The game I dream of playing is one probably shared by numerous people. People may yawn at the prospect of another game in this genre, but it is a game that would be the pinnacle of any examples of the genre you would care to name from any artistic medium you could conjure up. It would wipe the floor with the works of Max Brooks, and make George A. Romero sick in his sleep. Yes, I talk of course of the true zombie apocalypse simulator.
Now close your mouths please, yawning is rude when someone is talking to you. This game would not follow the examples of the likes of Dead Rising, Left 4 Dead and Resident Evil. Instead, this world would take its cues from Journey and perhaps Fallout 3. It would be the loneliest multiplayer game in existence, and would feature no cocky protagonist or whacky sidekick to bring comic relief to the dark days ahead. Instead, this game would test you as a player; not your FPS skills or your micro-management abilities, nor stick a dumb counter in the bottom telling you how well you’re doing. Instead, it would treat you like you; a not particularly athletic, unskilled dogsbody stuck in the middle of nowhere with death knocking at all doors.
The player designs their characters appearance, choosing gender, hair type and colour and clothing. No RPG-eque stats or skills to apply. No weapon loadouts. Nothing. You’re just a guy/girl, stuck on the outskirts of a destroyed military base that had previously been a refuge for any soul lucky enough to find its way there through the horrors of the zombie apocalypse. After making yourself, an orchestra of gunshots, explosions and screams plays out over a blackened screen, which gradually turns to white, before finally showing you. All is quiet now. There are no more explosions or gunshots. Fire and smoke rises from the distance, but no immediate threat can be seen. You’re on your own in a narrow country road, with only a small satchel containing food rations, a torch, a pistol, and a radio which constantly hisses unless you choose to switch it off. It’s night time. In the distance, spotlights scan the sky, acting as a beacon to any human being lucky, or perhaps unlucky enough to still draw breath. Through subtle cues, the player is drawn to this first “level” of this open world vision of hell. Obediently and inevitably, the player will make their way to the first town.
Encounters with the undead ought to be random; a player might encounter small pockets of zombies which can be easily dispatched with the pistol they carry. They will traverse streams, seemingly ancient roadblocks which show evidence of having fallen to the horrors that now inhabit the world, and dark forests with which the player’s torch is but a small comfort.
Finally, the player will reach the outskirts, and their journey can begin in full.
The town will be seemingly deserted. No human NPC’s will greet the player with requests for assistance, as that time of possible hope of holding out is long gone. Grass and weeds sprout from unexpected areas; shop floors, roads and houses layered in a patchy green carpet. On this carpet will be evidence of the war that took place. Corpses and skeletons will be littered across the roads, in school yards and offices, in gardens and parks. There should be no clear objective to the player other than to survive.
However, a catalyst is needed. Something needs to make the player choose a path and take it. Perhaps in the east of town, their radio jumps into life with a broadcast which instructs any survivors to make their way to a nearby town which against all odds has held out. In the west, the occasional vehicle motor can be heard in the distance as army trucks and jeeps buzz around country lanes, returning from foraging missions. Perhaps the player even spots one if they dare make their way to the top of a tall building. And yet, in the south, evidence of an evacuation to the coast can be seen in instructional posters, tracks and quarantine zones, indicating everyone headed south to escape the horrors. And on the subject of the horror, it hasn’t gone anywhere. The undead own the town, and you are an unwelcome guest. You must forage for supplies, weapons, or other equipment that may be handy. Perhaps a rope would enable you to climb trees in your journey, allowing you to escape the clutches of the undead and sleep twenty feet above the ground. Perhaps a hammer would enable you to make rudimentary barricades, allowing you to take shelter in houses or barns. And then there are clothes to worry about. Do you travel light, in a mere jumper and jeans/trousers, allowing faster more efficient movement, aiding in evading your enemies? Or do you pack a coat, allowing more to be carried and easier rest in the cold night? Do you swap your satchel for something bigger that may weigh you down, and yet will allow you to be ready with your extra packed equipment? This section of the game will shape how you play the rest of it. Sure, you can change on the fly, ditching a coat for the sake of speed, or even foraging another one later, but such decisions could lead to further encounters, as such changes will take place in human settlements where there is a higher risk of meeting an infected enemy.
As I said before, there will be no human NPC’s within gameplay. There will however, be other players. These will happen like Journey, where you will be randomly matched to another anonymous player within the local area, a player with whom your own form of communication is pointing a small whistle. This could be a blessing or a curse. Early game, you may decide that working together to traverse the environment and killing your enemies is a no-brainer. You might even both choose to head off into the countryside towards your chosen salvation together. But how long will this wordless relationship last? Will they shoot you in the back (if you die, you respawn at an earlier checkpoint which occurs when crossing certain geographical thresholds, and be disconnected from your betrayer), will they steal your possessions? Or will they simply disagree with you about the smartest route to take, and take their chances on their own? Yet perhaps they will prove invaluable. Extra firepower, extra eyes to spot enemies, and a physical boost where needed, giving you a leg up over high walls, assisting you in getting up a tree where you plan to spend the night. A fragile but valuable relationship which could very well shape the way you play.
And perhaps most importantly, if your partner dies, they are dead to you forever. Only luck will allow you to reconnect with another player on your travels.
Like Journey, you may meet others. Unlike Journey, your goals may differ.
In order to give the player the illusion of choice, the choice needs to not be an illusion. The world will need to be massive; perhaps Just Cause 2 sized, but more detailed and deliberately built to portray a world gone to hell. It will need to be cleverly built to assist the player in realising their options, but not so obvious as stick waypoints and radars on the players hub. The only pull needs to be the players curiosity and willpower. I imagine it as similar to the south of England, with a mixture of large towns, small hamlets and farm land mixed with untamed forests and hills stretching for many miles. It needs to seem like a real place, and yet present a number of options to the player through subtle hints.
There is no plot. The world tells its own story. Small towns, a city and farms deep in the country will be destroyed alike. Zombies roam the countryside, purposeless until they happen upon prey, but mostly inhabit urban areas.
However, whilst there is no plot handed to the player on a silver platter, there is a story; a story the player will build themselves. Whether alone or with a friend, they will eventually reach a conclusion to their tale. Perhaps you travel south to the coast, discover a usable boat, grab a tonne of supplies and sail away into the horizon, hoping for a better fate in other lands. Perhaps, in the midst of a silent city, you catch wind over your radio of occasional pick ups via helicopter. Here, you might meet others who have by some miracle survived (these could be NPC’s), waiting on top of some tall building, awaiting their salvation. Perhaps, to the west, you finally happened upon that military base, but find it surrounded by undead, and must hatch a plan to gain entry without meeting a grisly end. Or perhaps you turn tail, seeing no way in, and find another ending.
With your ending reached, your character finally speaks. They state how many days and how many miles they travelled. They state whether they found themselves in a position where they had to kill another living person to survive, or perhaps say that without the nameless traveller they wandered the empty roads and lanes with, they may not have survived.
So why do I want to play this game? Because it finally will give me and other players the game that truly represents an end of the world. A game which, like all great stories, is about a journey from A to B, with B perhaps changing to C or D. A game wrought with challenge, where cunning and thoughtfulness and planning beat out gun-ho arrogance and firepower, but where a little bit of the latter does help. A game that might actually be quite accurate to the reality of such an eventuality. Perhaps such a game, with it’s large detailed map, invisible RPG elements and demanding control scheme to govern a wide variety of actions is unfeasible. But hey, I can dream.