Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead: A roguelike you could play for the rest of your life

I don’t like roguelikes and, like all real people, I was sick of zombies years ago. Plus, somehow in just a few years we’ve gone from having next to no survival games to having so many of the godforsaken things that you can barely move without tripping over a hunger bar.

All this and the keyboard-heavy ASCII affectation would, you’d think, make for my nightmare game. And it should. So I am actively irritated that Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead an ASCII zombie survival roguelike, has taken over my life. Let me tell you about my latest character, a 12-year-old girl who is surviving the apocalypse by jetting around on rollerblades, pelting monsters with a sling, and studying mechanics so she can hotwire an electric van and run over someone who stole her bag of precious salt.

There’s a danger when describing an expansive game that you’ll make it sound like a mere checklist of parts. Rather than convey the delicious flavour of the dish, you might give an impression of a hideous gloopy mess of vegetables, fish, and uncooked pasta. That’s a tricky problem to get round here, because in this analogy, Cataclysm DDA is less of a dish and more of a theme restaurant. It is an enormous thing, densely packed with options, challenges, and an immense volume of stuff.

Things start when you create a world. Each is procedurally generated, and based on the climate and urban development of New England. Some parameters can be changed, most notably the size of and distance between cities, but each is broadly similar save for the local details. Much like Minecraft, more land is created as you travel, but first you’ll need to create a character. This is done by distributing points across four basic statistics, skills like Melee, Cooking, and Electronics, and/or investing in traits giving unique twists on your character’s behaviour or abilities. You can also spend or gain points by choosing a background or scenario that determines where and in what condition you’ll start out. If you’ve played your share of traditional roguelikes or even just a lot of RPGs, this will all sound fairly familiar in principle, and even if not, it’s an intuitive system with decent help text. You’ll have a fair idea what you’re starting out with even on your first game, and it’s easy to set things up more or less however you like.

What perhaps isn’t as clear is just how much variety all these options give you. Combine the endless permutations of all the above options with the tonnes and tonnes of items, places, and monsters on the map, and you could be playing DDA for the rest of your life. Even a fairly standard “survivor” setup – you’re in town in a relatively safe sealed building, with no outlandish abilities or character flaws – could play out drastically differently depending on what items appear in the building with you, what – if any – buildings are next door, and what types of nasties are nearby. Even which door you open, what clothes you’re wearing, or whether a particular window has curtains could spell life or death. And assuming you survive the initial day’s drama, where you go and what you do next could vary so much you’re practically playing a different game altogether.

You see, DDA isn’t just a game where you replenish meters and shoot zombies. It’s Unreal World set in a near future state that just happens to have undergone some terrible catastrophe. Regular deadies and Left (“for” – Obstinance Dept.) Dead-style super zombs roam many streets, sure, but it won’t be long before you see what other horrors have been unleashed upon the world; rather like Duskers, it’s not clear exactly what went wrong, but “everything” wouldn’t be a bad estimate. To deal with all this, you have heaps and heaps of items all with at least one use, and total freedom to roam and live as you please. Take Istela.

Istela is a child. That option changes only your starting circumstances, but I loaded her up with minimal strength and a set of traits to simulate someone young: she’s extremely fragile, but fairly fast, stealthy, and learns a little faster than most. She started unarmed in a school swarming with undead children and would have died almost immediately, but for what she found first: those aforementioned rollerblades. With them, she was able to zoom past the lumbering deadies, and cleared out a nearby trio of buildings thanks to a local minefield.

Over a year later, Istela has it made. She settled in her third lucky break, an abandoned motel a mile from town, and divides her time between exploring, hunting, experimenting with the game’s absurdly extensive crafting system, and occasionally fleeing from the unstoppable hellbeast in the forest. She’s killed two intruders and countless creatures with her trusty sling, but has also made two friends and with them cleared out her old school. Between the library and chemistry stockroom, she’s learned how to cook dozens of dishes, construct equipment, and even built her own forge.

She’s learned to skin animals and tan their hides to make clothes, and identified which plants she can use to synthesise medicines. Then there’s the bicycle she built from scratch using the game’s modular vehicle design system. The roads are dotted with broken cars, which with the right skills and tools can be patched up or cannibalised. Find or build a frame and you can attach just about anything to it, including more frames. Istela nailed some wheels and a handle onto one to create a simple trolley for carting firewood and charcoal. A third experiment gained her a full laboratory liberated from a mobile meth van, powered by a pile of car batteries and an engine whose exhaust vents through the wall.

There’s also the electric van we took home after a trip South, where an eerily deserted town pockmarked with giant craters started collapsing around us as something terrible approached. A harrowing high speed escape through a swarming neighbourhood left the van too battered to risk another journey. But it’s been a boon for carting logs from the forest to help with building the new garage overlooking the farm. Oh yeah, that’s another thing you can do.

Meanwhile, in a parallel world, a series of random characters have met grisly deaths or pursued completely different adventures. One of them, Ruby, sought antibiotics for a sickly NPC, a job that kicked off a nightmare three day war across town. Ruby has the ‘psychopath’ trait, so had no qualms about abandoning said NPC. But a bad fight left her with her own infection. Too afraid to sleep, armed with a handful of guns from a survivalist’s house, she roamed the streets with a torch, a purse of batteries, and an ungodly amount of drugs, unsure how much of the vomiting and shivering was the infection, the booze, or the rain. She spent her last days shooting, running, torching buildings and desperately seeking medical aid, while trying not to think about what might be causing those explosions in the distance.

A third character left his shelter with a friendly NPC, got her killed, and fled West through vast forests in a rattling car. His death followed a pyrrhic victory, the car being totaled in order to kill a monstrous armoured thing, but the crash also breaking his leg and leaving him helpless when another one shuffled out of the darkness. A few characters later in the same world (they’re persistent!), another survivor drove past the crash site, killed the beast, and looted his body.

Almost every time I play DDA, I see something new. Every day offers so many options I’m paralysed at times. I could go hunting! I could go visit the swamp! I could pick flowers, or gather firewood, or loot a building, or brave the sinister basement of that house. Perhaps I’ll pick a random direction and explore, go for a drive, investigate the cause of the cataclysm, or find out what that turret in the West was defending. Perhaps I’ll start extending the van into a caravan and live on the roads. Maybe I’ll just stay home for the day and read, build, synthesise some gunpowder, or just get off my face on strawberry wine. I honestly wasn’t joking when I told a friend last week that, apocalypse or no, I envied Istela’s life.

There are no levels, and any perks and abilities arise organically from your actions. You don’t magically gain powers because some numbers went up, but learn by studying books or practicing. Miraculously, there’s not even any grinding. Oh, I’m sure you could. I’m sure you could joylessly min-max it like anything else, but I’ve never felt the need, and more fool you if you do, frankly, when you could be doing anything else at all.

It’s a curiously intuitive game for one so complex, and the degree of simulation versus abstraction is impressively balanced. It’s also tied very closely to a given character, so that even if you know how to make something, your character might be out of luck. Recipes for crafting are found in books and there heaps of them. Cooking alone accounts for pages and pages of recipes, and that’s with ingredients pared down; meat from any animal is just ‘meat’, for example, and all wood is the same, and even within that discipline there are at least a dozen recipes exclusively for cannibalism.

You can have a crack at a recipe even if your skill level is too low, provided you have the book nearby as a reference, and there’s a whole system for memorising recipes, or even forgetting them, and having your skills degrade through neglect.

My favourite aspect is how my discovery of the game’s systems mirrors that of my characters’. Cars, for instance, are in real life the most tedious things in the universe. In DDA though, I was learning a crude approximation of mechanics right alongside my character and even enjoying it. Budding chemists may get a kick out of the multiple routes to creating your own propellants and fuels. And seriously, you haven’t lived until you’ve run over a man for stealing a bag of salt. It took me DAYS to gather enough roots for that, damn it.

Often it’s the item or place you discover in the first few days that dictates the course of your game. For Istela it was those rollerskates; any zombie, even the kids, has a good chance of killing her in melee, but as long as she stays on even ground, she is untouchable. For Ruby it’s the guns and the infected arm. For my first character it was a tent, which saw me set up on a plain outside town, where it gradually dawned on me that the harmless flavour creatures milling around nearby were going to destroy every living thing on Earth. Her death was so horrific, and so brilliant, that I urge you to skip the following paragraph rather than spoil one of the game’s secrets. Suffice to say it was not the usual “ha ha dice say you’re dead, now go waste another 3 hours getting to the same point” of the roguelike, but, well, it was honestly my own stupid fault. I’ll include the story here though, in case you need more encouragement to play the game:

Alongside the mundane wildlife and undead spin-offs (who often fight each other), there are creatures called fungaloids. I’d considered these passive walking mushrooms a useful buffer, until I walked down far enough to see that the little patch of fungus they’d come from had grown. Worse – it was growing exponentially, as each of the fungaloids was spreading fungus tiles, which were in turn spawning more fungaloids. And there were hundreds of both. It’s one thing for most humans to die, but this? I was at ground zero for the bloody fungal Many. A solid day’s hacking at them with a fire axe was futile – they’d already reached a point where they’d just replenish while I slept. So I set their entire world on fire, shot the survivors with a bow and burned the lot. I went to bed content, until in the middle of the night I started coughing. The next day, the first of the mushroom stalks burst through my flesh…

There’s so much to Cataclysm DDA that I couldn’t spoil it all even if I wanted to. Yes, it has the usual repetitive, esoteric controls of the ASCII roguelike, and yes, it’s a bloody survival game about bloody zombies. But however sick you are of those fads, make an exception for this. Cataclysm DDA will make you a zombie. “Copper wire”, you’ll mutter, lurching and staggering aimlessly about the streets, until suddenly – yes! There! A machine! Tear it apart! EXPOSE ITS PRECIOUS INNARDS TO FEED THE INSATIABLE BEAST WITHIN. We are the true monsters after all.

Cataclysm DDA is an open source replacement of the defunct Catacalysm, and is available for free. The experimental build is recommended, although Windows 10 users may find it buggy. Multiple tilesets are included, but no sound. I recommend the Chesthole soundpack.

From this site

46 Comments

  1. ButteringSundays says:

    It’s a fine game!

    I HIGHLY recommend Rycon Roleplays (link to youtube.com) if you like the idea but aren’t likely to play yourself. He has 2 long play thoughs, and he’s very easy to listen to.

  2. Voqar says:

    Completely awesome game. It took me a while to get over the “graphics” and take the plunge and there’s some adapting to the keybinds/controls, but that small investment in learning is worth it. (I play using a tileset, which is included with the game via in-game options, rather than use the ASCII)

    CDDA has tons of content, excellent mechanics, tons of replay, and since it’s community developed there’s ongoing new builds daily with new content and tweaks regularly. And it’s completely hookless free.

    Silver Dragon Lord has some (somewhat dated now but mostly applicable) tutorials for this that are decent.

    I own 100’s of games and have over 100 installed (mostly that I never play) and CDDA is always in my rotation.

    • SilverDragon says:

      Heh, thanks mate. Aye the tutorial is getting dated by this point, i should really make a new one sometime. Though there are a few LPs that are more updated there’s nothing really that recent. Should really change that soon. :P

  3. Robbobin says:

    I adore this game. Wish I knew how many hours I’d played it for; must be hundreds. Hasn’t received an official update for well over a year and a half now though :(

    I fell into the trap of realising you could save-scum and sort of spoiled it for myself, scumming all the best mutations. Worrying that I have so little self-control.

    If you’re not super into absolute permadeath you can create a copy of your save folder; sometimes I quite like to allow myself one backup every in-game week or so, once I’ve organised my base fully. Very much not in the spirit of roguelikes but I had some fun that way.

    • ButteringSundays says:

      It hasn’t had a ‘release’ since 2015. But it was last updated today (Or the 11th if you’re on OSX). It’s still very much in active development: link to dev.narc.ro

    • Redem says:

      Hi, Robbobin.

      There is the “latest stable” version, which I assume it what you’re use to using, and the “latest experimental”. The Stable versions are updated… occasionally. The experimentals can get multiple updates in the same day. There are a lot of new mechanics and content since the last stable version. I strongly recommend that you try out the latest experimental version. You might occasionally run into bugs, but eh, no big deal.

      Also, there is now a launcher for the game that lets you update more easily. Found at reddit.

  4. pelle says:

    Been playing on and off. Have to take breaks to have time for life and other games, otherwise I could easily live in cdda. Developers add content faster than I discover. Most people seem to play with graphical tiles, not ascii.

  5. Moth Bones says:

    Fourth new version since I last played? Cheers for reminding me this exists, it is queasy and memorable. What really stuck with me is that while a normal speed character can outpace any individual zombie, you still have to keep moving all the time and not get surrounded. This gives it a calm but nightmarish feel. Don’t be put off because it’s zombies.

    • Sin Vega says:

      It’s got a pretty good handle on generating that moment where the inexorable tide of monsters has, just this second, become the one that will ruin your day.

      You can also play it with no special zombies, with regular extra slow zombies, or with no zombies at all. Or with dinosaurs. I err on the side of keeping them despite my dislike, as they’re an important part of the balance. The mere threat of them has been a great deterrent, keeping parts of the map off limits and making sneaky exploratory incursions so much more tense.

  6. indigochill says:

    Woo, excited to see this covered! I’ve never been an active developer, but did at one point in the distant past contribute a tiny bit of code to implement collapsing buildings leaving piles of rubble (as well as damaging bits of your vehicle if you happen to ram your Mad Max Mobile into the nearest grocery store). Haven’t played in ages so not sure if it’s still in there, but still feel a sense of pride to see the game here.

    One of my favorite things about DDA isn’t just how incredibly vast yet intuitive it is, but also that it’s been a very actively community-developed game. If you have aspirations for game programming, get in there and make a pull request!

  7. April March says:

    A roguelike I need to play. I fear I’m at a stage of my life in which I’ll never be able to figure out a game like this again, and I thought Dwarf Fortress wasn’t really that daunting.

    • SlimShanks says:

      Unless this stage of your life means constant drunkenness, you should be fine. It’s vastly simpler to play than Dwarf Fortress. Technically you can play the whole game with about five buttons not including your numpad. Try it!

      • April March says:

        I tried, bounced off (softly), decided to come back to it later after I’ve maybe read a wiki or something. That was some years ago!

        • SilverDragon says:

          I did post a tutorial below if you wish. :P Also the biggest issue people tend to have with the game (other then the graphics, which can be changed as well) is the controls. If you use ? in game there is a option (i believe its #2) to show all the controls for the game, if you keep referencing that you should get a handle on things fairly quickly.
          You may also wish to enable mundane (no special) zombies to start off with and perhaps lower there population when generating a new world.

        • Rince Wind says:

          The keybindings are now on the esc key. And the wiki, while efforts to make it more up to date have been made lately, is lacking in several things.

          • SilverDragon says:

            Aye, turns out it was ? 1, for the old way to view controls. It is nice that they added it to ESC. Aye the wiki has always been a bit lacking, but it at least had enough basic information to get by. Especially when one also makes use of the item database.

  8. SlimShanks says:

    Yep, this game is fairly amazing. Every time a zombie dies to the spikes on the front of my truck, I smile. And burning things is also tremendous. The author didn’t even mention that you can augment yourself with retractable claws.
    My first character avoided most danger, until the day he broke into a museum and found an estoc and a greatsword. At which point I like to imagine he ran out of the building screaming, “This is Dark Souls now!” and proceeded to murder everything in sight. Maybe it’s me who was screaming that.

    • SilverDragon says:

      I like to add steamrollers to the front of my death-mobiles. It’s quite effective at clearing the dead, only downside is it destroys or heavily damages any items it runs over.

      • SlimShanks says:

        Definitely gonna try that… I also need flamethrowers, but one thing at a time.

        • SilverDragon says:

          You can build simple flamethrowers fairly easily though the advanced one is much better. Apparently they made some changes recently that may kill my steamroller death tanks. Heavy objects now require jacks and cranes to attach them to a vehicle and the rollers exceed the limit, for now.

  9. baseless_drivel says:

    During the course of playing as a 12-year old girl, what if you start having menstrual cycles?

    If the girl was brought up by poorly-educated, hyper-conservative parents, will her confusion, fear, and shock of spontaneous bleeding be accurately portrayed in-game?

    Can zombies smell blood? Will her period cause yet another problem? Will she have to find yet more ways to stay alive? Or will she perhaps use this blood as a new tool for survival, by using it as zombie trap bait?

    Cannot craft item: insufficient used menstrual pads.

    Or could it be that the survivor’s poor state of mental and physical health has caused a temporary cessation of her normal body functions?

    This is important and integral to me enjoying this game. DDA devs, please take note.

    On another note, I have a new idea for a late NaNoWriMo start.

    • Sin Vega says:

      She spends about half her nights reading the books she finds, so the odds are pretty good that she has a better handle on anatomy than most adults.

      As it happens, some monsters do hunt by scent, and one of her traits is “weak scent” to fit in with her age. She’s also a lightweight with a weak stomach, and hates eating vegetables, which can actually be quite a big problem as the game’s nutrition model demands a balanced diet. It was even commenting at one point that she was sleeping well and feeling great because she was eating so well and enjoying life.

      Hence, envy.

    • literarylottie says:

      “If the girl was brought up by poorly-educated, hyper-conservative parents, will her confusion, fear, and shock of spontaneous bleeding be accurately portrayed in-game?”

      This is…unlikely. If the game is based in/on New England, and Istela attends public school, then she will have been exposed to a sexual education class. Even if she lived in a state where her parents could opt her out of such a class, she has almost certainly been exposed to the facts of menstruation. I can’t presume your gender and your life experiences, but I can tell you from my life experience that preteen and teen girls discuss their periods. At twelve, a good number of her peers have already started menstruating. If she had immediate female family members, she’s come across their supplies. And honestly, I grew up in the Bible Belt, and even the most severely fundamentalist parents didn’t just plain not tell their daughters about periods (they just added a healthy dose of body-shaming to it).

      The big question is – where is she getting her menstrual pads? Tampons? Sure, there’s a probably a stash in the school nurse’s office, but otherwise she’ll either need to scavenge for them – a quest fraught with peril, as she’ll be free-bleeding without recourse, slowing her down and chancing detection – or she’ll need to be resourceful. Lacking supplies or a way to craft said supplies will basically render her unable to leave shelter so long as her period lasts, risking her other resources dwindling dangerously low, or the opportunity for dangerous creatures/other survivors to move into the area.

      New craftable item: menstrual pads.

      Now I want this to be a reality, too.

      • Sin Vega says:

        She makes her own gunpowder. She grows her own fruit to make wine and dried snacks for the Winter. She figured out how to build a house, a bicycle, a forge, and a petrol-powered laboratory. I think she can knock up some basic sanitation without much trouble.

        You leave her alone, you sods. She’s cooler than any of you.

  10. TechnicalBen says:

    Ok, I just went “how do I do anything… ooh, I just got a raccoon… Raccoon meat dinner” then “I’ll just drop these logs, some paper, oh start a fire in the building… hmmm… nice dinner” then BLAM house on fire, roof falls down, and I walk casually away with a lesson learnt… oh this looks fun! :D

    • SilverDragon says:

      Heh, you can always lead a group of zombies into a house, close the door to the room your in, use lighter or matches on floor to start fire, then jump out the window and enjoy the show. :P
      There are of course a few objects one can build to safely have a fire indoors.

  11. Premium User Badge

    caff says:

    Great article, full of love for a game that I’ve only ever read about and never played. This has convinced me I need to download and play.

  12. SilverDragon says:

    It is truly a deep and highly enjoyable game. For those that are turned off of it from the ASCII graphics do note that tilesets are included in both the stable and experimental versions of the game, you simply need to go into the options and select one in the graphics tab.
    If anyone needs a tutorial to get you started in the game i have a fairly extensive one here with annotations to specific aspects of the gameplay.(for some reason direct link keeps showing wrong video . . . . so ill just link the playlist its in) link to youtube.com

  13. mgardner says:

    Haven’t seen this mentioned yet (maybe I missed it), but there is a version available on the App Store for iOS devices. It’s in my backlog – I played the tutorial and the controls seem adequate for a keyboard-less iPad.

  14. OldWillie says:

    One thing to keep in mind when playing this game is that it is absolutely a sandbox to be enjoyed exactly how you want. Flip options on or off to make the game faster and easier if you want. There is no such thing as cheating.

    The community developers have gone off the grognard deep end in the last year or so and tedium/makework seem to be their drug of choice.

    • hungrym says:

      After browsing the “latest experimental features” thread on their forum, I can’t agree enough about the bizarre tendency toward tedium & busywork. I’m dreading the changes set to go into the next stable release; I’ll give version 0.D a shot when it (eventually) comes out, but will probably stick with 0.C.

      On the bright side, for those interested, now’s definitely the time to give this game a shot!

      • Redem says:

        Eh, you can use a mod to simplify the nutrition or anything of that sort that you dislike. These are experimental for a reason, they’re trying out new things. Seeing how many are fun or interesting for the player base. I like the “filthy clothes” thing, for example, you really shouldn’t be stripping a “decayed zombie” and wearing their jeans like it’s nothing.

        • SilverDragon says:

          Problem is the filthy cloths addition doesn’t really add much to the gameplay, it just gives a slight moral penalty at the moment which i do hope they will change to add a increased chance if infection, especially when cut in the area its being worn. Usually though you can find or make much better cloths, though if you significantly reduce the item spawn rate i can see it becoming slightly more interesting. :P

  15. zsd says:

    I’ve lost a few hours to this, thanks to this article.

    The cataclysm came in early spring, but for Booker Burks, the world was always ending. He was schizophrenic. However, the tragic backstory I had concocted for him kind of instantly dissolved into delight and amazement when he discovered an abandoned road roller.

    I did not understand how vehicle controls worked, so Booker meandered through a field doing confused donuts before flattening a motorcycle and plowing through the front wall of a motel room Kool-Aid Man style. That motel room would become Booker’s home, as it had a comfy bed and the now-immobilized road roller’s sturdy doors had become the only way in or out.

    He had other misadventures and killed many zombies with a screwdriver. He eventually died after a long, miserable slog through the sewers, emerging into the sunlight through a manhole cover, cold, starving, thirsty, exhausted and badly infected, only to discover he was surrounded by at least a dozen of the undead.

    RIP Booker.

  16. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    I may have to check this one out; I’m amazed I never heard of this game before. Thanks, everybody!

  17. brodek says:

    I strongly recommend playing this game with some tileset, this one is my favorite: link to smf.cataclysmdda.com
    It’s really nice, you can see your clothes and items wielded. It’s like mainstream game now:) Also, new players should start by downloading this launcher, which automatically update a game (a couple of times a day!!). OMG this game is too good! link to reddit.com

  18. Rince Wind says:

    There is a 3rd party launcher that keeps your game up to date if you want to and saves you the tedium of installing the newest version all the time:
    link to smf.cataclysmdda.com

    And don’t be fooled by the label “experimental” for the current versions, they are usually more stable than the rather old 0.C “stable” and bugs are often fixed within hours. It also has all the content unlike the outdated stable version.
    I usually update my game after a character that survived a while dies.

    Edit: Someone beat me to the launcher, I swear I didn’t see that post before I send mine. :D

    • Premium User Badge

      caff says:

      Thanks for the links too!

    • SilverDragon says:

      Aye the experimental builds have always had a ton of addition content then the “stable” builds. Ive very rarely had issues or bugs that made play difficult. However im not entirely enthusiastic with some of the recent changes.

  19. Coffeespoons says:

    Not played for a while but I recall that I wrote the prose on the front page of the wiki many years ago…

  20. OmNomNom says:

    Great writeup – really made me want to try this and i usually cant stand ASCII roguelikes

    • SilverDragon says:

      If you cant stand the ASCII graphics it does come with tilesets built in. You can find them in the options under graphics.

  21. geldonyetich says:

    One of the best games I’ve played in a long, long time. If I were to outline the most critical flaw, death comes quickly and unexpectedly, but it takes a long time to get your skills up to where your last survivor was.

Comment on this story

XHTML: Allowed code: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>