It was probably unfair to write ZombiU off so quickly, but...it was called ZombiU. Between my disappointment in Assassin’s Creed III, Ubisoft’s track record with Nintendo launch games, and the silly name, anything more than surprisingly mediocre seemed like a longshot. But as the horror guy at Giant Bomb, if I wasn’t going to play it, who?
A few hours and a few completely unexpected deaths later, it became clear ZombiU was special. Besides being scary as hell, the game managed to turn me around on the whole idea of animation priority as it relates to game design (see: Monster Hunter). That’s no small feat, and it’s why ZombiU ranked in my favorite games of the year.
When I asked for the chance to fire off some questions to the developers at Ubisoft Montpellier, I had to ask about the damn name. There are no great revelations to behold, however. ZombiU was chosen because it was both descriptive of the game’s content, and it was a Wii U launch title. That Ubisoft’s first game was 1986’s Zombi had no bearing on why it was called ZombiU, either.
“As odd as it may seem, it was a pure coincidence,” said producer Guillaume Brunier in a recent email exchange. “Some of us on the team did play that game way back in the old days, but that’s it.”
The original Zombi was a first-person, point-and-click survival game heavily influenced by George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead film. Zombi gave players control over four different characters fending for themselves in a mall. Besides trying to stay alive amidst the zombie apocalypse, there’s not much overlap between Zombi and ZombiU. (That game actually looks pretty cool, though!)
ZombiU was not always ZombiU, either. When Nintendo first revealed Wii U at E3 2011, Ubisoft also announced a first-person-shooter called Killer Freaks From Outer Space. It didn’t look that great. While some of the concepts created for Killer Freaks From Outer Space carried over, including a multiplayer mode where one person acts as a humanized Left 4 Dead AI director, much of the game design was overhauled.
What the team always knew, however, was the game had to eventually ship for Wii U’s launch.
“Being tied to a release date always has an influence on what we are able to produce,” said Brunier. “For ZombiU, we decided early on what we did not want to compromise on: Wii U GamePad use, and a true survival experience. For the rest, we sometimes had to manage our ambitions.”
Managed ambitions explains why, besides guns, your character can only swing around a cricket bat for melee attacks. By the end of the game, you’re intimately familiar with that cricket bat. As someone who never quite understood why anyone could enjoy games where you were forced into canned animations, after spending 15 hours with a cricket bat, I became closely acquainted with its specific timing. There was certifiable merit in knowing a weapon that well, given how much precise timing played into surviving longterm in ZombiU. That said, the only reason there weren’t more weapons is because there just wasn’t any time to make them.
When the box for ZombiU showed up on my desk, I wasn’t sure what to think. All I’d heard about was a game vaguely influenced by Dark Souls. Truth be told, I hardly suspected that would mean a game interested in excitedly punishing the player every step of the way. I suspect ZombiU isn’t nearly as challenging as Dark Souls or Demon’s Souls, but it operates on the same principle: act with purpose. If you try to bite off more than you chew, if you try to act like the badass that other games actively encourage, the game will smack you to the ground and laugh.
That doesn’t seem to line up with what you expect from a launch game, and while I’m much happier with what ZombiU became, didn’t it make more sense to make a more mainstream experience?
“We figured if we worried about that and made decisions accordingly, we would have delivered a lukewarm experience,” said Brunier. “And we really did not want to do that. We want people to remember ZombiU as a game that lived up to its promise as a true survival horror game.”
“Actually, being so harsh with the player was not a goal in itself,” said story design director Gabrielle Shrager. “We were driven by our wish to deliver a realistic experience. Just for one moment, picture yourself, I mean really try to picture yourself in the middle of a zombie outbreak. Would you feel empowered? This powerlessness makes every zombie encounter epic, and the reward of surpassing oneself all the more satisfying.”
Powerlessness was crystallized roughly an hour into the game. You’re returning from your first mission--an initial, brief flirtation with the outside world. Surviving a one-on-one encounter with a shambler in ZombiU can be intense, and that’s about all you’ve dealt so far. Then, moments before returning to your safe house, the one place you can reliably count on, you’re shut out, and told to defend the incoming horde. Horde? Yeah, horde. That’s not just one or two zombies, it’s a whole crowd of them. I barely survived the encounter, but it mostly felt like luck. It was a moment where players were supposed to die, learn about resurrection, and not have to walk very far for your precious, precious equipment.
Shrager pointed to another moment where this was true, as well: ZombiU’s very first sequence. When the game opens, there’s a brief cutscene where players encounter The Prepper. In most games, you're given control in a safe, quiet moment. Nope! Suddenly, you’re thrust into this screwed up world, and dozens of zombies are chasing you.
“We wanted unprepared people to die so they’d understand what the game is about,” he said. “ [...] We are quite comfortable with killing your survivors in the game, because it is faithful to the zombie genre where most of the main characters die, and significant for the experience. Plus, you don’t ever see a game over screen. The story picks up with a newbie survivor where your last character left off...sort of like a deadly relay race.”
“A deadly relay race” is one hell of an accurate way to describe ZombiU. You’ll spend six hours with one character, make one false step on a platform, fall to your death, and start back at the safe house. Your "progress" is saved, but you don't spawn nearby. If you're lucky, maybe you were coming back from a successful mission, but chances are that area is infested with the undead, and the prospect of trudging back there, no matter what treasures were in your pack, aren’t worth it. These are the most infuriating moments of ZombiU, and also what makes it work.
Having players performing ambitious corpse runs upon greeting death came up early in the development process, the team told me, and quickly became a central pillar the rest of the game
All of these concepts mold a game I suspect many people might not finish. It would be no great surprise to me if someone bought ZombiU on launch day, and quickly shut it off. The developers aren’t losing sleep over this idea.
“The idea of players not finishing the game is not upsetting to us,” said Shrager. “The idea of players not being scared witless and not having a memorable experience does. “
One of ZombiU’s most memorable moments (this will be a mild spoiler!) comes during an extended sequence investigating a nursery. Nothing good happens during nursery sections in horror games, movies, or novels. Hell, hospitals in real-life are creepy enough, and it’s only made worse by someone dripping blood from the ceiling and sending the walking dead after you. What’s amazing about ZombiU’s nursery is how little actually happens. There is one jump scare from a closet, and otherwise...nothing. it’s quiet tension until a nail biting battle with one of the game’s few boss characters, a zombie nurse with the ability to zap around the environment. When you eventually take her down, you’re asked to use the in-game tablet to examine the zombie. You’ve never been asked to do this before, and so you don’t even really think about the request that much. As the tablet nears the zombie’s face, you look down at your real-life GamePad and BOOM! The zombie emerges, and utterly paralyzes the player.
“After that fight is over, the player is relaxed, relieved that he got rid of that ‘monster’ after a stressful fight,” said Shragrer. “At that particular moment, the player is definitely ‘off guard.’ It’s the perfect moment for a jump scare that takes you by surprise when you least expect it.”
Yeah, well, you got me.
Messing with players isn’t limited to scripted events, either. ZombiU was built with certain dynamic elements the development staff can tweak on-the-fly and without issuing a patch. Not long after the game was out, Ubisoft Montpellier started taunting the community for not having finished the game’s vaunted Survival mode, in which you’re only given one survivor to finish the whole game. The tauntings came in the form of in-game text that prodded players.
“Some players have spent more than 100 hours in the game!” said Shrager. “That surprised us. Some others are still trying to beat the survivor mode after 50 tries! That’s dedication. It’s been amazingly fun and rewarding for the dev team to watch players get the crap scared out of them in all the viral walkthrough videos--I think they hate us and love us with equal measure for making them feel so vulnerable.”
For the moment, Ubisoft isn’t talking about any downloadable content for ZombiU, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we never saw any. The developers do have the ability to spawn zombie hordes, craft new events, and deploy new challenges, though, and it sounds like that may be coming.
“I can’t talk about new content but I can say we will continue messing around with players,” said Brunier. “We’re having quite a bit of fun doing it!”