Premature Evaluation: Zombie Playground

With each new year I think zombies must be about to suffer some sort of cultural burnout - but as relentless and implacable as death itself, they just keep on coming. I suppose their cultural indelibility makes sense given the momentousness of death and the widespread inability to truly believe in its finality. Also the fact that, historically, we have been fucking terrible at actually determining whether someone was dead or not, even as we stuck them in the ground. And we still are.

Each week Marsh Davies tears into the unholy children of Early Access with a wiffle bat and comes back with any stories he can find and/or ends up as a brain-pan buffet. This week he’s played Zombie Playground, a thirdperson brawler set in a school.

Back in 2012, at least 3787 people looked at Jason Chan’s painting – a helter skelter, valiantly defended against hordes of undead tots by four equally pre-pubescent warriors wielding mops and bin-lids – and thought, “Wow! What if this was a game?” Of course, the question they should have been asking is, “Wow! What if this was an extremely rudimentary fulfilment of the Kickstarter promises?” But nonetheless, ask they did, and stump up cash they did, and for three years, these wide-eyed would-be zombie-botherers have continued to ask the same question, albeit with a decreasingly civil tone. Following long periods of silence, and tumult behind the scenes, development duties have shifted to a partnership of three other companies and now, finally, the backers have some sort of answer.

Premature burial was not entirely unheard of in centuries past - and certainly the fear of it was very widespread. Chopin demanded to be cut open after his apparent death, just to make sure of things. George Washington was similarly wary, saying, “Have me decently buried, but do not let my body be put into a vault in less than two days after I am dead.

In fairness to the devs, they are quick to warn players that the game is “a true Beta”. In unfairness to the devs, beta is a big claim for the current status of Zombie Playground, and £11 is a big price, too. Beta suggests a feature-complete game in need of finesse. So far, Zombie Playground has an environment. It has enemies that respawn endlessly in that environment. And you can hit those enemies until they (or you) fall over – by way of a combat system that has some smarts but hasn’t yet been made to function entirely usefully within the rest of the game.

The one truly workable element of the game seems to be character customisation. I build a girl-child with a mop of striking blue hair, and a snazzy colour-contrasting outfit of neon pinks and greens that defies traditional gender stereotypes.

You can’t make black children. But you can have an AI dog!

“Dead ringer” is about horses, by the way. A ringer being a horse masquerading under a false pedigree, which is only dead in the sense of “absolute” - a meaning which emerges in the 16th century - as opposed to “deceased”. “Saved by the bell”, meanwhile, is a boxing term, for reasons I expect you can deduce.

Eventually, the XP you earn across your various sorties will be used to earn access to all this cosmetic stuff – which is currently freely available. It’s not yet clear why the XP system exists other than to defer access to this content – indeed, I don’t really understand what the structure of the game is to be. Do you just go to this environment, grind until you die, and then unlock new skirts? I’m doubtful this qualifies a game as an RPG. The devs’ notes do make reference to forthcoming “honest-to-goodness quests”, but I don’t know what that means. Currently, XP unlocks missions of the Kill 500 Zombies variety. Which I presume gives you more XP. Which allows you to unlock missions. I call this game design technique The Ouroboros of Fuck Off.

The starting mission is to Explore The School, which leads you back and forth across the environment from waypoint to waypoint, finally returning to the school gate where you first start. My dog and I are first tasked with congregating at the flagpole. Said congregation would be larger, but I can’t get the online co-op to work. As we scoot up, ghostly white-haired kids emerge from pools of bubbling black goo that have spontaneously manifested all around. Wielding the blade of a paper-cutter, I lay into them. Left-mouse-button delivers light attacks and right charges up an attack. Combos are based on timing rather than, er, combination: pause momentarily after one, two, or three light attacks and the weapon will flash. Attack again at that moment and you deliver a more powerful attack: a spin attack, a handy forward charge, or an AOE ground-pound. You can also switch to ranged weapons: I have a pair of nail guns, which feel piffling, and do little to halt the tides of enemies bounding towards me. Indeed, I’m not sure the combat system as a whole quite sits flush with the kind of messy and relentless melee challenge you typically face. The variety of close combat moves work really well against a handful of opponents, giving you crowd control and mobility, but the advantages of this are quickly outstripped by the sheer numbers you face. As enemies respawn nearby constantly, it’s usually easiest to just thrash light attacks: pausing to deliver a combo attack wastes an opportunity to stagger the foes that immediately threaten to do you damage.

Though is death as absolute as we think? As science has advanced, so too has our notion of that final frontier become rather blurry. We talk about the heart stopping as a moment of death. People who’ve had such close calls say things like, “I was clinically dead” - but then what does death mean, if you were able to return from it more or less intact? Patients can now be dead for hours, and then be revived. And this time could be extended even further if doctors were happy to risk bringing people back in a vegetative state, after the point at which their brain cells have undergone a critical amount of apoptosis. Such people would be true zombies: both dead and alive.

As I move into the school’s main atrium, enemies start lobbing their brains at me – somehow they have an infinite supply – but there’s no interesting tactical solution to this, other than to move off to fight in more enclosed spaces, where enemies can’t pummel you at range. Since enemies respawn, it’s not like you have any reason to fight them if you don’t want to. There will only be more of them in a few seconds anyway.

The waypointer tells me to go upstairs and then tells me to go back downstairs again. I head off into some classrooms to the right of the atrium at the waypointer’s fickle behest. There are some nice touches to the environmental design, like the yellow school bus rammed askance through a wall, but this is generally a notably low-spec affair. At the technological level it struggles to do justice to Chan’s concept art, which conveys a crisp fidelity, even as it enlarges and caricatures. Here, meanwhile, the gaudy lighting and absence of shadows undermines the necessary familiarity of the setting. One area has giant mushrooms all over the place. Another has smashed, luminescing jam jars – not a staple horror trope with which I am familiar. Another is on fire. The fire looks bad. It is on bad fire.

I make the mistake of fighting an adult undead, prowling round the language school. She doesn’t react to any of my attacks so I’m not sure if I am damaging her, and though I dodge her swings, kiting her around for what feels like a long time, I eventually get snagged on some scenery and die in a few hits, the collision of which is ambiguous enough to elicit swearwords.

Sam Parnia is a pioneering doctor who proselytises certain ER practices he estimates would save some 40,000 lives in the US each year, by simply not being so supine in the face of death. Many killers - heart attacks, pneumonia - are, he says, reversible problems given adequate time. The problem is preventing the brain deteriorating while you fix them. The statistics suggest he might be on to something: if you have a cardiac arrest at Parnia’s hospital, you have double the chance of living than at other US hospitals. He advocates the rapid and extreme cooling of the body to preserve the brain cells, and ensure the blood remains oxygenated, syphoning it out, oxygenating it by way of machine, and then pumping it back through again. Japan already practices some of this routinely - Parnia cites a case of a girl there who had been dead three hours, and was resuscitated after a further six. If you’re going to have a heart attack, have it there, probably.

I try again and again, though there’s not a lot else to do other than die or complete the quest by hitting all the requisite waypoints (harder than it sounds, because the waypoint arrow is, at times, entirely unhelpful). You can choose one of two classes at present: the Bully character is slow and tanky, with two special moves on the number keys: a mighty stomp and a damage buff. The Rascal class, moves faster but falls quicker, coming equipped with a speed boost special and temporary invulnerability.

Levelling up over subsequent games, I unlock the final mission of the current build, which tasks me with fighting the janitor. The environment is now deserted. I am told I need to “make a mess”, presumably to lure the janitor out, and then, later, smash up the janitor’s mop bucket. I do this but no janitor emerges to counter my major dis against his janitation skills. Instead, the mission prompt tells me I now have to “clean up”. The game doesn’t seem to have any key bindings for such an action. I smash up some sinks, in the hope that the geysering water will wash away the black ick that pools on the floor in the toilets. It doesn’t. I wander around the school some more, but no one’s here. Eventually I concede that this is probably a bug and quit.

One other interesting thing about Parnia: having collected many subjective accounts of death from the people brought back from the beyond, he has cultivated an agnosticism about the exact division of mind and body. In the very interesting article by Tim Adams of the Guardian to which this image links, Parnia is quoted as saying the following: “It seems that when consciousness shuts down in death, psyche, or soul – by which I don't mean ghosts, I mean your individual self – persists for at least those hours before you are resuscitated. From which we might justifiably begin to conclude that the brain is acting as an intermediary to manifest your idea of soul or self but it may not be the source or originator of it… I think that the evidence is beginning to suggest that we should keep open our minds to the possibility that memory, while obviously a scientific entity of some kind – I'm not saying it is magic or anything like that – is not neuronal.

Even after three years, Zombie Playground is a long way from completion, and, it saddens me to say, a much greater distance still from capturing the imagined experience Jason Chan’s picture suggested. For one thing, that imagined experience probably has advanced character physics, dynamic shadows and a few more polygons. But, if you gently bludgeon the grandiose (and perhaps unrealistic) dreams inspired by the early concept art, it’s possible to accept that a dedicated team could massage Zombie Playground into an enjoyable sandbox romp in the estimated six months they have in Early Access. Right now, the Early Access debut is too formless to say whether that’s likely: a few more updates to give some rigidity to its structure and a sense of purpose to the play and we’ll know for sure if the hope’s dead or whether it’s just been napping.

Zombie Playground is available from Steam for £11. I played version with the Build ID 706718 on 31/07/2015.

11 Comments

  1. Minglefingler says:

    Grange Kill?

  2. amateurviking says:

    I dunno, we can train mosquitoes to associate certain smells with a tasty meal, and others with an unpalatable one. And they’ll remember the association for 3-4 days, even if you knock them down on ice for an hour or two in the intervening period. And they only have a tiny, tiny brain which is mostly for working their insane eyes. So my feeling is that it’s all there in the brain – orders of magnitude more complex in humans of course. If not there then where?

    • Ross Angus says:

      This certainly sounds plausible. I initially took Marsh’s (alt) comments as an endorsement of dualism, but reading on, it was more “the brain distributes certain functions to … other organs”, an idea which has some scientific basis, and anecdotal evidence from transplant recipients.

    • Colthor says:

      Yeah, dualism is bunk.

      And the “evidence” of life/memory persisting after death is the subjective experience of people whose brains were profoundly broken at the time, but not, importantly, dead (or they obviously wouldn’t have been experiencing anything, let alone telling us about it). We don’t know when any memories from that period were formed – while the brain was misfiring terribly, or afterwards. Probably not a coincidence that they (like experiences during sleep paralysis, like alien abduction and having a witch sitting on your chest) happen to match quite closely with the experiencer’s cultural norms.

      There was an experiment attempted recently to objectively verify NDEs by using hidden images that would’ve only been visible to patients who were “out of their body”. Failed dismally, turned up nothing of note or worth. Writup on the blog of a skeptical neurologist: link to theness.com

  3. AngoraFish says:

    I’m a backer, and have given the game a good go, but I can’t possibly recommend it either. In its current state the game is barely a proof of concept.

    • Shuck says:

      “proof of concept”
      It seems like, in terms of gameplay, they’re about at the stage now where most Kickstarters are when they launch their campaigns.

  4. Shuck says:

    Well, I can’t say I’m surprised that a game Kickstarter based entirely off concept art and being done by a concept art company without game designers or programmers isn’t that great. I’m also unsurprised they don’t know what “beta” means (though usually people confuse things in the other direction, thinking that “alpha” means feature-complete). I’m certainly not surprised they’re not fulfilling the promises made in the Kickstarter about game features – they didn’t raise even remotely enough money to make the kind of game they were promising, or even hire a programmer and designer. I’m just amazed they came out with anything at all. This was not a project I seriously expected to ever see the light of day, in any state.

  5. King_Rocket says:

    The waypointer is pretty damn useless. I tried following it a few times but gave up after it was seemingly leading me in the wrong directions.

    I still have hope this could turn out to be a fun multiplayer game if it’s ever finished.

  6. Sam says:

    On the subject raised by the final alt-text:
    Parnia seems to be arguing that because patients appear to form new memories during their “brain-dead” period, that must be happening somewhere other than the brain. The patient wakes up and remembers experiencing things during a time when all the machines said their brain was inactive, so brain activity cannot be as closely bound up with consciousness as is generally believed. The problem is we don’t know when the memories they’re reporting were formed.

    We can only talk to patients that survive and wake up, and it’s entirely possible that the memories are created after the event and back-dated so that the patient thinks they were laid down during the time their brain was inactive. Even in a healthy brain memories are extremely unreliable and can be systematically altered quite easily. In addition, just think of how unreliable your sense of time is when it comes to dreaming.