Friday, May 21, 2010

The Real Monster

Some time ago, our friend Gerard Delaney of the Binary Swan put up a post about zombies that has since been shambling around in my head. Gerard argued that, despite the preponderance of zombies in video games, "Zombie games draw heavily from film but do so without ever replicating what it is that makes the movies horrific." In films "Zombies may produce the most ’shocking’ moments, but it is the degenerative humanity in the survivors that is most horrific."

I found this critique very perceptive and I began to keep my eye out for games that had the potential to transform the player and their avatar into something that resembled their enemies. The pickings were slim: it seems that most games tend to excuse or justify even the most dubious behavior from their characters and players. In games like Resident Evil and Dead Rising, zombies are a convenient enemy that can be guiltlessly mowed down. Any humans that find themselves on the wrong side of the battle can be written off as insane, traitorous, or evil. The player is never tempted or lulled into losing any part of their humanity.

However, as I wrote about Dead Space, I was reminded that this is not always the case.

Dead Space is basically a tale about zombies in space. The hapless crew of the Ishimura are first killed and then systematically reanimated into undead parasites whose mission is to hunt down the player. It was easy to forget that the monsters were once human during the heat of battle, but the various audio logs and story sections made it clear that this was a ship full of individuals. Furthermore, playing as Isaac, the player is ostensibly worried about his girlfriend, Nicole, as well as the rest of the rescue crew.

This concern for others was dumped out of an airlock the minute I saw the parasites infect a corpse and turn it into a crazed monster. From that point on, the game became about surviving. Doing so meant not trusting anybody and discarding any respect for dead. Every survivor I encountered became a potential traitor and the thought of possibly protecting them made me resentful of having to waste the ammo. Because the zombies were vulnerable to dismemberment and relied on intact human hosts, I decided to cut their power off at the source. Every time I found a human corpse, I engaged in my ghastly work. There were times when I was listening to the departed's audio logs as I viciously desecrated their corpse.

Of course, this makes tactical sense: I was depriving my enemies of the means to fight. However, as I was mutilating the dead beyond recognition, I could not help but think that what I was doing was pretty close to what the necromorphs were doing. On one hand, there was an entity who was completely self-serving, who harbored no respect for anyone else's life, and whose actions were an affront to human social customs. On the other hand, there were the zombies.

While there are other games that funnel the player towards decisions of questionable morality, few arise as organically as my corpse stomping choice in Dead Space. As Wander in Shadow of the Colossus, I quickly got the sense that there was something ominous about the world. I eventually noticed as Wander's face grew more pallid with the death of each colossus, yet there were really no alternative decisions to make if I wanted to keep playing the game. Eventually Wander became a beast, but it felt like inevitable fate rather than my doing.

When playing Heavy Rain, I had Ethan follow the killer's order to shoot a drug dealer, in hopes of saving Ethan's son. While this scene had the potential to explore the issue of weighing one life against another, the episode was quickly dropped after the killing happened. True, the person who was killed was no saint, but it was still odd that it was never mentioned again. Before I had time to reflect on what had happened and how it might have transformed the character, the game had dropped it in order to move on to another scene.

Dead Space's seamless world does not have scene breaks, so I was left isolated and alone with my own thoughts. After spending enough time in the ship's cold, dark corridors, I began evaluating every person and object based on its threat and its utility. Could I use this to hurt my enemies or could this be used to hurt me?

It was sad that I had to destroy the bodies of the dead and abandon many of the living to certain death, but it was necessary. These monsters would stop at nothing to kill me, so I was justified in doing what I could to survive. In a way, I was saving these people from a fate worse than death.

At least that's what I told myself as I tried to scrape flecks of blood, both human and necromorph, off my boots.


  1. I'm reminded of Raph Koster's "The Evil We Pretend to Do" article... and a bit of Nietzsche.

    I find it harder to worry much about the Dead Space corpse example, though. Those people were already dead, right? I'm not quite Klingon about it, but those people don't need their bodies any more, and depriving monsters of them is grisly, but not terrible in my book.

    Killing a *survivor* to keep them from zombification, though... that's another thing. That might touch on "mercy kills", tactical considerations and pure selfishness.

  2. Funnily I did the exact same thing with almost every corpse I found in Dead Space, feeling kinda weird about it but with a strange "you gotta do what you gotta do" touch to it...

    Here's the interesting part though, a friend of mine watched me play the game once and he was rather digusted with me splattering everything living and dead in my way in as many peaces as possible.
    So for the time I was "observed", I actually left corpses alone encountering at least one situation in which I knew I could have had less of a hard time if I only had dismembered those corpses thoroughly.

    As soon as I was left alone in Space again I continued my work, however it left me thinking about what the actual game would have to do to make me less selfish if you will. Think about having an AI character next to you leaving comments every time you stomp on a corpse.

    In Metal Gear Solid 2 for example you actually receive a nasty Codec Call from either the Colonel or Rose if you keep shooting an enemy who is already dead...

  3. (cross posted at binary swan)

    Came here after reading Scott Juster’s response to your post. He nominates Dead Space as the closest answer to your question, and i agree.

    However, i want to re-animate a dead horse (heh) and offer RE4 and RE5 for consideration as being faithful to the horror of zombiedom. The Ganados in particular are horrifying because there is little to distinguish them from being human, so the effect (at least in the early levels up to the house defense with Luis and Ashley) is of killing victims, rather than enemies. Even tho Capcom works to ‘other’ the Ganados by shading them darker (visually) and not translating their dialogue, the fact that the Ganados work together and communicate with one another – much less evading weapons – makes them unnervingly human.

    The Majini, however, represent a step backwards. The Capcom developers chose poorly by setting RE5 in Africa and compounded the mistake by employing all the negative stereotypes of Blacks they could find. The Wetlands level in particular is egregiously racist, as the Majini are dressed in bones and loincloths. The net effect of employing Black bodies as zombies results in a decrease of horror/tension but on the other hand effectively and entertainingly re-enacts historical narratives of indigenous genocide in the service of imperalism/corporatism. As a gamer of color and a games scholar, this last point helps to explain RE5’s tremendous popularity. It’s certainly not better than RE4; the co-op AI is unhelpful (to be polite) and the narrative is less than compelling…but the game has sold more than 5 million copies.


  4. Haven't played Dead Space (though I may have to after seeing this post...), but I have given the thought the (unfortunately) often shallowness of zombie games. Basically, I want a zombie game that feels more like the original Dawn of the Dead rather than the remake. In other forms of fiction (of the Dead series, The Walking Dead, etc), zombie scenarios are used to highlight the savagery of man. In videogames, they're mostly used as a enemy you can gun down without feeling guilt.

  5. @Tesh

    Yeah, I guess as long as they died in battle, they'll be able to make it into sto-vo-kor just fine. :-)

    The mercy kills thing is something I would definitely like to see in a game.


    Fascinating: even the presence of one extra person is enough to invoke social taboos!

    Also, I can honestly say that I never received that call in MGS 2 you mentioned...Remind me not to make you angry... ;-)


    Thanks for cross posting! The Resident Evil race issue is definitely something that warrants a soapbox.

    The thing that made me the most angry was a note that you can find in the wetland village in RE5. I can't remember the exact words, but it implied that as the people got infected they somehow "regressed" and started acting savagely. Of course, this was when they decided to bust out the grass skirts and spears. Pretty enraging.

    In general, I've always been a little uncomfortable with what zombies represent in terms of our culture. The fear that dim-witted-but-savage beasts who overrun society via violence and sheer numbers has a recurring one in Eurocentric culture...


    Totally agreed. Dead Space just hints at those concepts, and it had quite a bit of help from my imagination.

    I'm starting to think that a tweak to the Left 4 Dead formula might be able to best accommodate the human dangers of a zombie attack. Perhaps the best way to demonstrate the savagery of man is by adding more players?

  6. I actually thought Dead Rising was a pretty good attempt to bring George Romero's motif of humans as the real enemy into video game land. The zombies are a pain, but a little fancy footwork keeps them at bay. The real threats---and the real evil---are the crazed survivors, the escaped convicts, the fame-seeking photographer, the gun nuts, and in the end, the U.S. Army. The latter, in particular, is the most gleefully lefty, and therefore most Romero-esque, thing I've seen in a video game, especially when combined with the full plot reveal of the origins of the plague.

  7. Hi That Fuzzy Bastard,

    Thanks for stopping by! I also love your handle:

    "Who commented on your post yesterday?"

    "Oh, it was That Fuzzy Bastard again. That Fuzzy Bastard always strikes without warning..."


    Good point on Dead Rising! After a quick Internet search, I think I was confusing it with the House of the Dead shooter series. Nice catch.

    In the post, I got hung up on the idea of either the player or a major character making the transition from normal human to crazed human. Does Dead Rising show the people going crazy or are they long gone by the time you meet them?

  8. I always love to read the "Experience Points" take on horror games. You guys go at them with great thought about what actually creates tension and fear. I had never thought about it before, but yeah, very few horror games leave you horrofied at your own actions. Like you, I felt unnerved by dropping colossi in Shadow of the Colossus, but that's not horror.

    The one game that gives me the kind of feeling you are talking about though is Manhunt. That game is so good at making me feel guilty that I don't enjoy playing, save for the fact that I am amused at how guilty it manages to make me feel. You are forced to kill to stay alive and all for the amusement of some sick snuff film director. However, there is a clear parallel between you the player and the snuff film director. You chose to buy and play Manhunt. That's a completely optional decision. So, there is a part of you that wants to see all of that gruesome violence and enjoys forcing a man to kill for your amusement. Your rewards for better stealth kills are gorier close up cut scenes. You can pretend that because you control the character in the game that you are thrust into this violent world, but deep down you know that you are both participant and voyeur in the sick blood sport. While Manhunt may be one of the most disgusting exmaples of gratuitous violence in a game, it is also one of the most intellectually challenging because you have to wrestle with the fact that these snuff films are being designed for you, by you.

  9. Hiya! My handle was actually a gift from an angry downstairs neighbor (not my fault, long story) who once screamed at my roommate: "You live with that fuzzy bastard! You tell that fuzzy bastard... you tell him that he's a bastard!"

    Anyway... Most of the Dead Rising crazies are crazy when you first meet them (though in many cases their craziness is ideological, like the gun-nut family who insist that it's "our right as Americans" to blow away anyone in their corner of the mall). I'm trying to remember if anyone snaps, but I don't think so, although a number of characters start on edge and get truly vile later on (like the aspiring photographer who starts out a scuzzy famehound and graduates to murder).

    Even more interesting is how *your* character can end up on either side of the line, in a much subtler way than in other moral-choice games. The game has a lot of room for guilt or redemption embedded in its iterative structure, particularly as its range of actions is so broad. I know it's tacky to self-link, but I actually wrote about this in a very long essay at

    Dead Rising is, I think, a wildly underrated experiment in video-game narrative structure, taking unusual advantage of the inherent qualities of the medium (checkpoints, replayability), as well as a really satisfying attempt to bring Romero's blend of social commentary and shuffling horror into games. Unfortunately, those were overshadowed by it being a release-window technical achievement (so many zombies on screen!). But I really, really recommend it---I fear the sequel is going to be a pale imitation.

  10. For some the action of stomping would have grounds in fear of resurrection! Zombies, right? In silent hill 2 though, there you stomp to make the noise (if you have it on) go away, while at the same time you take on the roll of the murderer, the one giving out the last, physical punch, which works very well thematically.

  11. Hey JT,

    Sorry I've been neglecting this thread for so long, but thanks for stopping by!

    I feel like Manhunt is actually one of the more important games that I still haven't played, for the exact reasons you mention. It's interesting to investigate the line between gratuity and artistic statement (if there is a line at all).


    Consider it added to my backlog. Maybe your endorsement will help it shamble ahead of a few other games. ;-)

    Hi Ava Avane Dawn,

    Thanks for stopping by!

    The first Silent Hill game I ever played was Shattered Memories on the Wii and it made a great impression. Judging from what I've read, the Silent Hill games have always been better at psychological horror than the Resident Evil games.