Resident Evil 6 just came out recently, but you won’t be seeing a review for it from me. Admittedly that’s because I didn’t receive a review copy, but that’s just as well because I don’t know if I can stomach another game about mindless zombie hordes. They’re everywhere lately, and you feel it when it’s your job to hammer out words about video games. Guild Wars 2’s endgame centers on slaughtering thousands of walking corpses on the dead island of Orr, Lollipop Chainsaw featured a half-naked cheerleader sawing her way through her undead former classmates, Diablo III starts off zombie massacre in the ruins of Tristram, and even one of the most popular casual games has you killing them with the local flora.
Because sometimes I shotgun just won’t do.
If I had to pinpoint a reason for zombies’ popularity in video games, I’d say it’s because they allow us the satisfaction of killing other people without dealing with moral and ethical complications that force a “Mature” rating on a game. The implications are a little disturbing, really. Rot a dead man for a few days, rob him of any thought, strip him of a soul and have him walking around aimlessly while hungering for brains, and you can riddle him with bullets or decapitate him without worries that such depictions touch on volatile biases against race, religion, or gender.
That’s important, because many of the popular games we play these days focus on killing others in their gameplay (although I’d like to point out that I’m not of the school that believes that such activities turn every gamer into a mass murderer), and it’s thus a crude way of avoiding the cries of immorality, devil-worshiping, and whatever else critics of video games come up with these days. But there’s also a simpler but darker reason: put bluntly, killing so many “normal” people in today’s increasingly realistic game eventually approaches a level of unbelievability, particularly after you’ve killed several dozen of them, zombie hordes provide a way to sidestep that trap.
Of course, some games don’t play to believability at all.
That pitfall’s probably most apparent in the Uncharted series for the PS3, in which stubbly protagonist Nathan Drake kills so many people over the course of three games that, well, any potentially funny analogies cross dangerously offensive lines. He gets away with it because he’s such a doggone likeable guy and it’s such an enjoyable shooter, but it’s hard to take him seriously when he expresses concerns about killing security guards when he kills what must be every last mercenary remaining in the world. At one point, one of the villains even calls him out on it: “How many men have you killed? How many just today?” That’s it, boy: no compassion, no mercy.” The series as a whole has become something of a beloved joke in the gaming world for these very reasons, but I doubt anyone would have a problem with it if Drake was simply clearing tombs of zombies instead.
It’s thus tempting to suggest that we just need to focus on new types of enemies that fulfill a similar role, but most of the other favorites require a special setting that burns out after only a few special titles. Aliens, for instance, almost always require some predictable sci-fi setting, mutated animals and standard monsters need increasingly convoluted reasons for existing. Zombies, on the other hand–you can stick zombies anywhere. You have have them in an ancient Norse setting as in Skyrim (and to be fair, Draugr are a part of Norse folklore), you can set them in the current day or in the future; and you can even stick them in unlikely places such as the Old West, as RockStar did last year with a patch for Red Dead Redemption. And the best part? Most of the time, you don’t even have to explain why they exist in the first place.
Wyatt Earp never had to deal with stuff like this.
I’m also learning that there’s still a lot you can do with the zombies, even though such experiment carry the taint of what feels like forced novelty. Much to my surprise, one of my favorite franchises this year is Telltale’s Walking Dead miniseries, which creates a surprisingly human narrative by keeping the zombies shoved firmly in the background. They’re still there and there are plenty of zombie kills to satisfy folks who can’t stand to listen to more than four sentences of fiction without an interruption, of course, but Telltale’s take gains its strength by putting living human relationships at the core of the experience. In some ways, it’s evidence that video games are catching up with fiction and television in this regard; after all, both media stepped away from the mindless zombie massacres years ago.
But such advances usually only cater to niche audiences. For the majority of players (and more importantly, for the games that really sell), we want enemies that provide satisfying reasons for wholesale slaughter, even in games where zombies aren’t the true focus as in Skyrim, or, for that matter, World of Warcraft’s Wrath of the Lich King expansion. And so I guess it’s true, zombies and zombie games will still keep coming no matter how many go down. Zombies are the quick fix for the increasing awkwardness of today’s twin love of realistic graphics and unceasing action, and it looks like they’re here to stay unless humanity takes a turn for the worst. Yet that doesn’t mean I can’t wait for the day that someone figures out how to kill the genre and keep it down, right? Or perhaps the secret lies in the plot of so many zombie movies: eventually, we can hope, they’ll all just rot away of their own accord.