A Year Without Zombies 8: Losing the Will to Live

(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.)
I have not been feeling like dedicating a great deal of energy to desktop videogames, of late. Partly I’ve been more focused on tabletop RPGs, and partly I’ve been in a patch of mild anhedonia, but the prospect of having to dump a game just as I get into it (and the fact that I can’t play a good chunk of my old favourites) is definitely playing a role.



lol u mad bro

Duel Master 2: Blood Valley (gamebook). I’ve been meaning to get back to diagramming CYOA games, and intended to start out with a good example of a standard structure that I haven’t really mapped yet – the map game, organised by geography and permitting backtracking. Duel Master 2 was a gift from a friend, and I’ve been meaning to get around to mapping it for… entirely too long. (It’s particularly notable because it’s two-player, with each player reading simultaeneously from a different book.)  So I’d spent an hour or two messing around with Dia, and then I happen to see, in a node adjacent to the one I was mapping… ‘Death-Ghouls.’

Death-Ghouls is… over-egging the pudding just a shade. (Yeah, it was 1986 and genre fantasy in the UK was all about being teenage-metal, and you can hardly expect tasteful naming from a title like DUEL MASTER 2: BLOOD VALLEY. But still.) Their role here is another common zombie one: to serve as the overture fight for a bigger, more interesting undead / necromancer enemy.

Blood Valley is a pretty big game to map, so I’m glad I caught it on a facing page, at least, rather than waiting until I actually reached the node in question.

No. Yes. Argh.

Alphabear, a cute word-puzzler for mobile from Road Not Taken creators Spry Fox. People were saying good things about it, I like word-puzzlers, and Road Not Taken had impressed me a lot, so I was pretty curious. While I was looking for more information about it, I glimpsed what looked like maybe a zombie bear in a passing shot of the collectibles screen. It was an easy search to confirm, because they were using the zombies for promotion:


Arguably you could exclude them on the They’re Not People rule, but I don’t think this stands up: bears talk to you, wear little outfits, and are generally treated as cute little people.

Except that zombie bears still get treated as cute little people, just like all the other bears: they talk to you, nap, take selfies. Really, ‘zombie’ is just a Halloween outfit, here; it’s not as though Alphabear even really has a strong fictional component. There’s no way to really make it fit the definition.

But this does raise a fairly important point.

Since I’ve begun doing this, a lot of people have given me suggestions and anti-suggestions and asked lots of questions about edge-cases. In the great majority of cases, they haven’t really been working from my working definition of 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.

Dominion is not a zombie game. Unless you play it at a Popcap employee's house.

Dominion is not a zombie game. Unless you play it at a Popcap employee’s house.

Which is totally to be expected! One of my pet peeves about theoreticians – philosophers, in particular, but I’m sure that academics and pseudo-academics in other fields are equally guilty – is their tendency to take a commonplace concept, craft a definition of that concept for a very narrow and specific purpose, and then turn around and try to apply that specialist sense of the term to normal usage, regardless of how poorly they match up. Bollocks to that.

I crafted that definition as something that could be clearly applied, while getting at the heart of what bothers me about zombies. It was also intended to cover things which, while not being called zombies, serve the same function. And I expected that it wouldn’t cover a number of things which are named zombies, or which look like zombies at first glance.

But what if that’s not really the problem? What if the ubiquity of zombies is facilitated largely by the vast zone of softened, easily-digested zombie media that surrounds Real True Zombies?

I think it’s really important to avoid the genetic fallacy when talking about culture. I don’t think that modern zombies have very much to do with the horror of not being in control of your own body, or of white people being subjected to the horrors of slavery – though those were major elements when the concept entered Western culture. I see, in principle, no reason why zombies might not evolve into something else. But I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. The cutesy zombies of Alphabear and Plants vs. Zombies don’t signify a shift in the presentation of zombies: they’re just markers of mainstreaming.

Acceptable Failure

Jacq ordered a dance-pad to play Crypt of the NecroDancer. When it arrived, the zombie ban began to put something of a strain on our relationship. Learning to use a dance-pad is difficult and makes you look silly, and however polite I was about it, some direct moral support was needed. I agreed to go and skip about in one of the miniboss rooms for a bit, to confirm that I too could look ridiculous while finding things difficult. Shortly thereafter it became clear that NecroDancer is not really an ideal first dance-pad game, and the focus shifted to other things. (In other news, it is really difficult to get use out of a dance-pad if you don’t appreciate J-pop much.)

Legend (movie). A very brief moment: the goblin Blunder makes a brief attempt to overthrow his demon overlord Darkness with the power of the unicorn’s horn; Darkness makes a mummified corpse grab Blunder and leap into a pit with him. The incident’s quick, the mummy’s only important as an extension of Tim Curry’s power, undead never feature again, and the movie’s continuity is kind of janky, so I’m not surprised that I didn’t remember it from my previous viewing. Walking out of the movie would have been a jerk move – it was a blankets-on-the-floor screening at EMP, Jacq had asked me to come, and abandoning your partner in the middle of a movie is crappy behaviour if you’re not in actual distress.


Monsterhearts. I was MCing a mini-campaign in which the Big Bad was a werewolf in an abusive relationship with a mentor of one of the PCs. At a certain point, I made a Hard Move to have him invade a PC’s home in the middle of a scene. (The PC was expecting their mother to come home at some point; they heard the front door open and close; and then they heard the mother’s car pull up in the driveway.) I realised, mid-way through setting up the scene, that I didn’t want an all-out confrontation with the Big Bad at this point; I just wanted the PCs to feel unsafe. I decided that the Big Bad had herded a feral werewolf into the house, then snuck away.

The feral werewolf fled the scene, and the PCs caught up with it, subdued it, and improvised a radio collar by clipping on one of their phones. (“We lojacked a werewolf!”) We took that as the end of the session.

While planning for the next session, I realised that I was well on my way to creating something that was, by my own standards, a zombie. I had been thinking that feral werewolves were people who had been irrevocably damaged by lycanthropy, reducing them to simple beasts that the Big Bad could manipulate. I’d used them as a Narrative Pacing Monster. Ugh. Zombie. Totally against the principles of the game, which include ‘make monsters seem human. Make humans seem monstrous.’ Lazy plotting. Bad MC.

Fortunately, Monsterhearts tends to be played in a No Myth idiom: if it hasn’t happened on-stage, it never happened. I mentally rewrote the feral werewolves: they were a group who were trying to live entirely separately from human civilisation, and who were trying to reject what they saw as their destructive human side. A lot of them were having trouble controlling their transformations – I left it ambiguous as to whether, or how, that was related to their rejection of human nature. And this wasn’t the heart of the story, but it led to a scene that was a good deal more interesting than we could have managed with brokenwolves.


This entry was posted in cyoa, rpg, storygames, videogames and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to A Year Without Zombies 8: Losing the Will to Live

  1. matt w says:

    When you started (or maybe first mentioned) the project I had thought that your motivation was going to be something like the ubiquity of jokey zombies. Sometime around Shaun of the Dead or Pride and Prejudice with Zombies it seemed like zombies were on the way to being about as serious as pirates. The zombie bears and Michael Jackson zombies from PvZ and Unity from Skin-Horse* (zombie as Cloud-Cuckoo-Lander, with all the real violence being only mentioned as “that time she….” business) are all turning the idea of zombies into a big joke. Which I guess means I do think it’s a shift, with SRS BUSINESS ZOMBIES like The Last of Us fighting a rear-guard action, or reclaiming something that has slipped into silliness, like the Dark and Gritty Superhero movement. (I guess superheroes have been pretty thoroughly reclaimed.)

    I might have a different perspective on this because I don’t seem to encounter a lot of zombies in the kind of indie game I play. I sorted my Applications folder by Recently Opened and Cave Story might be the only one with zombies I’ve played this year (unless you count World of Goo, and probably some IF that doesn’t show on that search).

    *From the way she’s described she’s more like a flesh golem but she’s called a zombie, and for her to be a flesh golem would mess up my fan art.

    • The thing about zombies is that in the Internet era they’ve always been kind of a big joke. Shaun of the Dead came long before, but did not undermine, World War Z and The Walking Dead. Plants vs. Zombies came long before, but did not undermine, DayZ and Dying Light.

      I think that the most popular zombie game ever, Minecraft, kind of exemplifies this: cartoony zombies are the bridge that make it possible to have a game that has strong elements of survival horror and RPG-ish kill-things-for-XP mechanics, yet is acceptable for your 8-year-old to play. (Minecraft’s breakout from weird cult oddity to ever-expanding phenomenon coincided very closely with the survival-horror / combat aspect coming together.) And Minecraft is a very clear inspiration for a whole genre of grimmer, more ‘adult’ Srs Zoms survival / crafting games – they’re not fighting a rearguard action, they’re cashing in on a newly-created market.

  2. Victor Gijsbers says:

    Uh… spoiler alert for our Monsterhearts campaign? The big bad is a werewolf?!

    • Dammit, I’m sorry. For some reason I was sure that y’all had got that information at some point.

      Game epistemology, man. (Plus, yeah, in retrospect it’s a bad idea to write about campaigns still ongoing. Because who knows how they’re going to turn out in the end?)

      • Victor Gijsbers says:

        O well, it’s not that important. Monsterhearts doesn’t require a lack of knowledge on the part of the players. 🙂

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s