Monday, 29 November 2010

Why Zombies as a Genre Are Here to Stay

I heart zombies. Not just in a geeky, B-movie kind of a way (though props to Zombi 2), and not just from the perspective of a horror video game writer (because I don't really consider myself that) - but mostly because for any kind of writer it's a premise overloaded with potential for character exploration.

Unlike World War 2 or modern combat or comic books or Westerns, Zombie fiction in both cinematic and interactive entertainment is a stayer. This is why.

The image above - beyond any excuse to picture Milla - represents everything that people get wrong about developing a zombie fiction. Sci-fi environs, super ninja bitches, mad scientists... Resident Evil (by turn both the games and the films) misses the point.

I've never particularly had any desire to write horror as a profession. Before the Penumbra games it's not something I'd ever even attempted. It's always been a genre close to my heart, though, for one reason: it puts human nature under the microscope. To some degree, perhaps, that's what all good fiction does. But the reason that stories like Alien, The Thing and Dead Ringers are truly great horrors is that they take real, everyday characters - even when those characters are in fantastic circumstances - and put them under pressure. In GCSE chemistry, if you want to learn about a particular substance you put it to extremes: you heat it, or you cool it, or you spin it around really really really fast until it's all dizzy. Then you wait and see what happens.

Good horror - particularly zombie horror - works the same way. You take ordinary people, expose them to extreme pressure, and see if they wind up killing one another. Alien argues that everyone has different potential: that the cute blonde tomboy hides cowardice that will overrule even self-preservation; and that the hero of the story might actually have tits. The Thing shows us that rational human doubt can overpower anything; even a strong friendship.

Sometimes film - and often games - get this wrong. Games are great at developing tension and fear. Better, I'd argue, than any other medium. But how often does a zombie game use this to explore themes within its characters? We all know Dead State is heading in the right direction, and we're probably familiar with Dead Rising's blatant Romero-esque critique of consumerism, but how often do we go beyond that?

As a genre, zombies have only been around for a few decades. The concept originated with Voodoo-related catatonia, and Romero and his ilk imported it to Hollywood in the 60s. This means that the five year fad that began with Stubbs the Zombie and L4D (a game which captures the rumour mill and camaraderie, but none of the suspicion or character progression) really marks the first time that zombies have truly been road-tested on an interactive level. What zombies allow us to do as writers is to introduce a whole host of useful mechanics - mechanics zombie games often exclude - and to have these feedback in unique ways on the story:
- Where did the outbreak come from (room for government conspiracy and social critique)?
- What do you do when you / someone else gets infected?
- How do you treat other survivors when they might be your best survival tool or your greatest threat?
- What happens to morality in a world where violence is around every corner?
- How quickly and in what ways do society's rules break down?
- What is there to pursue beyond survival in a world beyond the brink of revival?
- What rights do the zombies themselves have?
- Without a social structure to tell you what to do, what happens when people have to think for themselves for the first time in their lives?
- Where is your god now?
- Is a katana really the best weapon?

Zombies are uniquely interesting for precisely these topics. You'd be hard pressed to find a good Z fiction that didn't centre on at least one of these ideas.

As both a writer and a consumer, I'm fascinated more than anything else by humanity and by honest (even when scary) appraisals of it. I'd argue that zombie games provide us that opportunity and much more beside; any time someone says to me that zombies are just the latest fad, I figure they've been playing too much Resident Evil.

Unlike WW2, or Tolkien, or Vietnam, zombies always have new places to go; but what they tell us about ourselves should always be a little too close to home.


  1. As I was showering this morning (nay, lunchtime, but that's another story) I was thinking that the zombie thing had passed me by completely. I've never been a zombie groupie. Not sure why. I was a big vampire freak when I was younger, but I'm a bit sick of the bloodsuckers now, what with the vampire media madness of recent years - True Blood is the only vampire thing I engage right now and sometimes that treads a fine line of pissing me off.

    I've never spent an hour in L4D, Plants vs Zombies, Resident Evil... although I was fan of Dead Space, but that stretches the zombie mould somewhat. Dead State has intrigued me purely due to its survivalist angle, in other words it's not about zombies per se.

    You're right, of course, the really interesting aspect of the whole zombie thing is what it does to survivors, a particular type of post-apocalyptic scenario. I hear The Walking Dead is particularly good on the human aspect. But are zombies particularly important to the situation? It's really all about a lethal contagion, like HIV transferred by touch - minus the chainswords and shotguns.

    I think there are more complex stories to be milked from the zombie scene yet, but are we approaching overload?

    I'll sign off by recommending Zombieland, truly one of the funniest films in recent years.

  2. I totally agree. That's pretty much my standard answer when people wince at my taste in movies/games/books/etc. Because the same arguments are also largely applied to science fiction "It's all gadgetry" "Er, no, good science fiction really isn't".

    I was also terribly disappointed by L4D. It wasn't Valve's fault but mine, though, as I just imagined them doing a game that was nothing like Valve. But a game with real character growth and back-stabbing ala Kane & Lynch : Fragile Alliance... I'd play that.

  3. As far as I'm concerned there has not been a good representative zombie game as of yet...they all take the gore and don't learn anything from zombie-based plots. All other media has managed it very simply have not.

    In terms of using zombies as a generic hoard in video games? It is a fad. It is reaching the overload point.

  4. All good points. You wonder if there will be any burn out on zombies before the really good game that encompasses all of that character exploration and interaction comes out and then that game fails to succeed as strongly as it should have.

    Of course in addition to all the plus points that you listed come out of using zombies games often love them for more the mundane reason that no one has any scruples about killing zombies, and the fiction supports the killing of a very large amount - lots of opportunities for taking aim and pulling the trigger.

    I also have the suspicion Tom that this article may be setting up the context of your big project with Hydravision Entertainment and that you've indeed been doing a lot of thinking around this area for the last year or few. That might still not directly use zombies as the antagonists but I'm sure whatever it is will provide space for a number of those same narrative mechanics.

  5. Zombieland is wicked. I think it runs out of ideas pretty fast, especially for a sub 90 min film, but it's worth it.

    I've had a couple of people recommend The Walking Dead since I posted this, and I've actually read them all up to aboput a year ago. They do nail what's great aboput zombie fiction, and as Kirkman points out it is amazing no one's done a big serial like that before - which harks back to the fact zombies have been around in Western fiction for far less time than you'd think.

    My one criticism of The Walking Dead is that everyone's fucking nuts. Hardly an episode goes by when someone doesn't kill themselves, or someone else, or reveal some deep seated psychological problem. I just believe that the human race is more malleable and more resilliant - that if the the shit hits the fan most of us will manage to stay sane. I think Kirkman's angle detracts from the realism of the scenario, and therefore its ability to comment on our own.

    Thinking about this now, I'm sure that a large part of my love for Z film is down to the apocalyptic / survivalist angle. Watching something like the old BBC series, Survivors, I get almost everything I want from a zombie picture - most importantly, the honest, high tension character relationships.