Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Project Zomboid and Dead State: Two different takes on zombie games for PC.

I love the zombie genre. I'm just gonna put that right out there. One of my favorite horror movies of all time is still the original Dawn of the Living Dead, and the popularity of the genre in recent film, TV and games is something that I relish. We're already starting to see the “Ugh, I'm so over Zombies...” hipster backlash, but long after zombies aren't the “hot” thing anymore, I'll still be into them. If I were to profile all of the video games about zombies, I could do a multi-week series of nothing but, testing my own assertion that I can't get sick of the topic. Instead, I want to talk a little bit about two games from small studios that have similar visions of a game about the zombie apocalypse, but intend to have very different executions in their finished projects.

An indie game worth supporting. The developers have already been through
a horror story nearly the equal of the one they are trying to tell, just to get this made.

First up is a game you can actually play, today... or at least a version of it. Project Zomboid, in development by The Indie Stone, is a survival game with equal parts isometric action/exploration and RPG elements, including a crafting system and (soon to be introduced) character classes. I was first introduced to the game via a thread on Reddit linking to articles over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun. The game is being developed and sold using the same model Minecraft did, that is to say, you support the developers early and you get a copy of the game on the cheap while it is still being worked on. I got in early on Minecraft and was intrigued by the vision the devs had for their final product, so I happily jumped at the chance to get in on the ground floor.

From the beginning, Project Zomboid tells you the philosophy of the kind of story it wants to tell. This isn't the story of brave survivors who shotgun blast and eat canned goods until they are safe and a cure is found, or the military sweeps in and saves everyone. This is the story of the struggle against an inevitable end. No matter what you do, how well you play or what paths you take, in the long run, the zombie apocalypse is total. This is not the story of how you survived. This is the story of how you died. The setting, and the “no one survives” concept may be bleak, but the human stories about how people treat each other and what sorts of decisions people have to make in order to survive are present from the very first pre-alpha tech demo release.

Even with great planning and plenty of supplies, when things go bad in Zomboid, they go BAD.

In the demo, you are Bob, a normal sort of balding middle-aged dude who has just escaped a group of survivors who turned on him and his wife and took all they had, and she broke her leg in the process of getting away. You are introduced to basic first aid, inventory management, scavenging for food and supplies while hiding from the horde, some item crafting and combat with both zombies and hostile survivors. Buildings can be barricaded, supplies scavenged, and you can, at the moment, deal with various needs like hunger, need for rest, panic and pain management. The basic gameplay is reminiscent of a version of The Sims with more RPG elements and where most of the other Sims are trying to eat you. I look forward to seeing what this game will look like in six months or a year, as I'm impressed with what I've seen so far.


The other game is one that I've been looking forward to for a very long time, and shares a lot on its surface with Project Zomboid, but focuses on different things and should provide a very different experience. Dead State, still in development by Doublebear Productions (release date of "when its done",) is a game with its focus built around the maintenance of a safehouse, adding other characters to the group of survivors and dealing with the crises that come with being cooped up together. NPCs may be found “in the wild,” and depending on the circumstances of your meeting, may be cautious, friendly or hostile on different playthroughs. The focus in a lot of the development journals is on making a LOT of NPCs, and fleshing them out as characters.

Zombies might think I meant something different by "fleshed out" NPCs.

Where Zomboid seems to take gameplay inspiration from The Sims, Dead State seems to have grounded its philosophy in turn-based tactical RPGs like Jagged Alliance and Fallout 1&2. All combat will be using action points and turns rather than arcade action or real-time strategy rapid clicking, and in general, single zombies are only a problem if someone is surprised by them. Running into other hostile and armed survivors while scavenging for basic needs, and the very real danger of a firefight attracting many dozens of zombies will present the real challenges. Morale and fright will also impact how perfectly survivors follow the orders they are given, as someone who doesn't trust in your leadership to being with may behave unpredictably when panicked.

In terms of building trust, one of the most interesting things is the events and NPC concerns while living in the safehouse, that remind me of old political sim games that frequently ask the player to make policy decisions. When someone who commands a lot of respect among the other survivors starts asking for an unfair ration of food, do you agree and risk people becoming upset when they find out... or do you say “No special favors,” knowing they will undermine your leadership later in casual conversation with others? Dealing with others who become selfish, mentally unstable, ill or injured... or just think they'd be a better leader than you are is what makes me want to play this game. Now.

Managing people's respect for you in moments of crisis looks like it will be key.

Both of these games have taken the "zombie as target practice" and "blast your way to freedom" out of the equation, and I like this more thoughtful approach to the genre. Not that I don't enjoy shooting zombies in the games that do it best, but I've played that already.  The personal horror of making terrible decisions in order to survive, wondering if everyone hates you or fears you because of what you did... Zombie films are about people, not zombies, and I'll be happy to play a few different takes on games developed with that in mind.
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Alpha said...

"Zombie films are about people, not zombies"

How quaint

Electric Addict said...

i bet you would like the show "walking dead" :) it's really good!

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