24 April 2009

Zombie is the New Black.

You thought this would be yet another discussion paper on race and Resident Evil 5, didn't you? Not that that discussion isn't worth having or anything (though nearly every article I've read is too timid to provide a definitive verdict on the game, other than to conclude 'this is a discussion worth having' - 'RE5 IS RACIST' - THERE YOU GO; now let's get on with the discussion already!)

Let's have that discussion one day. But not today.

No, I won't be talking about any of that. (From that point of view, it would have been more prudent for me to name this article 'Zombies: The Darlings of the Development Community,' but I needed a real attention-grabber. Seeing as 'RE5 May or May Not Be Racist' is such a hot topic at the moment, I thought I'd use a bit of double entendre with 'the New Black'. For the purposes of this article, 'the New Black' refers to the colour black in a fashion sense. Is that blacksploitation?)

Zombie is the New Black; or, Zombies: The Darlings of the Development Community; or, RE5 May or May Not Be Racist. THERE.

Zombies are all the rage at the moment. Resident Evil 5, House of the Dead: Overkill, Left 4 Dead, Dead Space, Dead Rising - all from this generation of consoles; all featuring undead antagonists. Even MadWorld has zombies. It's a worrying trend when you think about it, not from a genre homogeneity point of view (though there is that, too), but from an AI perspective:

Zombies are dumb. And that's convenient.

The problem then becomes, "how dumb should we make the A.I.?" And it's a lot easier to make something dumber than smarter. It's like porting down games versus porting them up. If you're porting from DS to PS3, then all of a sudden you have to make things that weren't even there before.

When a player sits down to play a zombie game, they immediately throw all expectations of artificial intelligence out the window. Zombies are dumb, and that's why game designers love using them. That way they can spend more time working on scabby oatmeal textures, zombie-swagger animations and body-dismemberment physics. You don't even have to write a story, really - some evil corporation is experimenting on the general populace, a shadowy government conspiracy to cover up a botched military experiment, aliens come to Earth to probe humankind, a stupid kid reads an incantation from a dusty old book in the library 'cause he thinks zombies are k00l, d00d - basically, all possible stories come back to someone experimented on something and now we have zombies, and that's the only real explanation players expect for a zombie apocalypse. (Which suits game designers just fine, as they clearly hate (and suck at) writing stories, and were obviously brought up on a steady diet of B-movies and porno.)

I guess what I'm trying to say is that the zombie apocalypse has become something of an arbitrary direction for developers to take (albeit a clear one), so that they can get on with the actual game-making already.

This is all fine, as long as something worthwhile's being brought to the table. Valve springs to mind here, as I suspect they used the tried-and-true zombie apocalypse to showcase their team-play mechanics. And let's not forget the A.I. Director, which for all intents and purposes acted as a Zombie Overmind.

Me? Accuse Valve of unoriginality? Never!

But what about RE5*? Well, it sure brought a race debate to the table, didn't it?! But in the way of gameplay, not a great deal...and besides, aren't we all getting a little sick of the Great Undead?

It's hard to say who's really to 'blame' for all this. Are publishers simply trying to push games out the door? Are developer deadlines too tight? Presumably Valve put out Left 4 Dead to maintain the bottom line while Episode 3 development marches on. Is it laziness on the part of developers, or is it simply focus? Surely there are more original ways to frame a game's mechanics.

With development focus firmly on high-definition graphics, artificial intelligence has been getting the back seat. When graphics hit the dubious watermark of ultra-realism, where do we go from there? Artificial Intelligence, dummy.

There's nothing particularly horrifying about shooting zombies in broad daylight.

So once again, here we are in the thick of a new(ish) console generation, blazing a trail with our face-melting graphics while the A.I. languishes in the dust. In the context of a zombie apocalypse, sales figures and Metacritic scores show we're willing to let it slide, but for how long? Already people are questioning whether the survival horror genre has passed its sell-by date - Capcom responded in kind by making RE5 an action shooter - but maybe we're just sick of zombies.

Or maybe we just want to be challenged by the game and the story.

* The answer's simple: Capcom wanted (needed?) to make another Resident Evil. It stands to reason, though, that if they wanted to make an action shooter, why not make it a completely different game without zombies? And the answer to that of course, is that the story is written for you.

P.S. While I was writing this, I came up with a third title:

'Zombies: the Cure-all Crutch of the Development Community.'

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