Survivor Zero, A Fresh Take on Zombies (Interview)
Between Day Z, Left 4 Dead, Black Ops, and any number of other recent titles that have crammed the walking dead into gameplay, some of you may roll your eyes at the thought of yet another zombie game in development. But what if I told you that you could play a zombie game unlike any other? One in which the focus isn’t on mowing through waves of zombies with increasingly over-the-top weapons, but on using your resourcefulness to allow yourself and those you care about to survive in a post-apocalyptic world in which the undead forever remain a deadly, looming threat?
Meet Survivor Zero, a sandbox-style survival game with horror elements set in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. Currently in development by a volunteer team that has grown to include 18 individuals, SZ’s creation was inspired by a Reddit post calling for an open-world zombie experience free of the trappings of traditional games. To preempt an obvious question, this was in June 2011 — in other words, before Day Z’s rise to fame — and SZ distinguishes itself from the more PvP-centric game in more ways than one.
Core design philosophies regarding scale and procedural generation required selecting the right engine upon which to build the game. Speaking with Game Front, Survivor Zero writer and designer Kyle Reid explained how the Unity engine was an obvious choice for what the team wanted to accomplish:
“The decision to use Unity was actually an easy one to make. We knew from the start that we wanted to have large, procedurally generated environments. We wanted you to be able to walk in and out of buildings without loading screens, and we wanted the land to continually generate no matter how far you walked. This brings up a lot of issues for the Source and Unreal engine. Unity also has a very simple license process; you pay one fee upfront and any money made in profit is all yours. Add in the fact that it has built in cross-platform support, and you have a fairly obvious choice.”
Epic Games is dipping its toes into the co-op sandbox survival genre with its upcoming title Fortnite, and we asked if SZ would share any similar elements with the game. Reid believes that, barring some superficial similarity, SZ will offer a purer survival sandbox experience. He said:
“From what I’ve seen of Fortnite, it looks more like Left 4 Dead survival mode or Call of Duty zombie mode than a true, survival sandbox game. In Survivor Zero there are no waves, no warnings to prepare, and most of all, no high-octane shootfests. Combat in SZ will be sudden, violent, brutal, and separated by periods of varying tension. We’re designing our zombies to be so deadly that even the most well prepared player will look for ways to avoid them. Barricading looks to be the only gameplay mechanic that we would have in common with Fortnite.”
Watching SZ’s found footage trailer, above, can stir up memories of Amnesia and Slender, and Day Z remains an obvious comparison for this upcoming survival title. We asked where the SZ team drew its inspiration from, thematically and gameplay-wise, and Reid’s response is telling of what we can expect from the game:
“We look at a lot of games while developing SZ, and not just from the zombie or horror genres. Of the ones you mentioned specifically though, I would say we do like the fear created by Amnesia. Part of that fear comes from the unknown but I would say that a larger part comes from the player’s helplessness. Zombies are an undying, never tiring threat, and we never want there to be a point in SZ where the player becomes so powerful or so well equipped that the zombies stop being dangerous. The zombies in DayZ are scary when you’re new, but once you learn how to kite them or once you join a group and get good equipment, the focus of the game shifts from zombies to PvP, and we don’t want that.
“Max Brooks’s writing was also a point of inspiration early on, as it also leans towards a more traditional take on zombies.”
That traditional take on zombies is also seen in the team’s choice to have slow, lumbering zombies like in Dawn of the Dead (1978), as opposed to the fast zombies popularized in the past decade, like in Dawn of the Dead (2004). Reid explained the reason behind the decision:
“What makes zombies scary, at least in our eyes, is that they are an abomination to the natural order of things. Death is already an unsettling issue for most people and so when you take the rules of death and twist them, you get something frightening. Zombies that shamble and drag their feet convey those themes better. We want there to be moments in the game where the player realizes that all the zombies they’ve ever seen were at one time human beings, with people who cared about them. Its hard to make that resonate with players when the zombies are raised to the level of monsters.
“Slow zombies are also pivotal to the style of game we’re making. The key to survival is thinking creatively, having patience, and carrying out actions with precision, not simply clicking as many times as you can on a fast moving target. That said, we are testing out having the zombies capable of a brief “surge” towards the player in order to make them even more dangerous.”