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I don't think that Capcom and Naughty Dog realized just how topical their 2020 releases of Resident Evil 3 and The Last Of Us Part 2 would turn out to be. Both games were released in the spring and summer, as a strange novel coronavirus (believed to have jumped from Chinese bats to people) began to spread within the United States and the rest of the world. Both games are about zombie apocalypses, and were released at a time in which large portions of the global economy had been shut down, and residents were expected to essentially shelter in place in their homes for weeks or months to prevent the spread of the pandemic. The 2020 pandemic (which is still ongoing 18 months later, despite the widespread availability of multiple vaccines), provided me with some unexpected context on these two games.

Check out the video essay version of this post on YouTube.

Both games are zombie apocalypse games, and zombie fiction is often based around fears and anxieties of societal collapse in one form or another. The original Night Of The Living Dead channeled the anxieties of nuclear Armageddon, and filtered them through the lenses of both McCarthy era Communist witch-hunts and a degree of racial tension. George Romero's Dawn Of The Dead channeled fears that consumerist culture would lead to toxic behavior that is not only self-destructive to the individual, but also to society at large. Zombies in other fiction might represent anxieties about racism, sexism, socialism, technology gone amok, and so forth.

Zombie fiction is usually inspired by contemporary fears surrounding societal collapse.

Video game zombies are no different, and they can represent any of those anxieties from a simple narrative standpoint. Because games are an interactive experience, zombie games can even explore anxieties about a loss of individual autonomy in ways that non-interactive media would struggle to approach. But I'm not here right now to talk about zombie games in general. I want to talk specifically about the pare of blockbuster zombie games that released last year, during the height of a real-life pandemic.

Both Last of Us games express concerns about the increasingly myopic "us and them" mentality in American culture and politics and the apparent inability of many people to empathize with others and see their point of view -- or even their humanity. And Resident Evil, as a series, channels anxieties about the self-destructive nature of the corporate desire to make profit at all costs, and then use their vast wealth and lobbying power to cover up their unethical activities.

Regardless of the messages intended by the developers, playing both of these games in 2020 made it really hard for me to not look at them both through the lenses of my own anxieties about the contemporary pandemic situation that we saw (and continue to see) ourselves in. It was a situation that neither game's developers could have foreseen (even though scientists, public health experts, and futurists have been sounding the alarm bells for the inevitability of pandemics in our increasingly globalized world). Anyway, since neither Capcom nor Naughty Dog could foresee that the games would launch in the middle of a real-world pandemic, they didn't really design their games around the ideas and anxieties of a real-life pandemic, and I think that shows through clearly in both games.

Neither REmake3 nor The Last of Us 2 are really about the pandemics of their settings.

After all, it would be so much easier to deal with a pandemic if we could clearly see the spread of the disease in the way that characters can in Resident Evil and The Last of Us. It would be so easy to isolate and quarantine individuals if infection caused their skin to almost immediately start rotting, or if we could see with our naked eyes the little coronaviruses coming out of people's mouths and noses when they cough, sneeze, or breath. And it would be so much easier if the disease itself were only transmitted between people through invasive physical contact such as a bite. But none of that is true in this real-life COVID pandemic. In light of a real-world pandemic, it seems almost silly that the fictional pandemics of Resident Evil and The Last Of Us could possibly lead to such widespread societal collapse, and the pandemic itself is of little concern to the player.

To be clear, what follows represents my personal contextualization from playing Resident Evil 3 and The Last of Us Part II during the COVID pandemic. These impressions do not represent my opinions on the actual quality of the games on their own merits. You can check out my reviews of both games, or check out my video on the "Lessons Capcom Learned for Resident Evil 3". I understand that neither game is about the pandemic. All I'm saying is that having played them during a pandemic highlighted just how not about the pandemic they actually are.

The lessons Capcom learned for Resident Evil 3.

Needless to say, there will be some minor spoilers for Resident Evil 3 (remake) and both Last of Us games. There will also be some spoilers for Metal Gear Solid V and Death Stranding. Reader discretion is advised.

The Gameplay Contrivances of Infectious Disease

In the Resident Evil games, there is never any fear of becoming infected. As a matter of gameplay contrivance, the player character can be bit by zombies, and heal the wound and cure the infection without any long-term effects. This is true even though the game's own rules establish that being bit turns a person into a zombie. The zombies are, thus, less like genuine sick people who might spread a deadly disease to you, and more like a dangerous or rabid animal that might hurt or kill you. The disease element is minimized to the point of triviality.

The player character is under no risk of being infected, unless it happens in a cutscene.

It's not even like being bitten puts you under a time limit to use a curing item before the character succumbs to the disease. It's not like the poison status effect of many RPGs that gradually depletes the character's health until you die, and which must be cured by using a special poison remedy. Nope, attacks from zombies just take away hit points, which you can heal at any point in the future so long as you don't take enough hits to reduce your hit points to zero. There's no moment of "oh my God, I'm infected!" panic, unless it happens as part of a cutscene, in which case it will be resolved as part of the completion of a mission objective.

Players of RE: Outbreak could become infected and turn into zombies.

There was one Resident Evil side game that experimented with this sort of thing. I didn't play Resident Evil: Outbreak because they were designed around multiplayer co-op, but I never had a network adapter for the PS2 or anyone to play them with, so I don't have any first-hand experience with how this game worked. Supposedly Outbreak has a separate meter for health and "Virus gauge". Taking damage from enemies would reduce your health, which you could heal with Resident Evil's trademark herbs and first aid spray, but each bite from a zombie would also cumulatively increase your virus gauge percentage. If your virus percentage ever gets all the way up to 100%, you become a zombie and can even attack the other players, or be put down by them. I presume that if one player succumbs to infection, the other players have to go on without that player. Thus, playing with other people can potentially become a liability.

As far as I know, this mechanic was never carried over into any of the single-player Resident Evil games, nor the multiplayer-focused RE 5 or 6. Being a multiplayer game built around shorter scenarios instead of a full-length campaign, it was a bit more free to experiment, even if other elements of that experimentation failed miserably. So it remains an experimental anomaly in the series, and, for the rest of the series, the player is free of any credible threat of actually becoming infected.

The mainline games could have a similar infection meter, especially in a "Hardcore" or New Game Plus mode. If you get infected and can't cure it before turning, then it would be GAME OVER. Hope you have a save from before you got bit.

Cordyceps is a real-life "zombie" disease.

The ludic [ir]relevance of spores

The Last of Us has been criticized for being "yet another zombie apocalypse game". Defensive fans of The Last of Us would be quick to point out that "they're not zombies! They're infected!", referring to the fact that the zombies of The Last of Us are infected and transformed by fungal spores. Of course, it doesn't help their case the cordyceps fungus is often referred to as a "zombie disease" because of what it does to insects. Nor does it help that the primary vector of infection in the game seems to be from bites from the fungus-infected zombies. So yeah, it's a zombie game, for all practical intents and purposes, and it has all the same problems that I just mentioned about Resident Evil.

The one thing that separates The Last of Us' zombies from the more traditional zombies of a game like Resident Evil is the fact that the infection can also be transmitted by spores that are emitted by the ripened carcasses of the infected. But Naughty Dog has yet to implement any real compelling gameplay mechanics associated with exposure to spores. Spores are clearly visible floating around in the air, and approaching them causes the characters to simply put on their handy gas masks and proceed as if nothing were wrong. The spores in these set pieces at worst limit the player's visibility, which is rarely that big of a deal because these characters all have X-Ray detective vision anyway.

This is, of course, in stark contrast to real life, in which fungal spores are microscopic and not visible to the human eye. If cordyceps were to jump to humans, as in The Last of Us, by the time you notice a corpse emitting spores, you will have already inhaled them and infected yourself. In the case of COVID-19, if we could all see the little coronaviruses coming out of people's mouths, and could then put on our facemasks to protect ourselves, then maintaining safe social distancing would be such an easier thing to do. We wouldn't have to wear our masks everywhere we go, because we'd know if any given place or person is a risk.

The spores are macroscopic and can be seen by characters long before they've been inhaled.

The Last of Us 2 has a set piece in which the player must explore a spore-riddled environment in order to find a gas mask for the NPC companion character. During this time, you temporarily lose access to that NPC as a damage sponge and DPS-dealer and have to go it alone. Even when you find the gas mask, you just pull it off a dead body, which probably contaminates the inside of the mask with spores, yet the characters don't need to disinfect the mask or anything before putting it on. Again, the threat of the spores is completely trivial.

Perhaps The Last of Us could have made masks or mask filters be an item that has durability. The player can't enter an area with spores without wearing a mask, and they would have to leave the range of the spores before the mask or filter deteriorates, or it's GAME OVER. The game could then be full of optional areas containing spores that could contain valuable items, upgrades, or story bits. If there's ever a required path that has spores, the game would have to provide a fresh mask to the player, but the deteriorating filter would put a time pressure on the player to complete the area before the filter expires. This could force more reckless behavior which could lead to interesting gameplay scenarios, and it would limit the ability to explore for extra loot, further straining the player's resources and adding additional challenge to the game.

The Last of Us could have been designed with branching paths
that are blocked off by spores and require limited mask resources.

There could also be branching paths through the main areas, where one path might have very dangerous armed human enemies, and the other path is safer, but is infected with spores and requires a mask to proceed. Players who use their mask resources judiciously, would thus have easier paths through the game.

Either approach would expose the player to the risk of infection, which would make the spores and the risk of infection more relevant to broader gameplay and strategy.

Social isolation

What makes a real-life pandemic scary is the difficulty in determining who is actually infected and whether or not any given activity is riskier than it's worth -- no matter how simple or mundane it might actually be. Anybody could be infected, and in the worst cases, any contact or proximity to an infected person might spread the infection to you. Things that we do every day, like going to work, or picking up milk and eggs at the grocery store, suddenly become filled with risk and possibly even mortal dread.

Real-life pandemics are emotionally exhausting for humans. We are social animals, but that social lifestyle is exactly how disease spreads. In order to fight the spread of disease, we need to go against our own nature and socially isolate ourselves. This can lead to emotional stress from being pent up and alone, and also creates social anxieties. Who do you trust? How far do you go to isolate yourself from the rest of the population? And how do you decide who you should and should not have close contact with? None of this is represented in these big-budget games set during pandemics.

Because the signs of infection are so obvious in Resident Evil and The Last of Us, and the vector of transmission is the bite of a rabid zombie, neither game really addresses the social isolation, distrust, and anxiety that comes about during actual pandemics. Characters in both games are willing to trust and team up with other characters they meet, never having to fear whether they might be exposing themselves to infection. Even when the other characters inevitably do become infected, they can always be isolated or euthanized before the infection can be spread to others. Any distrust between characters is more personal or ideological, rather than being a pragmatic concern about not wanting to get sick.

The first Last of Us used metaphor to represent the social isolation of pandemics.

In a real-life pandemic, however, even a person acting in good faith can be a vector for disease. With COVID in particular, the incubation period is a week or two. A person can be infected and contagious for more than a week without even knowing it. They could be unwittingly spreading the disease to anyone they interact with, including people who trust them.

Again, this isn't a factor in either Resident Evil or The Last of Us because characters know if they've been infected. There is virtually no risk of a good-faith actor unwittingly transmitting the disease to other trusted people. The only way the disease spreads within a community is if members of the community lie and conceal their infected nature, or otherwise act in bad faith.

Sure, society is collapsing just outside the perspective of our player avatars, but the disease itself never seems to be a genuine threat to those avatars or to the players ourselves.

Hideo Kojima's recent pandemic-adjacent games

But there are a couple of AAA games that released prior to 2020 that might have done a better job of representing a pandemic situation, both of which were (interestingly enough) directed by Hideo Kojima (one of video gaming's few genuine auteur authors -- maybe the only one!). The first game is Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, and I will be explicitly spoiling a major late-game plot point.

During the course of MGSV, the player can recruit enemy soldiers into Boss' private army (and by "recruit", I mean "kidnap"). These recruited soldiers can be sent on automated operations to recover resources that can be used to upgrade Mother Base or develop new equipment for Boss to use in missions. The player can even take person control of an individual recruited soldier and play side missions. These soldiers become a valuable asset to the player, and by playing as some of the characters, the player might even develop an attachment to some of them.

Recruited staff will get sick and eventually die, and must be quarantined to limit spread.

In chapter 2 of MGSV, the vocal chord parasite from the end of chapter 1 begins to spread throughout Mother Base, infecting those same soldiers you spent the entire first half of the game recruiting. Since these soldiers have proven useful to Boss and the player, their sudden death is felt by the player. And there's little you can do about it, other than proceed with story missions to try to develop a cure. There's even a mission in which you are required to execute (or maybe "euthanize") infected soldiers in order to prevent the infection from spreading to other parts of the base. And with the death toll steadily rising as you dally and do side content, there is actual pressure on the player to solve the problem before Mother Base becomes a ghost town. This is the rare example of a big-budget, open world game that actually creates a sense of urgency to progress the main narrative.

It is, in my opinion, the single best idea that Metal Gear Solid V had, and it's a damn shame that it was hidden inside the awful, grindy, and repetitive second chapter -- and that it just ends so soon.

Death Stranding predicted social isolation and telemedicine.

And then there's Death Stranding. Yes, I'm going to bring up Death Stranding once again. As I've said before, it's amazing how prophetic Kojima's games are, whether it's Metal Gear Solid 2 predicting a future of Orwelian information-manipulation, or Death Stranding portraying human communities in apocalyptic isolation.

Death Stranding doesn't deal directly with a pandemic, but it does predict a future in which natural catastophe decimates the human population and forces the survivors into isolated communities spread out across the country. And while people aren't getting sick, the risk of a voidout from a person dying leads to health care and deathcare being of paramount importance to society. It works as a metaphor for a pandemic, just like a single infected individual (or corpse, depending on the disease) can spread infectious disease to healthy and living individuals in close contact with the infected or the corpse, a dead body triggering a voidout will kill any body caught in the blast radius.

Human life has more value in Death Stranding compared to either Resident Evil or The Last Of Us. The risk of a voidout means society causes society to take healthcare and deathcare more seriously. I wish real-life modern America treated healthcare like a basic human right, instead of a privilege reserved for the upper classes.

What's more important (and what separates Death Stranding from Resident Evil and The Last of Us is that there is also a ludic consequence to the player for failing to take precautions against the metaphoric pandemic. If the player dies, it can cause a voidout, which will permanently scar the map. If you kill a mule, it will similarly cause a voidout, which can kill you or give you a game over. Human life is at a premium in Death Stranding, unlike in The Last of Us, in which Joel, Ellie, and Abbey go around mass murdering large portions of the remaining gene pool.

Human life has more intrinsic value in Death Stranding than in either RE3 or The Last of Us.

How did you feel about playing pandemic games in a pandemic?

So what do you think? How did you feel when playing these post-apocalyptic pandemic games during the lockdown period of a real-life pandemic? Did they hit a bit too close to home -- especially considering that games like this are usually consumed as escapist fantasy? Wasn't the thematic message of The Last of Us Part II (in particular) already dour and heavy-hitting enough without also constantly reminding us of all the death, suffering, and anxiety that was happening in the real world all around us? Or were you able to successfully compartmentalize it all?

In any case, the COVID pandemic is still ongoing. People are still getting sick. People are still dying. More Americans are now dead of COVID or COVID-related complications than the number of Americans who died in every foreign war this country has ever fought combined. COVID killed more Americans in less than 18 months than what took the likes of Hitler, the Viet cong, Sadam Hussein, and the Taliban decades of cumulative conflict to achieve. And still counting. Don't become part of that statistic. Please act responsibly, stay safe, and stay healthy. Vaccines are readily available and free in most cases, so please get one if you haven't already, and consider getting a booster if they are approved and recommended. Also please continue to wear masks in public places (even if you are vaccinated). I do.

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