Rise From Your Grave

Rise From Your Grave
How Games Get Zombies Wrong

Chuck Wendig | 26 Apr 2011 12:01
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Controversial assertion: Zombies are not monsters. Or, rather, they are not by themselves meaningful monsters. Sure, that zombie wears a gore-slick nurse's outfit, and the other zombie over there looks like a construction worker cradling his own fly-speckled guts. But they're ultimately hollowed-out and personality-free. As monsters, they're just not compelling characters. A vampire is a creature of personality. He has motivation: blood, sex, to be a dick, to sparkle, whatever. The same holds true for the other monstrous threats: Frankenstein's Monster wants life. The Creature from the Black Lagoon just wants a little hot-n-tasty swamp love. Aliens want to anally probe us. Werewolves want ... well, I have no idea. Human-flavored Milk Bones? Never mind that, we're not talking about werewolves.

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Stop thinking of zombies like monsters and start thinking of them like a corrupted force of nature. The zombie menace is like an earthquake, a flood, a plague of locusts. It is an unthinking, unintelligent violation of nature. The zombie apocalypse cannot be stopped with a pair of Desert Eagles in the same way that you cannot use a fire ax to stop a tsunami or a Molotov cocktail to countermand a nuclear winter. Zombies are the supernatural equivalent of Hurricane Katrina - sure, the hurricane was awful all around, but the wretched result that ensued was born of more than just the hurricane. The rain and winds were just the first domino to fall.

And that means that zombies aren't the true threat in a zombie apocalypse.

When zombies walk the earth, humanity's most basic needs are threatened. It's harder suddenly to find and procure food, shelter, ammo, allies. Soon as the pyramid that is Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs starts to crumble at its foundation, the bare necessities of survival are thrown into contention. Without warning, a single candy bar becomes the nougaty line between life and death.

What then emerges is the true threat in a zombie apocalypse: other humans.

This is true in all the best zombie fiction. 28 Days Later offers terror in the form of Major Henry West, played by Christopher Eccleston. The re-make of Dawn of the Dead throws together a group of unhinged survivors, one of whom loses his mind and shoots another survivor when his own pregnant girlfriend re-animates. In Jonathan Maberry's novel, Patient Zero, terrorists are the engine behind the release of the zombie strain. In the comic and television show The Walking Dead, we see again and again how humans are the true monster: the jealousy of Shane, the distrust of Dexter, the madness of the Governor.

But do we see this in games? Not so much. Mostly, it's wave after wave of stumbling dead. Where's the human sniper who wants to kill me for my Tastykakes? Where's the guy who tries to seduce my girlfriend? Where's the drunken survivor who accidentally leaves the back door unlocked and lets the zombie menace into the farmhouse where we've been holed up for the last three weeks? Where's the out-of-control military commander who won't let me and my family through to the "safe zone?"

What's the real threat in a zombie apocalypse?

Like Soylent Green, the answer is always people.

***

Final question in our tutoring session: How do you survive the zombie apocalypse?

Your answer, which I'll play back on this hand-held digital recorder:

"Muhhh guhhh fnuhbble kiiiiih zommmbees wih wih wih wih g-g-g-guns."

Ooooh. Too bad. That car battery is really doing a number on your thinkmachine, huh? And yet, fair is fair. How are you going to learn anything if I don't negatively reinforce these terrible answers with a high-voltage shock jacked through the alligator clamps attached to your private parts?

Bzzt. There we go. Can someone clean up the student's drool, please? Excellent, thank you.

The correct answer is: you don't survive a zombie attack. Sure, you can dispatch a handful of the undead with a shotgun. You can take a shedload out with a hand grenade.

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