Zombies, Medium, and Metaphor: How Do I Deal with The Last of Us?

This blog post could most likely also be named “How to Break Your Brain in Just One Weekend,” but the more academic title trope of “triptych + personal subtitle = piece of shit article” won out because I’m a sell out.

This weekend I did three things that have totally fucked my brain. I read the first five trade paperbacks (TPBs) of Sweet Tooth by Jeff Lemire (I would suggest pretty much anything that he has written, but this is seriously one of my favorite comics ever) before going to see World War Z (WWZ). In between and after I experienced these things, I watched a supercut of the latest videogame from Naughty Dogs, The Last of Us (TLoU). Two of those have to do with zombies in particular (WWZ & TLoU), but all of them are set in post-apocalyptic settings. They don’t really talk across each other all that well, and I’m largely including Sweet Tooth here because I want you all to read it and love it and comic books are interesting things that I’m just starting to deal with critically.

Anyway, I’m just going to start with World War Z. It’s a piece of shit movie that completely kills any hope you had that the book could be turned into an adequate movie/television show. I have my doubts that anyone will want to touch that source material for quite a while simply because it bears the same name as Brad Pitt’s Pepsi-induced fuckfest. I’m going to go ahead and skip most of the movie and just talk about the zombies.

Zombies have always been very important for American pop culture, but I think this is mainly because of their ability to be a metaphor, particularly in film. It’s obvious that we have moved past the days when zombies were stand-ins for consumerism/capitalism (Night of the Living Dead, original Dawn of the Dead). More people have written on this and a google scholar search will probably give you so many better words than I will have here. I don’t know what the zombies of the remake of Dawn of the Dead are, or what they represent in 28 Days Later. 28 Weeks Later gives us the heavy handedness of the Iraq war and zombies being the insurgency. I felt really fucking stupid going most of the way through the movie and not figuring out what this particular representation of zombies meant.

Zombies aren’t just the insurgency in Iraq anymore, but they are terrorism as an entirety. Well, at least a common understanding of what the West views as terrorism. In the film, zombies are fast, but they are the most reckless zombies of any movie depiction yet. They throw their bodies at anything that makes a sound, looking solely to feed. The zombie’s main enemy, Brad Pitt, works for what’s left of the United Nations. One of the first places that is truly attacked by zombies in a coordinated way is Israel (after that clue, I was pretty sure). One of the UN investigators that works with Pitt refers to the zombie affliction as being serial killers. I could go on if I had watched it a few more times. I’m sure there are more clues that point to zombies being a stand-in for terrorism.

And then I watched The Last of Us and since it has ended I haven’t been able to figure out what zombies in that could even fucking possibly stand for. What is the metaphor here? It’s the story of a man, his dead daughter, and a girl that looks like Ellen Page trying to survive, but the metaphor just isn’t coming through to me.

But what do zombies stand in for in any fucking zombie videogame? I’ve been wracking my brain for the past few hours to try to figure it out, and they just aren’t there. Left 4 Dead (2)Day Z, even the Call of Duty – Zombies modes or the simple (but pretty solid) turn-based strategy mobile game Rebuild. I can’t think of the metaphor in any of these? In these cases, zombies are just enemies, but they can’t be abstracted out so easily into metaphors like their filmic counterparts. WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON? Why does metaphor die when we change mediums? Is it the switch from spectating to (inter)acting? I hate myself for even putting part of a word in parentheses, so you should know how much I want to know.

I can’t think of any triple-A game where metaphor even exists on a large scale. I will admit that I haven’t played an incredibly large amount of games, but I don’t think that I have run across metaphor existing in the same way that it exists in films. Is it an experiential thing? Are we so caught up in surviving the horde that we give up the desire to abstract, or is metaphor something that just isn’t there? I need some answers. Mainly because I don’t want to answer the question:

Am I getting too attached to polygons to understand what the larger messages are in games? 

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