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Jon Wood: Grinding My Gears: Zombies

General Article By Jon Wood on February 18, 2011

As a general rule, I don’t get excited about video game stuff anymore. It isn’t because I don’t still love games, I do, and I spend most of my rapidly depleting free time playing them, I just don’t get that fanboy rush about stuff that I used to get.  I try to tell myself that I’m preserving my journalistic objectivity, but the fact of the matter is that after working in this industry for seven years now, I’ve probably become a little bit jaded. Pretty graphics and savvy trailers just aren’t enough to grab my attention anymore. In fact, I barely watch them anymore.

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So you can imagine my surprise when yesterday, I came across a trailer that I not only got excited enough about to post on my personal Facebook page, but also grabbed me on an honest to goodness emotional level.

Seriously, go, watch it. Don’t read about it, don’t even look at the title, just watch it.

So why, if I was so happy with it, would I possibly write about how it grinds my gears? Well, the answer to that is twofold.

Answer the first: Video game trailers, by and large, suck, especially the cinematic ones. Yes, they’re gorgeous.  Yes, they’ve improved a lot over the years in terms of the quality of 3D rendering and animation. The problem is, too many game studios and cinematic designers rely too heavily on the “It’ll look awesome” factor.

A good video game trailer should not only look good and be kick-ass, bad-ass or anything else-ass, it should also try to tell the audience something on a deeper level about the themes of the game and how one should feel while playing it. I mean, it’s all fine and good to string together a bunch of glory shots packed tightly together with Dragonforce’s “Through the Fire and Flames”, but that doesn’t tell me anything about the heart of the game. In short, why should I care?

So, to summarize: All flash and no substance makes Jon a cranky lad.

Answer the second: I am a huge zombie fan. They’re my go-to baddy. You all can have your sparkly vampires, scar-faced wizards, and oh-so-dreamy werewolves. I’ll take my horror with a side helping of rotting, mobile flesh thank-you-very-much.

Let’s face it, we’re in the age of the zombie, from the AI Director’s runners in Left 4 Dead to the traffic cone wearing bumblers in Plants vs Zombies. In terms of video games, killing zombies is just... in right now.

These things go in cycles. It’s been ninjas, it’s been robots and now it’s zombies that take the place of the throw-away bad guy we just love to wallop. Personally I think it’s the satisfying splatter that the squishy bastards inevitably make when you smash something hard into their heads.

The problem is that somewhere in all of the heart-pounding survivalist pew-pewing in both video games and a disturbing number of the associated films, people have forgotten the most important element of the zombie sub-genre, the thing that sets it apart from the robots and ninjas. The human factor.

Modern day zombie stories get their real punch from the human factor. The best zombie adaptations aren’t about the zombies.  The monsters are in the background, an ever-present threat, yes, but not the stars of the show. The real stars of the show are the people. The really effective zombie adaptations make you care about its characters so that you have a vested interest in them, their isolation, their fear and even their deaths. It’s extraordinarily important that it isn’t just about the killing, but instead about the people, who have had their reality torn away from them and turned into a nightmare.

The thousands of people that we pass on the street, or in the elevator, or at the office, completely ignoring them, being alone together in our modern world, suddenly turning against us. The people we love and trust suddenly taken from us, their faces worn by our attackers. It’s heart-wrenching, it’s terrifying, an honest to goodness depressing new reality.

Those are the feelings that were evoked in me by that short clip. The cinematics team and the director took a bold, but necessary step in giving us a little girl zombie protagonist, but in doing so brought home the actual weight of a zombie apocalypse, forcing the slavering masses of undead to the background as the audience learns the girl’s tragic story and feels the loss of her family, and begins to see the character and personality in all of the family’s attackers. The bellhop, the bikini girl, Hawaiian shirt guy, those were all people before, people who died afraid and alone. And when that moment hits?  That’s when the brilliance of this trailer is revealed as a true hit-the-nail-on-the-head zombie adaptation.

Now, whether or not the developers can carry this over into their gameplay is another question entirely, but I say this: If you’re going to develop a zombie based game, and your zombies could be easily swapped out for ninjas or robots, then you’re not doing it right.

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Jon Wood
Jon Wood has been with MMORPG.com since the summer of 2005. In that time, he has served as new Manager, Community Manager and Managing Editor. Before coming to MMORPG.com, Jon spent time as a writer and quest designer for WISH.
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