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Totten’s Video Game Zombies

June 29, 2012

Christopher W. Totten has a long article on the game design business website entitled: “Building a Better Zombie”.

zombie christopher totten

It’s a long article but I want to highlight a few great points in his analysis:

First, Totten cites editor Jen Bosier for a theory, similar to my own, that video game zombies are “a product of laziness on the part of game developers — easy to program and requiring little narrative justification.”

Totten writes an unusual history of zombies, mentioning old school games like Castlevania and Super Mario. Then he explains a history of the zombier character that begins in West Africa, mingles with Mesopotamian myth (Epic of Gilgamesh), and through Europe: “fear of corpses reanimated by supernatural means spread like a plague as civilization expanded”. Totten connects zombies to devil images from Medieval times, Norse and Icelandic mythology, Middle Eastern “ghuls”, and of course, Gothic characters of vampires and Mary Shelley’s Frankensteinml; eventually getting to “White Zombie”, George Romero and World War Z.

This is one of the better pre-“zombie” histories that I have read. Totten refers to these creatures as “revenants” and his history reminds me of a sort of Dungeons&Dragons compendium, blending all sorts of histories into the Hollywood creation.

Continuing, Totten also explains some popular misconceptions:

Several misconceptions of zombies come into play in modern games. One is the idea that one person can rise to become the action hero of the zombie apocalypse. The flip side to Gross’s argument that zombies embody the things that truly scare us is that zombie heroes often become what we wish to be in our daily lives. In films like Army of Darkness, Shaun of the Dead, and Zombieland, common-man heroes rise to take on shambling hordes. These heroes all share personal or economic troubles that audiences can commiserate with. Their victories bring to life the fantasy of shooting your problems in the head. This attitude is the bane of characters like Roger in Dawn of the Dead and other would-be Rambos in similar media. As Matthew Weise points out, Roger becomes “drunk with his own power” to the point of carelessness, eventually succumbing to the plague himself.

The other misconception is the idea that zombies are evil or somehow antagonistic. In a 2006 interview, Max Brooks stated, “The lack of rational thought has always scared me when it came to zombies, the idea that there is no middle ground, no room for negotiation.” Brooks’s statement outlines zombies and the zombie apocalypse as elements of an overwhelming natural disaster rather than individualized enemies. Neurologist Sigmund Freud claimed that vampires, werewolves, and other similar monsters were embodiments of the id, the part of the psyche that holds chaotic base drives.

Both of these points are important for the political usages of the word. First, we can’t shoot our way out of our political problems. Second, it’s not about good vs. evil. These misconceptions make civil dialogue all that much harder.

Totten also writes about how zombies can be used as barriers to herd players or railroad them into a certain game direction and as a form of game time-limit pressure. These also seem related to the motivations of zombie political rhetoric.

Note also Totten citing “Hans W. Ackerman and Jeanine Gauthier to argue that the traditional Voodoo zombi is actually one of two varieties; the zombi as a soulless body and the zombi as a bodiless soul.” This strikes me as similar to the mind-body debate and questions of phenomenology of mind that ZombieLaw has written about in relation to philosopher Daniel Dennett.


From → Academics, politics

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