Video Game Zombies Aren't Going Anywhere

By Gus Mastrapa in Pretension +1
Friday, October 22, 2010 at 9:00 am
Believe it or not, but some people suffer from zombie fatigue. They feel that the walking dead are played out, over-used and not-so-fresh. And if you're looking only at the microcosm of video games it wouldn't be tough to get that idea. 

Between Dead Rising, Left 4 Dead and Plants Vs. Zombies the market seems pretty crowded with shuffling corpses. That's not counting add-ons and mutliplayer modes that use zombies as shooter fodder. Call of Duty: World at War had one. Call of Duty: Black Ops will too. This month the final downloadable add-on for Red Dead Redemption will make the west weird with flesh eaters.

So, yes, ghouls are well-represented in video games. And thanks to AMC's new TV show, The Walking Dead they're getting their share of airtime too. It would seem like you can't swing a cricket bat without hitting zombie infested pop-culture.

But zombies aren't a fad like pirates, ninjas or Chatroulette. They've crept into culture, sunk their teeth into us and they're not letting go. 

Video games are enjoying a zombie boom thanks, in part, to technology. Old graphics engines weren't adept at generating tons of enemies. Put more than a handful of characters on screen and the processor would chug under the weight. But with beefier consoles and PCs on the market game makers were able to replicate the sheer numbers that it took to create a true horde. That's why those old Resident Evil games stuck you in narrow hallways with only a few zombies to deal with. 

But why were game makers so eager to cram zombies into video games and so flummoxed by the fact that the PlayStation could only generate a handful of them at once?

Because we're anti-social bastards. 

The original zombie myth originated in Haiti. Storytelling around Caribbean zombies revolved around comeuppance. Colonial plantation owners faced the music when the locals -- hopped up on magic, drugs and death -- came to get their revenge for years of abuse.

But George Romero's take on the zombie myth -- the one that informs most video games and horror movies today -- takes a more libertarian bent. Now the zombie tale is more about disdain for the unwashed masses. In Romero's seminal Night of the Living Dead he cast a black man, Duane Jones, as man fighting for his life in a world plagued by the mindless, walking dead. The scenario still rings true for many of us because we can't help but share the same opinion -- that the rest of humanity isn't all quite there, and that they'll drag us down and tear us to pieces if they could.

It's a slightly scary way of thinking about the world. And one that can lead to some really terrible situations if you let it inform the way you live too deeply. It's an impulse that informs Objectivism and other, more harmful ethoses. 

It doesn't help that we're just coming off the turn of a century and a world-shaking terrorists attack. The apocalypse, metaphorical or otherwise, is fresh in our minds. And some people are getting carried away -- suggesting that the special times call for special measures.

Rather than act out those urges in real life its therapeutic to think through the doomsday scenario of a zombie holocaust. Movies let us image how we'd deal with the terror. The Walking Dead promises to help us gauge our emotional response to the end of the world. And video games? They, for the most part, let us vent.

The creators of Medal of Honor, a new shooter set in Afghanistan, found themselves in a political minefield because players were shooting and taking potshots as the Taliban. The zombie has no country, no ideology or creed. It is the ultimate villain, the perfect punching bag and an ideal foil for a time when every conflict is fraught with controversy and doubt. 

The video game zombie isn't going any where because we need enemies. But when we're ready to decompress, vent steam or explore our dark sides we don't need the real world creeping in on or escapism. 

But there's still a message in the massacre. Our best zombie games carry with them critiques of blind consumerism and capitalism gone awry. And some are just about that primal, maybe not-so modern fear of mankind gone out of control.

That's why I'll never get tired of the zombie as video game fodder. I'll never get tired of pumping shotgun lead into the undead hordes because in the end our real enemies aren't Muslims or Commies or space aliens. They're always us.

Pretension +1 is a weekly video game column by Gus Mastrapa that digs for meaning in the B-grade rubbish bin of pop culture.
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