I’ve been playing through the Walking Dead: Season 1 with a woman I have sex with. It is my second time playing the game and her first. There is something about playing as Lee, a survivor archetype hero discovering new (latent) modes of morality in a post-apocalyptic universe I still, second time around, find fascinating. There is something nostalgic about surviving the world overrun by zombies: it’s not new. It was not new when I started gaming. Nor was it new before I was born. It’s something I can come back to, though: there is something about zombies and the dead—sorry, the Dead—that we’re still not done exploring. The response to mall culture and consumerism as metaphor with zombie vehicle is over a decade older than the day I was born. Similarly: zombies and horror in general have made their slow evolution into post-gore-porn territory on a baby step basis decades before I was born. Most horror-genre cultural items encountered today feels filled with the nostalgic and the campy to the point of ugly repetition. It’s fascinating to see how my partner responds to the game: what makes her interested and what makes her say “I would not do this in real life. I would not be this person.” There are many moments where the illusion of reality has worn off and the game as game, representation as faux, is dominant. Are we in a state of cultural awareness where the themes and relationships we have with our favorite fictional universes are finally comfortable enough? Are we sick of deadness and being dead survivors in our realms of certainty? When was the last time you talked about your city’s most defensible architecture in the event of the zombie attack? I bet if the question arose today, most people would choose the spaces with the largest dance floors, the most comfortable moss beds, and perhaps the best place to get a tan.
I’ve also been playing through Far Cry 4, a significantly beautiful game though far lesser a cry toward ambition and achievement than its predecessor, Far Cry 3, which was a world far more thrilling in its sense of the juvenile becomes corrupted. There are moments in both games that are borderline absurd: in the former you make a haunting decision near the end of the game to betray your friends (kill them) for your lovely indigenous queen’s charming lifestyle (or you obliterate her and leave the island life for good). In #4 there’s strange drug-induced quests provided by holy stoners Yogi and Reggie. How many times will you visit them and get yourself stabbed in the arm by a needle so as to hallucinate? And for what? Their quests involve the player searching around the countryside in psychedelic colors and acoustic South Asian melodies evoking your inner John Lennon. It’s pretty, but pretty boring. It’s pretty filled with deadness. But at the same time it feels to be breathing through a liminal state: it’s not as much about deadness as it is about trying to know how to be alive, that breakthrough where coming out the victor is kind of already determined. We’ve played the plots. We know this most likely won’t end in tragedy. We can now have some fun. But how to have fun that isn’t simply mimicking our previous god-of-war mindfulness?
I’ve been playing a lot of Left 4 Dead 2 over the past week. I was in love with the single player version of the first one, which I acquired years ago, which I never played online, because I was silly enough to never pay for the game. Silly as the game is a direct response to those dead things you’re slaughtering in it: be alive. Be social. Be human with other humans. I didn’t. I didn’t commit, didn’t spend the dollars. Instead I used the pirated copy and walked around with my AI friends going from mission to mission, being scared sometimes, but mostly feeling the thrill of the throbbing heart as I watched myself mow down hordes upon hordes of the undead. The second one I have done no better with, but I’ve finally received a computer powerful enough to play it (and play it well it does). I find the fast-paced action potentially rewarding, but at what point do I look at my own deadness and say: step up, walk out, and join some actual people for some fun in the sun?
I’ve been playing a lot of games lately because the new computer, this black edition powerhouse gaming laptop, is now in my possession. “Play” seems to be universal, and yet I do feel the privilege to explore certain concepts in this writing because I have access to technology that makes seeing these ideas (and believing in them, as they have been experienced and elevated with value) a beautiful activity that can replace so much of my everyday life. I have never questioned the role of technology and digital gaming in my life. Since those early high school days when I mindlessly blew people away with my rail gun in Quake 2 to bouncing around the Sword Coast with my “neutral” party in Baldur’s Gate, to my recent forays into the orgasmic textual universes built with Twine, gaming has been both a natural activity to me and a natural way for me to understand art and humanity. But it has felt like an echo chamber: not everyone gains access and those who do might not be held responsible to reflect intelligently on what they’ve encountered, seen, played. As it goes with movies, books, poetry readings (shudder), galleries, and so on. This latest computer is faster than any device I’ve ever used, including those at the tech jobs I have held. I have felt more alive in the past two weeks with this computer than I had felt since being far removed from gaming and the pop culture I knew—when I lived in Cambodia from 2013-2014. I do wonder, at times, if the deadness and liveliness has to do with access to technology, and the sexualization of technology in my life, whereas the latest computer keyboard becomes fetishized the same way others find images of new skin tones and bodily positions.
Sexual fervor of hardware aside, I’ve been playing a little bit of acclaimed platformer Elegy for a Dead World, recently, which is less about gaming and more about preservation: of ideas, of culture, of life. The echoes of life, the memory of being and existence. It is a game in that it provides a virtual setting that has its own world, its own parameters or constraints, and its own game mechanics. It also features a fairly cute and ubiquitously space-age avatar that carries you between different worlds. Oddly enough, the “elegy” part of the game’s name is also its hallmark: playing the game is like breathing life back into a cadaver, if you can imagine that. You follow your avatar across several different worlds and you are given the opportunity to write about these worlds. You are creating the fantasy you want. Yes, there are prompts (and many of them pay homage to Gothic writers), but beyond the prompts there is an openness alluring, attractive, and post-survivalist. What do we do when we’ve gotten over the fact that we’re all fucked? What do we do when we’ve figured out how to survive? What’s next?
I haven’t been playing a lot of Dwarf Fortress lately because, well, let’s be honest—who do you know that ever HAS played a lot of Dwarf Fortress? The game, for those of you who aren’t privy to it, is an ASCII-based world simulator. It’s partly about observation. It’s partly about algorithms generating a singular, contained mythos. It’s partly about roleplaying an entire universe. If you haven’t read about the creators of Dwarf Fortress, you should start with reading about them. Learning about who they are and why they are doing what they are doing might convince you that insanely complex DOS-like visions are in fact beautiful and valuable. We may very well be living in a future version of a comparable game, albeit one that has spent a little energy on visuals. Though I haven’t been playing the game, I have taken notice of it whenever it comes up in the news. Recently it was announced that the code will now allow poets to be created within the game. Though the words of the poems themselves are not within the algorithm, the software will create individual dwarf poets and allow them to create poetic forms through an algorithm based on the properties of the game. Is this inclusion another movement toward more liveliness within games? There is still thoughts on distance: we are not bound to the “other” quality of individual NPC components within the world so much as we are bound to the world itself, as a whole. Empathy and sympathy are qualities of living that do not convert very well into the virtual world just yet, though some of us look at what certain individuals do in Minecraft and get shivers down our backs.
I also haven’t been playing a lot of Dying Light lately, but I will start soon, when I have more time. The game is as exciting as Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, Dead Space, and so on. It’s an action game. It is filled with zombie tropes you’ll dry-heave at. Yes, more dead things you have to be alive among. Different from DayZ, Resident Evil, the Last of Us, and others, however, Dying Light is, at its core, a horror game about Having Fun. It touches back on that realm of anti-deadness and anti-survivalist mentioned above. Many reviewers describe the mechanics within the game world as being similar to parkour. Virtual parkour with lifeless bodies around to crush, maim and, hopefully, obliterate. I question if the tension of the survivalist mode allows us to be more pivotal and poignant in our relationship to morality and what it means to be alive, or if we can say “fuck off” to the zombies, to that estranged other viciousness, and, after knowing how to avoid those crises, get back to the scheduled program of being humans.
Anyone who has been reading the comic version of The Walking Dead and watching the show version of the Walking Dead knows that there are actual moments where zombies do not even “feel” present: that if anything, zombies have simply allowed microcosms to emerge. Where once the noise and of density and insignificant statistic life was, now the realm of citizenry and value is not only present, but necessary. Games like Dying Light, where jumping from building to building like Spiderman a la Just Cause, and being able to construct ridiculously inventive weapons a la Saints Row is not only normal but encouraged (and doubly so via a very prevalent modder community), hold an odd space that fuses the nostalgia we have with the dead with the joy we have of looking forward, beyond the dead. The world of gaming (as an extension of pop culture as a whole) shows us we have a world of deadness that is not going away, but, like other things populations we find dead in the world (sexualities, races and ethnicities, classes, other modes of inequality), able to be pushed to the side, shoved away, or injected with hilarity in our most absurd human moments.
When not writing poems or complaining about writing poems, Greg Bem is gaming and complaining about gaming atexistencegaming.wordpress.com. He once explored his passion and disdain for both poetry and gaming when he impersonated Gregory Corso and performed "BOMB" in full via the Bombermine in-game chat room.