There’s a risk you take if you work on a zombie-centric project today. Pop culture has a long-standing love affair for zombie fiction, from films like George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead to the TV adaptation of The Walking Dead.
In games, zombies have been explored in almost every way imaginable: traditional horror in Resident Evil, bullet fodder in Call of Duty, as the backdrop for an emotional epic in The Last of Us. You’re not just standing on the shoulders of giants; you’re constantly knocking elbows with them.
Psyop Games Executive Producer Rocco Scandizzo knows that video games are saturated with the undead. He’s seen the frustration in fan reactions to new game announcements; he jokes about the board meetings where someone pleads "no more zombie games."
"Zombie fatigue is a real risk," Scandizzo says. "Our fear is always that some games too similar to ours will come out ... zombies right now, [however], they seem to still be flourishing.
"There's still a crowd that really likes them."
Zombies might be the most overdone trope in video games, but time and again players have proven they’re still welcome. According to Capcom, the Dead Rising franchise has shipped more than 8.3 million units, and the Resident Evil series has sold more than 64 million. Games such as DayZ and Dead Island show strong interest, too.
In 2016, Psyop Games will put Scandizzo’s theory to the test — with a twist on the zombie-to-player relationship — for its game tentatively titled Moving Hazard.
On paper, Moving Hazard sounds like the dime-a-dozen titles you can find on shelves today. The team-based tactical shooter puts a heavy focus on multiplayer and takes place many years after the zombie apocalypse. The game, set to launch next year as an Early Access title for PC, will set players up with several gameplay modes, six multiplayer maps and upgradeable characters and weapons. Different character classes will afford players different styles, from assault-driven characters to quicker, quieter sniper types.
Where it diverges from the path, however, is in its treatment of zombies. They’re not targets for destruction. They’re things to be manipulated; a means to an end or, more specifically, your enemy’s end.
"If you look at the games out there right now, there's a lot of big map games, like DayZ, where you have to survive," Scandizzo says. "You have to find food, that kind of thing. It's more about survival rather than it's about action. And then there's a bunch of Horde mode kind of games, very scripted ... kind of asymmetrical games."
Moving Hazard is neither of these. It emphasizes action and a world where zombies are not your enemy. Instead, it’s what the apocalypse has caused other people to become. Scandizzo and the game’s designer and lead writer, Christian Cantamessa, reference The Walking Dead franchise repeatedly. Cantamessa, who penned games such as Shadow of Mordor and Red Dead Redemption, describes Moving Hazard as a "dark and gritty" title, aiming to hit the sort of tone mastered by The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman. Scandizzo doubles down on this reference, pointing to a scene from the TV adaptation of the comic.
"We were thinking about the fact that there's really no session-based games out there for first-person shooters that really treat zombies as they're treated in the movies or TV shows," he says.
He points to a moment in the show where two groups of people face off in a bullet-ridden showdown. They’re focused on taking down each other, while the zombies in the middle are simply "making a mess of it."
"[The people are] really not all aligned against the zombies," Scandizzo says. "It's not Horde mode ... Everybody really has to avoid them while they're killing other people. They're a bit of a distraction.
"That's interesting, but it's more interesting if you can tactically use them against your enemies."
An early build of Moving Hazard puts this theory into action. Players choose loadouts with different weapons of destruction and distraction — bombs you can lob into mobs of zombies that drive them into a frenzy, pheromones to throw them off or even stun grenades that make your enemy easy prey.
"You're using them as a weapon against the other people," Cantamessa says. "This is not a game where you're shooting the zombies. You can shoot the zombies, but you have a decision: Do I want to shoot all the zombies over there, or do I want to use them and turn them against that guy over there?"
This all feeds into the idea that it’s people themselves that are to blame. Moving Hazard opens after humans have already brought destruction upon themselves. Cantamessa likens it to the Manhattan Project, which created the first nuclear weapons, but with a zombie twist. A research group hoping to weaponize death succeeded, and everything spiraled out of control from there.
"Somebody wanted to weaponize death, and came up with something that worked very well for a while, and then stopped working," Cantamessa says.
Members of the military abandoned their posts and closed their doors, but not before kidnapping doctors and pulling in their families in hopes of waiting out the tragedy. Years later, the world exists in military city-states where survivors fight to live.
Moving Hazard will explore the story leading up to these events, as well as the world in its current state.
"It's about the humanity of the people surviving, as opposed to just a gunfest of people shooting down funny creatures," Cantamessa says. "We're considering zombies. Instead of the perspective of body horror and staring at your own death, we're looking at it from a different perspective ...
"Sometimes you're the maker of the apocalypse."