Throw Out Your Dead

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.)

  1. Researcher: geist

    welcome to the team Travis. looking forward to your work

    • Researcher: qwerty

      wow great post i ghope this comes out before i graduate but its worth the wait lets dead island was a real letdown

    • Researcher: Alex

      Yea it was i wish it was more realistic.

  2. Researcher: Darren Centinello

    Welcome to the team Travis, a lot of games fail at truly pulling players into their world.

    I feel a lot of that falls on the story and how it is presented to the players. Good to see ‘class3′ is in good hands.

  3. Researcher: Holden

    I gotta say, I love your points about the zombies being fuel for the story. I heard people complain about not seeing enough zombies in Zombieland, but that’s not the point. You don’t have to constantly be followed by a huge mob to know things are still terrible.

    Thank you for making the best zombie game ever. I can’t wait to play class3 with my friends.

  4. Researcher: Dantron

    Dantron greets Travis.

    Dantron inquires if Travis has ever written a short story about a robot. A pie eating robot, to be precise. And if so, Dantron inquires if that robot was from the future but is currently locked in a cage by a mean human named Freak.

    • Researcher: Suburban Freak

      welcome travis. Great to see that UL got someone that does understand that zombies are just the icing on the cake of a great human story. I look forward to the yarns you will spin.

      As for Dantron, don’t pay him any mind. After all he is locked in a cage for good reason. I’m sure Emily will fill you in.

    • Researcher: Travis

      Lamentably, Travis has written only stories about cake-eating robots. However, it was the robot in question’s birthday, so the possibility of robot pie-eating is still very much on the table.

  5. Researcher: Cris the survivor

    Hey guys welcome travis but i was wondering if ya are gonna have a post talking about the game cause im tired of all these holiday and welcoming post i want something like gameplay guns or something really related to the game cause this hold back is kinda disappointing me especially cause this is the only game im lookin forward to

    • Researcher: Emily

      Yep! We do have a design article coming some time this month.

      I know that you guys really want meaty game info, but remember: we’re still pretty early in development. As we get further and further along in the cycle, you guys will learn MUCH more about what we’ve been up to. :)

    • Researcher: Blake (NegativeHUNTER)

      AHHH I’m soo excited i feel like a lil girl about to meet Justin Bieber :p

    • Researcher: Jeff

      Agreed, I love hearing that great people are working on what I believe will be one of the biggest games of all time. But at the same time. I kinda loose interest with these weekly post when I don’t hear new things, even if it’s like, “hey we added some blue to a car!!” But I do understand that you cant put out something new every week. but something at least 1 a month would be nice :) when this game comes out, I’m taking a week off of work lol

  6. Researcher: Ruther

    Hey there Travis! Welcome to the team, I hope it’s a great experience for you!

    I must say I’m pretty impressed by the team Undead Labs is building. Fallout: New Vegas has gotta be one of my favorite games of the year just for story alone. Makes me very happy you’re working on this game…. Once this game releases, my life is OVER.

    I’ve got a question for you, how do you start writing? I have all these ideas that I KNOW I’m about to write out… but I can’t seem to sit down and just write it. I always get distracted by something… so all these ideas are stuck in my head.

    Any tips on how to get started?

    • Researcher: Travis

      If you’re getting distracted a lot (and believe me, you’re not alone – overcoming that blank page anxiety is the biggest hurdle to actually getting started), try setting aside a fixed, scheduled time every day to go someplace that minimizes distractions and just write. Disconnect your internet for an hour, go to a room in your house that doesn’t have TV or video games, maybe put on some headphones and play some music (I like slow, instrumental stuff like jazz most of the time), and just put words on paper. Don’t worry about plotting and planning or even continuing on with the same project. Just write a little – maybe a page, maybe a paragraph, maybe just a single sentence. Just make it a habit and it’ll start to stick.

      And good luck!

  7. Researcher: Brian

    Dear Travis,

    I REALLY wish I had your job :’(

    Also, how did you get your start in this industry? I would love to work with games, but I don’t really know how to break in without any specific game experience. Tips?

    • Researcher: Travis

      I got into video games through my earlier work writing stuff for tabletop RPGs, which I pretty much started by just e-mailing a bunch of smaller game studios with writing samples and pitches for games. Persistence is the best advice I can give you – even if you don’t have professional game development experience, a lot of games ship with their editors for fans to create content. Get in there and play around! Build yourself a portfolio and start sending it out. And always remember, the worst they can do is say “thanks but no thanks.”

  8. Researcher: Robert

    Make us proud wait… you all ready did just by joining the team , welcome Travis.

  9. Researcher: Andy

    You worked on Alpha Protocol AND Fallout? That is awesome!

  10. Researcher: Mephster

    Welcome aboard !

    • Researcher: Pepe

      Welcome Travis!
      Could you plz do me a favor?
      Write a ass kicking story to this EPIC game!!!!???? I’m feeling some good stuff coming out of this lab…..
      And I still want to know if there is going to be splitscreen so I could play with my gf in the same console…. =)
      I really hope it does!!!!

    • Researcher: reidlos dog

      They have stated previously that they would like to game to be co-op online and have a local co-op.