A Year Without Zombies 11: I Aten’t 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.)

Most of my game energies have been directed towards planning a Monsterhearts-based LARP; also, I have been away from my main gaming machine, so I have not been playing a whole lot of videogames.

The end’s in sight. I am looking forwards to… I don’t know, I haven’t really planned anything. Maybe I ought to figure out what I’ve missed most. But mostly I’m tired; this year has mostly made me way more enthusiastic about narrative-oriented RPGs as opposed to videogames. I’ve got into a state of mind where I feel as though the things I care about most in games are just really hard to do well as single-player computer games, and almost nobody is trying to do them.

This is not, strictly speaking, an accurate analysis. I’ve played things that enthused me this year – Grow Home, Her Story. Probably this is partly because I didn’t play much of the IF Comp and didn’t play anything which really electrified me. And it’s a really dark, wet winter in western Washington right now, so I’m gloomy. But I’m feeling a good deal of apathy about IF and videogames as compared to, say, the prospect of a Night Witches campaign. I mean, my enthusiasms wax and wane; that’s normal. But the zombie thing seems like a pretty big factor here.

Fine

The Baker of Shireton: Another IF Comp game. The Harbormaster tells randomly-generated stories in a sort of Rowley Birkin style. These confused, rambling narratives sometimes include zombies – but, because of the randomness, the zombies appear to work more or less as any other creature, which is to say identically to humans. Several of the generated narratives that I saw strongly implied that zombies had motives, interests… and, belike, sexuality. Not Real Zombies. Case closed.

Murderhearts, my one-shot theatre LARP based on Monsterhearts. This included a good number of undead – ghosts, vampires, demon possession – but all of them were people with individual minds, motives and goals.

250px-We_Be_Goblins_FreePathfinder / We Be Goblins Free! (tabletop RPG)I’ve barely played any d20 games since the end of secondary school (even by then, I think we had mostly branched out into other systems like Shadowrun, WFRP, Star Wars and homebrews.) I ran a few solo d20 sessions for Jacq so that she could get some idea of how tabletop RPGs usually worked, and that’s about it. I am not familiar with any edition of D&D since 2nd, so it felt about time to update myself a little, even if I didn’t really have any intention of going back to miniatures-based, combat-centred RPGs. (Conclusion: in the right company I am quite capable of enjoying a pleasant afternoon with this game, but it doesn’t really deliver the things I most enjoy about tabletop RPGs.)

Pathfinder has zombies in it – a wide variety thereof, in fact. We Be Goblins is set in a specific region of the established world Golarion, in which necromancy and zombies definitely exist. But We be Goblins Free doesn’t feature any… sort of. The final fight is against an animated, mindlessly violent, undead effigy that incorporates the bones of a named character. It is not straightforwardly recognisable as a person’s body, however, so it doesn’t count as a zombie – barely.

So the question is how far to extend the reach of what the Work Under Consideration constitutes. The fictive world of We Be Goblins is the fictive world of Golarion: on that approach, We Be Goblins contains zombies even though they never directly feature, in the same sense that the statement ‘the Tokugawa rule Japan’ is true of the world of Robinson Crusoe even if Japan is never mentioned in the book. But I think that if I were to say ‘I will not read any books featuring the Tokugawas,’ nobody would expect me to ignore Crusoe.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (movie). Vampires behave in zombie-like ways at certain points, but are generally depicted as retaining individuality.

One of the things about vampires, demon-possessed people, and the like is that when they’re shown individually, they’re almost always not zombies; the bigger a group they’re portrayed in, the more likely it is that zombie tropes and modes of depiction will be employed. Dusk Til Dawn is ostensibly a vampire movie, but for much of the time the vampires function like zombies, attacking in a ravenous, stupid, implacable mob. There’s a similar formula in almost any action movie: if one thug or ninja or hitman comes after you, that’s a big fucking deal, but get attacked by a dozen of them and they all become weaker.

Avoided

XCOM: I’ve been living in a shared flat where this has been played a few times, and dammit I love and miss this game. More to the point, however:

Fallout 4. A flatmate bought an X-bone and FO4 on the day of release, then took the next day off. And, well, I live in the nerd mecca of Seattle and interact with a lot of nerds, so avoiding conversation about it has been near-impossible. (When I first moved here, I kept spotting NCR flag T-shirts; those have given way to Vault Dweller hoodies.)

It’s definitely a game I’ll want to play later, but right now I’d rather avoid having the entire experience spoiled, so I’ve been avoiding the TV area as much as possible. I am still getting Pavlovian twitches in the hind-brain every time I hear the V.A.T.S. noise, and earwormed on the soundtrack. (This resulted in conversations which prompted the other flatmate to play New Vegas, which is even more earwormy.)

Abandoned

Supernatural: Reached the point in S5 at which the Croatoan virus becomes more clearly-defined as an incurable condition creating all-consuming rage. Actual zombies appear very briefly, and are not immediately distinct from a number of other types of monster that appear in the show: but exposition makes it very clear that the Crotes are near-mindless, implacably aggro, and incurable.

The threat of the virus is not confined to a single episode, either, so I couldn’t in good faith decide to limit my veto to that one episode and continue watching. This is particularly troublesome, since the only real reason I’m watching Supernatural is so that I can snark at it with Anna.

The Librarians (TV). In the first episode, Noah Wyle’s character – a transparent mashup of Indiana Jones and Dr. Who – is racing against time to unlock a puzzlebox artefact. If he doesn’t, he suggests, every corpse in a hundred-mile radius will turn into flesh-eating zombies. Naturally, he solves the puzzle and no zombies manifest; at this early stage, it’s not clear how reliable the character is, or how much fantasy there is in the world. Later it transpires that he’s the kind of TV genius who already knows every plot-pertinent fact, and that fantastic elements are commonplace, cheesy and tend towards nerd tropes, so zombies are more likely canonical than not. Regardless: the first episode was terrible in many ways (most painfully, Lindy Booth trying way too hard to be Amy Acker) so I am not bemoaning the loss of this one.

*

So. The other aspect. I was looking at photos of zombie cosplay, and I was thinking: what’s the appeal? On a really simplistic reading, people dress up as stuff they think it’d be cool to be. And in straightforward wish-fulfillment terms, there’s nothing appealing about being a zombie.

In modern Western culture, our personal contact with death is massively reduced, sanitised, obscured. I’m thirty-two; I have never seen a dead human body in person, excluding museum pieces. That’s not unusual for someone of my background, but for most of human history it would have been pretty extraordinary. Relatively few of us die young; our homicide and infant mortality rates are low. Our dead are whisked away by professionals to be cleaned, cut up, pumped full of preservative chemicals – in many places, this last is a legal requirement – and, in the relatively rare case of an open-casket funeral, gussied up like food photography. Everything is done to avoid people being exposed to the messy physicality of death.

This might be a good thing – reduced trauma! – or a bad thing – loss of Heideggerian authenticity! – , but regardless, death is a big thing that we have to deal with sometimes. I don’t want to advance any grand theory of where death fits into our social, psychological or ontological integrity, but I think people feel distanced from the physical reality of death, and are often interested in exploring it through fiction.

Modern vampires are one response to this – a central appeal of the vampire in its modern incarnation is the fantasy of an immortal, ageless body. (The notable thing about Twilight is how, in its whole-hearted embrace of wish-fulfillment fantasy, it abandoned the feeble pretense that this would be a dreadful angsty curse.) And I can see how zombies might be used as the inverse of this, as the acknowledgement – or, at least, an engagement with the concept – that one day you and I and everyone we know will lose our bodily integrity, our minds, everything, and be dirt in the ground.

Zombies are a safe, acceptable formula to do that in. Nobody’s going to cosplay ‘myself, but with terminal cancer.’ Zombies can venture into that territory while remaining fun. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t grievously overdone, but it might go some way towards explaining why.

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8 Responses to A Year Without Zombies 11: I Aten’t Dead

  1. The Librarians is cheese as hell and the plot genius guy is the most annoying character on the show, so basically it’s most enjoyable when it embraces the cheese and leaves PGG offscreen. There’s an amusing episode that plays fairy-tale tropes for the comedy, and another set wherein a character has dialogue written entirely in iambic pentameter (though the *delivery* is more conversational/naturalistic). That’s basically the highlights.

    (You didn’t mention, but in addition to the Lindy Booth thing, Christian Kane is basically playing a PG AU version of his Leverage character.)

  2. I’ve been waiting so long for this post. Thank you for delivering! Quality content as always. I’m particularly happy that you got to discuss the modern industrialised world’s estrangement from the messy reality of death without moralising. (Here, as with the subject of animal slaughter and meat processing, I find that philosophical discussion sometimes takes a ghoulish, vaguely try-hard tack of “when *I* was a kid, I had to wash and dress my beloved grandfather’s corpse and take it to the funeral parlour and it was uphill both ways!”)

    Also, wow, mention of the Librarians franchise. I haven’t watched the TV series, but I did watch the first Librarian film, and was surprised at how it was essentially the perfect storm of Indiana Jones / The Mummy / National Treasure clichés. I couldn’t quite bring myself to dislike it, because it seemed so happy with its own clichéd nature. But neither did it have anything to offer other than an opportunity for snarking with like-minded watchers.

    • I think I’d have enjoyed The Librarians more if it had been more unlikeable, really – I can enjoy over-the-top nonsense if it takes itself seriously enough to be worth mocking. But Librarians clearly gives no fucks and is perfectly aware that it’s cheeseball 90s-throwback fluff, which makes its badness less entertaining.

  3. Tom H. says:

    Random anthropological question: open-casket funerals “relatively rare”? All the funerals I’ve been to in the US in the last couple of decades (at least 4, maybe more?) have been open-casket. Could this be regional (southeastern and midwest)? Condition of decedent (none completely ravaged by cancer or mutilated)? Something else?

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

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