A Year Without Zombies 7: Bring Out Your Dead

(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.)

The Steam summer sale entirely failed to fill me with the Christmas-morning feeling that Steam sales have sparked in the past. But it did have that minigame thing.

monstersummergameIt was essentially Clicker Heroes but as an MMO, and it involved unlocks and stuff. As is usual with Steam’s sale-related minigames, it didn’t really seem as though the outcome (more games on sale that Steam wanted on sale anyway!) was in much doubt, and (also as usual) it was far from self-explanatory and left you feeling that it was mostly designed for the amusement of people who like Steam trading cards. Anyway, the monsters you autofight seem to be pixel-blocky versions of videogame characters, maybe? like chibi but, y’know, more gamerish. They include zombie-looking things. This was as good an excuse as any to ignore the whole deal, although possibly my avatar was still in there auto-smacking things.

For grim completeness, here is every game I saw in the sale that has zombies in the central premise, without specifically looking for them: The Walking Dead. Dying Light. Sniper Elite: Nazi Zombie Army Trilogy. Dead State. H1Z1. Killing Floor 2. DayZ. Project Zomboid. Fist of Jesus. How to Survive. Plants vs. Zombies. Three Dead Zed. Dead Island. Rebuild 3: Gangs of Deadsville. Resident Evil (various). Miscreated. Zombie Bowl-O-Rama. OMG Zombies! Infectonator: Survivors. Call of Duty Complete Zombie Experience. Left 4 Dead 2. 7 Days to Die. Zombie Kill of the Week. Atom Zombie Smasher. Organ Trail. Deadlight. Dead Rising 2 & 3. I, Zombie.

Patterns from that list: any game where you shoot things is likely to tack on a zombie mode even if its SERIOUS ARMY MANS premise would normally exclude zombies. (Immediately after the sale I also saw that Counterstrike Nexon had a zombie mode.) Also, if you’re making a zombie game, be as uncreative with your title as possible.

And zombies are commonly used in goofy ways – they’re inherently kind of silly, and if there’s one thing nerds love to do with overused nerd tropes, it’s to make jokes about them.


Increasing trend: putting zombies in your game in order to snark at zombies being used to market every game. I do not endorse this, but I have to admit that Coffee Stain Studios are on point.

While we’re talking about Steam, here are some analytics. Of note:

Japan is often regarded as a console market with PC games being just a niche. It’s true to some extent — only 1 percent of Steam gamers are coming from Japan. But add zombies into your game and suddenly you’re looking at 4.5 percent of Japanese players, even before proper localization! So if your game has zombies, don’t forget about a Japanese localization and some marketing there.

Whaaat. I can speak with confidence about the cultural reasons for zombies’ popularity in the West, but Japan? I could make a lot of guesses – Japan’s unique relationship with apocalypse? urban overcrowding and alienation? hungry ghosts? but it wouldn’t have much basis in actual understanding.

Somewhat Meta

toyzombieLittle Inferno is a game about throwing all your toys in the fire; alternately, it’s Plato’s Cave as a casual game. Getting combos unlocks catalogues which let you buy more kinds of burnable item, in a not-particularly-understated satire on consumer culture. One catalogue is videogame-themed, and of course it includes a zombie. This gave me enough pause that I quit the game to consider.

The zombie is not depicted as an actual zombie, but a toy, a representation of a zombie, and that’s OK in theory. But Inferno blurs the lines rather. Its toys move their eyes around, make noises, move autonomously, the idea being to unnerve you when you set them alight. They’re still crude simulacra: burning an Inferno plush cat is not, and is not depicted as, anything like as horrific as throwing an actual cat in the fire would be, but it’s still creepier than burning an inanimate toy. Inferno concerns how we treat representations, and the destruction of represented entities that forms such a massive component of videogames.

Whenever you see conversation about violence in media, there are a lot of very conflicting intuitions going on with regard to the fourth wall and how certain acts pierce it, how violence in a fictional world might reflect on the author or the audience. Inferno fucks around with that line.


Survival Horror. A first venture into commercial interactive fiction; the author showed up on the intfiction.org forums offering some free codes for design feedback. I was mildly curious purely on design grounds, because it apparently has an unusual approach to hyperlink mechanics; but it’s conspicuously zombie-centred. Interactive fiction generally does not have a conspicuous lack of zombie games, but they’re less prevalent than in many fields of gaming; this is the first such I’ve dealt with this year. Action-driven plots are less of a natural fit for text games, on the whole; relatively few IF works are built around combat mechanics, and those which are still tend to focus more heavily on individually-designed enemies rather than hordes of undifferentiated mooks.

Tales of Maj’Eyal. I played this highly-developed Angband variant yonks ago when it was freeware (and most famous for its copyright-ravaged history); it had a reputation for being the most narrative-heavy of the major *bands, but I never really got past the early game. It is now rather polished-up, has a tileset and a commercial release, and I have heard good things spoken of it. Maj’Eyal has ghouls and skeletons, but they appear to be playable races, and zombie PCs automatically get a question mark – if you’re smart enough to be a player-character, and presumably making complicated strategic decisions all the time, your zombie status is in question. Still and all, the evidence suggests that they’re also used as nondescript sword fodder, so giving this one a miss.

Dominions 4: Thrones of Ascension. I played a demo of an earlier iteration of this some years back. Very much a game in the style of indie games before they were cool, and turn-based strategy from the age of door-stop manuals. It actually took me quite a while to figure this one out; there doesn’t seem to be a unit list anywhere, and there’s a wiki but it’s fairly sparsely populated. Undead were definitely a thing, but that didn’t necessarily entail zombie undead; at least one of their undead nations is all ghosts and shadows. Eventually I dug into the manual itself, which contained enough references to raising battlefield corpses to give me maybe 80% confidence.

Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines. I know folks who speak fondly of this. Failed a routine zombie sweep.

Fallout Shelter,  the promotional mobile game for the forthcoming Fallout 4 which everyone is hopping up and down about, almost certainly has feral ghouls in it. (At least, in the text-based wasteland-adventures bit.) Also Fallout 4, obviously, which is making me drool a bit even though I don’t generally do pre-orders; the franchise is too well-loved at this point to risk evolving by subtraction, and yup, there are some feral ghouls in the trailer at 1:49, in a shot so brief that I missed it the first time around. I’ll just sit here and dream about an alternate-universe Fallout with no power armour, immortal mutants, beam weapons or giant robots.

Dead Free

I attended all three days of Go Play NW. I was kind of expecting to have to say no to zombies at least once. I didn’t expect it would be a big deal – storygames culture is very committed to respecting the boundaries of players – but I did expect that I’d have to ask. Nope. Not once in three days of gaming. Never even got edgy about it possibly coming up. Fuck, that was nice.

It’s not as though storygames don’t have their share of zombie content; off the top of my head there’s Zombie Cinema and the forthcoming Dead Scare. It’s not as though storygames are esoteric artsy things that sneer at well-trodden nerd-beloved genres: postapocalyptic and horror storygames are really common. And it’s certainly not because storygames don’t involve violence; in the course of the con my characters stabbed out and ate a wizard’s eyeball while he was still alive (Fall of Magic), summoned a giant alligator to assassinate a nominal ally in the middle of a gunfight (The Carcass), tried to duel a dragon and made the bloody discovery that dragons don’t play by the rules (Dungeon World/Planarch Codex), participated in a tense, guns-drawn standoff over a trade in electricity (Downfall), forced open cargo bay doors to bring a spaceship’s blasters to bear on the people inside (Free Spacer), and attacked Earth by setting off a chain nuclear reaction that temporarily turned Jupiter into a small sun (Microscope).

What storygames don’t generally have is generic violence. If there’s a weapon drawn, a blow struck, a battle fought, that incident will usually be treated as deserving its own special treatment. And that dramatically curtails the function of zombies, particularly in games where they’re not part of the core concept. So, proposed: the usual purpose of zombies is facilitate generic violence.

It’s worth noting that the usual complaint in trad videogames is ‘only 40 hours of gameplay? what a rip-off’, while the difficulty in storygames is more often ‘ach, this takes so long to set up! I can’t get people at a con to commit to a four-hour game!’ An awful lot of videogame genre, I suspect, is defined by answers to the question ‘what kinds of experience remain kind of exciting even when they’re rendered generic?’

Zombie As Nerd-Culture Touchstone

Every community or identity has markers of ingroup identity. Some (shibboleths) are used to identify and exclude outsiders, but as often they’re more important as signifiers of membership, as ways for members of the same group to recognise and relate to one another, to offer comfort and express commitment, to strengthen relationships within the group through shared rituals.

Zombies fall fairly solidly into this category. If you wear a zombie t-shirt or the like, you’re not only, or even primarily, broadcasting your particular enthusiasm for that one trope; you’re announcing membership in Greater Geekdom and specific sectors thereof. The specific qualities of zombies may not be what’s intended, so much as ‘I’m going to a nerd thing, let’s wear a nerd shirt.’ This is particularly likely when zombies are portrayed as silly tropes, functioning rather like an in-joke.

Culture markers are not inherently bad: it’s probably impossible to have an actual community or subculture without them. (Having tons of shibboleths is likely to be a sign of severe insularity; but no social group is perfectly permeable.) But culture markers are rarely arbitrary; they carry baggage that can’t be disposed of. Here’s another answer.

Zombie As Disgust Object

On the plain face of it, a zombie is a corpse, usually a decomposing one. A rotting corpse is a fundamental, cross-cultural object of disgust.

Although the cognitive content and aetiology of disgust suggest that in all societies the primary objects – feces, other bodily fluids, and corpses – are likely to be relatively constant, societies have considerable latitude in how they extend disgust-reactions to other objects, which they deem to be relevantly similar to the primary objects.

Martha Nussbaum, Hiding from Humanity

How a person handles disgust is a learned process, which goes through some standard stages through childhood. The part I’m interested in, though, is adolescence, where childhood disgust and squeamishness is overcome (or reinforced, or elaborated upon) through exposure, theory, and peer pressure. There is a competitive element to this, particularly among boys: displaying commitment to and comfort with the correct attitudes is taken as a mark of maturity. There is a bluffing game that goes on in adolescence, a raising of the stakes to try and put other boys off-balance. When we did dissections in Biology, for instance, the game was to show that you were cool with it and that other kids weren’t; and raising the bar, finding grosser things to do with your cow heart without quite crossing the line, was a way to gain a few small points of social advantage.

This isn’t just about disgust, per se; adolescence was full of rituals designed to demonstrate one’s comfort with uncomfortable things. There were plenty of products marketed to this end. Lad-mag smut displayed women calculated to intimidate – tall, lean, in expensive surroundings, bearing scornful expressions. I remember some confusion – if this stuff is meant for wanking, does that mean that most teenage boys are great big subs? No. Private consumption wasn’t the point: the point was to raise the bar, to frame sex as highly intimidating and then affect, through association, to be unintimidated.

Victor Gijbers’ experimental tabletop RPG Vampires (a game almost entirely composed of trigger-warnings) makes the discomfort game explicit: its players are male vampires locked in a struggle for dominance, who draw their power from exploitative, abusive, controlling relationships with women. The trick is that the amount of power you derive from doing awful things is reliant on how uncomfortable they make the other players:

It is absolutely vital for the success of the game that scoring happens with reference to the actual feelings of discomfort of the players. If you are simply having fun and enjoying the tale, don’t score above 2. Vampires is designed to transcend the borders of fun.

I doubt that I’d ever want to actually play Vampires. It’s not meant to be played. Its virtue lies in rendering explicit dynamics that are usually unspoken, including the use of discomfort as a social one-upmanship.

There is no particular virtue in squeamishness. Seeking out and confronting the horrific and threatening, re-evaluating whether your horrors have a reasonable basis, is a vital part of becoming an adult. The issue here is with its role as an ostensive, social act, and with media that boil down to that sole purpose, things which aim to be distressing primarily to make you feel cool for not being distressed, creating a threat so that we can be seen to overcome it, while other people are seen not to.

So we have the zombie, and we say: this is a revolting monster, an ambulatory pile of rotting flesh, but you know what? I’m totally cool with it. Barely even notice any more. You cool, bro?

Disgust is, of course, also instrumental in social exclusion, in establishing who is to be despised. I’ve certainly seen zombies used for that purpose, but I’ve already blathered on for too long; we’ll have to talk about the subtype of Fat Zombies some other time.

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8 Responses to A Year Without Zombies 7: Bring Out Your Dead

  1. Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines does indeed include zombies, though only in a couple sections of the game. Most notably, in the game the cemetery in Hollywood is experiencing an unexpected nocturnal rising, and one of the sidequests is helping the caretaker, Romero, keep the zombie population down while he pops out on an errand. It uses zombies judiciously (they show up in places where they make sense, rather than at random wherever disposable mooks are needed).

    A thing I’ve noted: iZombie, the somewhat silly but good CW series about a zombie that solves crime, might actually pass the test. Zombies in it are clearly sentient people who only become feral, shambling monsters given extended starvation (from eating brains, of course), and in the first season this happens only once, and the zombie in question is never treated as disposable cannon fodder.

    • Andrew Plotkin says:

      I was thinking about iZombie, which I agree is quite charming and well-written. (Sort of a Middleman-lite, if you’re up for that.)

      However, the milieu-launching “boat attack” scene (shown in flashback a couple of times, illustrated in the show’s opening credits) is a classic trope shambling zombie attack. And most of the people (infected and non) in that scene are nameless NPCs who wind up (permanently) dead. It’s short but the show doesn’t exist without it, so if you’re doing zero tolerance, I think iZombie is ruled out.

      • Yeah. And I’m not actively seeking out things that skirt the line; I’m trying to consume normally. (I’ve only heard of iZombie from folks bringing it up in responses to this post series.)

  2. Boy, for taking a self-imposed hiatus from the zombie trope, you sure are getting a lot of writing mileage out of it.

    I suppose that’s the point though: if you consume media, you can’t avoid zombies. If there were not so much zombie media, you’d have no roadblocks to write about, and consequently would have no purpose to impose monk-like denial upon yourself!

    • Yeah, pretty much. The premise was ‘gosh, I play a lot of zombie games despite not really liking them much. How much work would it be to not do that?’ The basic assumption is that mainstream culture elements deserve a tougher level of critical scrutiny than niche ones, because everybody ends up imbibing mainstream tropes whether they want to or not.

  3. Curiosity: What if a game does a special zombie-themed thing for Halloween? Would that DQ the whole game, or just the Halloween thing?

    • Depends on what the ‘thing’ is, exactly, and how it was implemented. But I think I’d start out with a default assumption of disqualification: the normal assumption is that the presence of zombies in the game DQs it, even if those zombies can be avoided or switched off.

  4. Pingback: A Year Without Zombies: Envoi | These Heterogenous Tasks

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