From the first time I saw Night of the Living Dead when I was 13, I was hooked. That stark, black-and-white photography, the unrelenting brutality of the walking dead, the pressure-cooker intensity of the conflict between those few desperate survivors, and that ending! Zombies had their hooks in me and never let go. Dawn followed Night, of course, and from there the rest of Romero’s works, Fulci’s Italian giallo zombie movies, anything I could get my hands on. I devoured the movies, dragged my Dungeons & Dragons group kicking and screaming into games of All Flesh Must Be Eaten, and generally watched, played, and read just about anything zombie-related I could get my hands on.
Still, just about any fan knows that all things zombie aren’t created equal. It’s a polarizing genre, encompassing classics of cinema like my old friend Night of the Living Dead, modern blockbusters like Zombieland, and, let’s face it, some pretty cheesy (but still fun) low-budget schlock-fests. Now that I get to do this for a living, I find myself analyzing the zombie stories I’ve loved for more than half my life, asking myself: What separates a fun zombie story from a great one?
Well, I’ve got a theory about that…
At the heart of the matter, good zombie stories aren’t really about the zombies at all. Zombies are a catalyst for story, the fuel that makes the engine run. But just like fuel without an engine can’t take you anywhere, zombies without the core foundation of story can’t move you. Sure, it’s fun to brain them with a tire iron, but by themselves zombies are just monsters to be killed.
Characters, and the conflicts between them, are that core foundation. They’re what the story is really about. They give context to all the zombie-killing, supply-scrounging, base-building action and make your decisions mean something. When you can see the impact your choices make on the world as a whole and on these few scared, scattered people who are your fellow survivors, those moments stick with you.
Picture this scenario: Your friend Ed is sick, maybe dying, and nobody wants to risk him turning in the middle of the night and eating everyone in their sleep. If you can’t get him a doctor, the others are going to throw him out onto the street — assuming they don’t just put a bullet in his head and be done with it. You know of a doctor who survived this whole thing, but he’s not feeling charitable. He’s got expenses, he says, and the meds he needs aren’t easy to come by. He wants more than you can barter, and more than you can hope to scrounge before Ed’s too far gone to save. Maybe you’ve never drawn a gun on a man in anger before, or maybe you have, but the question is: How desperate are you to save your friend?
Here’s another one for you: You haven’t found any food in several days. Your stores are running dangerously low, and you come back from a scouting run to find that one of the other survivors in your camp has been caught stealing from the storeroom. That’s the difference between life and death out here, not just for you but for the whole community that trusts you and relies on you. When Jeb mutters “Somebody get a rope,” what’s the call you’re going to make?
These are the kinds of stories we want to tell — stories that dig down into the people who survived the zombie apocalypse huddled together in makeshift habitation. We want to examine the conflicts that arise in these pressure-cooker situations, whether they’re related to long-term survival or the stresses of post-apocalyptic life or folks who just plain don’t like each other. We want to use the zombie apocalypse as a metaphor, to examine the human condition the way all the great zombie films do.
I have a little trick when I’m writing for Class3. Everything I write, whether it’s a character (like crusty old Doc Hanson or those trouble-causing Wilkerson boys), a plot element, or a chunk of dialogue, I ask myself: “Would this still be awesome if it didn’t have zombies?” If the answer is anything less than a resounding “yes!”, it goes back to the drawing board. Zombies bring the awesome to just about anything, but I don’t want to give you folks “just about anything”. I want to give you the awesomeness of zombies on top of the awesomeness of a compelling story full of interesting characters with nuanced, believable motivations.
Everything I’ve learned in my career as a writer and every project I’ve worked on has prepared me for writing Class3. Alpha Protocol taught me about forcing the player to make hard choices with no clear right or wrong answer, and making the consequences of those decisions have a lasting impact on the game space. Fallout: New Vegas taught me to build a believable post-apocalyptic society, and the tricks and techniques for writing a coherent story in an open-world game where any character can die at any time. My years of writing tabletop gaming books for World of Darkness were all about creating moments of evocative, intense horror and emotional conflict between characters.
So, there you have it: My philosophy on writing zombie games. Take the zombies out of the equation and be damn sure you’ve got a rock-solid story full of interesting, well-developed characters and exciting action.
Then put the zombies back in so those characters can smash their heads in with tire irons.
(Emily’s note: If you just can’t get enough Travis and would like to know more about him, be sure to check out Jeff’s introduction.)