"What are we gonna do? They’re surrounding us!"
"Don't worry, honey. Everything will be all right. The chopper will be back for us. I promise."
That's how I imagine the exchange between the two yellow dots who, knowing there was no escape, suddenly stopped and seemed stunned as hordes of zombies approached from both ends of the street. Moments later, they were both infected by the undead, and perhaps they still wander the streets of the abandoned and derelict city, forever together.
The game in which I experienced this is Atom Zombie Smasher. Despite its apparent silly approach to the zombie apocalypse, emphasized by the quirky and nonsensical story vignettes and the sometimes futuristic zombie-smashing weaponry at your disposal, it explores the difficult decisions that result when disaster strikes.
The player assumes the role of a government official and must direct the rescue operations in cities across the country as the undead rise. A simple evacuation helicopter eventually gives way to a zombie-killing arsenal.
At its core, the game is simple and revolves around racking up the largest amount of points possible. Deceptively simple, that is, because Atom Zombie Smasher is also about choosing who to save and who to sacrifice. The player quickly learns that in the face of the zombie threat, it's absolutely impossible to save everyone, and without thinking twice you block off some citizens from entering the temporary safe zones you can create with the use of barricades.
And once you’ve played the game for a while and understand just how important it is to crush an outbreak before it starts (plus, you'll earn more points!), you become more careless about how you treat the civilians. They become expendable. Maybe even tools. When fire rains from the sky, it’s just too bad that a few civilians must perish for the greater good.
Viewing the cities from above, like a god, you are distanced from what happens in the streets and can, with cold blood, make all the harsh decisions about who lives and who dies. But occasionally episodes like the above occur, with the two lovers. Well, they weren’t necessarily lovers — they were just yellow dots. But maybe they were lovers.
Depicting the civilians you need to save from the hordes as yellow dots — or blue if they are the very valuable scientists — serves the purpose of dehumanizing the populace. In dot form, they're easier to regard as something that serves a particular use for you. In fact, they bear a certain resemblance to the pellets Pac-Man eats, and to the player that’s all the people in Atom Zombie Smasher really are: objects you must collect to empower yourself and survive in the long run.
Atom Zombie Smasher shows that a game can convey a powerful message without relying on an intricate and involving storyline, or even strong music or visual cues. The game derives meaning primarily through the elements that make it a game.
Which is more than I can say for most games, of course. Even those you would consider "beautiful" or "meaningful" usually rely on audiovisual and narrative elements borrowed from other mediums.
I’m a little surprised that few other games really embrace their "gameness," and that's including many independents as well as mainstream titles. The recently released indie Capsized is phenomenally beautiful when you look solely at the visuals and the audio, but the game part consists of some fairly standard platforming. Here, and all too often, the gameplay is merely the vessel.
Atom Zombie Smasher's more-or-less subliminal meaning isn't rubbed in your face — anyone can enjoy it for the fun game it is. But once you discover the layer hidden underneath it suddenly becomes a unique experience and an intriguing comment on the choices people in power must make…and the desperation those caught in the midst of those decisions experience.
"Sir, we estimate at least 3000 deaths if we choose to fire."
"And if we don't?"
"The city will be flooded with undead in a matter of days. The infection will spread. Sir, this is the only option we have left. If we don’t fire now tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands will be infected. Your orders, sir?"
"Fire the suborbital cannon."
Sometimes, you’re not really sure whether you’re on the good side or not.
This article also appears on Nightmare Mode.