The Restless Dead, Part 3
In this final installment of the Restless Dead series of posts, I'm looking at zombies from a game perspective. To begin, I'll suggest some reading/playing material from the tabletop world.
If you can find a copy, GURPS Undead is probably the single best information source about gaming folkloric and cinematic undead, both as monsters and as player characters. Sean "Dr Kromm" Punch has thoroughly researched the topic and written a top-notch book. GURPS Undead is unfortunately long out of print and has not yet been released as an eBook.
All Flesh Must Be Eaten is the definitive tabletop roleplaying game of the Zombie Apocalypse genre. This extensive line of books includes bestiaries, genre advice, and plenty of options to customize your zombies. Video game designers, programmers, and producers should read all or most of this line if they want to create awesome zombie games.
Cheapass Games made a trio of excellent games featuring protagonist zombies: Give Me the Brain, Lord of the Fries, and The Great Brain Robbery. For an example of zombies as cute caricatures, take any of these for a spin.
Under the Hood
Tabletop RPGs have plenty of source material on the undead, but a lot of game programmers overlook the system resources available from the same books. GURPS and D&D feature undead templates that can be applied to existing creatures and characters. Does this sound like multiple inheritance to anyone else?
In the tabletop world, RoleMaster has always been a bit player at best, but the aspects that make it so are interesting opportunities for video game system designers and programmers. The hierarchical nomenclature of its mechanics, including undead monsters, translate well into class structures. I wouldn't be shocked or dismayed to run across Types I-VIII Created Spectral Undead in a UML diagram for a virtual world game.
Killing the Damned Things
It's difficult to reconcile the modern methods of destroying the undead with the original source material of horror fiction and folklore. In the Zombie Apocalypse genre, zombies can be put down by shooting, chopping, bludgeoning, running over with cars, or whatever awesome mayhem designers can cook up and artists and programmers can implement. In folklore and horror, the undead are usually quite a bit more resilient, frequently only falling once a ritual has been completed, such as properly preparing their gravesite or trapping them between a young virgin and an ancient crone on sacred ground at midnight in the light of the full moon.
It's harder yet to combine these in a way that makes a good game. A scenario where the player(s) have to discover why a single powerful undead monster had risen from the grave, work out the ritual to put it to rest, and then implement the plan, all the while being hounded by its mindless minions, might be of limited appeal. Then again...
With that, on to the game ideas.
I'm Lookin' fer the Man What Shot My Pa an' Me
The player takes the part of an Old West gunslinger risen from the grave as a revenant to exact revenge for his own death. The extreme physical prowess typical of the walking dead make any number of video game conventions more credible, such as withstanding more bullet wounds than humanly possible and respawning after defeat. But the undead portion of the program can be played up to introduce some interesting mechanics and tell an interesting story.
The gunslinger may rise again from his grave after defeat with full hit points and physical capacities, but retains the visible wounds inflicted by his opponents. At the beginning of the game, he appears very nearly normal and can interact normally with townsfolk and other NPCs, but as his appearance becomes ever more hideous, reactions become more extreme. The exact reaction may vary with the attitudes of the individual NPC and by past interaction, including among others fear, disgust, and sympathy. Any of these can be cast as advantages or disadvantages to the player.
I've been reading about A-Life recently, so this struck me as a natural progression of both topics. In one variation, the player influences the design and evolution of some form of undead and sets them loose on an unsuspecting populace, a prepared mundane army, a team of plucky paranormal investigators, or what have you. This could play out as an interesting reversal of the Tower Defense genre or another flavor of Real-Time Strategy.
The flipside of the first option plays more like the normal Zombie Apocalype type of game, only utilizing A-Life principles under the hood to evolve the undead horde into a more challenging threat over the course of play.
A third option is to pit hordes of engineered undead against one another or against some other flavor of A-Life opponent, zombies vs cyborgs or undead microbes vs nanovirii perhaps. This option would likely be best as a multiplayer game.
The first two examples could also be combined into a multiplayer fourth variation, with one or more players directing the undead and the others directing the humans. Even more interesting would be introducing factions within each side that might find some advantage to temporary cooperation with the enemy. Vampires and zombies compete for the same prey, and the goths might betray the nerds to the vampires in return for some cool blood-powers.
Zombie Outbreak Simulator
In response to Part 2, a friend posted a link to an article about a zombie attack simulation model published in a real world, serious journal of infectious disease. This got me thinking. In the same vein, a serious game could be crafted to teach the principles of epidemiology and crisis management via Zombie Apocalypse. The player must manage military, scientific, and other emergency response resources in real-time to minimize loss of life and contain the threat before it's too late. Evacuation and nukes are an option, but only after the crisis has reached sufficient proportions to drive the political will to enact extreme measure, and each has their dangers. Evacuation may unwittingly carry the outbreak to a new region, and think atomic zombies for a moment. I did. It made me smile.