Zombie Fatigue: Why the Undead Have Been Done To Death
By George Denison on August 9th, 2012 (10 comments)
Zombies used to mean something. They used to be a gory, cynical allegory for a culture of mindless conformity. Or maybe they were a symbolic backdrop to the paranoid fears of the apocalypse that the Cold War represented with mutually assured destruction. Maybe they represented a fear of disease, of contamination, of science taken to horrifying extremes, or of the base nature of humanity when societal constructs collapse.
Once, in a galaxy far, far away, zombies were actually scary
The notion that videogames desensitise us to violence is drivel, but they have desensitised us to zombies. The sight of a re-animated corpse, lurching towards you, pieces of wet flesh hanging off in flaps, eyes glazed, arms outstretched in preparation for violence, should fill us with fear and disgust. Now, zombies are nothing more than a trope wheeled out as cannon fodder in whatever half-hearted end of the world scenario the developers can come up with in a coffee break. Oh look, Aunt Martha, there goes another zombie. Pass us a digestive biscuit.
I felt a little reluctant to write this piece up, despite the fact that it's been a long time coming, because I'm fresh from finishing the first two episodes of The Walking Dead, and they were actually very good, despite playing to a lot of the same trite zombie conventions mentioned above. Yet that game gets away with it because its focus is on the drama between survivors, and it doesn't devolve into a generic duck shoot. The zombies are ancillary, and the human beings are often far more monstrous than the flesh devouring cadavers lumbering around in the background. Sadly, for every Walking Dead, there are several more Deadlights and Dead Islands that serve to prove one thing only: that zombies have become token.
This is not to say that creative things can't be done with the basic idea of the zombie. One of the reasons the early Silent Hill games are so revered above other horror games is that rather than falling back to the horrendously overused George A. Romero template zombie, it looked to the paintings of Francis Bacon and psychological horror films like Eraserhead and Jacob's Ladder to formulate its monsters. Its warped, nightmarish creatures were reflections of its protagonist's deepest, most personal fears and insecurities. Resident Evil 4 rejected the idea of the zombie being a dunder-headed head-shot waiting to happen, and re-imagined its infected as part of a hive mind, working together to trap you into uncomfortable corners, weaving out of the way of shots and throwing projectiles from a distance. Then you have Amnesia: The Dark Descent, which actively punished you for looking at its monsters at all, ensuring that they are only ever a distorted blur glimpsed out of the corner of your vision.
In general, though, zombies are becoming tired and predictable. Why do developers keep dragging out the undead time after time?
I think one of the main reasons is an unwillingness to evolve beyond the simplistic shooting mechanics that have come to dominate the videogame market. When it comes to findings targets to sink round after round of hot lead into for hours and hours, zombies are ideal. They have all the basic features of a humanoid figure, but none of the sentience or moral complexity that an actual human harbours. Therefore the act of shooting feels less like an act of cheap murder. A shambling corpse trying to eat your brains is an unambiguous target, after all.
Another reason for the zombie excess could be because the majority of videogames are still drawing from a very small pool of influences for their contexts. The zombie apocalypse is one of them, and it sits alongside Lord of the Rings style high fantasy and militarised action as a genre developers and publishers seem deeply unwilling to tear themselves away from. The zombie apocalypse can provide a good framework to explore thematically rich ideas, but it feels like it's being used as a lazy fall-back for rote narrative techniques that we've all seen a thousand times before. Look at the boxes Deadlight ticks: guilt over being unable to save someone you love, thuggish military powers being brought to the forefront of a society in chaos, a desperate desire to avoid becoming "one of them", and an uplifting message that life will somehow triumph in the face of the most extreme adversity. These themes are part of a successful formula, but the more we overuse them the more their impact diminishes.
So what's the solution?
Like the orcs and the space marines, I think zombies will have to go away for a while and come back afresh to reinvigorate any impact they once had.
Or alternatively, a developer could make a game where you play as a space marine in a post-apocalyptic scenario, feeling guilt over being unable to save his dead wife and child, blasting hordes of orcs and zombies, using cover based shooting mechanics, with a tacked on multiplayer that's a bit like Gears of War and Call of Duty, but not as good. Then that game will sell by the trillions, and every other developer will copy and paste that game because they also want to make money. Then this will happen ad nauseam until people become so sick of this cut-and-paste game that they never want to see another space marine, orc or zombie ever again.
Or maybe that's wishful thinking.
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