Now Playing: an incompetent post-apocalyptic social worker in Zafehouse Diaries

Christopher Livingston

Welcome to Now Playing, in which we recount our recent adventures in PC gaming. This week, Chris tries to hold together a rag-tag bunch of survivors in Zafehouse Diaries, a post-apocalypse sim communicated through entries in a blood-stained diary.

Remember that old logic puzzle about taking a fox, a chicken, and a bag of feed across a river in a boat one at a time? The fox wants to eat the chicken, the chicken wants to eat the feed, and so on. Zafehouse Diaries reminds me of that puzzle, only the boat is broken, the fox is racist against the chicken, the chicken is uncomfortable around men, and there's a rumor that the bag of feed directed a film popular among wealthy old women. Also, there are zombies.

Are you prepared for the zombie apocalypse? Got some food stocked up? A gas generator? Supplies of medicine? A bunch of guns? Most importantly, do you have a degree in psychology, or at least some expertise in leading group therapy sessions and resolving interpersonal conflicts? Because as we know by now, the zombies lurching around outside are bad, but the humans you're trapped with inside are even worse.

This trap turns zombies into sticky, pointy zombies. I think someone else should make the traps next time.

In Zafehouse Diaries, a strategy game with randomly generated maps and characters, I'm finding that knowing how to deal with a collection of narrow-minded uncooperative jerks who arbitrarily hate each other is far more important than stockpiling weapons and food. The mode I've been playing, Road Kill, starts me off with five survivors holed up in a house. They have some useful attributes, like being a firefighter or a surgeon, and some less desirable ones, like the ability to point out that it's not like they're racist or anything, it's just that they don't like the way certain people of certain races look and won't get along with them.

It's okay. Colin doesn't like Kenneth's looks and Devin doesn't like Leah's looks. Plus, they'll all be dead soon.

My current group is doing great on the nuts-and-bolts survival front. As their invisible puppeteer, I've had them explore map locations, scavenge food and weapons, and even break into a bank and kill the zombies inside. It's when they're turning the bank into a safehouse (or zafehouse, to be more zexact) that the problems start, because now they have to work together in close proximity and their petty issues and prejudices come tumbling out like rotting zombie entrails.

If you're going to break Jon's arm, Gina, at least break it all the way off and fashion it into a spear.

I try to manage them as best I can. I keep people who don't like each other's "looks" working on different projects like barricading doors, exploring the bank for supplies, constructing traps, and making meals. Tension grows, however, as survivors get stressed and frustrated, squabble with each other, and disagree about the best course of action. Time for some psychology.

I try starting a rumor, which is something I can do to mend relationships. Everyone is hating on one survivor, Kelsey, so I make up some lie and let the others digest it, hoping it will improve their disposition. I spread some gossip that Kelsey wrote a book. Since Vincent isn't comfortable around women, I make the book about a man. Since Maria doesn't like older people, I make it about a young man. Since Stephen, for some reason, has a beef with the middle-class, I make it about a poor young man. I can't remember why Joe likes the book, but it's probably because the book is the opposite of something he hates for no real reason. At any rate, everyone is a bit happier.

The beginnings of an awesome Hate Pentagram.

Keep in mind, no one has actually read the book. They just heard a rumor whispered to them by their invisible psychologist. Something else to keep in mind: they all die a short time later because of zombies, who are not impressed with the fake book at all.

In another round, I get a different group into the bank and start barricading doors. Soon, tempers once again flare, as the two survivors working on barricades get frustrated with each other. Someone is hoarding painkillers, and her explanation is that she's addicted to painkillers, which is a valid reason but not much of an excuse. The two characters I sent to make zombie traps get annoyed with each other. Someone wants to play chess to take their minds off the zombie apocalypse but no one else wants to play so everyone winds up even more unhappy.

As the invisible therapist, I plant a positive rumor in everyone's head. Inception. It works.

Quickly, the relationship lines go from mostly green (I like you) and yellow (you're okay) to orange (I don't like you) and red (I hate you, but not in a racism way, honest). I call it the Hate Pentagram, and it's eventually happened in every game I've played.

At least there are zombies to take everyone's minds off how much they hate each other, and eventually, low on food and raiding separate buildings for meals, I get to enjoy the sounds of these jerks getting eaten to death, one by one, before starting over with a new crew of baggage-laden survivors and trying to manage their rapidly deteriorating interpersonal relationships.

Not cool, Alejandro. We really needed that chair.

All this bickering isn't just cosmetic: it leads to hurt feelings and anger and the survivors not looking out for each other. While raiding nearby buildings for food, two character run on ahead, leaving a third behind, who gets eaten by zombies. Later, another character gets infected, and everyone gets mad when I decide to spare her life because they like this character so little they don't even want to try to save her.

In another round, it gets even worse, as unhappy survivors begin physically assaulting each other. One character throws a chair at someone, wasting a perfectly good chair that could have been used as scrap wood to barricade a door. Two other characters fight, resulting in one of them breaking the other's arm. I'm not sure this game even needs zombies. Give me five people on a dream vacation in a luxury hotel for 24 hours, and I'll have them bludgeoning each other to death with axe handles because they can't agree on which appetizers to order.

With the group dynamics not working out, I try another game mode, where you start with only one survivor. As Brittney, I'm happy to be exploring and scavenging on my own, until I meet a surgeon named Zachary who has bandages, antibiotics, and splints, and who seems healthy and helpful.

He's a surgeon with meds. But is he a dick? I can't risk it.

No thanks, helpful doctor who probably doesn't like women, or gays, or whatever your deal is. I'll go it alone. Brittney dies soon afterwards after being surrounded by zombies, but at least she's not surrounded by monsters.

Zafehouse Diaries is available now through the website, and is looking for Greenlight upvotes to get onto Steam. For more Now Playing adventures, check out the full list >here .

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