Archive for March 22, 2011

“Our Obsession with the Living Dead” or “Where are all the Zombie Children?”

March 22, 2011 8 comments

Us gamers in general, seem to be obsessed with zombies; a genre that has seen some remarkable attention in the last few years. From Valve’s Left 4 Dead forever raising the bar on cooperative shooters to the various zombie mods in the Call of Duty franchise, the living dead have invaded our monitors and TVs across the world. Then there are the (mostly awful) Resident Evil movies, the George Romero classics and modern blunders, as well as comedic takes on the genre such as the excellent Shaun of the Dead. Most recently AMC’s series The Walking Dead, based on graphic novels that I have been following and reading for the last eight years, has taken the television audience by the horns and isn’t letting go any time soon, stark deviations from the plot notwithstanding.

The point is that Zombies have somehow clawed their way out of their graves and become staple of modern pop-culture, perhaps much more so than any other niche that has emerged in the last few years. Most recently I came across Dead Island, a title that has been in development for some time, and one that had piqued my curiosity in the past, but then sort of faded from the limelight for several years. Well years later, the studio has come out swinging (or shambling, if you want to be genre-appropriate), with a trailer that was both a fantastic work of chronological art and a horrifying piece of brutal cinema. You can watch said trailer below:

Since then I have viewed the trailer numerous times, including the re-engineered chronologically sound version, and I can’t yet decide if I love it or hate it. The CGI is very well done, there is a palpable sense of dread and hopelessness and desperation in the trailer. Yet the ending (or beginning, depending on your chronological perspective), was disturbing, so much so in fact, that I had trouble sleeping that night. The one thing I kept thinking about was if we, in our quest to constantly create shock value and incredible visuals, take the subject matter a little too far. Yes I know that little girl was a digital creation of a skilled CG-artist, and yes I know that even if she was real, the whole scene was simulated, but I just can’t come to terms with a trailer that shows an 8-year old girl, zomebified, no less, falling several stories to her death. It was crude, it was morbid, and it gave me a sinking feeling in my stomach.

Understand that I am still looking forward to the title. A disturbing trailer aside, the setting, the mechanics and the story all sound quite intriguing. The issue, for me, isn’t at the genre, it is the unforgiving portrayal that comes with it. Lobbing off body parts and disintegrating opponents in a victorious shower of gore never had this odd tinge of trepidation that one of my victims in the game may, in fact, be a little girl with pigtails who is trying to gnaw on my flesh. This aberrant thought made me realize something quite odd in the recent batch of zombie shooters I have indulged in.

None of them (to my knowledge) have children in them.

Consider the No Mercy campaign from the original Left 4 Dead. The campaign has five chapters, the first set in apartments leading to a subway station. The second in the subway leading to a warehouse. The third on the streets in an industrial backyard and through sewers to the hospital entrance. The fourth through the hospital itself. And the last chapter serving as the penultimate fight in a bid to escape the infested city on a chopper. Regardless of your skill or experience, you will get absolutely thrashed by the seemingly endless hordes of zombies that seem to pour in from all directions, especially when provided the ever-inconvenient aphrodisiac of a Boomer’s bile. Yet, in all your travels through these densely populated areas, you never, ever, see a child. Not one. It is as if this world was filled with just adults of varying ages, but never below the upper adolescent years. And this begs the question: where have all the zombie children gone in video games? And why is Dead Island one of the only zombie survival games to show children first hunted, then turned, and then brutally killed when all hope is lost for their salvation? My own issues with the trailer for this latest game aside, why is it that most of these games are quite alright with you acting as a survivor (read de facto mass murderer) leveraging all manner of weaponry from shotguns for evaporating a zombies’ melons (the ones above their heads, you perv.) to katana swords for decapitations and amputations to Molotov cocktails for human barbecues, but they never present a child in peril, or, Lord have mercy, as a flesh-crazed member of the walking dead?

Recently, I also read an interesting article on Psychology Today that attempted to identify why even a shambling zombie (as opposed to the obviously terrifying zombie already feasting on someone innards) can cause a sense of fear and trepidation, despite being significantly below your intellect and superior reflexes. The reason from this comes from the simple concept of pattern recognition and the the amalgamation of the known with the unknown.

An extended example: A body staggers by. Your brains realizes this is not normal, and then tries to rationalize: perhaps he is drunk. But then he has blood on his face. Your brain realizes this too is strange. But if he is really drunk, he likely stumbled and fell, or got in a bar fight. But wait, there is a kid shambling in the distance. This is where your brain will realize something is really off because unless drunk kids are a socially acceptable phenomenon in your part of the world, there would be no immediate logical reason for it. Now you see three bodies shambling. Your brain goes off of auto-pilot and you take manual control, because you can no longer rely on your pattern recognition to help define the irregularities in the world. Now your brain is mixing known with the unknown. You see a person with a huge chunk of flesh missing from their neck. Your brain argues that the person should be in a lot of pain. But the evidence suggests that he is just walking along, completely oblivious to the potentially mortal wound. This is another unknown. But wait, now he attacks a lady and bites her arm. There is blood. The lady starts screaming. Your brain realizes that this is normal under the abnormal circumstances. When you are bitten, there should be pain, and as such you will cry out. But this just adds to the confusion as you are increasingly mixing more and more unknowns with strange knowns. Then, to quote the article:

“And fear sprouts from the depths of your brain, your primitive cortex freaking the hell out and your frontal cortex madly searching the hippocampus for anything even remotely familiar.

“And this is where you experience horror.”

This got me thinking, that perhaps the reason I had such a strong negative reaction to the video for Dead Island was because my brain was used to seeing normal images of zombies eating humans, or humans decimating zombies, and my frontal cortex has gotten used to these images and concepts as knowns, which is why they seem normal under most circumstances. But the moment an unknown is introduced, i.e. an innocent girl who is first hunted, then she turns into the mindless undead, and then is flung by her own father to fall several stories to her (second) death, my primitive cortex freaked out, and resulted in the strong reaction I had to the video.