Written 21/11/2011. First posted here.
The word of the day, boys and girls, is ‘bleak’. Synonyms include: desolate, dismal, disheartening, and dear god let it end.
Today’s colour will be purple; as in prose. Not quite ‘limitless abysses of inexplicably coloured twilight and bafflingly disordered sound’ but with more than a touch of the ultraviolet nonetheless. This is purely because it fits the feel of the game, and isn’t the slightest bit really fun to write.
Project Zomboid is a post-apocalyptic survival game from Indie Stone. It’s in open development, so this review should be absolutely useless by Christmas, but as I type this we’re on version 0.1.5d, it’ll cost you £4.99, and the developers were robbed just over a month ago and could really use the cash.
I’m going to be talking about Sandbox Mode, as the game only has one official campaign to it and it’s not so much a story as a sequence of unnecessary cruelties. I won’t give away the plot, but there are five possible endings and they all involve you dying. To skip the tutorial, you smother an injured terrified human with a pillow. Character creation is currently minimal: consisting of professions, traits and a few appearance modifiers. Currently you can only play as a dude, but female PCs are on their way. Each profession comes with a few traits and you have zero points to spend on more. You want a benefit? Gotta take a disadvantage.
In an act of childish spite I typed in the name of a hated rival and went in hunt of a horde. As they fell upon my tiny enemy, I felt the pangs of guilt. Before this moment I would have considered Vivisection By Zombie too good for the bastard, but as his thin shrieks reached my ears I found myself turning the volume down. The zombie apocalypse was no time for personal grudges.
Instead of deriving satisfaction from his demise I just felt empty; bereft, as if I had proven myself somehow worse than the uncaring plague befalling humanity. A petty purveyor of evil in the midst of unimaginable horror. Despite its simplicity, the game manages to invoke a profound sense of loss. You are eking out a meagre survival in a world that no longer wants you – or, indeed, the rest of humanity. It’s a desolate, lonely experience, and no amount of zombie blood can wash away the sense that you’re just passing time; waiting for the apocalypse to notice your brittle human frame.
This is a game H.P. Lovecraft would touch himself to and cry.
While Post-Apocalyptic Survival Game is probably the most accurate genre label, I prefer to think of it as a Misery Simulator. Project Zomboid is designed to perfectly replicate the feeling of sitting in a group of people and suspecting no-one would even notice if you left. You could steal away quietly, a half-empty can of beer the only thing left to prove you ever existed (or, in the Project Zomboid universe, a few sad giblets on a road). Right now, writing isn’t the game’s strongest point but it excels at atmosphere. Due to the current development level, opportunities for narrative complexity are actually very low, but the modding community is managing to produce some interesting ideas despite hefty limitations. The design and setting is going to lend itself to great storytelling in a few versions time. As is, there are already some really nice touches in the world. One house you can come across has a broken-down door and a sad little stockpile of non-perishables on the floor. It’s oddly poignant in its simplicity.
The line of sight mechanic is very effective for frightening the player – nothing induces hysteria like turning around to find a zombie staring romantically into your eyes – and left me spinning in increasingly neurotic circles. It also raises your panic level, which can range from ‘slightly freaked’ to ‘sobbing child’. Any level of panic will stop you from sleeping, and at its highest you become a trembling myopic who couldn’t hit a barn wall from the inside. This can be induced by the mere sound of zombies, so hiding inside is no use. Besides, sooner or later you’re going to need to eat. And so are the zombies.
Project Zomboid has a lot of status effects, so I’m not going to list all the adorably named ‘Moodles’ here. You can find them at their wiki page instead.
What I really want to talk about now is sound. The background music is an eerie warble that fits the slow pace of the game, and is less a tune than a mimicry of echoes in an empty warehouse. Because Project Zomboid is so quiet overall, it makes every noise count. Zombie growling is low and throaty, and they break your door down with patient rattling thuds, giving the player ample time to wind themselves up. Being startled by one will earn you a delightful violin shriek, like they come with their own theme music. Like many fictional zombies, they’re drawn by sound. If you’re going to fire a shotgun it might as well be at your own head, and sneezing is almost as bad. Getting caught in the rain is a death sentence due to a temporary bug that doesn’t let you dry off. You get sick, and you die.
The basic theme of Project Zomboid is helplessness. You can barricade yourself in, but the sound of hammering will draw zombies straight to your doorstep, where they linger like cadaverous Jehovah’s Witnesses. I hate to invoke Lovecraft twice in one horror review – or at all, really – but it’s a comparison that suits the overall tone and tenor of the game. It’s about being utterly powerless in the wake of something vast and alien, something that doesn’t hate you because it doesn’t even realise you’re there. The universe doesn’t care if you live or die, because it never noticed humanity in the first place. This is a theme that crops up in a lot of Lovecraft’s work and it’s very compelling.
You begin (and rather promptly end) as a survivor in a zombie-filled town, and it’s hard to make a compelling game out of that, so hats off to Indie Stone. Even as unfinished as it is, Project Zomboid is an excellent game and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes.
(While a ‘click here to suck off your shotgun’ feature is not yet present, I’m sure that will be fixed in the next update. Right, guys?)