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Are Videogame Zombies Actually Zombies?

Join Screen Critics Charles, as he takes a look at the representation of zombies within videogames – asking if they really are zombies.

Good ol’ Zombies, everyone has heard of a Zombie and everyone knows what they are… Or do they? That is the question, the question that has been playing on my mind for far too long, so I have decided to finally find the answer.

What is a “Zombie”, before you say “they’re those undead guys who eat brains” just take a minute and think, you finished? good. Can you accurately describe a Zombie? You may think you can but I am here to tell you that you cannot, what you can describe, however, is a popular, reinterpreted version of one, be it from the gaming world or from the film world.

All I hear in regards to Zombies nowadays are simply preconceptions of a new generation, younger players who haven’t had that much experience with our rotten-fleshed friends, they have played a pretty simple Zombie-shooter and have taken that games description as a solid foundation of knowledge on Zombies, thus creating a false understanding which, in turn, is how false knowledge or understanding on anything ever is created. It is a rather annoying occurrence but nevertheless, we’ll press on.

Zombie Characteristics

To determine the most definitive description of a Zombie, we must first determine what most of the interpretations have in common, the following is a short list of what I personally think the most common traits between the many versions are:

• Lack of higher thinking
• Aggressive/uncontrolled attacking
• Decaying state
• Craving for human flesh/blood/brains
• Usually found in large groups

As I said, they are just what I deem to be the most common and when we are talking about the common Zombie description, mostly all of them will have these attributes, there are of course a few that break the mold.

So why do most Zombies have these aspects? How have we come to an age where anything remotely reanimated or cannibalistic is immediately described as being either a Zombie or Zombie-like? The answer is, of course, those under-aged and/or inexperienced gamers. See what I mean about it being annoying. Now on to the next step, the slightly boring yet a little interesting comparison between those characteristics and history’s earliest mentions of Zombies. Joy.

 

Zombie Etymology

W. B Seabrook and Victor Halperin, these are the people who brought Zombies to the public and yet even these two had differences in their descriptions, that does not fill me with hope in my mission for an answer. W.B Seabrook wrote a book in 1929 called The Magic Island, Zombies, (spelt Zombi), are first recorded here, (before any of you grab your pitchforks and start questioning me, I am deliberately disregarding Robert Southey’s recorded use of the word Zombi in his poem A History Of Brazil, when I say first recorded I mean the first recorded use of the word that matches our current day description, we all good here? Great, let’s continue).

The book is about the Narrator and the findings of his travels and experiences throughout his time in Haiti, during which, he encounters a voodoo cult that reanimates the corpses, presumably by a Bokor sorcerer as that job fell to them, turning them into Zombis. This Idea was later brought to by Victor Halperin in the film White Zombie in 1932, but it came with some alterations. Still set in Haiti so there is no change of location, the alternation is tied with the depiction of the Zombie. Instead of being reanimated, rotting corpses like the ones we have come to know and love, Halperin’s Zombies were living humans, an evil wizard had put a spell on some able-bodied men that cancelled out there thought processors and turned them into mindless henchmen, fit and ready to serve the wizard as their new master.

Both of these stories were made over 70 years ago and even they had their own variation on what a Zombie actually is. If we disregard the route that Halperin traveled as, after all, it seems viable that he took a lot of inspiration from Seabrook when directing White Zombie, if we stick to Seabrook’s path and consider him to be the start of this Zombie craze as some of his Zombie characteristics match ours, we can delve into the cool, refreshing pool that is Video games.

 

Representation in Videogames

Many developers nowadays have jumped on the bandwagon and had a shot at creating a Zombie game, but I find that most take a lighter, more action-based approach, few others head down the survival path simply because survival games take a lot longer to make and require a lot more thought and work, so many Zombie games end up being extraordinarily similar to one another.

Call of Duty is one such example, in the Zombie mode many of the newer games offer, you are tasked with killing Zombies, that is it, no intricate story, no other objective just kill the Zombies and I have a special place for them in my heart, wave-based killing is a special kind of fun, honing your strategies on each attempt, gradually getting better and better, having a solid plan that gets you to a certain wave then leaves you stranded as you have never come this far before, it can be very fun knowing you have no other engagements except making sure that the Zombie you’re shooting never walks again.

It can also be very boring, at times I have often wondered whether it was worth the money, this occurs after many straight hours of playing, to a point where all enjoyment that can be had depleted about three hours ago and you can barely find the will to live, let alone the energy to concentrate. It happen purely because the game was not made to involve the player, make them lost in a gripping story, turning them into sociopaths due to irregular sleeping patterns, it was made for short bursts of pure Zombie killing fun, that is it. If you wanted to play a game for its story and survival aspects then that is what The Last of Us is for.

 

The Last of Us

I have a lot of time for The Last of Us, not just because I enjoy the game but because I respect and appreciate the time and effort that was spent making it, all of the work Naughty Dog put into their game really placed it high above all of the other Zombie experiences out there, mainly because it actually created a Zombie experience opposed to wave-based games. My main focus is the explanation for infection, as it provides so much more detail than just your average mysterious viral outbreak, which is a common explanation for games that do not require as much detail. The explanation? Cordyceps.

If you don’t know what Cordyceps is, it is a fungus that is typically found in the undergrowth of tropical rainforests around the world including Thailand, Australia, China, and Brazil, it also has a particular fondness for ants. This fungus has one goal and one goal only, kill the ants, for some reason, it is pleasurable for it to kill ants. It lies on the forest ground and waits for an ant to walk on or over it, it then attaches itself to the ant and begins to use pressure to blow a hole through the ants body, once it’s in, it makes a nice little home, killing is tiresome work after all, then it sends chemicals to the ants brain making the ant leave the rest of its colony behind.

The ant at this stage has lost full control of its mind and body and Cordyceps has taken over, everything the ant does from now on is the doing of the fungus, essentially, Cordyceps has turned the ant into a Zombie as it is now unthinking. The ant is now commanded to make its way to a higher place, usually a leaf on a tree or tall plant, that is located above the colony, it bites into the leaf to lock itself in place and then Cordyceps terminates the ant. An appendage will now sprout out of the back of the ants head and will drop more of the fungi’s spores onto and around the colony so it can start the whole process again.

This proves that Cordyceps doesn’t care for anything else but killing and spreading to kill more, there is no beneficial gain from doing it which does give reason to Naughty Dogs’ infection of choice, so how does Cordyceps differ when it assumes the role of an epidemic outbreak?

 

Coredyeeps within The Last of Us

The particular strain used in The Last of Us has been infected and mutated with a virus that makes it deadly to humans, but it is not deadly straight away as a host can last up to twenty years before the strain decides to kill them. Obviously, I have a few queries regarding this explanation, if I didn’t then this would be a complete waste of time.

Firstly, as Cordyceps is found in tropical forests, how does it survive in multiple climates, yes I understand that over time the strain may be capable of mutating and adapting to its surroundings but in the short time it infected and overwhelmed Austin in Texas. Surely the change of climate would have killed the strain way before it managed to get all the way from Austin to Boston.

Secondly, if the spores use pressure to blow it’s into an ant, why do we have to equip our gas mask every time we come across them in The Last of Us. If it was a simple as becoming infected through the inhalation of the spores, why would Cordyceps go through all that unnecessary bother of pressure blowing through ants bodies when all it would have to do go in on a breath of oxygen, I would imagine something as sophisticated and intelligent as Cordyceps could figure that out.

Lastly, what is so different in the mutated strain that makes the host cannibalistic. Original Cordyceps kills ants, yes, what it doesn’t do is send the ant on a 24/7 all-you-can-eat rampage, so why does it make human hosts do it? The only explanation I can think of is the virus that mutated the strain has this drastic trait. All I know is that if I was putting together an idea for a game that sees you surviving against an entire world full of biting, hungry cannibalistic humanoids, Cordyceps wouldn’t have been my choice of infection.

Conclusion

These are just my personal, bothersome questions, don’t take it the wrong way though, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with The Last of Us and I believe that it is one of the few great games out there, both in survival and “Zombie” aspects, there are just a little too many holes in the explanation for me, I found myself questioning things most of the time rather than just accepting them.

One thing The Last of Us and other games, such as Infected, (a PSP game), have done right, and some are starting to head down this path as well, is that they used the word infected instead of Zombie. Infected is a much more agreeable word, not only is it a word that is easily applicable to most “Zombie” situations, it also does not bring the flawed and varied descriptions that the word Zombie does. If a virus or “mysterious virus” as so many games like to refer to it, (unacceptable in my book), infects a person the person becomes infected, that’s it, that’s all she wrote, there are no complex descriptions because the only description is infected.

I think the word Zombie should be dealt away with once and for all and the word infected adopted but everything has its flaws and we can’t expect everything to be completely perfect, still, I don’t like the word Zombie all that much.

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