Monday 29 November 2010

Why Zombies as a Genre Are Here to Stay

I heart zombies. Not just in a geeky, B-movie kind of a way (though props to Zombi 2), and not just from the perspective of a horror video game writer (because I don't really consider myself that) - but mostly because for any kind of writer it's a premise overloaded with potential for character exploration.

Unlike World War 2 or modern combat or comic books or Westerns, Zombie fiction in both cinematic and interactive entertainment is a stayer. This is why.

The image above - beyond any excuse to picture Milla - represents everything that people get wrong about developing a zombie fiction. Sci-fi environs, super ninja bitches, mad scientists... Resident Evil (by turn both the games and the films) misses the point.

I've never particularly had any desire to write horror as a profession. Before the Penumbra games it's not something I'd ever even attempted. It's always been a genre close to my heart, though, for one reason: it puts human nature under the microscope. To some degree, perhaps, that's what all good fiction does. But the reason that stories like Alien, The Thing and Dead Ringers are truly great horrors is that they take real, everyday characters - even when those characters are in fantastic circumstances - and put them under pressure. In GCSE chemistry, if you want to learn about a particular substance you put it to extremes: you heat it, or you cool it, or you spin it around really really really fast until it's all dizzy. Then you wait and see what happens.

Good horror - particularly zombie horror - works the same way. You take ordinary people, expose them to extreme pressure, and see if they wind up killing one another. Alien argues that everyone has different potential: that the cute blonde tomboy hides cowardice that will overrule even self-preservation; and that the hero of the story might actually have tits. The Thing shows us that rational human doubt can overpower anything; even a strong friendship.

Sometimes film - and often games - get this wrong. Games are great at developing tension and fear. Better, I'd argue, than any other medium. But how often does a zombie game use this to explore themes within its characters? We all know Dead State is heading in the right direction, and we're probably familiar with Dead Rising's blatant Romero-esque critique of consumerism, but how often do we go beyond that?

As a genre, zombies have only been around for a few decades. The concept originated with Voodoo-related catatonia, and Romero and his ilk imported it to Hollywood in the 60s. This means that the five year fad that began with Stubbs the Zombie and L4D (a game which captures the rumour mill and camaraderie, but none of the suspicion or character progression) really marks the first time that zombies have truly been road-tested on an interactive level. What zombies allow us to do as writers is to introduce a whole host of useful mechanics - mechanics zombie games often exclude - and to have these feedback in unique ways on the story:
- Where did the outbreak come from (room for government conspiracy and social critique)?
- What do you do when you / someone else gets infected?
- How do you treat other survivors when they might be your best survival tool or your greatest threat?
- What happens to morality in a world where violence is around every corner?
- How quickly and in what ways do society's rules break down?
- What is there to pursue beyond survival in a world beyond the brink of revival?
- What rights do the zombies themselves have?
- Without a social structure to tell you what to do, what happens when people have to think for themselves for the first time in their lives?
- Where is your god now?
- Is a katana really the best weapon?

Zombies are uniquely interesting for precisely these topics. You'd be hard pressed to find a good Z fiction that didn't centre on at least one of these ideas.

As both a writer and a consumer, I'm fascinated more than anything else by humanity and by honest (even when scary) appraisals of it. I'd argue that zombie games provide us that opportunity and much more beside; any time someone says to me that zombies are just the latest fad, I figure they've been playing too much Resident Evil.

Unlike WW2, or Tolkien, or Vietnam, zombies always have new places to go; but what they tell us about ourselves should always be a little too close to home.

Tuesday 23 November 2010

4 More Free Web-games...

...because free web-games generate hits. And also because, just like commercial release, or XBLA, or the AppStore, there's a shit load of shit obscuring the good stuff. In short, I've played a lot of shit so you don't have to.

This is a follow up to the 'Why free is the Future' post I put up an indiscernible amount of time ago, and these are the games that basically made the grade but I didn't have time to include. They're still guaranteed better than 95% of the stuff out there, and I'm going to try to be more critical this time.

It never ceases to amaze me how many truly talented programmers and artists there are out there who're content to turn out clones.

The Company of Myself
The Company of Myself is a pretty trad make-copies-of-yourself-to-complete-the-game game (though I love that we're now inventive enough with our mechanics that that can be a genre). It combines that mechanic, though, with a very personal story. It's not a fresh perspective - guy loses girl, moans a bit - but it's one that, while pervasive, will never be less than relevant. Braid-lite, maybe.

Little Wheel
A bit like Loodon, Little Wheel is perhaps stronger in its aesthetics than its gameplay (which is simplistic point & click). It's beautiful, and the narrative is touching in a self-consciously-designed-to-tweak-the-emotions-of-a-broad-audience, Disney / Pixar kind of a way. but then the fact I'm even making those comparisons can't be a bad sign. Not truly interactive, but worth a crack.

Time Kufc
Yeah. This one's kinda fucked up. Hence the oh-so-clever name. There are a lot of games that play with the idea of time travel as a gameplay mechanic these days, but for me Time Kufc remains the game which has most coherently tied that mechanic into the narrative. A standard platformer with rewind / restart mechanics, you navigate a seemingly endless labyrinth in pursuit of... well... yourself, I guess. Past and future incarnations of yourself guide or taunt you, and the game's unnerving in a Cactus kind of a way, without entirely abandoning comprehension.

Gateway II
I can't claim the puzzles in this one don't have their flaws, but it's worth persevering and resorting to a walkthrough if necessary. You guide a a box-like character through a series of rooms, entering and existing what appear to be different streams of reality. There's a lost-girl plot in there somewhere, but all told this reeks of imperfect implementation of an ambitious idea that winds up thoroughly playable.

Friday 19 November 2010

Why Free is the Future: 5 Must Play Free Games

I was giving an interview to a journo from Moviescope magazine today, for a piece he was putting together on the interplay between interactive entrainment and film. His controversy-generation angle (because, seriously, sometimes we all need one) was "Are games Film 2.0?". Clearly the answer's 'no' - games may have taken some of film's audience, but they never will nor should replace any other industry. However, I think one of the insights he found most interesting was my stressing that just as cinema has Hollywood vs art film, games have AAA vs indie scenes. It's something even studio execs within our industry often fail to recognise.

A crucial corner of that scene, naturally, are products like Braid, and Darwinia, and Limbo. It's indescribably fantastic that important, artistic, independent games can now turn a profit for the first time in our industry's history. Those games wouldn't exist, however, were it not for their short, free, web-based cousins blazing the frontiers.

Let's celebrate that.

A simple, olde worlde take on Britain, and a tale of carnival freak redemption, this point & click is simple, short, but wears its heart endearingly upon its sleeve.

Take a Walk
A snail's pace Canabalt, the music stops jarringly every time you screw up, reinforcing the value of that often overlooked element of video game design.

Don't Shit Your Pants
Interesting stuff can sometimes be satirical, and satirical stuff doesn't always avoid toilet humour. 'Don't Shit Your Pants' concerns itself with nothing else, but is nonetheless a very smart take on the text adventure. A 'survival horror game' which sees the player standing outside the loo door and having to type his way to the bog while avoiding the titular, the game successfully rips trad IF for its often ludicrous inaccessibility by making something so mundane seem quite such a challenge.

I Can Hold My Breath Forever

An underwater platformer that pits your desire to explore against a tight oxygen countdown, this is a touching tale of with predictably a slightly nonsensical ending that I'd interpret as commenting on the blind draw of true friendship.


Aether is one of the earlier projects from the professional indie darlings behind Super Meat Boy. It's a rambling discussion of childhood seen through the cartoon perspective of a child exploring the universe on the back of a giant sling-shotting blob thing. Of course it is.

Friday 12 November 2010

London Writing Panel Appearence: Interactive Story Telling for an Interactive Medium

The IGDA has just announced a new games writing panel that's going to be held in London the week after next. It's going to star some of my big name games writing mates and - less spectacularly - me. Official blurb at the bottom of the post, my unofficial blurb immediately below.

Environmental Narrative: Interactive Storytelling for an Interactive Medium is kind of a sequel to a talk we - Jim Swallow (Deux Ex 3), Rhianna Pratchett (Overlord), Andy Walsh (Prince of Persia) and I - turned out last year. Despite the atrocious press photo from the event that's the header for this post (I'm the one with the terrible hair and evil eyes yammering away while everyone else stops and stares in disbelief), the thing went well, and we're back. It was rammed last time around - a mixed audience of games students, professional writers from other mediums, and developers in other disciplines - and I'd argue the pub trip afterwards is a great networking opportunity.

It's being held the evening of 23rd November at London South Bank University. Incidentally, it was this event last year that brought me to the attention of the Game Cultures BA guys at LSBU and landed me my current lecturing job.

Hope you're able to make it, and if you are rocking up do drop me a note beforehand and come grab me in the pub - be good to put some faces to some names.


Time: 23 November · 19:00 - 21:00
Location: Keyworth Theatre B, Keyworth Building, London South Bank University
Keyworth Street ( easiest tube is elephant and castle. Take South Bank University exit
London, United Kingdom

Environmental Narrative: Interactive Story Telling for an Interactive Medium
Hosted by LSBU's BA (Hons) Game Cultures course

Following last year's packed event, the IGDA London Chapter and IGDA's Writing SIG will be presenting a talk at London South Bank University on the evening of Tuesday 23rd November. A panel composed of well-established videogames experts will be focusing on how AI and environment can tell story in games.

Entry will be free and the panel will be followed by both a formal Q&A session and an informal trip to the pub. We hope you can join us.

The panel will be comprised of experienced games writers -

Tom Jubert (Driver: San Francisco , The Penumbra series)
Rhianna Pratchett (Overlord, Heavenly Sword)
James Swallow (Deus Ex Human Revolution, Battlestar Galactica)
Andrew S. Walsh (Bodycount, Prince of Persia )

Thursday 11 November 2010

Die2Nite: Free Keys for the New Web-Based Zombie MMO

I was contacted a little while after posting that fascinating interview with Zombie / RPG hero, Brian Mitsoda, by someone else with a Zombie RPG. Die2Nite is developed by French outfit, MotionTwin, and began life at

The French iteration has been running for a while, and had some positive write ups. I've not gone too far into it yet, but the core mechanic seems broadly familiar: spend action points in the text and image driven web interface, develop your character and equipment, and await the inevitable zombie onslaught that arrives at midnight. Each online shard only houses 40 players, which is a conceit that appeals to me - tighter games with the ending in sight, without losing the co-operative progression of an MMO.

So, I've got a bunch of beta keys to give away. For some reason, the guys at Motion Twin think I have enough readers to actually shift ten keys!) First come first serve, just drop a note into the comments telling me why you'd survive in the zombie apocalypse when everyone around you is muttering disconcerting things about brains, and either include your email address or drop me a mail to the usual place if you'd rather not publish it.

I'll be interested to delve into the game more once I'm not quite so busy - will it be a dramatic, multiplayer experience, or another shallow time sink?

Ah well, at least it's got zombies.