Zombies, Zombies Everywhere

Piles of rubble. Slowly collapsing buildings. Dirty, desperate people. Monsters in human shape, either by choice or by disease. The symbols are common by now. The rising wave of post-apocalyptic stories is one of the dominant cultural stories of the past decade. There's The Walking Dead, which went from comics to television, or The Hunger Games and World War Z, novels adapted to film. More importantly, it looks like the apocalypse is here to stay. Post-apocalyptic isn't “in” just because a few films were popular and spawned more films, it's popular because stories from different mediums are both reinforcing one another and building from the same foundation.

The beating heart of this cross-media obsession is, in my view, video games. Over the past decade, games have become an increasingly understood (if not always explicitly acknowledged) component of the media landscape, particularly as people who were raised with games begin to create their own art, or analyze it.11 In this video essay at Press Play, film scholar Matthias Stork documents the often symbiotic relationship between games and film. It's not just action blockbusters that use video game aesthetics, either: Stork points out the “side-scroller” camera common to games like Super Mario Bros. being used by arthouse auteur Wes Anderson in his superb The Fantastic Mr. Fox And video games have been consistently interested in the apocalypse for years—which is appropriate, as they may be the best medium to deal with the subject.


The Last of Us, a new game for PlayStation 3, serves as a prime example of the affinity between the apocalypse and video games. Its premise seems cliché: the global outbreak of an infectious, zombie-creating disease has triggered a near-total collapse of human society (zombie mayhem is, of course, the most popular apocalyptic scenario these days). A teenaged girl, Ellie, has developed an immunity to the infection, and the character you play, a taciturn smuggler/survivor named Joel, is tasked with escorting her across the country to the hospital where she can be studied in the hopes of creating a vaccine. I was somewhat underwhelmed with the familiarity of the premise, but that quickly fell away once I started playing for two reasons: first, it's a common story because it's an effective one; and second, what makes a story great is how it's told, not how common its summary is. The Last of Us is told extraordinarily well.

That shouldn’t be surprising, though, given its provenance. The Last of Us was developed by Naughty Dog, a studio best known for the Uncharted trilogy of games, a set of action-adventures starring a roguish Indiana Jones-like treasure hunter. Naughty Dog's method of game craftsmanship is intensely pragmatic: they don't push the medium forward with new technology or new ideas, but they do make their games work. At the Game Developers Conference in 2012, I went to two different presentations by key Naughty Dog designers. In one, Richard Lemarchand confronted one of gaming's sacred cows, the vague concept of “immersion,” and described how Naughty Dog used science and practice to focus the player's attention instead.22 Lemarchand's presentation can be read here In another, Amy Hennig discussed the charming, low-stakes influence of Preston Sturges, director of classic films like The Lady Eve—not James Cameron, not Michael Bay, not Ridley Scott, as might be expected given the game industry's bombast—on their games.33Neither Hennig nor Lemarchand officially worked on The Last of Us, but they had great influence within the studio; the game very clearly fits their espoused philosophies.

The Last of Us displays that pragmatic influence throughout. Its graphical technology isn't stunning on its own, but the level of detail possessed by all the objects and characters in the game give it a solid, lived-in feel. The interactions between the main characters, particularly those involving the teenaged girl Ellie, are as high-quality as has ever been seen in games, both in technical terms and in writing and voice performance. 

It's this down-to-earth simplicity that saves The Last of Us from falling victim to the dissonance so common to blockbuster games. Joel takes the job of escorting Ellie across the country to the hospital where she can, perhaps, provide a cure. Along the way, they have fight or avoid soldiers, zombies, and gang members at the same time as Joel learns to trust and respect Ellie in large part because of her resourcefulness in danger. Part of what allows The Last of Us to focus so narrowly on the Joel-Ellie relationship is that it's able to refer  symbolically to classic post-apocalyptic stories across different media. The opening city is reminiscent of Children Of Men; the game's combat moments at their best evoke 28 Days Later; one of the best scenes late in The Last of Us calls directly back to a classic scene from Twelve Monkeys. But even more than that, The Last of Us draws on the best of classic end-of-the-world games.

In the mid-1990s, two games put the apocalypse at the forefront of video-game culture: Fallout and Resident Evil. Although their influence led to the same point, the two games represented very different halves of the game industry: Fallout was American-made, released for personal computers, and was a slow, turn-based role-playing game; Resident Evil was Japanese, released for the original PlayStation console, and was an action horror game. Fallout, as the name suggests, depicted the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, while Resident Evil was about the attempt to contain a zombie outbreak before it turned into an apocalypse.

If you ask a fan of the early Resident Evil games for their memories of the franchise, they'll bring up not just the scares, but the long-term planning of grabbing and saving resources for later survival too. They'll talk about the need to conserve ammunition, to learn safe methods for traversing common areas. The apocalypse creates scarcity; scarcity creates difficult decisions; and difficult decisions create powerful gaming experiences.4Famous game designer Sid Meier has defined a game as “a series of interesting decisions.” I don't think this is true—a great game like Rock Band involves very few decisions—but it's certainly not a bad way to create a certain type of excellent game. Resident Evil also kept the idea of the zombie story popular during the relatively fallow pre-28 Days Later—the zombie movie that helped initiate their current cinematic popularityperiod for the undead. Although other games before used zombies, ever since Resident Evil they've been omnipresent in video games.

The idea of “difficult choice” dominates Fallout, one of the most influential games of all time (and a personal favorite of mine). It's most famous for adding a specific morality system with ethical choices to video games. In Fallout, every quest your character was given could be completed in multiple different manners, their reputation would improve or decrease accordingly, which would cause different reactions from other characters in the world. Beyond the scarcity of items in the post-apocalyptic world, Fallout added a scarcity of values. It said that game characters could make difficult, important choices at an ethical level in addition to a pragmatic level.

Fallout's power over the game industry is undeniable; ethical choices now abound in many of the industry's most well-known games, like the science fiction Mass Effect series. But what I've found striking about the game is its social power. For a decade after its release, Fallout was a cult hit, understood as influential but not popular. Then in 2008, the release of an unexpected sequel, Fallout 3, become a massive event. Fallout had, through a decade of influence and love, become a cultural touchstone for game journalists and players. It was like the famous line about the Velvet Underground's first album—that only a hundred people bought it, but every one of them went out and formed a band. Fallout fans became “thought leaders” and made its return an event, just like superhero fans have started to take over mass media beyond comics, just like video games now have that symbiotic relationship with film. It's not a huge stretch to suggest that Fallout, along with Resident Evil, are sources of the post-apocalyptic outbreak.

Both the pragmatic and ethical choices demanded by the post-apocalyptic setting are on display in The Last of Us. Your character Joel is not a superhero, and through the bulk of the game, he cannot comport himself like one of gaming's traditional action heroes. It's harder to aim in this than other games, and certain powerful zombies can immediately kill Joel if they get too close, which makes conserving ammunition and planning ahead worthwhile. It's often much better to sneak or even sprint by enemies rather than confronting them. In one of The Last of Us's cleverest practical touches, your best anti-zombie weapon, the molotov cocktail, requires the same scavenged rags and alcohol as health kits to keep Joel alive, meaning you're constantly deciding whether offense or defense is a more effective survival tool.

In the end though, it's the ethical choices, modeled on the game’s apocalyptic predecessors, that make The Last Of Us so memorable. Unlike Fallout, they're not choices given to the player. Joel and Ellie will make them on their own, and they may even oppose the player's will. Joel and Ellie operate by an understandable “Keep yourself and your people alive, be the best person you can be in a fallen world, and don't let the ends trump the means"5Although it's never made explicit in the game, this ethical model strikes me as deliberately Christian code, but the closer they get to the end of their journey, the more complicated that becomes. “After all we've been through. After everything that I've done. It can't all be for nothing” says Ellie bringing the characters (and perhaps the player) into an acknowledgment of complicity. And a magnificent gut punch of an ending makes it clear just how impossible being good is in that world.

The hard choices demanded by the setting are common in post-apocalyptic media, but video games have an advantage over those other mediums thanks to their ability to engage the player in making many of those choices. Even when those choices appear to be strictly pragmatic, they still have a way of dominating one's thoughts in a way that other games don't.6Several months ago, I played Dead Island, a pretty good (at best) zombie action game where the only long-term planning I could choose was repairing weapons, but that, combined with the story of herding survivors to a safe place, was enough to have me staying up late at night, obsessing about how defensible my apartment building was. Other games have made that more explicit. A recently released downloadable Xbox 360 game, State Of Decay, allows both action-packed zombie fighting and management of a growing community of survivors; a PC game called Zafehouse Diaries does the same but with a distinct board game feel. And then there's the magnificent Fate Of The World, a strategy game where players attempt to prevent/mitigate a global climate change apocalypse. Playing that exceptionally difficult game depressed me about the future, justifiable, for months.

What the post-apocalyptic game—especially a zombie-based one—can do, that so many other games struggle with, is this: it can eliminate the dissonance between story game mechanics that so many games have. Scarcity of resources makes sense in that setting, and forces the player to make interesting, difficult choices. Violence, obviously a common and appealing part of so many games, makes so much sense in a setting like this compared to many others, like the ridiculous terrorist threats and false flag operations of Call Of Duty. And those difficult ethical choices that are increasingly popular in the video-game world form the core of the post-apocalyptic story. Other mediums are taking on certain aspects of those to reinforce their own post-apocalyptic stories. Reviews of NBC's initially-popular post-apocalyptic series Revolution noted its similarity to role-playing game campaigns, while half the time watching The Walking Dead it seems like there's a person controlling Rick Grimes, telling him “be violent” or “try talking” as he stares blankly, waiting to make a decision.

Whatever has maintained popularity of the setting77 My theory: growing, undiscussed climate change anxietyvideo games have often been the best example, resurrecting and maintaining the form because their interests in choice, strategy, violence, and consequences aligns with popular themes in gaming and beyond. The Last of Us serves as a culmination of post-apocalyptic storytelling both within video games and across media in general. In drawing from the best examples of end-of-the-world storytelling, and weaving those together into a new story, it makes the argument that post-apocalyptic settings aren't a fad that need to be analyzed, embraced, or rejected. They're simply a mode of storytelling that, like all good modes of storytelling, can tell great stories. 

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