The upcoming game Fort Zombie seems to fill a niche that’s been neglected for far too long — the zombie survival RPG/strategy game. In Fort Zombie, you play the part of a survivor of the zombie apocalypse who’s decided it’s time to stop running and time to pick a spot, gather supplies, team up with other survivors and try to hold off the hungry dead. Considering that fortifying a holdout and defending it from the undead horde is such a key element of almost every apocalyptic zombie movie, it’s all but inconceivable that it’s taken so long for such a game to come to fruition. The world may never know why its taken so long for such a game to come to pass, but the wait is almost over and we’ve got an exclusive Q&A with some of the creators, including producer Chris Stewart, lead designer Martin Cirulis and writer Arinn Dembo. And for the visually minded, there are a couple of screenshots mixed in there, too.
IZA: Can you describe the “Eureka” moment when you decided you had the tech and desire to make this game?
Producer Chris Stewart: It was almost literally a Eureka moment, as we worked on our tech R&D for another game weâ€™ve been working on for the last few years, a much larger-scoped game called NorthStar; we were looking at an animation test. The artists had dropped in these simplified, placeholder figures for the test and we all got a good laugh when they stumbled around, and someone said, â€œThey look like Lego zombies!â€ Then we all start looking at one another, â€œA zombie game would be fun.â€
The next day Martin Cirulis, lead designer, comes in with the idea for Fort Zombie â€“ and we figured, why not make the game? We get to keep working on our technology, and at the end, you guys get a quick, fun, inexpensive game out of it. And here we are!
IZA: Is this a long-term, campaign type game, or one where you play “rounds”? In other words, is a single play-through going to take me hours, days or weeks?
Stewart: The challenge of the game is that you have a set amount of time â€“ say a couple of game-time weeks â€“ to get ready for all the undead from the nearby major city to shamble into the small town youâ€™re holed up in. And playing that is designed to be something you can do in a quick game session â€“ you can go out for 15 minutes on a single scavenging mission before punching out. Or if you want, you can sit down and play through over the weekend, itâ€™s up to you.
IZA: From interviews and the simple fact that this game exists, it seems the team are big zombie fans. Can you tell me what some of your favorite zombie works are, in any medium?
Stewart: Iâ€™m the boring answer, which is, â€œI love it all,â€ but thatâ€™s how it is. If itâ€™s zombies, Iâ€™m in. I guess if I had to pick a favorite, itâ€™d be Shaun of the Dead, which I know is one of the Johnny-come-lately films of the genre, but I really like supernatural comedies, and Shaun of the Dead is like a Ghostbusters-level example on that type of movie. Textbook perfect, all around. I fell for it hard â€“ like follow the movie during production, buy a region 1 and region 2 copy of the DVD because the extras are different, buy the soundtrack CD from Amazon.co.uk at a hideous cost, reverse-engineer Edâ€™s t-shirt for a buddy so he could wear it on the North American opening day, own a signed copy of the script kind of fall for it.
I own every set from Twilight Creationâ€™s Zombies!!! game and I dream of the day when Iâ€™ll have the spare time to build them their own oak carrying case, because I want to hand them down from generation to generation, like a bizarre family heirloom. I watched Zombie Strippers because it had â€œzombieâ€ in the title, not â€œstrippers.â€ I bought a region 2 DVD player so I could order and watch Versus. And donâ€™t get me started about my bookshelf. Iâ€™m not the biggest zombie fan there is â€“ big fans have homes that you step inside and it feels like a zombie museum. Iâ€™m not at that level. But Iâ€™ve gotta be close enough that it would scare the straights.
But Iâ€™m not alone in this game â€“ like you said, this is a team of people with their different favs and I pester a couple of them to chime in;
Lead designer Martin Cirulis: I would have to say, of course, Night of the Living Dead but not just for it being the daddy of mass zombie movies… but really for the isolationism of it all. The world may be going to hell, but really, your problem is getting through the night without getting killed on your way out to the garage. Something I think that gets lost along the way with “better/faster/zillions of zombies at the mall” movies that followed
I also like to think of The Fog as a zombie flick, one of the few truly supernatural ones. Zombies with a purpose are pretty damn scary. And from the modern era I would have to say I enjoyed Dead Snow an awful lot.
Writer Arinn Dembo: First let me say that I read, watch and play a whoooooole lot of zombie genre material. Iâ€™m the girl that gets a copy of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies for her birthday and actually reads it. So naming just a few things as influences, or material I like best, is hard. I will say, however, that as a writer I always attach the most value to the rare zombie pieces that have a really exceptional story attached to them.
I was blown away by the original Night of the Living Dead for that reasonâ€”people often remember the movie because it was the first to introduce the â€œzombie as mindless cannibalâ€ idea, but what I remember best from that movie was not the dead but the living–the incredibly intense performances by the actors who were trapped in that house together. How alive those people were, how human they were, and how badly they wanted to hold on to life and see the sun rise again. This is why although I love Night of the Living Dead, I really havenâ€™t been influenced at all by any of the rest the movies that rushed in to exploit the basic cannibal zombie idea over the years. A lot of them had far superior gore and â€œzombificationâ€ effects, but the characters and the story were left by the way side.
Whenever I see a novel or a book that has some of that same intensityâ€”even if they only capture it for a few minutesâ€”I hold it close and watch/read it more than once. World War Z by Max Brooks is one of the best zombie novels ever written in my opinion, precisely because every page of the book is filled the voices of survivors. There are plenty of other zombie stories which offer interesting ideas and situationsâ€”Lovecraftâ€™s â€œHerbert West: Re-Animatorâ€ and Chelsea Quinn Yarbroâ€™s Dead and Buried are both stories with strong ideas, and I will probably pick up and read a copy of Dave Dunwoodyâ€™s Empire: A Zombie Novel soon as well, because the premise seems interesting. But the books, movies and games I place on the top shelf are the stories with strong characters, stories that focus on the will to live â€¦ rather than just on how nasty it is to die. A lot of people can give us blood and guts, but not a lot of zombie stories have brains and a heartâ€”as a writer thatâ€™s something Iâ€™d like to bring to the background story material in Fort Zombie.
IZA: In terms of tone, what is Fort Zombie going to be like? Are we looking at the grim realism of 28 Days Later or the Walking Dead (the graphic novel, not the 1943 Karloff movie)? The comedy of Return of the Living Dead or Shaun of the Dead? Or something else entirely? Feel free to use many references to popular works that inspired the game.
Stewart: The back story to the game, set up by Arinn Dembo (who did our Sword of the Stars back story, including all the aliens) is dark, definitely. Each survivor in the game and their stories of survival are dark. The main game, which is about taking back the world from the zombies however, isnâ€™t as dark. Not that itâ€™s goofy, or that it doesnâ€™t provide you with some pants dirtying moments (it does â€“ donâ€™t get caught outside after dark, thatâ€™s all Iâ€™m saying), but more like satisfying. The whole point behind Fort Zombie is not merely yourself surviving, but you saving others, which has to feel good when all the world is dying. And I will admit, the game town is filled with lots of little nods and the odd homage to things we love â€“ those are definitely light hearted. But at the core is a dark story.
IZA: Were there zombie games that inspired you? And if so, what are these?
Stewart: Oh, we dig zombie games. We always love playing any games that are different from the kinds of games we make â€“ the team takes surviving Left 4 Dead scenarios or surviving as many waves of Nazis zombies in Call of Duty very seriously!
Fort Zombie isnâ€™t like them though â€“ there isnâ€™t anything out there like Fort Zombie with a full 3D world, and all the fun bells and whistles that brings with it. Jumping through glass windows, tripping over rubble, falling, and bullets, bullets, bullets.
As a zombie game, weâ€™re inspired by the same things theyâ€™re inspired by. I guarantee someone in another office of another zombie game has the same talking Shaun of the Dead figure or Marvel Zombie Minimates that I have! Everybody loves zombies!
Except my mom. My mom hates zombies. Which is probably a more appropriate response, survival-wise.
IZA: What will hardcore fans of zombies, such as myself, be most impressed by in your game? What might we have an issue with?
Stewart: Iâ€™m hoping youâ€™ll all be impressed by how much weâ€™re cramming into an inexpensive title. Weâ€™re putting much way more stuff than people might expect â€“ and that extends beyond the release of the game, as we also have a philosophy of building our games so we can expand upon them later when opportunity arises. Even our patches come with extra content â€“ so much so we started calling them â€œupdatesâ€ instead. Once weâ€™ve created a world, we like to be able to keep playing in it as much as possible.
What some zombie fans might not like is that Fort Zombie is not a shooter â€“ itâ€™s not about madly running around killing every zombie in sight. Itâ€™s about surviving and finding the things you need to survive â€“ sometimes that means killing zombies and other times that means trying to avoid killing zombies. Fort Zombie will require a bit of thinking and planning and strategy, not just pulling the trigger as fast as you can. Or maybe thatâ€™s another reason why zombie fans will love it!
IZA: Can you tell me about your zombies? Is there more than one type? Fast or slow? Smart or dumb? Do they use tools? Supernatural or virus caused? As much as detail as you are allowed would be super. We love zombies and cataloging them is kind of a hobby…
Stewart: There are the usual kinds of poor average souls shuffling around, but we have some that retained a trick or two â€“ so we have football zombies that donâ€™t just move towards you but will sometimes line up and try to tackle you. And we have joggers. Thatâ€™s about as fast as our zombies get â€“ the rest are classic walkers from all walks of life â€“ pun intended. Some are still holding on to tools they might have had in life and they have some idea of how to use them, like soldiers with their rifles. A couple of zombies have some nasty surprises for players, but if I mention them, theyâ€™re not really surprises, soâ€¦
The cause of the zombie outbreak is supernatural in nature, which would normally be the perfect excuse for not sticking to classic zombies, but we love the classic zombies, and thatâ€™s where we stayed.
IZA: Also, were those decisions about what type of zombies to utilize based on personal preferences or gameplay decisions?
Stewart: A bit of both I guess. When you make a game you want to include variety for players, something to mix things up. At the same time, our rough rule of thumb was broadly Romeroâ€™s original trilogy, and specifically Day of the Dead â€“ the zombies are us and to a limited degree retain some of what they are, hence football players that will try to tackle you, or soldiers having some vague muscle memory about how to squeeze off a shot at you.
For the main challenge of the game, namely the final stand-off against the undead wave coming your way, zombies are just a giant, stinky obstacle â€“ bigger gameplay decisions revolve around the pros and cons of the three buildings you can choose between to be your fort, the missions you can go out on to find supplies, or the survivors, some of whom form family units â€“ find them all, like terrified human Pokemon, and they give your efforts a bonus. And some survivors have their own unique specialties â€“ people like you who have excelled at staying alive during the dark days.
The zombies are a big problem, but not your only problem.
IZA: Finally, tell us whatever else you’d like to say about zombies and what they mean to you. Poetry is acceptable.
Stewart: Personally if youâ€™re picking hypothetical, fictional badness, zombies are just the worst thing that can happen â€“ other monster movies have monster hunters. Guys who specialize in killing vampires or werewolves or whatever. But thereâ€™s no such thing at zombie hunters, just survivors. Zombie numbers are mind-boggling, they have no fear, cannot be harmed in any useful way, and can only be killed in a very specific way, which is bad enough one on one, but where thereâ€™s one zombieâ€¦
Pandemic is a terrifying enough concept, and leaves its own scars on society. The big influenza outbreak of 1918 sickened enough people that you can express it in fractions, instead of merely a big number. And that just did a number on the world. Imagine something happens where the number of dead can be expressed in fractionsâ€¦ and then they come back to kill even more. Something like that would screw up a society for generations.
Give me a werewolf to wrestle any time.
I have no poetry, but our writer in residence does and I like sharing it every chance I can;
“The Zombie’s Prayer” – Arinn Dembo
i still feel itâ€”i do
but nothing hurts
like it should
they just go
through and through
a little twitch
like a snagged sleeve
quick movement, deep inside
like a needle sliding out
in the dentist’s chair
but i can only
put a shotgun to my belly
pull the trigger:
tell me he’s in love with someone else
and i will fall
to my knees
or at least
cold black trickles
i can feel the rage
i can feel the shame
i can see
a gaping tunnel
blasted straight through
but still i rise
still i move
still i hunger,
on and on
the flame-cold power
of seeds in winter
will not let me die
my eyes plead
and my heart whispers
the zombie’s prayer:
O Great Power
Whose Name i Do Not Know
just let me fall.