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August 21, 2017

Are We Done with Zombies Yet?

Would it enhance or reduce my credibility right out of the gate if I admitted that I haven’t watched an episode of AMC’s The Walking Dead in years?  Probably reduce, but at least you’ll know where I’m coming from here.

I used to watch the show every Sunday, but in all honesty, I came in late.  I didn’t see a single episode of the show until somewhere in the midst of Season 2 -- and from what I can gather I chose a hell of a starting point.  Farm life without amenities!  People arguing!  Sometimes there’s a zombie!  People arguing!  Friendly fire!  People arguing!  Incredibly poor choices!  People arguing!  Now there’s a bunch of zombies!  People arguing!  So yeah, I can’t say that I had the best impression of the show, but I stuck with it.  I’ll get into why I dropped it in a little bit, but for now I’ll switch gears.

If you’re reading this post, you’re probably well aware of how much zombie fiction has dominated the landscape -- up to and including that long since established holy bastion of artistry, video games.  But the times, they are a changin’.  So that makes me wonder: have we reached peak saturation with zombies?  Are they on their way out, having done their duty across all forms of media?

Uh, probably not.  But work with me here -- even if Sony and SIE Bend Studio won’t.

So Days Gone has shown up at both E3 2016 and E3 2017, with spiffy trailers and gameplay footage to go along with it.  We’ll see how it turns out on release day, but for now?  Eh.  It’s fine, but it’s not for me.  I hope you’re okay with that, because honestly, I’m okay with that.  Even if it’s a good game -- and I’d imagine it will be -- I won’t pretend like I have some major investment or interest in it.  And yes, it’s safe to say that a big part of that has to do with the inclusion of zombies.

My gut reaction upon seeing its content was basically “Ugh, zombies?  Again?  I thought we were past that now.”  I know, right?  What a naïve sentiment, given that one Call of Duty game after another has featured a full suite dedicated to gunning down hordes of the undead.  And Plants vs. Zombies continues to exist.  And Dying Light got an expansion not too long ago.  And Dead Island 2 is (probably?) still on the way.  And Capcom won’t let Dead Rising die, no matter what the charts say.  And The Last of Us is getting a sequel because Sony and Naughty Dog needs a money it’s not as if that game had a pretty conclusive ending.

In hindsight, I think it slaughters the premise of this post knowing that there’s so much zombie-based content in our past, present, and future.

I’m no expert on the inner workings of the game industry, but if I remember correctly, there is one detail that helps explains (from a developer standpoint) why zombies are so popular: ease of use.  Who needs complex AI that responds and reacts to player input when you can just have things with only two moves: shamble, and shamble toward you?  It doesn’t matter if the AI is dumb, because zombies are dumb.  It’s the perfect system.  And in some cases, you don’t even need to spend time making tons of different zombies; The Last of Us made it work with just three monster types, and nobody (important) is complaining about that.  

On top of all that, zombies are -- from a narrative standpoint -- simple.  Games are getting more complex, as are the players behind them; the thrills and spectacle that would have delighted a past generation has given way to gamers who question morality, themes, messaging, and more, whether devs like it or not.  How do you sidestep controversy, discussion, and independent thought?  Easy.  Just load up a game with easy, no-consequence, guilt-free targets to shoot or mow down by the hundreds.  As you know, the only implication behind a zombie sneaking in for a quick snack is how much its guts will stink up the place when a well-placed bullet shot or blade swing turns it into a pile of meat.

You know what, though?  I get it.  I totally get it.  Sometimes games need something as simple and straightforward as zombies, and I don’t fault all of them for it.  I’ve played some Dead Rising; I had my fun with it and then some.  Same goes for Left 4 Dead.  If Platinum ever decided to make a zombie game, I’d be on it in a billionth of a picosecond.  It’s not as if a zombie game -- or zombie fiction as a whole -- is an automatic fail-state.  There’s fun to be had.  You can enjoy taking out enemy hordes as you endure and survive whatever comes your way.

Even if I do get it, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I approve of it entirely, or all the time.  As you can guess, I still lean towards the idea that we need less zombie games, and zombie fiction as a whole could stand to take a breather as far as I’m concerned.  Is there potential in the genre?  Absolutely.  But that’s the clincher: potential.  You have to be willing and able to act on that potential.  Right now, I’m not wholly convinced that everyone out there has the talent or the will to push further. 

As proof, I submit to you my thoughts on The Walking Dead.  The TV show.

And The Walking Dead.  The game.  No, not that one.  The other one.

To be clear, it’s not as if the TV show is a complete waste; even if I dropped it, I’ve got no problems admitting that there were characters I liked, and moments -- if not entire episodes -- that I enjoyed.  The problem is that for me, the return of investment wasn’t nearly high enough, and only seemed to get lower as I spent more time with it.  The fatal flaw here -- maybe not with zombie fiction as a whole, but certainly in the context of TWD -- is that in order for most of the conflicts to happen, everyone has to be an idiot, an asshole, or both.  Dead Rising 1 established that, according to the classic rules, zombies are stupid and slow.  They may be masters of the one-hit kill, but it’s hard to see them as harbingers of an apocalypse when you can waltz right up to one and stab its skull without a tussle.

So the thrust of the show is the undercurrent of thought.  It’s not about zombies, so to speak, but about everything that isn’t about the zombies.  Humans are the real monsters, order versus chaos, bonds that run deep, etc.  Fair enough.  But as a show, TWD didn’t have what it took to keep mining those themes and that metanarrative season after season, week after week, or even minute after minute.  It just turned into a bland slog where everyone’s miserable (except for the two or three minutes when they have to pretend they have hope), everybody’s got dumb conflicts to gab about, no one really communicates with one another, and no one can make any sort of progress in terms of actually doing something in their broken world.  

Three separate sanctuaries -- including one literally called Sanctuary -- have gone up in smoke already, either because the show spawned a zombie horde or because there was some daaaaaaaaaaark seeeeeeeeeeeecret that “justified” burning everything to the ground.  Because of the nature of the show (by that point, at least), the central premise was basically built around the characters (such as they are) never, ever being able to have solace for long.  Hell, you couldn’t even count on those characters sticking around forever -- because if there’s one ace in the hole TWD loved to play, it was the “tonight someone dies” card.

I won’t act like I’m some expert on Telltale’s TWD games, because I’m not.  But I’ve been watching the Two Best Friends take on Season 3, and to say that the game’s quality is uneven would be like calling a stomach full of tapeworms a minor inconvenience.  I thought that Telltale was better than this, but I guess not -- because I’m seeing a lot of the same problems that made me give up on the TV show.  Dumb conflicts galore, zombies are only a threat when the plot says so, various characters are expendable (if not interchangeable), everyone’s miserable, the apocalyptic status quo must ALWAYS be preserved even if it means destroying a settlement that was pretty well off before the main characters showed up…the list goes on and on.  Because DID YOU KNOW THAT HUMANS ARE THE REAL MONSTERS?

It doesn’t help that the problems are compounded by the choice system -- or the illusion of it, apparently.  The Best Friends have repeatedly called out the game (if not Telltale at large) for making it so that your choices don’t matter, which means that you’re stuck with dumb conflicts, physical and emotional, before you can get off the ride.  And maybe it would be okay if the story was good enough to justify that -- if it was moving toward well-executed or unique content -- but from what I’ve seen it railroads toward death and misery.  There has to be drama for drama’s sake, no matter how often the game has to put the suspension of disbelief in a figure four leg lock.

It all makes me wonder: is the zombie fiction genre sustainable?  Because I’m starting to have doubts -- and I think others are too.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Telltale has announced the fourth and final season of TWD.  They’ve put in the work to earn the eyes and support of various companies, which in turn gives them the ability to make stories out of Batman, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Minecraft, Borderlands, Game of Thrones, and more.  They don’t need to crib on TWD until the end of time.  Maybe the devs have realized that it’s time for the series that put them on the map to bow out gracefully.  It’s time to move on to bigger and better things.  And, perhaps most importantly, it’s time to admit that zombie fiction isn’t the be all and end all when it comes to video games.

I’m not saying that we should never have zombies in games (or fiction at large) ever again.  But we’ve long since reached a point where there’s more that can be done.  Dev teams small and large have capitalized on that potential to deliver more, and try and say more.  As easy as it is to fall back on a sure thing like “ZOMBIES OH NO”, the current landscape of the industry has so much potential, tapped and untapped, that there’s no need to rely on a bunch of moaning, stumbling morons.  Not all the time, at least.  So while we may be getting more zombie stuff, it’s offset by the sheer amount of non-zombie stuff -- stories and gameplay with a multitude of styles, tones, and creative visions -- that’s a part of our daily lives.

I’ll tell you what, though: if there’s some zombie fiction, game or otherwise, that manages to be more than cheap drama and maudlin gloom, then I’m down for it.  I don’t know about you guys, but in case it wasn’t obvious?  I’m kind of sick of stuff that builds up the proverbial castle of blocks, only for some jackass toddler to knock them all down and force another rebuild.  Just give me a story with forward momentum.  That’s not too unreasonable, is it?

Then again, AMC’s TWD is on its eighth season and its spinoff is heading for its fourth.  So what the hell do I know?

And that’s pretty much where I stand.  How about you?  Still down to clown with zombies?  Want to wipe them from even the faintest vestiges of our zeitgeist?  Hungry for brains?  Then by all means, weigh in at your leisure.  Leave a comment and speak your mind.  I promise you’re in no danger of getting eaten alive.

But first, do me a solid: tell me that Carol’s still alive.  She was my favorite character in the show, and I’d hate to hear that something bad happened to her.  On second thought, no -- don’t tell me; my heart wouldn’t be able to take it.  No, wait, tell me.  I can handle it.  No, wait, I can’t, because I’m a huge coward.  On second thought --

Ah, screw it.  Just use your best judgment.  If I can count on you guys to save me from a horde of the undead, I can count on you to spoil/not spoil me on a character’s status.

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