Wednesday, December 5, 2012

#48: The Post/Zombie Apocalypse: Is it Overused?

The prospect of zombies and the undead has always been a theme explored in video games since the days of the Atari 2600. The reasons for this are obvious, since they pose an easily comprehensible threat and provide cannon fodder for players. In recent times however, they appear to have seen a bit of a resurgence. Many modern games have incorporated zombies and zombie-related tropes and as a result many people, including myself, have begun to think that zombies, “infected,” and their ilk have grown to be overplayed, stale, and increasingly uninteresting. Having said that, I have recently finished a game that has made me rethink my sour opinion on the subject. That game was Telltale's adaptation of The Walking Dead, available now on the PC, the 360, and the PS3 via their respective online stores. After playing the game, I appreciated the zombie apocalypse (and general post-apocalypse) setting much more than I used to. The realization came that this setting is stagnating not because it is begin overplayed, but because game developers have not done anything new or different with it until now. This week, in a long overdue article, I delve into why this is and how it may be fixed.

First, we need to have a discussion on the zombie apocalypse and what it does. A zombie apocalypse is exactly what it says on the tin, it is a fantasy apocalypse scenario where, due to either supernatural or biological/scientific influences, the dead are somehow reanimated, causing the collapse of society as a whole and ushering in a new world order. This is a subset of the post-apocalypse setting, where the world as we known it is fundamentally changed and significantly set back due to some catastrophic incident or scenario (like zombies). In these types of settings, there are not very many types of plots that a writer can utilize. The only overarching plot lines that this kind of setting can support are typically as follows, but could include more.

  1. The “Fight for Survival” where an individual or group has the goal of making it by from day to day. Typically, this will involve finding some kind of shelter, gathering food, water, and supplies, and dealing with threats to one's safety or supply cache.
  2. “Rebuilding Society” where the individual or group has typically finally etched a permanent/semi-permanent existence in this new world and decides to start rebuilding what was lost, forming cities, cultivating land, banding groups of people together, and establishing infrastructure and government. This is all done in the hopes of bringing back some semblance of law, order, and stability that was lost in the apocalypse.
  3. The “Power Fantasy” in which the player is thrust into an apocalypse and told to just go wild and kill as many things (living or undead) as they possibly can. The protagonist has a large skill set and great physical prowess and/or a large arsenal of weapons and gadgets that can handle a wide variety of situations. The plot will generally be bare-minimum or fall into one of the previous categories and will exist for no other reason that to give the protagonist an excuse for racking up a large kill list.

Compared to other types of settings, this is a very small list, even when compared to other settings that are often used, like sci-fi or fantasy. Those settings allow for plots involving political intrigue between nations, world-spanning adventures, and even plots on a smaller scale like murder mysteries and revenge stories. This lack of plot types in itself is not really a significant problem. The true issue is one that lies within the sphere of video games: the plots are almost exclusively of the “Power Fantasy” variety. Out of most of the modern day games that involve zombies that come to mind, there is a disproportionately high number of zombie-murder-shotgun simulators. What my mind calls forth when I think of zombies are the likes of Left 4 Dead, Dead Rising, Resident Evil, Dead Island, and the zombie mode in the Call of Duty franchise. In all of these games, the zombies are nothing more than an obstacle that players point and shoot at until it falls over. This is what leads to a feeling of being overused and overplayed. It is not that we are using the same setting over and over again, but that we are doing it with the same general plot and narrative structure as well.

Fast forward to The Walking Dead, and now we no longer have a Power Fantasy. Instead, the designers at Telltale chose to embrace the source material and use the “Fight for Survival” plotline with a well developed and realistically written cast of survivors. This enabled them to focus on small scale, highly character driven, personal, stories where the player and his party are forced into desperate situations and experiment with the gameplay, where players are forced to make painful choices and bear the weight of those choices. Emotions run high and players can often be brought to tears when faced with the events that are unfolding in front of them. The shift away from the standard Power Fantasy refreshes the setting, making it new and interesting. Players never plow through tons of zombies. Whenever the zombies come, they are presented as a genuine threat and the best course of action is always to retreat. All these characters are trying to do is stay alive and see tomorrow. This is where most zombies games get it wrong. Designers forget that there are other plots they can use in this setting and go for the standard power fantasy. These other plot types can add a weight and emotional backbone to the game. There is nothing wrong with a good Power Fantasy, but gamers want more than that. As they say, variety is the spice of life.

But Power Fantasies are easy to craft. All designers need to do is create a hoard of mooks and some weapons to fight them. It takes more work than it does to think up of quality writing and good gameplay mechanics that reinforce the other two plot lines. Aside from the Fallout franchise and the flash game Rebuild, which focus on the rebuilding of society in a post-apocalypse, and The Walking Dead, where the daily struggle for survival is on display, one would be hard-pressed to find post-apocalypse games that are not strictly in the realm of Power Fantasy. (And yes, I am very much aware that there is a very strong case to be made for Fallout being a Power Fantasy. You do not need to tell me.) I would petition game designers to branch out every once in a while and break the mold. Do something different from that which we have all seen before and show the creativity in all of those development studios. I know that game designers are more than capable of experimenting with new concepts and/or reiterating on old ones in interesting ways. I just wish that they would show off the capability more.  


Aldowyn said...

So this is an interesting post. Again, you have a different focus than I would. You say 'developers shouldn't be afraid to use settings in new ways'. I say "developers shouldn't be afraid to use mechanics in new ways'. About the same game.

Like I mentioned on twitter, it's interesting how it took a game in a franchise established in another medium to get devs to try something new with it. I wonder why that is? :/ Probably because MOST games are 'power fantasies' of some kind, and they're only just now finding ways of making truly meaningful stories with alternate themes.

Again, I have to say that although what you're saying is TRUE, it's not particularly DEEP. I'm not sure if that's bad or not, but something to consider?

Thomas said...

"The realization came that this setting is stagnating not because it is begin overplayed, but because game developers have not done anything new or different with it until now. "

I'll be honest, I think the Walking Dead was a one time affair. It was new because games haven't done it before, but in a broader context, if it had been a book or a film it would have been cliche. Book of Elijah, The Road, Day of The Triffids, Survivor, Quatermass. People were guessing the reveal of Ep 2, because it's just been done repeatedly in the setting (Book of Elijah is the big one in my examples)

Look at the similarities already between the trailers of The Last of Us and the Walking Dead, roughly same aged man looking after a younger girl, the real problems isn't the zombies, it's the people (I think they might have actually even have shared the same dialogue lines about that)

It was nice and what you say can be taken as a general rule to freshen up games, but not zombie games in particular. The Last of Us will come out, it will be playable interesting but already feel a bit familiar and overused and then that's it. No more space for a single other zombie story game. At least power fantasy is a gameplay thing and gameplay stays a lot fresher than story does (when challenge/thrill based)