10720×10146 are a set of coordinates to a location in Project Zomboid – you may have tried the game already as part of its in-development release. We’ll be taking a look at this title-in-progress for those unfamiliar with it, though some familiarity with the game may help you, the reader.
Those numbers that make up the coordinates seem inauspicious, but they are particularly important for me as they are the location at which my character became fatally infected and their journey was to inevitably end – and a new journey was to begin. What I’d like to talk about here is what led up to that event and what happened after, how it can be an issue that causes trouble in design and perhaps some wider considerations across sandbox titles.
End of the World News.
Before getting into the focus of this piece, it would perhaps be helpful to explain what Project Zomboid: https://projectzomboid.com/ is for those unfamiliar. As of May 2017, Project Zomboid is in active development by The Indie Stone development team and is at a beta stage, available for purchase as an Early Access type arrangement. Succinctly; it is a fixed perspective, isometric survival game. It is a sandbox that is set within a zombie apocalypse, the parameters and severity of which are highly customisable by the player. Developed during the height of a renaissance for all zombie related media I can’t help but wonder if that fertile period will have largely ended due to over-saturation and fatigue by the time the game reaches a “complete” status. The advantage to that could however be that the game would stand on its own (compelling) merits, rather than by a trend chasing association. Project Zomboid is playing a long game, maybe not by design but I do believe successfully, regardless of circumstance or initial intent.
A great deal of thought and consideration has gone into the game’s creation thus far. With an active community and a receptive to input development team I think Project Zomboid has reached a symbiosis in its nurturing between its creators and players. The ambition of the game could be considered something of a millstone around its neck if you were to take a more wary stance. There have been troubled periods in its production by the developers own admittance, but at each stage, the team have shown great determination and dedication – admirably so and have overcame the challenges infront of them with good humour and creativity, this is very much a passion project. A full upscaling of all the game’s art assets, expansion of features and a continually added to soundtrack are just some of the changes that have been made. I and many others are looking forward to what comes next. This makes it all the more interesting for me that…
I remember a few years ago playing a very early demo release of the game and bouncing off it quite hard. There was something that just didn’t click for me with the game. I liked the idea but the execution didn’t resonate in a way that I hoped it to. It was when the in-development build was made available to buy via GOG that I decided to give it another try – a justified choice in hindsight. I’d estimate that I’ve got around three/four-hundred hours in the game now as of present and a comparable number of stories. We’ll be coming back to sandbox life-cycles but for now lets look at one of those stories. In this case, it is that of Nancy.
You Cut Her Hair.
As part of the game’s very customisable scenario tools I’d set the map up to be based on an “Initial Infection” situation – the opening days of an outbreak. This would mean that there was a relatively low density of zombies and ample supplies available. This can create a false sense of security, a buffer zone provided that leads the player to perhaps overestimate their ability to survive. It also allowed me to grow more confident with the game’s mechanics at a more relaxed pace. I had as I mentioned before; bounced off an early Alpha version of the game and wanted to give it the best chance I could to connect with me. I’d created a quite competent character; a twenty-seven year old woman called Nancy Cook, something of a unicorn; as a female construction worker – the 2010 estimate of women working in construction within the US being 9% according to OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) statistics. Bearing in mind that Project Zomboid takes place around the mid to late ’90’s, Nancy would be likely even more of a rarity. Now you could make an argument that she was striking a path and a trailblazer. Filling out a mentally held backstory for the purpose of role-playing. Honestly though, I just wanted the statistic bonuses and I hate grinding stats. This was to be one of the few times that the abstract layer of numerically derived mechanics were to overtly announce themselves and prominently intrude on the playing experience for me.
Despite those rather shallow statistic related motivations I’ve since found myself growing attached to Nancy’s story. She’s become far more than a series of numbers. She’s had numerous close encounters and many moments of achievement – as well as moments of desperation and isolated failure. I do have a confession that I need to make. Nancy as well as I are both cheats. I made a backup of her save and kept it to one side. We’ll get back to that at the appropriate time though and why it is so important. For now though, let’s get back to Nancy.
In the current, available build of Project Zomboid there are already many interesting features. Unfortunately though, the one that I am most eager for – NPCs are not yet implemented. This lack of other living participants (at least in single player) lends a crushing feeling of isolation to the game which is equal part boon and burden. Nancy and I both found ourselves easing into a routine. Wake up, top up a drinks bottle while the water is still running, make a meal and check the perimeter for any incursions. Then she would read a little and prepare for the day ahead. Due to indepth preparation and stockpiling neither Nancy or I had any real need to go out into the outside world and run up against its threats and hazards. The problem that was waiting for us was the looming depression and loneliness that was to be encountered – no requirements, only consequences for (in)action.
A little icon would appear at the side of the screen on the right, a “moodlet” to let me know that Nancy was feeling “A little sad” this would, without intervention progress though sadness, to crushing isolation and depression. On the days where she were exhausted or injured I had the mental image of a terrified, bloodied and lonely young woman, just looking for a moments escape. She would drink large bottles of sugary orange soda and devour chocolate while surrounded by tattered magazines in a futile attempt at artificial or chemically manipulated happiness. Curled up on the floor, against a bed, a light-bulb would blow, sinking her into darkness and the realisation that it wasn’t going to get any better than this. A quart of a bottle of whisky and standing over a plate of decaying fruit, knife in hand and tears in her eyes you would have to ask yourself; how exactly is a sorry looking fruit salad supposed to make anything better?
By going out into the world and risking her life she was able to break the hold that the situation had on her. The twin burdens of boredom and loneliness would snap at her heals, the routine becoming a reminder of her situation. Each risky venture a desperate attempt to keep ahead of a looming depression. A fireaxe haphazardly repaired, clothes soaked through with blood and grime, every day a challenge for survival and for what? She found some solace in planting tomatoes, watching them grow as the days moved by. Clumsily constructed water catchers prepared for the day when the water no longer issued from taps. This small moment of life and regeneration wasn’t to be enough though. Being able to build a home, a safe a welcoming place counts for little if it is going to be only be inhabited by one. After recovering a ham radio she absent-mindedly left it running through the night, until its power-source was exhausted. All that time though and only an intermittent crackle was to break the silence, there was nothing out there. At least nothing that could help with what Nancy was experiencing.
Humans have a notable ability to recognise patterns, to plan accordingly and avoid unnecessary risk. The human eye is particularly adept at noticing discrepancies in movement. You may have heard of the concept of the “uncanny valley” in relation to robotics or computer animation. You could also draw comparisons to the movement of the undead, their very nature being not quite human, repelling and disgusting the viewer. Nancy however found herself seeking these signs and situations as a way of breaking the monotony. A boarded up house and the dull sound of worn down fists, beating against walls – once a sign to stay away, became an invitation to momentary relief. It was also to be a wakeup call.
She was able to easily remove the planks over the windows that made up the barricade. As the last piece of wood fell however it was as though an invitation had been less than gracefully given. From the second floor – zombies crashed out from the windows, the commotion below drawing their attention. The activity above, spread below. Waves of previously trapped infected were now presented with a way out – and they were certainly not shy to take the opportunity. Five, ten …twenty. More issued forth from the house, each to be crushed by ever more desperate blows from an axe, its handle straining under the demands being placed on it. This chain reaction of events though drew more attention and Nancy was quickly finding herself surrounded. The house’s main entrance had been forced down now. Through the open doorway Nancy ran, over splintered planks and bent hinges, slicing the skull of a zombie open, she forced her way past and up the staircase to better manage the numbers of zombies. More though seemed to spill from wherever Nancy looked. A staircase bathed in blood and the groans of the undead chased at Nancy’s heels as she forced her way back down the stairs she had just rushed up. With the doorway blocked by three undead, the window was the only option. Desperately forcing her way out, her legs were slashed open on shards of glass, wood framed teeth, waiting to be sated – the jaws of Project Zomboid’s undead waiting for their turn to follow.
In pain and panicked, this was the moment that Nancy, and I the player needed. Limping away and anguished there was a choice to now be made. Stay and fight, or flee. Blood pooling slowly in her shoes she was to swing the axe, seemingly endlessly till every last undead was a still monument to hers and my stupidity, moodlets at the side of the screen would tell me what common sense had already informed; Nancy was exhausted, in pain and hungry. Limping under an awning she quickly looked around before tending to her wounds. With the immediate threat ended, now came the realisation that there has to be a better way to exist, to live in this world. Straightening, each flexing of her muscles sent spasms of pain to her brain. The journey back to our safehouse was to be longer in a number of ways. Her injuries slowed her physically but it was the journey to find a better way to cope with this world that was to consume her. The brash and unwarranted over confidence gave way to a more cautious and deliberate movement. Necessity took the place of rampant consumption – of goods and circumstance or situation. Be glad for each day and make the best of each moment. At least until this mindset breaks.
While healing Nancy spent the time improving her skills in carpentry and electronics. The stitches would itch in her legs as though rank and file of ants nibbled at her flesh. A few days later and with relief she was able to remove them and be able instead to rely on bandages. The quart of whisky no longer for her belly and to by extension wash away tears from within was now to sterilise bandages. Once fully healed though a question nagged at me and by extension, Nancy; what now?
For the Restless.
I’d reached a point of self sufficiency. Food, water, weapons and equipment. I had all of these things in abundance. What I didn’t have was a reason to keep on playing. Both I and the character that I was playing were feeling a similar boredom. On one level this could simply be one of the pitfalls of sandbox game design – a gamble is taken that you’ll either keep playing until a sequel is released (Elder Scrolls), new features are added or characters started (Project Zomboid). The problem that I found; was that while I did and am looking forward to the next set of features that are to be added to Project Zomboid, (coincidentally barely giving a flying fuck about the Elder Scrolls series anymore – though there is another story to be told there) I’m still missing a reason to keep on playing, to be compelled to continue. To have Nancy put one foot infront of another for another day.
Repeating the same actions ad-infinitum with no actual goal or purpose only makes the artificiality of the situation more pronounced. For Nancy it is even worse. Within this artificial construct she has little reason to make the effort to survive. There is little to actually live for. When these two perspectives collide and compound one another it only makes the effect more pronounced and again reinforces this vicious cycle, one that further draws me away from the game. It is this pitfall of the sandbox game that make me wary of investing time in them now. They are no longer a curio, their abundance leaves them struggling to define themselves and in their search for ways to hold our attention they must innovate or find other ways to impress the player.
It is this that would lead the both of us to ten-thousand, seven-hundred and twenty by ten-thousand, one-hundred and forty-six.
When you are bored you take stupid risks. When you are lonely you crave connection more strongly and when you’re trying to find something new to do, you may find more than you can handle. Games work via systems, governed by numbers. Some games will make a concerted effort to obscure this process, others push it to the front of the player’s awareness. Project Zomboid strikes something of a middle-ground. It awkwardly requires numerical levels to be attained before certain items can be crafted, yet it obscures the amount of damage you do in the process of attacking. You’ll have to rely on the audio and visual feedback to know if your strikes are effective. That escapade at the boarded up house had only satiated Nancy’s need for action for so long. In search of an ever elusive greater thrill, greater risks needed to be taken. The picture, the moodlet had reared its disappointed head once again in place of a numerical tracking of Nancy’s and perhaps my boredom. We were being nudged to take action. The player was being played.
The two of us though; I and my avatar had made not insignificant progress in clearing large sections of the area we were inhabiting. The sense of confidence, the ample supplies and polished arsenal were hungry to be tested. I the player was struggling to find a reason to carry on playing. Maybe… maybe this set of warehouses at 10720×10146 would contain something I could use… perhaps a piece of furniture I could move into my safehouse. It could of contained components with which to craft ever more elaborate electronic devices that would assist my day to day survival, prolonging the inevitable… it’s not accidental that starting a game of Project Zomboid is accompanied by the words; “This is how you died”.
After hundreds of hours perhaps I had done enough? I had set arbitrary goals and met them. Maybe I was now wanting the game to tell me what to do, to take away control from me and Nancy. Within a few seconds the game was about to do just that and change my relationship and how I regarded the game completely.
You Only Disappear.
On entering the warehouse complex all was quiet. Light struggled to reach inside the building, most of the interior bulbs having blown. One by one Nancy cleared the rooms, checking for occupants and supplies. It was on reaching a right hand turn in the building that it happened. The corridors had narrowed, it was too dark. On opening a door, Nancy was swarmed. The moodlets would silently inform me of what would be readily known; Nancy was panicking. Pushing and scrambling for her life there wasn’t enough room to swing her axe. All she could do was try to escape the cold grip that had enveloped her. Her heart pounding she managed to force her way back outside, the sun’s light blinding her. Behind, the shuffling movement of the undead, closely following. The sun hit them as they appeared from the doorway, this time however there was enough space to bring the axe down on each and every walking corpse’s head.
Out of breath and spattered with blood there was another silent announcement at the side of the screen. Pain. Bringing up the health panel my heart sunk. A bite to Nancy’s arm needed to be treated. Let’s face it though. There was no treatment for this ailment.
It was then that I realised the game was over. The journey back to the safehouse was like a pre-programmed autopilot. A course set in to bring its participants back to safety. It was already too late though.
Games tend to shy away from failure. Either due to the ego of their players or creators we are given scant opportunities to fail. Project Zomboid knew that this was the event that the game builds up to though, it’s sole purpose. This is how you died.
I went through the process of disinfecting and dressing Nancy’s wounds. She would take painkillers from the voluminous stash that had been formed and sat quietly. Now the question needed to be asked. “What now?” Taking myself out of the game for a moment I looked up the percentage chance of avoiding infection from a bite. I already knew what was going to happen though. And so it was. With the door closed behind her Nancy stood in a small, makeshift bathroom and rather than let the pestilence run its course through her body took the only action she could and ended her own life.
The Girl Who Falls Downstairs.
It is perhaps a cruel design decision that to commit suicide there are limited options. In a title with so many ways to attack; purpose built and makeshift weapons, that it is a bottle of bleach that is the most effective way of ending a character’s life. There is no way to quickly and painlessly turn a firearm on yourself. You must go through an agonising death no matter what you choose. After two hundred hours Nancy’s story had ended. For me the player I had little desire or reason to play the game further. I found myself treating it as a roguelike, the irony being that if that had been the deliberate and enforced design for the game I would never have played it in the first place. I had been looking for a structure to be applied, control to be taken from me the player. In looking for a purpose, a reason to keep on playing I was at every stage fighting the Project Zomboid and what it was trying to do. It is possible to start a new character and have them inhabit the same scenario that you have already created. There was a faint shiver when I sent a newly created avatar to the place where Nancy’s story ended. Ending Nancy’s life once again, taking her keys and her home I moved the body outside. Having this ready prepared safehouse made me even more reluctant to continue playing a game that otherwise has a vast level of replayability. I tried for a few hours to become invested in this new character and their struggles. Always though was a hollow feeling.
…I and Nancy cheated.
Project Zomboid receives quite a regular schedule of updates as its development progresses. On one of these major updates I decided to revisit the game. There was of course the general curiosity over what had been added or changed but there was also another opportunity. I replaced the savegame for Nancy and reverted to a situation before her demise. I cheated the game and arguably myself. Oddly though it allowed me to approach the game from a new direction. Now I truly was playing a dead woman walking. This was perhaps the most interesting moment of playing Project Zomboid for me, which could sound strange to many of you – in a game of desperate survival situations it was the replacing of some files outside of the game and pressing “continue” that stands out? This was a game that was now being played inside my head, now I knew I was playing a character who was already doomed. I wasn’t fighting to prove wrong the game’s loading title card. I had already lost. From this point on I could move forward under a blissful ignorance. I knew that Nancy was already dead, now I just didn’t know how it was going to happen. I was able to build her skills and story from this point on without needing a motivation. Because it didn’t matter.
Nancy takes ever more foolish risks, pushes herself in ways that she never would have before. The screenshots that accompany this article are from a more recent build of Project Zomboid (v36.4) and are all from after the reverting of the game’s savefile. I have scant images from that original playthrough as I was playing with no other intention in mind than to simply play the game, mashing a screenshot key for the purpose of future use wasn’t an issue. Revisiting the game with the plan of writing about where it takes me changes things.
What I am interested to know is; in future can or will Project Zomboid make changes to its formula that would make me feel the same protective dread that I once did? Is it even desirable to do so? Project Zomboid like a scant few other titles has the player embrace failure and neither fear it or see it as a signal to quit or start again. It’s a change to power and narrative dynamics that we are trained to understand and expect – conflict has resolution, order is restored. Moving away from these attempts, if only to become like every other face in a crowd, or member of an undead horde wouldn’t do the game justice. It is a needle for the developer to thread as they explain (or not) that sometimes you are going to loose and to not fear this happening.
What I think I am looking for is a moment in the future within the game – being confident in its identity and mechanics that gives the player a faint glimmer of hope, a paradigm shift – if only for a moment, that turns the game on its head, toys with the player’s expectations and if not an outright reason to continue, then at least a vague notion to cling onto. If only to make the eventual failure all the more devastating.