Sunday, December 8, 2013

Zombie

You may recall earlier in the year I discussed what I think about elves. My opinion towards zombies is fairly similar although for somewhat different reasons. In the end though what drives most of the anger in both cases is the laziness that it represents from the creator. Most of my exposure to, and hence frustration with, zombies comes from playing computer games, so I'm going to focus on zombies in games.

Point of order: I don't care why they started shambling around or what the designers call them, a zombie's a zombie. "Oh well technically they're not zombies, they're infected". Sod off, they're zombies. Mind control, plague, fungal infection, head crabs, virus, whatever. The end result is something that shambles/runs mindlessly around trying to eat people, and it's a zombie. I guess technically this my first problem with zombies: designers try to pretend they're not zombies.

First proper problem, now that we've all admitted that zombies are zombies. Zombies are visually lazy. It's reasonable enough to want to create a disturbing or distressing visual style. Doing so by having partially decayed and disfigured people as the main motif is the easy option. A regular person in day-to-day clothing but covered in blood and an empty ravenous expression is horrifying, sure, but is now so familiar as to be reassuring. Adding various "they're not zombies" flourishes just creates zombies with prosthetics. There are hundreds of talented artists in the games industry, and thousands who'd like to be. Let them use some of their creativity for something.

From a technical stand point zombies are lazy programming, relatively speaking. Zombies allow a variety of different parts of a team to use a bunch of their existing skills from dealing with human characters, which almost every game has, to get the zombie work done. It's the same reason so many fantasy and sci-fi game races are humanoid; things like animation are a whole lot easier. One of the advantages of zombies, for a programmer, is that they're proverbially mindless. See food, walk at food, hit food. I'm not going to claim that zombie AI is easy, but it's got to be substantially easier than writing the AI of intelligent enemies. It's also a modular kind of AI because zombies can start at the dumbest possible base level and add extra behaviours as allowed by time/budget. If there's a particularly troublesome reaction event, just cut it and say the zombies don't react to, for example, the sound of explosions because blah, blah, zombies, blah, blah.

For those focused on characters, narrative, and related issues zombies are lazy here too. Zombies are human shaped and so produce a twinge of player empathy without anyone having to go to the effort, narratively, of creating human characters. Most games struggle enough making the protagonist interesting, zombies are manna from heaven in reducing the number of characters that need to be developed. At the highest level, the world-building load is reduced. It explains why things are post-apocalyptic, who the enemy are, and why they're the enemy. When writing zombies there's no need to worry about enemy motivation, they eat brains, the player has brains. There's no need to worry about character motivation, the zombie will ceaselessly try to eat your brain, therefore the zombie must be killed. The morality issues go away. Nazis are well loved because it's easy to justify killing them. Zombies are on a whole new level, because they're not even people any more. Issues of morality about killing can be happily put to one side so that the story and gameplay don't clash.

Finally, and in some ways most importantly zombies are a really lazy, pandering market driven decision to make. The target demographics love zombies. Zombies are cool. Zombies mean blood and dismemberment and brutal animations of unusual implements being used to murder things. If things aren't going well, just add a zombie mode. If that's not enough, just replace the entire existing enemy concept with some zombies. Zombies can be anywhere. Space zombies. Western zombies. Bikini zombies. Nazi zombies. Zombie zombies. Choosing zombies doesn't guarantee sales, but it guarantees to pique the interest of a large and vocal part of the gaming community. And if you're a game designer and find yourself arguing that it's all right to have zombies because the game's not really about the zombies, here's an idea: if it's not about the zombies, take the zombies out.

Zombies are played out. There is no aspect of the zombie concept that hasn't been explored, and more than once. And the concept wasn't that interesting in the first place. They are as a genre what they are as a monster: a mindless husk of a once dynamic and vital entity.

Next week's final word will be, because it seems vaguely appropriate, zenith

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