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.”
Part of the fun of the game is how well it captures that paranoid feeling from the best zombie movies, where survivors cling to what they have, and, at any given moment, the Mall Tour will swamp a safe area with the undead. Survivors are not always pleased to find someone prying away their barricades and stumbling in seeking sanctuary, and may lash out at their fellow players. “Crazed survivors are always a part of any good apocalypse,” Davis says, adding that he didn’t work to encourage hysteria, but left the door open. “The players have built various systems around it, both of vigilante justice and of thrill-seeking psychopaths who enjoy the extra challenge of having both the zombies and the local militia groups after them.” Those unable or unwilling to join one of the local groups skulk in the shadows, sneaking from safe house to safe house, scrounging what equipment they can from the rubble.
The zombie experience is similarly authentic. While zombies can only manage some forms of speech – various groans and horrible feeding noises – they gain experience easier than human players, as all a zombie requires to get stronger is breaking things and eating people. The zombie skill tree emphasizes destruction and consuming the flesh of the living, of course, but also supplements the mob aspect of a group of zombies, and the newly-undead are advised to log off in a mass, as a lone young zombie is easy prey for terrified survivors.
On the design side, Davis said, he tries to keep his zombies within the Romero model, with some variations for gameplay reasons – perhaps most significant, zombies can regain their humanity – and to keep things fun. Philosophically, he says, “My favorite angle on the zombie apocalypse is that once all of a city’s survivors are dead, it’s actually quite peaceful out there. I’ve not pushed it too much in Urban Dead, but it’s been nice to pass through the occasional suburb where every safe house has been broken open, and you’ve got hundreds of zombies just milling quietly around what was once their home. Urban Dead also drives home the idea that zombies are people, too, and that a die-hard survivor character can suddenly be given a different perspective on the game when he gets killed. Once risen as a reluctant zombie, he can easily find himself being shot down by other survivors with the same mindless bloodthirstiness he once saw in the undead.”
Initially, he “wasn’t even sure that player-controlled zombies would work, that perhaps people wouldn’t want to roleplay an anonymous and largely mute character.” His worries proved unfounded, as the zombie community can be quite enthusiastic, banding together for Mall Tours and other events, and toiling away at being the best undead they can be. Grouping seemed natural, and he enforces that in the game’s design. “Higher-level zombies can buy skills which allow them to help out lower-level zombies (such as dragging people out into the streets), and there tends to be a good sense of grunted camaraderie between a lot of zombies.” This even extends to new players, he says. “If a fresh zombie meanders its way into a horde, it isn’t regarded as a threat and will get some protection from the others. But if an unfamiliar survivor climbs through the window of a small safe house, they might well be greeted with suspicion.”
Zombies are also simpler to play. “You don’t need to worry about careful resource management or internecine politics,” as human players struggling to survive do, “you just follow the feeding groans, smash at the barricades and eat people.” That’s not to say being a zombie is all about brainless carnage. Zombies have some freedom in the game itself, allowing them to make choices, such as being able “to single out one survivor over another, to try to lead a horde to a particular building, to get bored of [easy kills] and drift away from the mall, [which] makes them a much more interesting, and genuinely terrifying, opponent. As every connoisseur of zombie movies knows, there’s nothing worse than finding out that the terrifying horde of undead is thinking.
From a storytelling perspective, Urban Dead‘s simple interface and deep gameplay allows each player to tell his own particular tale. Despite Davis’ interest in telling stories and designing games, he’s pleased with the hands-off approach he’s taking with his game. “I think it’s good that every player has a chance to build their own story,” he says. “By avoiding any big, official, ongoing plot, players have been able to project their own ideas onto the game without being contradicted by everything. Because everything outside of the official plot is reduced to survivor dialogue and graffiti, anything that doesn’t fit with your perception of the game – perhaps your safe house has been invaded by a squad claiming to be time-traveling robot vampire hunters – can be just dismissed as another sadly deluded survivor cult.”
The central story of this massively multiplayer game is, essentially, individual. The rise and fall of a player character can be safely ignored, if it doesn’t fit within another player’s sandbox, a freedom it extends to all who sign up to play. While Mister Tophat is a fascinating fallen socialite struggling to survive in the wake of the zombie apocalypse to me, to the unfortunates he stumbles across and devours, he’s just another well-dressed nut in search of brains.[em]Shannon Drake is a Contributing Editor for The Escapist and changed his name when he became a citizen. It used to be Merkw