Zombies Ate My Brain

Shambling, directionless, single-minded creatures whose potency is measured not in individual quality but sheer population, zombies just never get old. I suppose we are all children of George Romero, and while cinema-buffs will talk about the racial overtones and subversive themes of Night of the Living Dead, what resonates with me is the apocalyptic isolation of rag-tag survivors against a world that wants to eat their brains.

In a way, I think that’s what video games are all about.

With the possible exception of Nazis, I have a tough time thinking of a more desirable antagonist for the imaginary violence I recreationally reap. I have said it before and I’ll say it again, as long as I have ammunition and artillery, I will fire my weapon straight and true into the zombie horde, and I will do so with maleficent glee. If I were forced to commit to a single vote on the topic of favorite gaming bad guys, zombies would be asked to slouch toward the podium to accept their award and then try to eat its metal brains.

I’m not sure any creature is better suited to both the medium and the technology of video games. Their mindlessness not only makes them menacing and intimidating, but really absolves the usual litany of complaint associated with NPC smarts. No one wants a zombie to go get help when his nearby buddy is felled like an overripe watermelon by a sniper rifle shot to the head or to dive behind a nearby dumpster for safety from a hail of bullets. They should merely glance up at the assault and commence to shufflin'. Their glorious evilness is the simple fact that they will walk through the fire and let it burn.

— You’re welcome, Buffy fans.—

I could go on about how nice this simplistic single-mindedness must be for game designers who don't have to worry about complicated artificial intelligence, but actually I’m more pleased about not having some poorly coded AI ruin a game experience for me. If there's one suspension of disbelief buttressed by tungsten cables, it is the one where zombies wander directly into the line of fire. Largely harmless when alone, and even comical, the beauty of zombies is that they give license to replace intelligence with sheer force of numbers.

One zombie won’t kill you. Ten thousand will, and what’s worse is that you feel like maybe, just maybe, you should have even been able to hold their decayed multitude back regardless of the size of the force. They paw harmlessly at blockades, leer menacingly through windows before accidentally breaking through, creep slowly in for the brain eating kill. They are a slow motion nightmare, the kind where you are running from the unknown as though your legs were mired in molasses, and when the inevitable bite comes there is no intelligence, no sympathy, not even a sense of victory or loss. Only isolation, hopelessness and pain.

Video games, frankly, get off on this stuff. The idea of one man pitted against a world gone evil and mad is about as core a concept as you can get. Zombies call forth a purity of the form that is relieved of narrative and technological expectations. Give a man a shotgun, a never ending supply of ammo and a zombie horde waiting to soak up bullets, and you have got yourself a game as pure and ideal as any.

That's what makes a game like Dead Rising so ridiculously and simply phenomenal, and while I may take exception with other elements of the title, it is the quintessential zombie game. Its proportions are ridiculous and its occasionally irreverent whimsy in the face of apocalypse is spot on, but underneath all the veneer exists that rotten core of a world totally doomed. Fight as long as you can, but even if you win you're still in a world over run with freaking zombies, and eventually ... .

Left 4 Dead has this clear undercurrent as well. These games, and a handful of others, illustrate what is great about the villain. The hive-mind that can turn its million eyes upon you and seek destruction through the epic weight of its forces. To me, when I think about zombies, I think about the legends of South American fire ants that devour livestock still alive, or sticking my foot into a river and having it ravaged by piranha. Aside from convincing me to stay the frak out of South America, it is the fear of being overwhelmed, and worse the fear that no matter your strength, no matter your resolve, eventually attrition will break you right the hell down. And, when it does, it's brainsville for some hungry zombies.

So, I never get over zombies, because I think the fear, or at least the uneasiness, they elicit is so primal that it can’t exactly be gotten over. They represent and are even emblematic of an irrevocable doom that we all seem to have at least a preoccupation with if not an outright phobia. They are more than a symbol of our mortality. They are the horrible terror of a helpless beyond. Unlike vampires who are basically damned but still get to be cool and have a ton of sex, one fears not just what a zombie is, but what it once was and lost. It is ourselves stripped of thought, of will, of freedom, of life, but still slouching toward desire.

Still, every time a game developer gives me a shotgun, a chainsaw or a small tactical nuke to use against zombies, the push back against that dark resonates in a primal way with me.

Comments

Very good article. Zombies are the perfect manifestation of the things man fear the most: anonymity, powerlessness and himself.

Heh.

The only thing besides zombies that I'm less interested in seeing in video games is Nazis. I first realized I was over zombies when I practically fell asleep trying to play Dead Rising. Even Bioshock splicers are zombie-like. Crytek games are full of zombies. Dead Space: zombies. World of Warcraft has zombies. My current favorite RTS BattleForge has zombies. It wouldn't surprise me if somewhere in Hello Kitty Online there are cute zombies running around somewhere waiting for you to throw marshmallows at them. There's no escaping them.

The world has seen enough match three games, enough World War 2 shooters, more than enough zombies.

I would like to blast something else into smithereens, please.

mrtomaytohead wrote:

Werewolves fall in line with Vampires though. Still, a world full of werewolves, vampires and the like might be cool.

It already was cool! Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines is some of the best work anyone has done with that setting.

adam.greenbrier wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:

Did you see Gregory Weir's look at L4D, entitled "Left 4 Godot"?

You beat me to it. His post is one of my favorite observations of Left 4 Dead.

Count Elmdor wrote:

I have zombie fatigue just from being around geek/gamer culture for the last few years. Can't we move on to werewolves or something already?

Zombies are enjoying another day in the sun after being set aside in the late 80's or early 90's. They'll pass in time to be replaced by something else. Probably vampires (again) or aliens (again).

The Wheel of Time turns and monsters come and go...

It's a similar cycle to the virtuoso/ensemble cycle, or the Romanticist/Realist cycle (which are all, of course, related).

Grubber788 wrote:

Very good article. Zombies are the perfect manifestation of the things man fear the most: anonymity, powerlessness and himself.

When the crowd is winning, people start to fear crowds and zombies while praising individual heroism. When the crowd is repressed by the elite, folks start championing the will of the people and fearing vampires and werewolves.

BadKen wrote:

...It wouldn't surprise me if somewhere in Hello Kitty Online there are cute zombies running around somewhere waiting for you to throw marshmallows at them...

What about cute zombies with falling limbs being thrown with cute seeds, from cute plants.

http://www.popcap.com/games/pvz

CptGlanton wrote:

Because it shipped with multiple game-breaking glitches?

True, though I'd argue the "game-breaking" part. TF2 shipped with its fair share of glitches also, and HL2 wasn't exactly bug-free.

Because the weapons aren't balanced?

They aren't? Most teams I've played with seem to roll with an even mix of uzi+shotgun or AR+autoshotty. The hunting rifle doesn't always see as much use but in the right hands it performs very well. What weapons aren't balanced?

Because it shipped with only two MP maps, and people only found one of them worth playing?

Two MP campaigns, consisting of 5 maps each. TF2 shipped with what, 6 maps? The second part of your argument is entirely subjective. I don't know which "people" you're referring to, but the GWJ community played plenty of Blood Harvest. No Mercy may have been more popular, but BH was definitely worth playing.

muttonchop wrote:
CptGlanton wrote:

Because it shipped with multiple game-breaking glitches?

True, though I'd argue the "game-breaking" part. TF2 shipped with its fair share of glitches also, and HL2 wasn't exactly bug-free.

Because the weapons aren't balanced?

They aren't? Most teams I've played with seem to roll with an even mix of uzi+shotgun or AR+autoshotty. The hunting rifle doesn't always see as much use but in the right hands it performs very well. What weapons aren't balanced?

Because it shipped with only two MP maps, and people only found one of them worth playing?

Two MP campaigns, consisting of 5 maps each. TF2 shipped with what, 6 maps? The second part of your argument is entirely subjective. I don't know which "people" you're referring to, but the GWJ community played plenty of Blood Harvest. No Mercy may have been more popular, but BH was definitely worth playing.

I'm not going to be into a drawn-out, pointless argument on this, and frankly, it's never worth arguing about flaws in Valve games with its fans. The game is out there; people can judge its merits. I played a lot of L4D on its release, and I no longer find it to be worth visiting.

CptGlanton wrote:

I'm not going to be into a drawn-out, pointless argument on this, and frankly, it's never worth arguing about flaws in Valve games with its fans. The game is out there; people can judge its merits. I played a lot of L4D on its release, and I no longer find it to be worth visiting.

It wasn't my intention to start an argument, nor was I trying to defend the game's merits in general. I was simply surprised when you stated that it lacked "the usual Valve polish", and was curious to know how you thought it failed in comparison to Valve's other titles.
It's now apparent to me that you weren't actually judging the game with regards to Valve's standards, but merely expressing a dislike for the game in general - which is fine, I'm certainly not going to criticize you for not liking the game.

Also: what's with the "Valve fanboy" strawman? Disregarding my argument because I am a fan of Valve games doesn't make much sense when we're comparing the quality of different Valve titles. That's like saying my opinion is worthless in a pie-judging contest because I like pie.

muttonchop wrote:
CptGlanton wrote:

I'm not going to be into a drawn-out, pointless argument on this, and frankly, it's never worth arguing about flaws in Valve games with its fans. The game is out there; people can judge its merits. I played a lot of L4D on its release, and I no longer find it to be worth visiting.

It wasn't my intention to start an argument, nor was I trying to defend the game's merits in general. I was simply surprised when you stated that it lacked "the usual Valve polish", and was curious to know how you thought it failed in comparison to Valve's other titles.
It's now apparent to me that you weren't actually judging the game with regards to Valve's standards, but merely expressing a dislike for the game in general - which is fine, I'm certainly not going to criticize you for not liking the game.

Please explain why this is apparent to you. It's not what I was thinking, and it is not what I wrote. I am not going to write up a synopsis of every Valve game that I've played, and then compare each one to Left 4 Dead. I took for granted that I could take for granted a common ground for what a polished game is and what Valve's track record is. My descriptions of my playing Left 4 Dead were based on that common ground.

Also: what's with the "Valve fanboy" strawman? Disregarding my argument because I am a fan of Valve games doesn't make much sense when we're comparing the quality of different Valve titles. That's like saying my opinion is worthless in a pie-judging contest because I like pie.

Again, you are talking about things that didn't happen. I said that discussing the quality of Valve games on message boards is very often not worth the effort, as it has not been worth the effort here. That is not a strawman argument.

CptGlanton wrote:

I'm not going to be into a drawn-out, pointless argument on this, and frankly, it's never worth arguing about flaws in Valve games with its fans.

I'd say the bolded part is where you brought up the fanboy strawman.

Best be careful though, if that word gets said too many times the thread gets thrown into P&C.

wordsmythe wrote:
Grubber788 wrote:

Very good article. Zombies are the perfect manifestation of the things man fear the most: anonymity, powerlessness and himself.

When the crowd is winning, people start to fear crowds and zombies while praising individual heroism. When the crowd is repressed by the elite, folks start championing the will of the people and fearing vampires and werewolves.

That's an interesting point. I also like how economic/social stability tends to be reflected by monsters in popular media too. According to a TIME article that I am too lazy to cite, zombies are the "monsters of the recession," because vampires are too wealthy to be popular. I'm not sure if I entirely agree with that sentiment given the popularity of Twilight, but it's interesting food for thought.

CptGlanton wrote:

Please explain why this is apparent to you. It's not what I was thinking, and it is not what I wrote. I am not going to write up a synopsis of every Valve game that I've played, and then compare each one to Left 4 Dead. I took for granted that I could take for granted a common ground for what a polished game is and what Valve's track record is. My descriptions of my playing Left 4 Dead were based on that common ground.

Perhaps I misinterpreted your statements, and if so I apologize. Anyways, we've drifted pretty far off topic here so it's probably best if we just agree to disagree and move on.

Grubber788 wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
Grubber788 wrote:

Very good article. Zombies are the perfect manifestation of the things man fear the most: anonymity, powerlessness and himself.

When the crowd is winning, people start to fear crowds and zombies while praising individual heroism. When the crowd is repressed by the elite, folks start championing the will of the people and fearing vampires and werewolves.

That's an interesting point. I also like how economic/social stability tends to be reflected by monsters in popular media too. According to a TIME article that I am too lazy to cite, zombies are the "monsters of the recession," because vampires are too wealthy to be popular. I'm not sure if I entirely agree with that sentiment given the popularity of Twilight, but it's interesting food for thought.

I'm not sure that I buy this. Zombies were popular before the recession hit and are, if anything, on their way out. There's such a glut of zombie books, games, and movies on the market right now that I think they've reached their sell-by date.

Your point about Twilight is interesting, though. Vampires seem to be getting more popular in part because of Twilight, and I'd think the glamorous lives of Anne Rice-style vampires would be more appealing with the masses had less money. Frankly, though, I don't know that the popularity of monsters has much to do with social and economic trends as it does with the usual cycle of consumer intrigue and burnout. Monsters stick around until they're over-played, and then a new monster comes along that's a shock to the system and creates or revitalizes interest in a new type of fear. 28 Days Later seems to have been the jolt that started this latest zombie craze.

adam.greenbrier wrote:

I'm not sure that I buy this. Zombies were popular before the recession hit and are, if anything, on their way out. There's such a glut of zombie books, games, and movies on the market right now that I think they've reached their sell-by date.

Zombies will never die! Er, wait.

Zombies are getting a bit overplayed because pop culture has realized there is money to be made there. Despite this, I think a good zombie movie/book that adds something new will always be welcomed by fans of the genre. Maybe there is a limit to the genre though... maybe there isn't much more new to be explored.

From a human perspective, there will always be that primal resistance and fear to our own death, and conscious of it or not, zombies provide a convenient channel for confronting that inevitability. I appreciate the zombie, as it allows me to deliver a bit of guilt free finality to those which should no longer be walking the earth. It's the utlimate underdog story for humanity. There is no avoiding death in the long run, but short term? Hell yeah, a few shotgun blasts to the walking dead sends a defiant message to the ol' Grim Reaper that our time has not come.

Irongut wrote:

Zombies are getting a bit overplayed...

From 3 paragraphs to 4 paragraphs to 2 paragraphs! The Irongut edit train cannot be stopped!

Quintin_Stone wrote:
Irongut wrote:

Zombies are getting a bit overplayed...

From 3 paragraphs to 4 paragraphs to 2 paragraphs! The Irongut edit train cannot be stopped! :D

Zombies ate my paragraphs...

adam.greenbrier wrote:
Grubber788 wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
Grubber788 wrote:

Very good article. Zombies are the perfect manifestation of the things man fear the most: anonymity, powerlessness and himself.

When the crowd is winning, people start to fear crowds and zombies while praising individual heroism. When the crowd is repressed by the elite, folks start championing the will of the people and fearing vampires and werewolves.

That's an interesting point. I also like how economic/social stability tends to be reflected by monsters in popular media too. According to a TIME article that I am too lazy to cite, zombies are the "monsters of the recession," because vampires are too wealthy to be popular. I'm not sure if I entirely agree with that sentiment given the popularity of Twilight, but it's interesting food for thought.

I'm not sure that I buy this. Zombies were popular before the recession hit and are, if anything, on their way out. There's such a glut of zombie books, games, and movies on the market right now that I think they've reached their sell-by date.

Your point about Twilight is interesting, though. Vampires seem to be getting more popular in part because of Twilight, and I'd think the glamorous lives of Anne Rice-style vampires would be more appealing with the masses had less money.

Bad economies tend to coincide with collectivist sentiment, alternatively envying and sneering at the elite, the wealthy, The Man et al. There's in easy analogue there in vampires, which are stereotypically well off. When we generally feel that we're individually getting ahead, it's the unclean masses we fear.

I have no doubt that Mr. Sands' elitist nature will always have him feeling most comfortable shooting zombies.

wordsmythe wrote:

Bad economies tend to coincide with collectivist sentiment, alternatively envying and sneering at the elite, the wealthy, The Man et al. There's in easy analogue there in vampires, which are stereotypically well off. When we generally feel that we're individually getting ahead, it's the unclean masses we fear.

I bolded the part of your theory that I'm having the most trouble with. In what ways have we (collectively) spent the last seven or eight years feeling as though we were getting ahead individually? This isn't a sentiment that I've observed in American society.

I remember a few years ago reading articles about how zombie movies were popular because the zombie hordes resonated as images of the Other that had recently attacked America. Now, zombies are being sold (by Time, not by you) as the perfect monster for a recession. Meanwhile, you're saying that they're perfect when viewed as the embodiment of a fear of the unclean masses.

I'm just not seeing a trend here that's any deeper than that zombies became cool again because 28 Days Later and Dawn of the Dead were big hits because they were new and exciting. I fail to see how this captures a deeper sociopolitical zeitgeist.

adam.greenbrier wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:

Bad economies tend to coincide with collectivist sentiment, alternatively envying and sneering at the elite, the wealthy, The Man et al. There's in easy analogue there in vampires, which are stereotypically well off. When we generally feel that we're individually getting ahead, it's the unclean masses we fear.

I bolded the part of your theory that I'm having the most trouble with. In what ways have we (collectively) spent the last seven or eight years feeling as though we were getting ahead individually? This isn't a sentiment that I've observed in American society.

On thing I sensed during the last administration was that, regardless of which side you listened to, everyone was acting like they were a valiant minority struggling to get ahead even though the evil masses across the aisle blocked them at every turn. It was very much about the Other, but that Other was as commonly Republican or Democrat as much as it was Mexican or "Islamofascist." The difference in who constituted the unthinking enemy mob was just a question of who you asked.

Honestly, I'm not sure I really believe we'll swing back to individuals, though. Given the "global village" we're in these days, it's hard to even see small group of people as so clearly defined. Given the burgeoning sense of dread of the unknown, I could see giant monsters from mysterious and dangerous places like "the deep" (Godzilla, Cthulhu) striking more of a chord.

wordsmythe wrote:

On thing I sensed during the last administration was that, regardless of which side you listened to, everyone was acting like they were a valiant minority struggling to get ahead even though the evil masses across the aisle blocked them at every turn. It was very much about the Other, but that Other was as commonly Republican or Democrat as much as it was Mexican or "Islamofascist." The difference in who constituted the unthinking enemy mob was just a question of who you asked.

That's an interesting point. Rather than people feeling as though they were getting ahead as individuals and therefore feeling threatened by the masses, people might have felt as though they were falling behind as individuals and thus feeling threatened by the masses. I still don't completely buy that zombies are more popular now more out of cultural relevance than historical accident, but your comment here helps me better understand how the image of the individual struggling to survive amidst an unfriendly group might resonate more strongly today than it might otherwise have.

wordsmythe wrote:

Honestly, I'm not sure I really believe we'll swing back to individuals, though. Given the "global village" we're in these days, it's hard to even see small group of people as so clearly defined. Given the burgeoning sense of dread of the unknown, I could see giant monsters from mysterious and dangerous places like "the deep" (Godzilla, Cthulhu) striking more of a chord.

If there is a shift toward giant monsters, will we look back on Cloverfield as its genesis?

adam.greenbrier wrote:

28 Days Later seems to have been the jolt that started this latest zombie craze.

The zombie resurgence is owed to games, interestingly enough, not films. The Resident Evil games were the beginning followed by the inexplicable success of the movie. 28 Days Later built off of the renewed popularity created by the RE brand.

McChuck wrote:
adam.greenbrier wrote:

28 Days Later seems to have been the jolt that started this latest zombie craze.

The zombie resurgence is owed to games, interestingly enough, not films. The Resident Evil games were the beginning followed by the inexplicable success of the movie. 28 Days Later built off of the renewed popularity created by the RE brand.

Interesting. I have wondered to what extent game titles have played into the zombie resurgence. I keep using 28 Days Later as a touchstone because it was the first of the recent zombie movies I saw film critics and industry reporters paying much attention to. I hadn't realized that Resident Evil had been successful theatrically. I remember at the time that most everyone I knew viewed it as the movie equivalent of shovelware and didn't bother themselves with it.

I don't like the movie but enough people must have since it's had two sequels. You're right about 28 Days Later, though. You could say it signaled the arrival of the current zombie trend and that RE was the initial momentum.

adam.greenbrier wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:

On thing I sensed during the last administration was that, regardless of which side you listened to, everyone was acting like they were a valiant minority struggling to get ahead even though the evil masses across the aisle blocked them at every turn. It was very much about the Other, but that Other was as commonly Republican or Democrat as much as it was Mexican or "Islamofascist." The difference in who constituted the unthinking enemy mob was just a question of who you asked.

That's an interesting point. Rather than people feeling as though they were getting ahead as individuals and therefore feeling threatened by the masses, people might have felt as though they were falling behind as individuals and thus feeling threatened by the masses. I still don't completely buy that zombies are more popular now more out of cultural relevance than historical accident, but your comment here helps me better understand how the image of the individual struggling to survive amidst an unfriendly group might resonate more strongly today than it might otherwise have.

wordsmythe wrote:

Honestly, I'm not sure I really believe we'll swing back to individuals, though. Given the "global village" we're in these days, it's hard to even see small group of people as so clearly defined. Given the burgeoning sense of dread of the unknown, I could see giant monsters from mysterious and dangerous places like "the deep" (Godzilla, Cthulhu) striking more of a chord.

If there is a shift toward giant monsters, will we look back on Cloverfield as its genesis?

I think we're at an inflection point, or just past it, where zombies have peaked in popularity and are on the way down. Regarding what comes next, I don't see one film or game as generating the popularity, but that films and other works try to figure out what will resonate with the untapped potential in audiences. Whether that potential will resonate more with Dracula than Godzilla remains to be seen.