Movies and games about zombie invasions are often vehicles of excess, competing to outdo each other in gore. Helpless victims are torn limb-from-limb by brain-hungry opponents; heroes mow through shambling foes, using whatever implements are handy (cricket bats, lawnmowers) to extract a bloody vengeance.
Urban Dead, a browser-based, massive multiplayer online game, plays against these conventions. There are no fountains of bodily fluids—the game is almost entirely text based. Beyond that, the game isn’t centered on combat, although battles between the undead and still-living are frequent. Instead, the game focuses more on building barricades and hiding out, with survivors struggling to secure a safe place from the zombie hordes.
Both the living and the walking dead are played by people. Players make their choice upon creating their character, but the boundary is a fluid one—characters who are killed awake as zombies, and zombies can be brought to life again. All of the characters start out relatively feeble, lacking the skills to accomplish a kill on their own or even enter a heavily barricaded building. Actions are restricted to 50 moves a day, ensuring a measured pace.
This rationing of action is an integral part of the design, and it’s a success on two fronts. First, it makes it easy for players unable to spend hours at a time in front of their computer (me) to keep up. Second, it promotes a more strategic view, rewarding long-term accomplishments. Players have to plan carefully to avoid being stranded in the street when their action points run out. At the same time, each small victory—a player healed, a zombie whacked with a baseball bat—is more impactful for its rarity.
A large online community has organized itself around the game, with groups and factions competing to maintain turf and accomplish unique objectives. It’s easy to play as a freelancer as well, making the occasional foray to hunt zombies or explore new parts of the city. The game is as immersive as you want it to be (and free too), making it a good fit for those of us who are stranded at the office and looking for a few minutes to go adventuring.