful of conjecture. Certainly if you look at the ngram... no, no, I’ll stop.
A thing I have yet to address: just now I was writing a post that mentioned Dwarf Fortress, and I felt it needed a screenshot to illustrate some aspect of just how bonkers Dwarf Fortress is. Getting that screenshot would involve firing up the game, going partway through the initial setup. Is that okay? Well… no. Character generation and the like are inescapably part of play. And ‘I just want to get a screenshot of X for an article’ is a slippery slope towards ‘I just want to check out if this one mechanic is how I remember it.’ Since you generally can’t leaf quickly through a game to the one spot you need, and I might potentially write about anything I’m playing anyway… it seems like this would be hard to keep a lid on.
On the other hand, I am documenting things, so if I get Surprise Zombies in a game, I should be able to stick around for a screenshot, right? Go back in if I realise that a screenshot is required? Ach. This caviling bores me more than it does you, rest assured.
Darkest Dungeon (early access). I’ve been interested in this dungeon-crawler as a game which places a heavy emphasis on the psychological and physical costs of violence. Mostly, I’m curious about how that’s handled: the art style suggests a strongly grimdark tone, which gives me some cause for doubt, given how hardcore Gritty Realism is often just a particularly obnoxious form of escapism. Anyway, it’s pretty clear that it includes a wide variety of ghouls and skeletons.
Arkham Asylum / Arkham City. I give approximately zero shits about Marvel or DC characters, and Batman is particularly obnoxious; but these got some pretty good press at the time and were on sale for five bucks apiece. Turns out that Asylum has a sequence involving skeletons, and City features Solomon Grundy as a boss battle.
They both come with caveats. Grundy’s level of intelligence and personality apparently varies hugely over the course of DC history (as you might expect of a character who first appeared in 1944 and who has been killed and resurrected approximately a million times), but in City his role appears to be Big Stupid Undead Kinda-Frankensteiny Brute. Similarly, the skeletons in Asylum are encountered in a hallucination – does that count? I’m going with ‘probably.’
Rebuild 3: Gangs of Deadsville. Aw, man, this one tugs at me. The first game was diverting enough, but Rebuild 2 was really solid, plus it had agreeably silly randomised characters. It was also very much a game about reconstruction and people management; zombies were just a steady form of resistance and pressure. And while it wasn’t exactly Fury Road, it had a substantially less bro-fantasy feel than yer average videogame apocalypse, in part because it was about community effort rather than the personal heroics of one survivalist-bearded lone-wolf gunlugger, and in part because the writing had its own agreeable voice, rather than being a morass of grimdark cliché. (I was probably subconsciously thinking of it when I imagined Disurban.) Screenshots suggest that Gangs represents a substantial increase in scope and depth. So, yeah, this is the first game that made me go ‘oh, shit why don’t I get to buy this thing.’
Witcher 3 probably falls into this category also; I doubt I’d have picked it up at launch price anyway, because I am cheap and the series has too many glaring flaws for me to want to wholeheartedly throw my wallet behind it, but it did grow up somewhat between 1 and 2, and signs suggest that it has grown up somewhat further, and I am very interested in fantasy that draws from sources outside the usual Anglo canon, and heroic fantasy where heroing doesn’t magically fix everything, and I’ve heard good things about it from multiple non-bullshit sources, and I think there is an excellent chance that there will be weirdly misplaced British accents for me to giggle at. But its monster list has always included various flavours of ravening undead, so, nope.
Zombies of Lesbos, made for the explicitly counter-zombie Public Domain Jam 2:
When the goddess Nyx grows tired of Sappho’s adoration for Aphrodite, she condemns the Island to an undead fate. Only Sappho can stop it, by bringing forth Aphrodite with her most famous poem, before time runs out.
This is the sort of weird concept that would normally make me poke at a game out of brief curiosity, expecting it to suck but eager to be proved wrong.
The Public Domain Jam’s premise offers another argument for the zombie epidemic:
Why are there so many Cthulhu and zombie games?
Part of the reason they’re everywhere is that they’re both well known and free to use, and a lot of people who make games aren’t aware of just how many good stories they’re carrying around with them.
This is familiar theme: that many of the people making games are not immensely well-versed in media outside games, and that even within games the culture of obsession with the bleeding edge (and, I submit, with limiting, monumental approaches to nostalgia, which has an special symbiosis with obsolescence) makes for a very narrow literacy.
In a like vein: in the initial post I compared the prevalence of zombies in videogames to having pizza at every meal. With a broader, fiercer, more precise version of that argument, here’s Naomi Clark on tastelessness:
Stepping into games is like arriving at a cheese-tasting party where most of the crowd is angrily murmuring that cheddar and swiss are always and objectively the best cheeses on grounds of utility and pleasure, that assholes offering a plate of mold-laced bleu are an affront to any real cheese-lover, that brie may simply be too soft to be a real cheese. It’s tricky to distinguish taste from efficacy in games, because the efficacy here isn’t about nutrition or blood sugar, it’s efficacy in the inculcation of pleasure–but we must distinguish the pleasure of a belly full of familiar fodder and the pleasure of the tongue.
Aristotle’s description of intemperance, memorably, claims that gluttons don’t love the taste of food: they love the feel of it sliding down their gullet.
Royal Squad. Second screen of the intro: ‘The Dark Lords had landed on the island with a legion of the undead. Zombies, skeletons…’ and at this point I’m done reading. Thanks for putting your stupid zombies up-front, random ArmorGames thing! I’ll stop procrastinating and go to the gym now.
The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, Diana Wynne Jones’ magisterial summary of the genre at its least imaginative. My well-loved older copy had been damaged by a leaky jug of laundry detergent, and this is a book I consult so frequently that not having a physical copy would not stand. New copy acquired, I idly flipped to the final page:
ZOMBIES. These are just the UNDEAD, except nastier, more pitiable, and generally easier to kill. When you slash your SWORD across their stomachs – which you inevitably do – they watch their impossibly decayed intestines pour out in a glob, and then look at you with an expression of ultimate pathos (OMT) before crumpling at the knees. Naturally they SMELL quite strongly.
The undead entry also basically describes zombies, just the kind that keep coming after you chop bits off; their basic role as a low-level mook is acknowledged. Still, this feels like a somewhat below-par effort from a writer generally capable of pinning a tired trope to the dissection-board with a casually pithy paragraph; frankly, I was hoping for something really arch. But this was published in 1996, when zombies were less egregious. DWJ had been conscious of computer games for at least a decade – there’s a fantasy text adventure in Howl’s Moving Castle – but that wasn’t her focus, and Doom II was only two years old at this point, and the Headshot Orthodoxy still some way off. Regardless! I have long considered Tough Guide as one of the world’s finer works of metafiction, and if I’m being consistent about that then it technically counts as a zombie story. Shit.
Fuck It, Why Does This Get A Pass
Clicker Heroes. (In my defence, I was too sick for my slugbrain to cope with anything more interesting.) Zombie Bloops show up around level 61. Bloops are an already-established monster type; they’re clearly a variety of slime, a creature with a long pedigree – through D&D oozes, back through The Blob and thence to various amoeba-ish aliens of golden-age SF. Their standard modern CRPG use is not unlike that of zombies – conscience-free sword-fodder – but the difference is that slimes were mindless in the first place. So I think we can safely say that this is Not Technically A Zombie, on grounds of It Was Never A Person’s Body. (The Japanese version of slimes, from which this probably derives – Clicker Heroes has a JRPG-done-cheap style – are more likely to have eyes, faces, simple minds. But they’re still rarely people.)
Slimes have never approached anything like the popularity of zombies, in spite of their similar roles. They’re more boring and harder to take seriously than zombies, which takes some work.