January 18, 2024 - Games I play: Project Zomboid


glorious chaosglorious chaos

I haven’t written about video games for a long while, though my engagement with them seems to ebb and flow. These days I’ve got a few games I’m playing on regular rotation (I should add this to my now page, shouldn’t I?):

  • Project Zomboid
  • Baldur’s Gate 3 (elven bard; Astarion; talk my way through everything)
  • Shin Megami Tensei V
  • Suika Game
  • Dave the Diver

The last three are on the Switch, and the first two I had been playing on a windows laptop but have since discovered I can also play on my big monitor on the mac mini (M1 chip).

These all scratch a slightly different itch (and it’s probably worth pointing out that I also dip into Animal Crossing + Stardew Valley fairly regularly as well).

Project Zomboid is probably my most regular forever game” that I’ll play for a while and then drop for a while. It’s hard to believe it is still an Early Access game (and has been for some unholy number of years) with a massive, now nearly mythical, version 42 that will incorporate NPCs, a hugely overhauled crafting system, animals / wildlife, and a crapton more. That aside, what I think this game does really well includes:

  • bleak desolation - hooray, bleak desolation! But in all seriousness, despite the Sims 1 graphics, there’s a lot here the game does well. The music is incredibly thematic and creepy, environmental changes like weather or vegetative growth as time goes by, and the ongoing sense of being the only human left alive, all contribute towards a rather eerie vibe. Add to this various Easter Eggs / things you can come across that tell stories about people who survived for a while, or background hints at what might have caused the outbreak, help to elevate the setting.
  • the sense of exploration - in the Bartle taxonomy I am definitely an explorer/achiever, and Zomboid definitely scratches that itch. A whole county of Kentucky has basically been modelled for the game, with so many more maps (of varying quality) created in the steam workshop / modding community. This was mapped in a separate site, but since the game introduced in-game mapping I haven’t referred to this.
  • You can annotate existing maps in-game-world and leave them for other players or characters to find (the game supports multiplayer but also has a feature where, once your character dies, you can create a new one in the same world instance, potentially able to stumble across your old one, now zombified). I love concepts of mapping, and tied with the sandbox nature of the game, there could be some awesome flow-on effects with these (tied with empty notebooks, which you can write in…which is making me want to start a new run where I have to write in a journal with each new character, every night before they go to bed… if they die, the zombies can roam around with their old notebook and map of their cache / stash on their person)!
  • you against the world - on default settings, PZ is pretty difficult. It can be hard to try and establish some sort of safe footing, and there is always the sense that you might be assaulted by hoardes at any time. I couldn’t say how many characters I’ve lost; so many at this stage, to the point where I just go with random spawn points, because the fun is in the survival.
  • Different ways to play - there isn’t one set way to play, either. Some people like to build up bases, fortresses, and defend them. Others like to work on clearing out certain areas, like a huge mall or military base. Some people take to the wilderness, and survive on fishing, trapping and foraging. Others still prefer nomad runs,” where you never put down roots anywhere.
  • In-game pressures - at some point the power and water go out. The radio and TV broadcasts stop. The helicopter event. As frustrating as it is, I like that the game isn’t static.
  • That said, there’s also a sandbox mode where you can tweak pretty much any variable to your heart’s content. Set zombie respawn rates (to zero if you want the satisfaction of clearing them out completely–some people even enjoy playing the game with no zombies at all!);food and resource scarcity; when the power and water go, whether there are none, one, or multiple helicopter events; the qualities of the zombies (shamblers, sprinters, crawlers?); whether their senses are keen or dull or if they get better or worse over time, etc etc!
  • it’s pretty great whether you play as a soloist or with friends

This is turning into a walking advertisement really, but as I mentioned above, it reliably scratches an itch for me. It’s easy to pick up and put down, and can be as casual or intense as I feel like. In some ways it’s become almost meditative–I don’t have a great attachment to characters, because invariably they always die (the game’s tagline is this is how you died”), and each run’ is always slightly different enough to feel interesting.

Also (nearly done now), it’s so freeking cheap. You can buy four copies on steam for less than Starfield, and you’re very likely to have a better time, for longer. (Sorry Starfield, but I am holding a grudge.)