On a Pale Horse

On a Pale Horse
The End Is Definitely Nigh

Shannon Drake | 22 May 2007 12:03
On a Pale Horse - RSS 2.0

Mister Tophat was a dazzling socialite, a Consumer of the finer things in life, before they came. According to his in-game biography, he obeyed the government broadcasts about the coming plague and sealed off his house, waiting for men in uniform to drive him to safety. The troop transport came under fire on the way out, and the soldiers hid him in a safe place, but they never came back. Mister Tophat was alone in the world and, finally, scurried through the rubble in search of a good martini or other survivors. Sadly, he stayed out too late and ran out of energy. The onrushing hordes of the restless dead caught up to him outside an abandoned parking lot, and it was a short battle. In the end, a sharp-dressed zombie rose to join the undead ranks, hungering for the flesh of the survivors who'd shunned him. Such is life in Malton, the setting for Urban Dead.

Urban Dead is an enjoyably deep web game, satisfying on its own as a time-killer, but even more fun if you delve into the mechanics of the game and community itself. The game's class and skill system provide basic character advancement for humans and zombies, but the community has built a world around the game, with cultural codes of conduct, defense organizations for humans and undead, and a nicely detailed Wiki. Presiding over it all is Kevan Davis, freelance web developer and game designer, and the creator and maintainer of Urban Dead.

"I've always been a fan of the zombie genre, but 2005 was very much a 'zombie renaissance' year," Davis says. "And it seemed like a good time to write the zombie game I'd been meaning to [write] for a while." He got his inspiration from a friend's vampire game, "but, really, it has its roots in the grid-mapped, play-by-mail games that I was playing and running back in 1990." He took those games, and the five to 10 minutes of planning and play they took on a day by day basis, and combined them with elements of "text adventures, MUSHes, and NetHack - exploring an unfamiliar map and finding objects and characters to interact with," as well as his own "Zombie Infection Simulation" to produce Urban Dead.

The game's overarching plot is "kept deliberately vague and low-key: A large section of the city is quarantined by the military in reaction to an outbreak, and the NecroTech corporation orders any employees that weren't evacuated to continue the company's research, on the streets if necessary. Players who aren't representing the scientists or the military are the city's trapped civilians, or the already dead." This loose plot allows players to write their own stories, forming defense groups and establishing social rules - for example, zombies seeking a "revivification" (a return to mortal life) are expected to wait quietly in designated spots - in addition to playing out their own post-apocalyptic lives, leaving Davis to focus mainly on developing the game itself. "The game changes are mostly shifts and additions of game mechanics, rather than a fixed route of plot points," he says. Some changes have huge effects, of course, but, "the real events of the game are those initiated and acted out by the players, from tiny missions to reclaim individual safe houses, to the huge, snowballing 'Mall Tour' zombie hordes that occasionally devastate their way across Malton."

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