When The Last of Us was announced, creative director and writer Neil Druckmann described the game as “a love story about a father-daughter-like relationship.” This particular love story takes place in the apocalyptic aftermath of a zombie outbreak that has turned the human survivors into merciless scavengers, a condition which prompts some of the most unnerving violence on show at E3. It’s one thing to shoot enemies with guns, but another thing altogether to do it with a 14 year-old girl watching it all.
Naughty Dog doesn’t want people to attach the label “zombie” to their game, however. The distinction is that it was a strange new fungus that swept across the planet, mutating people into crazed beasts with faces that look like a ruptured oyster mushroom. But is this non-zombie distinction one really worth making?
In recent years we have come to expect our zombies come from unexpected viral mutations that begins in a lab and accidentally gets out of hand. This has been a formula in games and movies for years, from Resident Evil to 28 Day Later to Rec. But it’s a formula with plenty of exceptions too, including Night of the Living Dead, where corpses were brought back to life after space probe exploded in the upper atmosphere sprinkling radiated space particles everywhere. Resident Evil 4 also tried to make the non-zombie distinction with its parasitic organism transforming hosts into lumbering, blood hungry stiffs.
The word “zombie” has nothing to do with viral mutagens but means only a corpse that’s been brought back to life by some kind of witchcraft, a condition that was originally linked to a snake-deity in West Africa and Haiti. It’s fitting in a way that we have come to apply this old idea of witchcraft to pharmaceuticals and medical research, the product of highly specialized knowledge that seems like magic to most of us plebes. But it’s a distinction without much difference to say that viral mutations or one particular model of lumbering corpses should define the idea of “zombie” as a whole.
More likely is that Naughty Dog is resisting the label of zombie because it comes with so much aesthetic baggage and risks overpowering the love story elements of their game. Indeed, they haven’t even showed the fungal creatures in the game yet. All the violent confrontations in the demo occur between other human survivors. But even with these enemies there is something zombie-like in their antagonism, single-mindedly aggressive, brutally grappling with Joel in close quarters.
The real distinguishing feature of zombies is not, finally, what sort of witchcraft has left them dehumanized but the simple fact that they have been stripped of their humanity. They can, thus, become catch-alls for our worst fears, and excuses to fire first. Going by the E3 demo, The Last of Us appears to be very much a part of that tradition.