FEATURE – In gaming, how can the Zombie story evolve?
With so many zombie games around these days, it’s hard not to feel rather fatigued about them now, especially the stories they tell, with the majority retelling the same old story about a devious company working on a virus that somehow escapes and changes humanity into flesh eating monsters. The zombie genre has been around for some time now, becoming more prevalent in gaming after the release of Resident Evil in 1996, but just how can life be restored into this ambling genre?
The focus of these stories is usually focused on people trying to survive a zombie outbreak and the hardships they face, with zombies being treated as generic monsters that have to be killed in order for them to survive. Games are ruthless when dealing with how to kill them, with the protagonists collecting a myriad of guns or crafting many styles of weapons to deal with the different mutations. Zombie games have become more bloodthirsty, with blood spattering and body parts flying everywhere as the player slices through zombie after zombie. Each kill is detailed, from faces being sliced off, to their abdomens being slit open, with squelching sounds accompanying the blows. Sure, it feels satisfying to chop off a zombie’s head – Dying Light took this to a new level and even slowed down the action so that the player can get a good glimpse at their bloody victory. But from a players perspective, should it really feel so satisfying to maim a zombie that was, essentially, a human being?
Now, this isn’t an article preaching for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Zombies, but more of an analysis of why zombies in many games are treated as nothing more than mere monsters when much more could be done, given some thought.
As mentioned previously in the Resident Evil Feature, many game developers seem to forget that zombies are victims themselves, and yet in many games of this type, they are treated as standard animalistic fiends that need to be killed, with no moral conflicts affecting the survivors; they need to survive and so do so at all costs, without thinking that they are killing innocent people – the survivors even treat themselves as the victims, even if they are not conscious that they do so. Characters tend to have an ‘us or them’ mentality, and many games tend not to explore the morals behind killing a zombie, glamorising any kills the player makes in the game. As mentioned, the focus is usually on survivors and, of course, times arise when they will need to kill a loved one who has ‘turned’, and it explores the emotions they feel. But should these characters feel any different when killing people they don’t know?
The excuse used is that zombified people are no longer human and that any trace of what they used to be is gone, so it is okay to kill them. However, as true as that may be, it could be an altogether more interesting perspective if a game focused more on what it is like for a person should they not fully transform into a zombie, even after seemingly dying; perhaps they have transformed into a zombie and are still urged on by their basic needs, yet they are still capable of understanding that what they are doing is wrong – some semblance of humanity has remained. Or why not perhaps create a game that makes players feel uncomfortable killing a zombie, a game that makes them question why they have so much fun maiming them? This could possibly be achieved by making every character count, no matter how minor they are in the game, so when it comes to having to kill them, it makes it difficult to do so. Or why not have scenes in which you see regular people turning into zombies, experiencing their pain and torture and their ultimate fate. Why not give a player the choice whether to kill zombies or not?
Techland wanted to tell a mature story with Dying Light, but there is nothing to note its maturity and comes across as any other game of its type that tells the same story albeit with parkour. Games have tried to mix things up, such as the main protagonist not being immune to the virus and having to manage the condition, as is the case in Amy. The Last of Us and Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead series both tell mature stories, but it is more in regards to the human characters and their survival practices, questioning whether they are more savage than the zombies as opposed to the morals of killing hordes of undead people. Resident Evil 4 also managed to expand on the usual mindless zombie stereotype by giving them more intelligence and having them behave more human, but they are still only there to prevent Leon from progressing on his mission and are still treated as standard enemies.
If a zombie game truly wants a mature outlook, then it makes sense to create a story where morals, in regards to killing zombified people, are questioned, both for the in-game characters, and for the player to ponder over. In the GameCube remake of Resident Evil, a character, known as Lisa Trevor, had a simple yet intriguing back story, and you only ever saw her in her mutated form. Lisa was merely a child and both she and her parents were kidnapped and used as experiments for the T-Virus. Both her parents died and she transformed into a hideous monster, left to wander aimlessly alone. However, despite the change, she still had some humanity left, wanting only to see her mother one last time and even killing herself upon doing so. This was a very small part of Resident Evil, but you still felt sympathy for her. You found out about her plight through notes left about the mansion – you didn’t even need to see her as a human being, as a character in-game, to feel sorry for her. It is probably one of the most in-depth parts of any Resident Evil game, and should other games evolve on this type of narrative, it could make for a more deep, meaningful and interesting twist on zombie story-telling.