Survival games are all good and fun, but I can only enjoy them if they present a decent challenge. RimWorld is a brilliant colony sim, for instance, pitting players against ever-increasing odds until they escape the planet they’ve crash-landed on or a raid by mechs wipes them away. Mount & Blade: Bannerlord keeps players on their toes with random events that can throw their carefully managed kingdom into disarray. But there isn’t a more brutal, story-driven sim game than Project Zomboid.
Project Zomboid launched all the way back in 2011 and has effectively been in development for a decade at this point. The game blew up in popularity recently though, mainly because of an update that added stable multiplayer. Are there still some bugs and latency issues to sort out? Absolutely. But Project Zomboid is now playable with a decent-sized group of friends, all of whom you will watch die or have to kill yourself.
I know that last sentence sounds grim, but that’s the reality of Project Zomboid. It’s not a game where you’ll build something the first time you play and survive the apocalypse with. The game opens by saying “there is no hope” and “this is how you died.” Let me tell you right now, it is not joking.
If you play Project Zomboid, your character is going to die. It happens eventually, but unlike other survival crafting sims, death in Project Zomboid comes at a heavy cost. All the progress made with that character, specifically in regards to learning skills, is gone as soon as they die because players then have to make a completely new character. Project Zomboid is a game where death is final and happens quite often.
But everything leading up to that death is spectacular. In its moment-to-moment gameplay, Project Zomboid is a story of scrappy survival. There is no space for thriving in the game, only escaping otherwise deadly situations by the skin of your teeth. And recounting that character’s life after they likely rise again as a member of the living dead is one of Project Zomboid‘s greatest joys, right next to finding that zombified corpse and bashing its head in to claim all of your old loot.
Few highs, plenty of lows
While Project Zomboid would have you believe that there are two major players — yourself and the zombies — that’s not really the case. Comedy and tragedy dominate the game, and players will regularly find themselves running into both.
In one of my recent sessions with friends, one of my pals and I decided to venture out of our safehouse to find another one of our friends. We ended up finding him and celebrated for all of a second by drinking some soda before realizing he was leading a trail of several zombies after us. At this point, we didn’t have very good gear, and the friend we had just found was bitten.
Basic injuries in Project Zomboid come in three flavors: Scratches, lacerations, and bites. If a zombie scratches you, there’s a 7% chance you’ll turn. A laceration is more dangerous, bumping that chance up to 25%. But if you’re bitten, it’s a death sentence. You have anywhere from hours to a few days until you join the walking dead.
We all had a good laugh knowing our bitten friend was dead and there was nothing we could do about it save for one thing. “Well Steve, I’ve got this bleach here if you want one last drink before you turn,” I said, before being told to shut up. My friend instead decided to go out in a blaze of glory, setting a safe house to respawn nearby before running to the east and setting off a car alarm, drawing the undead hordes away from our safe house.
Learning from death
Playing with friends can make these stories a bit funnier than they’d usually be. Playing on my own, I’ve died from the simplest of things. One time I climbed through a window and suffered a deep cut, which eventually led to my character simply bleeding out. It wasn’t a graceful death, but one I learned from.
And that’s the value of the stories told in Project Zomboid. Every story players experience comes with a moral. Every character’s death is a learning experience. With their brutality and all the struggle that comes with dying in the game, the stories players experience in Project Zomboid are unlike anything else. They show something small like a cut or scratch can become enormous, and leave players with an impression that won’t go away quickly.
Compared to other sim games, or even other zombie titles, Project Zomboid‘s use of death as the end of every story is practically unheard of. Few zombie titles actually show players at a disadvantage — Back 4 Blood and Left 4 Dead‘s survivors turn the undead into mincemeat and Dead Rising’s protagonists can beat zeds back with a myriad of wacky weapons — but for Project Zomboid, that power dynamic is integral. If players could fend off hordes of the undead, they wouldn’t die, and without death, they’re not getting the full gameplay experience.
Project Zomboid is like those boss fights where players are supposed to lose and then immediately get back into the game. Progressing through and learning the game requires death, players have to have a character die and learn from their mistakes. Project Zomboid‘s gameplay is one in a million, because without any outside influence, there’s only one way for players to learn, and that’s from the stories they remember.