[16 August 2011]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
So, most zombie-themed games contain familiar enough strategies: lots of headshots and the conservation of ammo. Sarah Northway’s flash game takes a slightly different approach, though, trading violence for broader strategic interests. Northway’s game doesn’t suggest that the zombie hordes need to be merely survived but that desperate times call for the need to rebuild.
In that sense, the title arrives at an appropriate enough time. The game’s animations are hardly all that gorey or gruesome. While the soundtrack provides a sense of moody forboding, the supernatural isn’t so much scary here as the kinds of things currently haunting the American and European consciousness that are really terrifying: a crumbling economy and infrastructure.
The game, then, eschews the standard mechanics used by most horror games, things that facilitate constant combat with the undead, and instead, takes the form of a turn based strategy game that is largely about decision making and determining how resources (in this case, people) can be distributed most effectively to staunch the tide of zombies and to reclaim and then rebuild a crumbling society.
To that end, each turn in the game is relatively simple. There are a number of survivors that you will take command of that each represent some useful social class: soldiers, scavengers, builders, scientists, and leaders (who serve as recruiters). You determine what they will be doing each day, such as guarding the perimeter of the land that your survivors occupy, building new walls around reclaimed territories, clearing out zombies from adjoining areas, scavenging food, researching technologies helpful for survival, etc.
Of course, certain classes are better at particular jobs, so assigning soldiers to make kills or builders to work on increasing defenses, or sending leaders to recruit new humans to the cause is the most effective way of rebuilding. Transforming trailer parks into homes for newly recruited survivors, gas stations into bars that can be used by the group to boost morale, or hospitals into labs to conduct research are also useful occupations and ones that will increase the group’s chances of survival and provide a sense of civilization and stability in an otherwise chaotic landscape.
Weirdly, the game takes the standard strategy of the zombie, recruit by assimilating new members of the group and then overwhelm the “norms” with sheer number, and asks that the human beings adopt that same strategy in order to survive themselves. Recruiting is a chief goal in the game, as more members of the human community means that more can get done. If everyone works by doing what they are best at, victory is achievable. The game is rather hopeful for one about the apocalypse, since it suggests that even at its most desperate, humanity can survive through co-operation. Everyone is useful here, too, as the classes represent the necessity for the kinds of work that a country like the U.S. seems desperate to avoid in its preoccupation with making sure that its children are all white collar worker drones. Here labor jobs and soldiering are as essential to rebuilding a broken society as is the scientist or charming politician.
Indeed the more effectively that the various classes are deployed (and they can be educated at schools that can churn out every one of these types of workers), the easier that the game becomes. In my playthrough, a sense of desperation had largely dissolved in the final 20 or 30 turns, sinca I had so many people working throughout my only (in this latter part of the game) sparsely infected town that I sometimes had more people than was necessary to achieve my long term goals.
The gameplay in Northway’s creation not only speaks to the possibility of rebuilding a shattered economy, it comes with a price tag that is also perfect in economically troubled times: free. Since this is a flash title, you aren’t likely to be blown away by the graphics (its few animations resemble low rent South Park-style cartoons) or any of its overall spectacle, but its interfaces are clear, its music sets a nice tone, and the gameplay is accessible and engaging. It is a title worth spending a few hours with, if only because its apocalyptic nightmare is manageable while the one outside your window may seem so much less so.
Rebuild is currently available at Kongregate.