ZombiU's core mechanics, notably its permadeath feature, are tailored to keep the narrative moving forward even when a controlled character is killed, according to story design director Gabrielle Shrager.
Speaking in a panel at the 2013 Game Developers Conference today, Shrager said that the game's infection mechanic inspired "one of the creepiest thing you will do in a game this year": killing your former self. After a character is bitten, players in ZombiU will leave that character behind to become a zombie and start with a new character. In order to get back all the gear and items the old character carried, you have to hunt down your former character and kill them.
"Permadeath has huge consequences for gameplay, and big consequences for narrative."
"The daring design choice was fought over quite bitterly, and there were concerns about loading times and backtracking," Shrager said. The mechanic was created to keep the narrative moving forward even after the first-person death of a character, and a way to broaden the story by including multiple zombie apocalypse survivors.
According to graphic novelist and ZombiU writer Antony Johnston, the permadeath feature is the core of the ZombiU experience.
"Permadeath has huge consequences for gameplay, and big consequences for narrative," he said. "How can generic characters support an ongoing narrative?"
ZombiU does not have a centralized story with one hero, so the developer chose to give the player character no lines in order to prevent narrative dissonance, Shrager and Johnston said. The character becoming emotionally involved with NPCs is the player, not the character he or she controls. Shrager and Johnston said ZombiU effectively cuts out the middleman, which would be a speaking avatar under player control, for a silent character whose actions are entirely up to the player.