They are outside. You took great care to nail boards over every door and window you could find on the first night that the dead walked. Above the cold wind that is howling against your fortifications, you hear them. It starts out simply enough, with the sound of a twitching foot limping across the floorboards of your porch outside. There is a moan, and it is close. With the pump of your shotgun in hand, you peel back the layer of sheets you draped over your upstairs window, and you see them. They move like sleepwalkers, taking long and shambling strides as their vacant, empty eyes drift up and away, lost in an eternally restless daze. Dried blood and coagulant crusts over the lips of their open mouths. It pours out from their eye sockets and drips onto the cold asphalt below them as they stumble through the street and intersection outside. You spot twelve from the brief glimpse you took, and take great care to muffle your steps as you tip toe out from the stairwell and into your bedroom. The television, a small CRT, projects bright colors onto the wall above your bed, and you shut the door. You need not worry about drawing them to your safe house though; the world may have come to an end, but the closed captioning button on your remote still works. Truth be told, you can’t help but feel odd that re-runs of cartoons are still playing weeks after the Emergency Broadcast System stopped.
Before you, you see a glimpse of the old world, ten minutes into its twenty-two minute time-slot. Characters with spiky hair shoot and fly across a battlefield on an alien world, firing energy blasts and pushing the limits of their plot-armor with ironic taunts. They shout about honor, glory and friendship, courtesy of the black and white subtitles that are reaching across the screen. A single thought pops into your head and you begin to wonder if any of the voice actors or animators are still alive. Was the virus worldwide? The last news broadcast you saw reported that the infected were sighted in New York, so it’s unlikely you would meet anyone from Japan anytime soon. Who is even broadcasting this? The show’s target audience is either dead, huddled around a campfire or slouching outside. You force the thought from your mind. You focus on your show, and for a moment, you finally begin to relax and you put your mind at ease knowing that your home is secure. The boards downstairs could easily hold them, provided they don’t all collect around one door.
A rumble shakes the walls around you, and you jolt up from your spot on the bed. Above the low hum of electricity coming from your television, the unmistakable sound of an engine and spinning helicopter blades ripped apart the sky. Quickly, you fling open your bedroom door. Shotgun in hand, you rush back to your look-out window and pull back the black-out sheet, and your stomach sinks. There were thirty of them, at least. Their eyes, once vacant, now looked hungrily at the helicopter that was hovering above you. The flash of a spotlight swept across the crowd, and you could count another thirty marching and crawling their way out of adjacent windows and broken-in storefronts. Slowly, they made their way to your front door. As the first fists began to flail against your barricades, a thought as useless as the boards entered your mind:
“Why did I paint that “S.O.S.” on the roof?”
The drive to live and fight another day lives inside of all of us, and it is present in how we play our games. Some of us stand in corners with guns drawn at the doors, ready for unsuspecting players. Others are more aggressive, opting to use increasingly large amounts of heavy ordnance to solve problems. In the hands of the right game developer, the dread of loss can be a powerful tool of narrative motivation, especially in survival horror games. The developers of Project Zomboid have taken that concept of fear, and took it one step beyond by making it an organic part of the gameplay itself.
The central component that makes the game work is its rouge-like elements, particularly its embracing of permanent character death. You can spend hundreds of hours training your character in survival skills such as construction, farming and hunting, and you could put all of your attention into building and fortifying a shelter. But if you die, that is it for you, you will not come back (unless you get bitten by a zombie, in which case you will). The game tells you this every time you load up your character. You make one mistake, you let one single zombie get too close for comfort, and all of your progress is gone forever. Making things more nerve-wracking is the mechanic of line of sight. The player can only see what is directly in front of their character. This removal of the player’s perception and control adds a layer of apprehension that few survival horror games in the modern gaming age have been able to replicate. Every encounter has weight to it. If you choose to spend the time fighting a zombie, you may just attract the attention of another one that you didn’t see coming at you from behind. Rush through a darkened building with low visibility, and you risk running into a room packed with the undead.
It is a game that rewards the extra cautious player. The zombies will appear frequently and they are drawn to noise, so it is in the player’s best interest to move quickly and quietly to avoid drawing attention. Because these are the zombies of the genre that George Romero created, the infected in Project Zomboid are easy to deal with when confronting groups of two or three. Fire a gun in the middle of a street or from the roof of your safe house however, and you will be facing an army soon enough. It’s in these “horde mode” scenarios that the game is at its most harrowing, when your survival skills will be put to the test.
There is a reason my audience peripheral character at the start of this article prefers subtitles with his anime. Any loud noise you generate is a dinner bell for the five zombies around you that you can’t see. It’s also the biggest reason why you as a player should fear the helicopter. In every single game that I have played, my #1 cause of death has always been that helicopter. Just when you think you are safe, that there is no possible way the zombies can ever get into your base, the helicopter will arrive, and bring with it every single zombie in earshot.
In many ways, Project Zomboid is not just one of the best zombie games, but one of the best survival games period. In terms of long-term planning, players must face increasingly difficult challenges as time passes. Eventually, electricity and running water will be shut off, forcing players to adapt to the environment by looking for new ways to stay warm and hydrated. Meanwhile, perishable food supplies will become increasingly rare with time. Farming will become a vital skill to master, as will skills like fishing and trapping. The ultimate challenge will be winter, when everything is frozen and the whole world seemingly wants you to die a painful, lonely death.
No matter what situation you end up in, Project Zomboid is a game that forces you to plan ahead. It may become essential to have contingency plans and escape strategies wherever you go, for whatever you plan to do. It is a game that is constantly testing you, pushing you to adapt to an increasingly unforgiving world, where the slightest mistake may mean your death. Are you planning on a supply run to the police station? How many zombies are outside right now? What about the zombies you don’t see, the ones creeping right around every corner inside? How many exits does the building have? Are there windows, and do they have zombie attracting burglar alarms installed? In any situation, you have to think on your feet and you have to be vigilant, for as the Zombie Survival Guide states, “No place is safe, only safer.”
By removing the player’s control and throwing them into a persistent, chaotic world, the developers of Project Zomboid have achieved what every survival horror game developer has tried to do since Resident Evil. They have made a game that plays with against our apprehension, our anxieties and our basic survival instincts. The only way to really win is to face those fears.
And whatever you do, don’t panic. There are worse ways to go than dying in a swarm of hungry mouths, and passing out nearly naked in the middle of a snow-covered street after the zombies run you out of your house is one of them.