Hip, Urban, and Undead

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.