Lost Zombies: Not Quite a Game, Not Quite a Story

The Lost Zombie site provides the bare bones of a background for a world, more than enough to fire people's imaginations along with plenty of room for individual creativity.

I wrote a couple of weeks back about my many disappointments with Heavy Rain's storytelling. I think that it's a good game and an interesting story, but the many plot holes and inconsistencies distracted me so much that my enjoyment of the whole project suffered. Even so, as an interactive story, Heavy Rain does a lot of things right, and I love to see creators pushing the boundaries of how we can experience stories. This week I came across something from the entire other end of the spectrum, a project that's all about the details and has only the flimsiest and most common of settings and plots. All of which is not only okay, but necessary for the experience.

Lost Zombies bills itself as a “community generated zombie documentary” and is not a game per se. Their main web site contains the fullest and most diverse presentation of the Lost Zombies material, but I came to it only after first coming across it as an app available on my iPad. Yeah, yeah, I bought an iPad, and the thing has scarcely left my hands since I got it. There are a ton of zombie related apps on the device, but the only other one that I purchased was the excellent Plants vs. Zombies (which I've now bought three different times for three different platforms). Lost Zombies piqued my interest because it was sold as an interactive story rather than just as a game, and while I'm tired of shooting the undead with anything that isn't a plant, I'm still very excited about new kinds of fiction.

There are actually two apps, one of which is a game, the other of which is a collection of photographs. The game, Lost Zombies: Puzzles and Poems is a simple confection where you open random drawers and have to answer questions based on information that you've discovered in other boxes. Some boxes will just kill you, ending the game. It's a pretty terrible game really, the worst kind of "learn by dying" nonsense. Typing on the iPad isn't spectacular, and the game warns you that the answers are case sensitive. As soon as I died for typing Saint Teresa instead of St. Teresa (or maybe it was the other way around?), I was ready to quit. A few more deaths from unexplained causes, and I was done. So I wouldn't recommend buying the puzzle and poetry app.

The other app, Lost Zombies: Notes From The Apocalypse, is more interesting. There's an audio file that explains the history of the zombie plague (the same file is also in the game app). Then there are dozens of photographs of hand written notes, blood-stained signs, and other artifacts from the zombie related apocalypse. Reading through these, you can piece together not only the details of civilization's end but also read a series of vignettes that evoke the horror and desperation that the living experience when the dead don't die. Some of them are quite effective, some fairly typical. Some are pretty funny. I'm not sure that they're worth the $2, but I liked the idea.

I only read the "About" section of the app after reading through a bunch of these fictional artifacts There I discovered the really cool thing about Lost Zombies: “a portion of the content in this app was created by people from around the globe.” In other words, some of these pictures were user created fictional content from the Lost Zombies site. Now that's getting pretty interesting. Crowd sourcing your game's world building to fans has some real promise, and I would love to see more games experiment with this kind of thing. That said, the actual app, while nice looking on the iPad's great screen, is still just a shadow of the free, online experience.

The site has over 10,000 pics and close to 1,000 videos on it (of course, you can't watch most of the videos with your Flash-less iPad). They aren't all great, but they don't all have to be. I've personally had my fill of zombie related stories, but that doesn't keep from appreciating Lost Zombies's achievement here. The choice of zombies works better than almost any other fictional trope -- we all know the basics and zombies can fit into almost any setting. That makes the whole concept easy to grok and straight forward for anyone to participate in.

The Lost Zombie site provides the bare bones of a background for a world, more than enough to fire people's imaginations along with plenty of room for individual creativity. I think it's a great way to build out a fictional world, and I could see it working well with certain other genres involving things like like UFOs and aliens and, of course, vampires. The part of the equation that they haven't solved is turning this communal storytelling into a game or other kind of media. I don't think either of the apps are worth buying in and of themselves. Although I'm happy to have done so, since the money goes to supporting this intriguing project.

This is the kind of project that Valve could have started on its own in support of Left 4 Dead. I'm sure a lot of the people posting pics and vids to the site have played that game. And while most game inspired Cos Play looks are, well, not good (or at least not convincing), I'd love to see some other franchises explore this kind of shared world building. It's probably not the future of gaming, but it's the kind of gaming I'd like to see more of in the future.

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