I'm well aware that you shouldn't get all worked up over trailers (especially teasers), but when I saw the teaser for Dead Island, I was instantly enthralled. Could this finally be the zombie game that packs the emotional punch that others have lacked? Could it capture the desperation, blind fear, and feeling of isolation that films and series like 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead evoke?
After having watched some in-game footage, I'm not so sure. No doubt, the title looks splendidly entertaining, but it doesn't seem to emphasize the survival part of survival horror. Sure, you still have to scavenge tools for your weaponry, but having official missions to undertake could remove all of the tension.
Rather than dropping the player into a hostile environment without any particular, set goals, the developers have opted for a Fallout 3-esque open world and even added special zombies, such as the Drowner — effectively placing the game in the arcade-style genre.
Why haven't we seen more survival-style zombie games that try to enter the psyche of those still alive?
First, though, what differentiates a survival zombie game from an arcade-style zombie game?
Tools, ammunition, food, and other apocalypse-essential supplies must be a scarce. Coupled with a lack of information on what’s happening in the big picture, this will add to the feeling of isolation. Because the zombie apocalypse is bigger than a small national or international crisis, and it doesn’t stop until every single one of us has joined the ranks of the walking dead.
Zombies must be portrayed accurately to achieve the necessary dread. Zombies are frightening for two reasons: their likeness to human beings and their endless, mindless push forward in the hunt for brains, flesh, or…whatever they crave.
These creatures are only human husks — the result of what happens when you remove the conscience (and add an insatiable hunger). And unlike profitteering, private-military contractors and evil wizards, you can't negoiate with zombies. They have no motivations you can try to understand.
An apocalyptic game must feel expansive and free. Ideally, every object should be usable by players in their quests for survival. They must be free to approach any situation they experience however they see fit and possibly fail — rather than subjecting them to glowing arrows pointing to the correct course of action.
In a survival-zombie game, the grander plot becomes more peripheral. Hints about what caused the apocalypse may be left around, but the player shouldn’t be involved beyond that. This is terror in suburbia, not a power fantasy. The small stories are what is important — whether it’s rescuing your neighbor from the hordes or witnessing someone close to you become infected. Like the guys at Undead Labs say, the terror comes from some sort of twisted familiarity, where you recognize enough to be horrified by the changes.
While Dead Island looks like it may disappoint here, on the next page are three examples of upcoming, independently developed games that all try to take a broader approach than just "shoot and kill" to the zombie threat (which, as everyone knows, is very, very real).
The first is Dead State from Brian Mitsoda, who has previously worked for Obsidian and Troika Games. In an interview with Game Banshee, he states exactly what the zombie genre has been missing:
"At its core, our game is not about the zombies. It’s about a world in crisis; it’s about survival; it’s about the ugly truth of human behavior."
Mitsoda cites his own experiences during Hurricane Andrew as a main inspiration for depicting societal breakdown. He also argues that the zombie genre has been overfed in the last few years due to the fact that nearly every game has to include the hulking, brain-craving creatures in some form.
Information is still sparse, but according to the game’s website, it will feature an entirely open world while supposedly featuring a story worth delving into.
No World Order is a game still in the conceptual stage. Like Dead State, players are put in the midst of a cataclysmic event and have to survive for as long as possible using their wits and the simple tools at their disposal.
The developers describe their vision as creating a world where you need "somewhere safe to sleep, and you'll need to figure out how to get everything you need to survive: food, water, medicine, weapons, tools and ammunition."
Like Mitsoda, the developers also explain that to create that special survival-horror experience, the game needs to take place in a familiar environment, where "the alien, terrible, and profane collide with the familiar and personal." The terror is experienced in a wholly different way than setting it in a distant, strange future that the player has no connection to at all.
The Project Zomboid team released a tech demo recently, which has allowed players and critics alike to get a small view of the full game. From the beginning, Project Zomboid requires players to search for materials, tools, and weapons if they wish to survive and not starve to death in their suburban fortress.
My own experience with the demo is one of utter failure. I forgot to board up the doors and windows, inadvertantly set fire to the kitchen, lured a large group of zombies to my house, and sat shivering in the darkness as they battered down the door…also, I accidentally smothered my injured wife with a pillow.
In Project Zomboid, there's no mercy for the reckless. Before taking any action, every possible consequence must be deliberated as the smallest misstep might lead to the player being ripped apart by the horde.
It is unfortunate that so far no zombie game has effectively conveyed this constant dread and desperation: the goal of mere survival. Perhaps I'm overly pessimistic on Dead Island's behalf; after all, I shouldn’t judge until I’ve actually had a chance to try it.
But at least there are some other upcoming games that may just achieve the unachievable: a game that actually realizes how zombies, when done well, are not merely the shambling, walking dead but rather a manifestation of societal decay and collapse.
Originally published on Nightmare Mode.