By Robert Florence on January 15th, 2013 at 5:00 pm.
Hey yo, okay, that’s enough with the zombies now. That is ENOUGH with the zombies. Sure, I like zombies. You like zombies. We all like zombies. But you know what? I see zombies more often than I see most members of my family these days. I think we’ve pretty much had it with the zombies for a little while, popular culture. Let’s have a break from the zombies, hm?
Okay. One more. Fine. This one is called Zafehouse: Diaries and it has a Z in the title because it’s always Z for Zombies theze dayz. It’s like Z is the Nike swoosh for zombies or something. It’s a brand thing. If you see a Z, you know you got some Zombies. It’s why all those zebras got together for a re-branding conference last October.
Okay, so here’s the deal. When you start a game of Zafehouse you choose which story setting you want to play. One has you trying to survive while searching for details of a rescue team’s arrival, the other has you trying to scavenge parts for a vehicle that can get you out of town. Both play in a similar fashion – you will have five characters who can be commanded to carry out actions. You will then progress time, and your results will show up in the diary.
The game is presented through nice, clean static screens. The main screen is a map of the town, while clicking on a building that contains your characters will open a clipboard from where you can create commands. There’s the diary, which narrates your latest hopeless attempt at survival. And then there’s this little relationships page, showing how all the characters feel about each other. Here you can see the game deciding that the version of me I created is probably a racist.
Yeah, see, here’s a positive thing about this game – it’s mainly about the relationships between the characters. The game is so simple (essentially a choose-your-own-adventure with some extra choices and a lick of strategy) that you really need this added dynamic of character tension. If your characters hate each other, they won’t work well together. They might even get violent with each other. And seriously, making this bunch of arseholes get along is probably your biggest challenge in the game. (Well, until you make the wrong choice in some random event and have your entire party instantly destroyed. Yeah, that happens. Supafun.)
Okay, so – let’s say you have all your characters in a house. All you’ll see are some little tokens representing each character on the map screen. You can click and drag these little tokens around the map, sending them to other buildings with orders to investigate or breach or assault. You won’t see much more happening than that. And that’s fine, because inside the diary the story is progressing every time you click the little digital watch that advances the clock.
This is pretty realistic, actually. It’s the end times, and I want to play a fucking BOARD GAME. As you can see, I’m getting no joy from all these miserable goons. I think after this happened I sent Geoffrey and Brandy out to breach another building with only a hammer to defend themselves. I did this because they refused to play games with me, and also because I don’t like the look of Geoffrey.
Everyone has occupations, and these occupations will affect the characters’ skills. Geoffrey was a fireman before the diarocalypse happened, I think. So he was handy at breaking down doors with axes. Shawn was a chef, so I kept telling him to make the dinner until we ran out of food. And being a writer, I was good at modifying spanners.
Can you even begin to visualise what that spanner might look like? I don’t think even H.P. Lovecraft himself could conceive of anything so terrible as this Terrifying Spanner. And yeah, then my character decides to modify a fucking SPONGE? No wonder I couldn’t find anyone to play chess with me. My guy’s in the middle of a nervous breakdown. “Here, Geoffrey, take this sponge! Now go assault the police station!” (To be fair, modifying a sponge creates a Sparkling Sponge that is better at cleaning up corpses oh what the fuck am I explaining this nonsense for?)
Now, when your characters aren’t busy searching or barricading or fighting zombies or making dinner, then they start to occupy themselves with some random bullshit. I’d like someone out there to explain to me exactly what was happening at this point in my diary:
You can try to make your characters like each other better by spreading rumours. You can only spread one rumour at a time, so it’s important to prioritise relationships. I wanted my two good fighters to get along, so I spread a rumour that one of them was a charity worker and that eased some tensions. You can’t hate a good guy charity worker! Of course, with every rumour comes the risk that some of the other characters hate charity or poor people or whatever. Those Tories get everywhere. And then your good-intentioned rumour might just send you spiralling into some more drama that sees good people getting hurt:
I mean, what is this? Hate Rab Florence: The Game? Except in a game this time?
Zafehouse: Diaries is a challenging, interesting zombie game. I really wanted to like it, because I think the intent is there to make something different. It just feels very thin. The idea is great – there’s the beginnings of something here, for sure – but it isn’t fleshed out enough to feel like you can actually get your teeth into the mechanics. The presentation is so minimalistic that you really need a greater amount of depth to feel like you’re doing something worthwhile with your time. There needs to be more of everything. We didn’t all get obsessed with games like Championship Manager back in the day because they looked clean and simple, we got obsessed because they were deep and smart and they gave back what we put in.
This just feels like an early game concept with some neat ideas and a slick interface. If you had played it in your browser, for free, you’d maybe feel a little bit of excitement over what it might become down the line. You’d certainly want the developers to continue with the evolution of their project. I’ve worried about the fact that a “negative review” might hinder that progress. I hope not. I’d love to return to the game in a year and see that it’s made good on its potential.
But paying for it isn’t something I would pencil it into your diary just yet.
Now, would any of you like a game of Chess?