Spoiler warning: you're going to die. If you're lucky, you'll get to choose how. Torn apart by the undead? A knife in the back? Starvation? How about wrapping your lips around the gun holding your last precious bullet and kissing the world goodbye? Project Zomboid isn't about saving the day. It's about survival, and the decisions you make when you have nothing to lose but your braaaaaaains.
Even as zombies overtake Nazis as gaming's favourite punching bag, Project Zomboid is one of the most exciting indie games on the horizon. The simple graphics hide a fiendish mix of RPG, strategy and even a slice of The Sims, built on emergent action rather than scripted campaigns.
“We've moved away from the action focus of most zombie games to explore other areas, such as dealing with relationships, keeping morale high, depression, paranoia and insanity,” explains Chris Simpson, one quarter of developers The Indie Stone. “For instance, you may be playing as a police officer and stumble on a biker gang. Normally, they'd rob you blind. But maybe this time you have a skill they need – first aid, carpentry, whatever – and they'll let you join them. Every game can play out differently.”
The most interesting part of this is the potential it offers for creating your own narratives, as so often seen in games such as Dwarf Fortress. An AI director is planned, and due to be set to 'sadistic', watching for situations such as you happily barricading yourself into a house with a year's supply of food, and upping the ante with a quick raid or a fellow survivor finally cracking. You'll also have to deal with more predictable threats, including the power going out – making torches worth their weight in other, equally valuable torches. As in the movies, a single zombie is nothing more than gory bubblewrap; a tension-relieving spot of homicide after a long day in a cramped safehouse. A whole horde of them is a different story, especially in the dark.
“Is it safe to use my shotgun to save my house right now, or should I sneak out the back door and find somewhere else?” says Simpson. “I'm starving, but only have one tin of soup left. Should I eat it, or give it to a sick member of my group?” Don't expect a quicksave to make the decision easier.
Project Zomboid is being developed much like Minecraft, and for frustrating reasons beyond the developer's control, is currently available only if you buy one of the Indie Stone's other games for £5. This gains you access to a demo version, albeit a mostly scripted one built to give a flavour of the planned experience, and all future updates. The first proper version is due later this year – likely a relatively slimline game offering the basics, with regular updates piling on new mechanics and content.
It's not the only – or the prettiest – zombie apocalypse game by a long stretch, but that's okay. Doomed nihilism has rarely been so ambitious. If it all comes together as promised, expect many long, dark nights of misery and death. But in a good way.