The Most Frightening Game of the Year
Last night was Halloween. This would have been posted then, but I sat down with a group of friends to play Mansions of Madness instead. So here’s Space-Biff’s first ever (belated) Halloween special.
I’d like to talk a bit about the game that’s frightened me the most this year. You may have already guessed what it is from the image above. If you have, you’re probably wondering how anyone could consider this game frightening. If you haven’t, a hint: it isn’t called “Nuevos Aires, 1960.” It’s a game that at its most profound level is about the detachment and numbness that follows real violence, about confronting impossible atrocities, and about a nation’s disconnect between the suffering of its people and the isolation — and ambitions — of its leaders. It’s also a puzzle game. About zombies. And smashing them to their constituent atoms.
Yes, it’s Atom Zombie Smasher, the latest from Brendon Chung’s Blendo Games. In a year in which Dead Space 2, Red Faction: Armageddon, F.E.A.R. 3, Dead Island, and The Binding of Isaac were all released, one might wonder why I consider a fairly lightweight puzzle game to be the most frightening of the entire year. Here’s why: with the exception of The Binding of Isaac (a close second), none of those games ever actually frightened me. Sure, I was spooked those couple times some talon-fetish abomination jumped out of a locker. Maybe I was a bit hesitant to saunter into the infested dark without a brighter flashlight. And perhaps I was just a touch disgusted by all the intestines flying about. But none of them actually filled my stomach with ice water. None of them made me afraid beyond the moment I quit to desktop. None of them but Atom Zombie Smasher.
The game begins with the 1961 zombie infestation of a small country presumably located in South America. This outbreak begins as a minor problem, only hitting a single of Nuevos Aires’ many provinces. You, the acting avatar of your government’s response, begin with only the Pleasant Pheasant, a rescue helicopter. Your goal is to rescue ten civilians out of the town’s 125. Rescuing only 10 civilians is a trivial task, though as you cannot fight back or stem the tide in any way, most of the population will be ceded to the zombie menace.
So the Pleasant Pheasant swoops over to your designated landing zone, bellows a foghorn, then lands and begins loading as many civilians as it can. Once it’s loaded to its max, or once landed for a period of time, it will take off, fly away to drop off the refugees, and eventually return. During this time, the zombies will be busy zombifying every civilian they come into contact with, often sparking impressive chain reactions. These can be devastating when even a single zombie reaches the mass of civilians who have huddled together at the sound of your helicopter’s foghorn. A hundred civilians will transform from terrified flashing yellow dots to slow unrelenting purple dots in less than a second.
For successfully evacuating some of the population of that first infected territory, you’ll be given your first mercenary contract. This could be a squad of infantry who will stand in the way of approaching zeds with their puny firearms; which in practice often proves the equivalent of trying to hold back a tidal wave with buckets. Or it could be a massive artillery battery that you mount on one of the rooftops to rain explosives down on the purple dots. Or it could be zed bait to temporarily lock down groups of zombies in one area. Or barricades to seal off avenues of approach to your evacuation zone. Or landmines, or snipers.
And as you grow stronger, adding mercenary contracts and training your soldiers to fire more accurately or lay more mines, zed is getting stronger too. The infection spreads rapidly, and while in the first mission there was only a single affected province, it will soon be two, then four. Then ten.
Now it’s a puzzle game. You have a random selection of available mercs every month, which you must evaluate when considering which territory to liberate next — and every month you can only muster enough resources to move on a single province. Some months you might have landmines, dynamite charges, and barricades, so you would do well to avoid any class-3 outbreaks. Other times you’ll have a strong complement of artillery, infantry, and snipers, and it’ll be just fine to assault a province that’s all but overrun. Then, when you’re in battle, you’ll need to find the optimal positioning for all those little soldiers, making sure that they can beat back the purple menace long enough for the Pleasant Pheasant to make a precious handful of round-trips. It’s solid gaming, and excellent puzzling.
But then this game kills you by degrees. It strips you of basic human empathy. Through its remoteness, yes: it’s true you’re flying on a semi-rigid airship high above the action, directing rescue sorties for yellow dots. But your distance from the situation does far more than that.
In my last game, I had just reached a turning point in my war on zed. This always happens. For a while I’d been not just rescuing the citizens of class-1 outbreak territories, but occupying and transforming them into fortified zones. These yellow safe zones block infection vectors, and will give my side monthly points (a lot more on that later). But now there are so many class-2 and class-3 outbreaks that I need to broaden my response. So I deploy my soldiers to a class-3 zone.
Now, higher class zones consist of larger maps, with more civilians (and a higher amount that you need to rescue), and a greatly increased number of zombies. They grant quite a few more points. They’re also much easier to fail at, which will cost you the entire month’s work, basically letting the zombie infection spread unchecked for a time while you regroup. I move into this sector to find that, unlike the two avenues of approach that are common in class-1 outbreak zones, the zombies are going to be coming at me from nine directions. In huge quantities. And I will have the same number of mercenaries.
I get down to work, thinking that I’ll be able to hold back zed long enough to get loads of civilians to safety. But inevitably, my soldiers aren’t ready for such a torrent of the undead, and we fall back, block by block. Our artillery hammers the enemy ineffectually, (re)killing dozens that are replaced by hundreds more. Our snipers are scoring a kill every half-second, but there are so many zeds on the ground that the snipers may as well not even be there. As a result, everyone has repositioned time and time again, struggling to keep order. My landing zone is skipping back and forth with every sortie, my infantry are sprinting up and down the streets spraying rounds everywhere, and my snipers are running back and forth on the rooftop of their designated building as they try to respond to the shifting needs of the battle.
And then, as Pleasant Pheasant comes in to pick up yet another cluster of survivors, I notice that a single purple dot has broken through the lines, beelining to where over a hundred yellow dots are clustered at the evac zone. The infantry are tied up with too many others, artillery is too slow to target, and the snipers have no time to reposition. If that purple dot connects, those survivors are all dead anyway, and zed wins just a little more, his numbers growing while mine diminish. And I, the remote commander, the valiant savior of thousands, don’t hesitate for a single second. I nuke the ever-loving hell out of that landing zone. City blocks collapse to rubble and bodies vaporize to wisps of ash. I imagine — later, of course — those hundred refugees looking expectantly to the sky, spotting the helicopter and cheering when it blares its foghorn. And then they see a trio of specks, growing ever larger. And then nothing.
To understand why I would do this, you have to understand the goal of Atom Zombie Smasher. See, both humanity and the zombies progress along a victory track. This is never explained in much depth, but I assume that once you reach the end of that track, you have studied zed enough to synthesize a cure, or create a weapon that attacks only their kind. Or something. But if zed finishes the track first, the zombie virus goes airborne and everyone in Nuevos Aires switches sides, or commits suicide. Or something. As I said, the game never really gets into it. All you know is that when you reach 6,000 points, you win. When zed reaches 6,000 points, they win.
When you reach certain pips along the victory track, events kick in. So once you reach 700 points, some people are getting wise to the zombie menace, and scientists emerge. They need to be saved, but once plucked out of infested zones they can be spent on various upgrades. At 1200 points, the Catbird orbital bombardment unlocks. And so on.
However, zed is scoring points and triggering events too. At 500 points, the infestation rates increase dramatically, signalling that the map of Nuevos Aires is soon going to be filled with flashing purple outbreak markers. At 2500 points, ultra zeds appear — immense purple dots that can collapse buildings and walk right past your defenses.
The points that fuel these tracks comes from civilians rescued (or infected), and zones controlled (or infected). For every civilian you rescue in a class-1 zone, you get one point. In class-2 and -3 zones, their value is multiplied. And for every territory you control, you get a smooth 20 points per month.
Zed gets a point for every human infected. Which means, of course, that you don’t want the civilians at the landing zone to be chain-reactioned into a massive gain of points for team purple. The zombies also get points for every single territory they control, at 10 points per level of infection. The situation on the map soon becomes desperate:
As the distant commander, the value of a civilian transforms. Where once they held worth, now they’re a liability. The game never instructed me to kill them, or even gave any clue I was allowed to. It doesn’t keep a tally of how many of my own civilians I’ve murdered for the sake of points. I’ve become like the above General Asa Willingdon, obliterating the lives of the thousands without blinking or balking. Sure, I can rationalize my actions intellectually. I did what was necessary. Those civilians would be zombies if I didn’t kill them, and anyway, in a sense every zombie I kill is one of my civilians. But intellect isn’t what’s on display, because I wasn’t using it at the moment of decision; I was running on sheer shock and instinct. When I nuked my own citizens, I didn’t take the time to evaluate ethics or rationalize through the problem. I just did it.
It taps into some primordial part of myself, a part that enforces a rigid adherence to the notion of Us and Them. And according to this prehistoric arithmetic, if some of Us are about to become Them, then they’re already Them.
I imagine my character, high above the action. He’s no longer fully human. Like the zombies far below, he’s transformed. Something fundamentally good and engaged about himself has been discarded, and he won’t be able to pick it back up.
The few characters of the game are similarly impacted by the events that begin in late 1960. A vignette is shown every few missions, revealing human moments in the lives of these few. Some act with cold decisiveness to repair their nation, ending thousands of lives with the push of a button, just as I have. Others are oblivious to the fact that zombies are eating their neighbors, going about their business, loving and hating, actualizing their ambitions. The plot to depose the president of Nuevos Aires has little to do with the zombie outbreak, yet it continues regardless, blind to the suffering that has seized the country. Your mercenaries regularly abandon you for months at a time to pursue profits elsewhere. Even the background music, upbeat surf guitar, seems ignorant of the wider world. It’s the best gaming expression of shock I’ve encountered.
In these ways, Atom Zombie Smasher is a game about what we might do when pushed to the extreme. It is also a game about what we might not do. I’m not sure which outcome is preferable. And judging by the ending, the game isn’t either.