Catching some Z’s

I made a zombie game. I didn’t mean to, but it slipped out when I wasn’t looking.

Z, not actually available for any Nintendo consoles.

I jest of course. Anybody who knows me personally will be able to regale you with how utterly sick to death of the zombie genre I am, stemming from university conversations; both overheard and those I were privy to the participation of; being far too regular and repetitive in nature. I think I’d heard pretty much every conceivable Zombie Apocalypse Survival Plan™ in my three-year tenure there.

But I made one, all the same. I’d got a little flak recently on Twitter where I was told in no uncertain terms to ‘please die’ for the heinous crime of insisting that games were art. It’s one of those questions that tends to get gamers on both sides of the argument unnecessarily-rattled, like “what is a game?”. And that latter question rattled in my head by association; it’s not like I hadn’t mused a little on gamification (via lives systems) before, but like – how little interactivity qualifies as a game?

I’m still not in a position where I could give a solid enough definition to write on at this point (although this will come at some point – accompanied by why indeed anyone would want to classify interactive experiences in such a divisive manner) but I came to the conclusion thus; even Dragon’s Lair was a game, by virtue of its very clear success/failure conditions – gamification by definition! Not bad for an animated reaction-test.

And so, I thought to myself, how fun could I make a pure reaction test?

An original pixel doodle.

Well, I came up with a very simple concept based on shooting left and right and jumping; no other controls besides the three keys required for this – a game about reacting to threats from the left or right, or temporarily changing state to deal with attacks from above. And an accompanying 32×32 pixel doodle (to conform with the requirements of the lowrez jam over on GameJolt) arrived, I had a concept. Shotgunning zombies just seemed the kind of ‘shallow’ that would fit with such a simple, no-frills concept.

It’s worth noting that, I had planned to add some real colour definition to the foreground sprites but their temporary colours looked so striking I left it at that. Hey, why not? With such low-resolution games, a simple pixel sketch can function very well as a production mockup anyway — it worked for DOWN.LOAD after all!

Game production went almost without a hitch — I couldn’t sleep so knocked together the basic gameplay over an hour and half in the early quiet hours, and polished the rest over the following two days; one of which dedicated entirely to sound design alone.

I don’t talk enough about sound design. Like every aspect of designing games solo, it’s incredibly important to me. I’ve done a fair few retro-styled games where I could get away with sound effects that were in essence just square waves with pitch/volume effects applied at high speed (which is how a lot of early-’80s arcade machines did them) but I wanted something with better overall ‘feel’ for this game, now called ‘Z’ after titles which allude to zombies with that letter alone.

Ripoffs, I tell thee.Yes, I’m very aware of the ’90s strategy game by The Bitmap Brothers of the same name. Just pronounce one the U.S. way and the other the International way to avoid confusion. You’ll be fine.

The ambient ‘music’ was the first thing. Originally I was going to use a track I’d already written a while back, featuring some heavy metal guitars and harsh electronic beats, but the pace this game had felt-out for itself (sometimes, they just do this) wouldn’t have been a good fit. And so I took an 8-second synth-guitar riff and breakbeat sample, overlayed them and stretched them to two and a half minutes in Audacity with some fades for pacing. I overlaid some sounds of distressed babies (hey, I’m lucky enough to have access to some of the stock libraries the BBC use for their TV show soundtracks – and they have all sorts of weird sounds) and made sure levels and pans were pleasing enough to the ear without becoming cluttered or overly-competing for attention.

Put into the game, this changed the atmosphere entirely. I had to add an overlay to dim the lighting somewhat (which, brilliantly, doubled up as a ghetto lighting effect when removed for the duration of the muzzle flash sprite) just to make the two play well together.

Ghetto

Much of the rest of the sound design was me making zombie groans into my mic and picking the best seven before dropping the pitch three semitones; although I did spend an entire hour Googling for The Perfect Free Gunshot Sound™.

I have a little tale to tell about the footfall sound, actually – I did it in my sleep. No, really. Okay, not entirely. After that initial burst of sleepless Construct 2 activity, I clearly had the game’s development on my mind as I slept, as I had a dream where I was attempting different things to get the sound I wanted. From jumping on the floor beside my mic (too indistinct), banging my boots against the wall (too loud) or on the pavement outside the house (too much noise from the outdoor ambience), I eventually happened on simply (and gently) banging the heels of my boots together in a staggered double-tap. All this was in a dream, I swear – and I repeated it in the waking world for the exact same result. Thanks, subconscious, you did me a solid right there.

The death sequence sound kinda wrote itself. It’s one of those things where you see a death sequence in a game and want to rip it off wholesale because you know how to achieve it. Mirror’s Edge, by the way, when Faith falls to her demise from something way taller than it has any right to be.

I knew I could get this to work visually by making the screen-shake that I was using for gun recoil go absolutely crazy whilst dropping layer opacity to get that screen-feedback blur I love so much, as a layer of red bleeds into the smear of previous-frame leftovers. A similar sound to that in Mirror’s Edge, too – I layered a white noise sound with a reversed cymbal crash and a reversed discordant piano chord at a low octave: I already have an uncle called ‘Bob’, so a posthumous ‘eureka’ will have to suffice here.

DEAD.

That was it, the day I turned an idea for a simple reaction test into a game of a genre my friends though I would never do. You can play it on itch.io if you really like, I’m proud of it.

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