I love the beginning of Zombie!. [SPOILERS FOR THE PROLOGUE AHEAD] In it, you play Valerie, a junior at the local college who is enjoying a relaxing camping trip after having finally dumped her loser boyfriend Scott. The atmosphere of the camping trip is very well-done, from the CD player spinning 80s hits to the various characters squabbling over how to build a campfire. Equally well-done is the terror of learning that there is something awful lurking in those woods, and it’s coming to get you. You run, but to no avail: you are overtaken and killed… and then the prologue is over and you find yourself in your actual role: that of Scott, the unlucky guy who has just been dumped by his heartless girlfriend Valerie, ridden his motorcycle out into the country to get his mind off the breakup, and (wouldn’t you know it?) run out of gas in the remote woods. The viewpoint shift caught me off-guard, and it worked marvelously. I felt like I had a better insight into my character after having seen him through the eyes of another, and vice versa for the character I played in the prologue. Viewpoint shifts in traditional fiction can make for a dramatic effect; interactive fiction, with its customary second person form of address, made the shift all the more dramatic, at least this time. It also serves perfectly to crank up the tension: one of the first things you hear with Scott’s ears is a scream — it sounds like Valerie, but what would she be doing out here in the woods? [SPOILERS END]
Unfortunately, after this promising beginning Zombie! stumbles badly. [MORE SPOILERS HERE] For one thing, after taking so much time to develop the relationship between Valerie and Scott, the game never returns to it! I fully expected to see Valerie show up again as a zombie, to see Scott’s emotional reaction to encountering her in that state, and to find out what happens after he rescues her from zombification. A reunion, perhaps? Well, no. In fact, the prologue is the last we see of Valerie. Now, I usually like it when a game proves itself less predictable than I thought it would be, but this time I felt cheated. I wouldn’t have paid so much attention to Valerie or put so much time into learning about the relationship had I realized that she was just a throwaway character. [SPOILERS END] Doubly unfortunate is the fact this is far from Zombie!‘s only problem. There are numerous bugs in the code, hand-in-hand (as they so often are) with an unpleasantly high count of mechanical errors in the writing.
I kept finding myself feeling frustrated, because every time I really got into the game, allowed myself to get interested in its tensions, a bug or a spelling error would come along that would shatter mimesis and deflate the emotional effect. The thing is, the game does a great job of building that tension. It’s a b-movie all the way, no deep or serious issues here, but it’s definitely got that suspenseful, creepy feeling that the best b-movies have. (Yes, I’m aware of the irony in that phrase, so as Sideshow Bob says, you needn’t bother pointing it out.) The sound of heavy footsteps approaching, or the feeling of driving rain beating against a worn, gothic mansion, or the sight of horrific creatures staring dead ahead (literally!), and similar gothic pleasures were all very well-executed in this game, until you hit the inevitable technical error. Still, better to have a good game with lots of bugs than a mediocre game executed flawlessly. Bugs are easy to fix. When Starkey fixes them, Zombie! will definitely be one to recommend.
Prose: The prose isn’t beautiful by any means, and it often shows signs of awkward construction or phrasing. On the other hand, it does achieve many suspenseful moments, and quite often has some very nice pieces of description or atmosphere. I found the rain very convincing, and the eerie outside of the mansion was also well-portrayed. In addition, the prologue had some well-done dialogue and atmosphere, and built the tension just right for entry into the game proper.
Plot: The plot was a good combination of the spooky and the silly, with the emphasis on the silly. I found it reminiscent of some of the early LucasArts games, especially the moments with Ed the Head. The kitschy charm of the mad scientist, his lumbering assistant, the haunted mansion, the unholy army of the dead, etc. was great. The main disappointment I had with the plot was the ending. It felt tacked on, as if there were more story to tell but because the game is a competition entry the author didn’t have time to explore it. [SPOILERS AHEAD] Also, as I mentioned above, the emphasis placed on Valerie was rather odd considering that she never again showed up in the game. Finally, I know this is just a personal preference, but I felt a little annoyed that in the end of the game, I couldn’t foil Dr. Maxim’s nefarious scheme. I understand there’s a long tradition of apocalyptic endings in this kind of story, but this ending didn’t manage the triumphant feeling of destroying evil or the spooky feeling of inevitable defeat. [SPOILERS END]
Puzzles: I actually liked the puzzles in Zombie! quite a bit. Some of them were a little tacked on (the measuring cups), and the overall puzzle framework (collect the elements of a recipe) is quite shopworn by now. However, all the puzzles, cliched as they may have been, fit very well into the overall story, and that seamless fit makes a lot of things pretty forgivable. If the game hadn’t been plagued by bugs, its puzzles would have come very close to achieving the goal of aiding the narrative rather than obstructing it.
Technical (writing): There were a significant number of mechanical errors in Zombie!‘s writing.
Technical (coding): The game also had quite a number of bugs. It needs at least one round of intense playtesting before it’s really ready for the world at large.
OVERALL: A 7.5