Retro eventually gives way to parody. Think about it. The latest ’80s movement is about to fall flat on its face because no one can pop his pink polo shirt’s collar for much longer than a year before realizing how stupid it looks. The words “disco is back!” are a punch line, but 15 years ago, they sent people in search of designer bell bottoms. The transition from serious high fashion to giggle-inducing is just part of the underlying cultural understanding that you can’t go home again. Despite the cyclical nature of western culture, entropy finds a home in too many hearts to let us repeat ourselves verbatim, and no throwback in the world evades a comic gaze for very long.
But what about when someone creates a throwback complemented by a wink and a nudge? How can you make fun of retro when it’s already making fun of itself? Stubbs the Zombie: Rebel without a Pulse dared me to answer that very question when I put on my fedora and popped the CD into my Xbox last October.
I was able to get in touch with Wideload‘s Matt Soell, Stubbs’ creator, and talk game design, specifically retro gaming. Of course, the first thing I ask him is when Stubbs the Zombie was born.
“Wideload began life in early 2003,” he tells me. “The initial incarnation consisted of three people – Alexander Seropian, Mark Bernal and myself. We had a lot of conference calls because we didn’t have office space yet, and Alex was still spending a lot of time at home tending to his just-born first child. We’d been kicking a bunch of ideas around but we hadn’t come up with anything we really liked yet. After one conference call on a Saturday morning, during which we all shot down each other’s ideas, I was pacing around trying to will a good idea into existence. Nothing was coming, so I gave up and took a shower. That’s when the raw idea for Stubbs came to me. I seem to have most of my good ideas in the shower or in the car. Aspiring writers should drive and bathe often.”
If you’re unfamiliar with Stubbs, here’s some perspective. It’s 1959. All of the outlandish advances promised in those corny “the future is now!” type videos have been delivered by Andrew Monday, and they’re all available for everyone to enjoy in his newly created future city, Punchbowl. Robots take on menial tasks usually performed by the working class, the police force’s numbers rival that of a fascist state, and the elite special ops team charged with protecting Andrew Monday and his mother doubles as a profane barbershop quartet – it’s Joseph McCarthy’s wet dream. But there’s a problem. Punchbowl is built on the shallow grave of Stubbs, a newly undead insurance agent from the Depression era, and he’s tired of being trod upon.
“The Roaring Twenties were basically a big party to which Stubbs was not invited, and the Great Depression was the aftermath in which Stubbs somehow got stuck with the bill,” Soell says. “Just when he thinks his life is finally turning around, someone blows a basketball-sized hole in his gut and buries him in the middle of nowhere. Twenty-odd years later, he wakes up in the middle of a rich man’s city to discover that he’s still dead and some whiny little punks are eating hot dogs on his grave. It’s a pivotal moment for Stubbs, the point where he realizes that he’s doesn’t have to let people walk all over him anymore.”
For the next few hours, hilarity ensues, as Stubbs romps through Punchbowl, turning its citizens into a zombie horde that takes on the U.S. Army in the game’s final stages. Somewhere in the middle, Stubbs gets into a dance off with the chief of police, and later develops a love interest with one of Punchbowl’s celebrities. Throughout his journey, he encounters every 1950s stereotype you can imagine; it puts Back to the Future to shame. Stubbs did what so few games can: It let its content shine right next to its gameplay. But the retro/parody content didn’t just shine, it said something.
“One of the underlying themes in Stubbs – which I lifted from Poe’s ‘Masque of the Red Death‘ – is the idea that you can’t build a wall big enough to keep entropy out,” Soell says. “Andrew Monday doesn’t like poverty and decrepitude and unpleasantness, so he builds a city where luxury is a birthright and everyone can relax because bad things only happen to lesser people in lesser cities. Then Stubbs shows up, and he’s not just poor and decrepit and unpleasant … he’s undead. He stands in direct opposition to everything Punchbowl is about. And he wears a really ugly tie.”
A man with hubris meeting his nemesis isn’t a new theme. Now, mash that into a zombie a movie where the zombie isn’t a conformist and you’re treading on unfamiliar territory. “There are a lot of games about zombies attacking humanity, but in our game, the zombie is the hero,” Soell says. If no examples come to mind, think about the original Dawn of the Dead, where everyday mall-goers turned into brain-eating zombies. In Stubbs, the only non-conformist is a zombie; imagine James Dean with green skin. However, for a reanimated noggin-chomper to be the least zombie-like person in the world, Soell had to create a city full of ’50s automatons. “Having made that one crucial inversion, it seemed natural to make a few more. Instead of setting our grisly antihero in a gritty modern-day city, we put him in a gleaming, sterile environment – the sort of city that never really existed except in flights of fancy.”
But Punchbowl was just one of the elements Wideload created when they brought Stubbs to life. The game’s soundtrack features a myriad of modern-day bands covering tunes from the ’50s. Cake covers “Strangers in the Night,” The Raveonettes cover “My Boyfriend’s Back.” Soell says, “Because it’s a city of the future, we figured there might be some very forward-thinking bands interpreting the songs. Pop music from that era had a lot of low-hanging fruit for the story we were telling – there’s an intensity of emotion, but also an innocence that provides a pleasant frisson when placed into the context of an over-the-top zombie game. ‘Earth Angel’ and ‘My Boyfriend’s Back’ certainly took on some new undertones.” But it wasn’t a simple task to compile an original soundtrack when “a lot of publishers would hear the words ‘zombie game’ and slap together a bunch of throwaway tracks from nu-metal bands with misspelled names,” he tells me. If it weren’t for the Herculean efforts of Zach and Chad at Aspyr Media, Stubbs‘ publisher, all of Wideload’s hard work to create a pseudo-period piece might’ve been disrupted by Mudvayne.
Matt’s nu-metal comment strikes a chord with me. Nowadays, even bands like Cannibal Corpse and GWAR – while they’re not really nu-metal – draw little more than awkward glances from concerned parents. But in the ’50s, Buddy Holly and Elvis had entire committees trying to get them thrown in jail for being social deviants, corrupting our youth and turning them into serial killers. Sounds a lot like the videogame industry, only Buddy Holly probably got more girls than John Romero. I ask Matt what our next demon will be.
“I don’t know what will be next. If you look back at the things that inspired that kind of public outcry, it seems like they bubble up from subcultures that are already stigmatized to a certain degree,” he says. “Punk rock, D&D, Lenny Bruce, hip-hop – or indeed any musical form pioneered by African-Americans … all of them were easy to demonize because they came from subcultures that were – and still are – actively denigrated by the mainstream. At the risk of sounding pompous, those who want to predict the cultural flashpoints of tomorrow should probably look at the stereotypes and prejudices they hold today.”
As our conversation comes to a close, I ask Matt to gaze into his crystal ball and tell me how people will perceive us 50 years into the future, since he did such a great job of encapsulating the past. “In 50 years, these will officially be the Good Old Days. Our technology and culture will seem quaint to the point of amusement, but there will also be a sizable group of fogies and blowhards whining that everything’s gone to hell since then. And of course they’ll need something to blame it on – but it won’t be videogames, it’ll be something new,” he says.
His last thought makes me think on the drive home. When I make it into my apartment, I load up Stubbs again, this time trying to keep up with all of Soell’s deep references and stereotypes, only to find myself unable to actually keep up with the game. I push down my fedora, crank up the volume, and by the time I’m dancing against Punchbowl’s chief of police, I’m back at the top of my game. I guide Stubbs through Matt’s world a while longer before realizing it’s 2:00 a.m. and long past my bed time. I put the game back in its case and decide to place it on a bookshelf, away from where I normally store my old games, because this one crossed a barrier; it said something.
Joe Blancato is a Content Editor for [i]The Escapist Magazine[/I].