Games

Hip, Urban, and Undead

Jamie Lynn Dunston

A look at Kevan Davis' quietly groundbreaking grid and text-based sandbox MMORPG.

Just before Christmas 2006, I heard about a new(ish) online game played in real time. In it, you create a character, gain experience to level up and buy skills, and engage in combat with other player characters. The game lacks NPCs, so every interaction takes place between two real people. The action takes place in Malton, a ruined, quarantined city after a zombie apocalypse, and players may take the role of either survivors or the undead. Best of all, the game is browser-based and free to play. So what's the catch? Widespread narcolepsy, apparently.

The game I've described, Urban Dead, is grid-based, and each movement on the map, use of an item, or search conducted uses one action point. These action points are rationed to about fifty per day -- they replenish at a rate of one per half hour, give or take. When your action points are used up, you fall asleep. In an abandoned bar, in the street, wherever -- you just pass out. I'm not sure what they're putting in the water in Malton, but it sure as heck isn't caffeine.

The rationing of action points is not an entirely new system -- Kingdom of Loathing has been running a similar system since 2003 -- but unlike life in the Kingdom, which mainly pits player characters against NPCs, running out of action points in Urban Dead can cause your survivor character to be dismembered and devoured by undead minions hungry for the bloody flavor of harman hambargars (that's zombish for human hamburgers), or your zombie might end up getting a fire axe to the back of the skull and staying down for the count (requiring ten additional action points to stand up after a head shot).

Urban Dead has its own mythology, much of which is documented in its dedicated wiki, and which includes the ability of certain individuals with the requisite training to revive those who have been infected with the strange zombie virus and restore the undead to the, ahem, sunny side of life. This has created a number of conventions invented from whole cloth by the players on both sides of the grave, which in many ways is more interesting than the game itself. For instance, those who prefer to play as survivors and log in to find that they have been chewed on during the night can move their shambling corpses to one of several dozen designated revive points -- usually cemeteries -- and stand in a queue to be brought back to life. There are players who devote their entire daily ration of action points to reviving their fallen comrades, and who may never actually fight zombies at all.

Then there are those who play as survivors, but instead of helping their fellow humans fight the zombie hordes, they load up on shotguns and rampage around shopping malls, capping innocent bystanders and generally spreading chaos. To combat these "player killers," an unofficial character class has evolved, and bounty hunters seek out and kill the player killers. Of course, death is a temporary state in Malton, so the circle of life and undeath ebbs and flows like a bloody river flowing to an eternal sea.

Most fascinating, however, are the groups that have repurposed the mechanics of Urban Dead to play a game so completely their own such that it resonates both in-game and out. Take, for instance, The Shamblin' Crooners. This is a group of zombie players that travel from venue to venue performing for human audiences. In-game, zombies with sufficient experience can buy skills that allow them a rudimentary form of speech (using only the letters a, b, g, h, m, n, r, and z) and something called "Flailing Gesture," which unlocks the option to point north, south, west, east, or at nearby people or objects. The Shamblin' Crooners combined these skills to choreograph elaborate song-and-dance numbers, to be executed just before all the survivors in the chosen venue are, well, executed. The result: a bunch of dead players who are pretty amused by the whole thing, really, when it gets right down to it.

I could go on. There are zombie lexicographers, who tirelessly catalog the constantly evolving slang that is zombie speech (survivors with guns: bangbang manz). There are keen hackers who forge slick apps to make the user interface prettier, tidier, or more accessible. There is a group called Upper Left Corner, which gathers in the titular corners of malls (which occupy four grid squares) and consume themselves with small talk and witty banter -- zombie apocalypse be damned.

Urban Dead has inspired a few spin-offs since its inception in July 2005, and its creator, Kevan Davis, has been supportive of games like Nexus War. In my experiences with these games, however, the relaxation of various limitations -- responses to common complaints about Urban Dead's restrictive gameplay -- renders them too simple and drops the stakes to an unsatisfying low. To paraphrase Robert Frost, it's rather like playing tennis with the net down. The limited capabilities of Urban Dead characters inspire creativity and resourcefulness in its players, and therein lies its real magic. Instead of creating a story and inviting the players to watch it unfold, Davis has succeeded in crafting a sandbox and letting the players create their own world inside it.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

The Budos Band Call for Action on "The Wrangler" (premiere)

The Budos Band call on their fans for action with the powerful new track "The Wrangler" that falls somewhere between '60s spy thriller soundtrack and '70s Ethiojazz.

Music

Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" Ruminates on Our Second-Guesses (premiere)

A deep reflection on breaking up, Nashville indie rock/Americana outfit Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" is the most personal track from their new album, Home Team.

Books

For Don DeLillo, 'The Silence' Is Deafening

In Don DeLillo's latest novel, The Silence, it is much like our post-pandemic life -- everything changed but nothing happened. Are we listening?

Music

Brett Newski Plays Slacker Prankster on "What Are You Smoking?" (premiere)

Is social distancing something we've been doing, unwittingly, all along? Brett Newski pulls some pranks, raises some questions in "What Are You Smoking?".

Music

Becky Warren Shares "Good Luck" and Discusses Music and Depression (premiere + interview)

Becky Warren finds slivers of humor while addressing depression for the third time in as many solo concept albums, but now the daring artist is turning the focus on herself in a fight against a frightful foe.

Music

Fleet Foxes Take a Trip to the 'Shore'

On Shore, Fleet Foxes consist mostly of founding member Robin Pecknold. Recording with a band in the age of COVID-19 can be difficult. It was just time to make this record this way.

Books

'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.

Film

Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.

Music

3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".

Books

'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor
Film

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.

Music

Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.

Music

Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.

Music

Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.