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Review by: Paul O'Brian
Game: Zombie Exodus
By: Jim Dattilo

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It's been a long, long time since I reviewed a text game. Yes, I wrote a series of posts about IF-related stuff at PAX East 2010. I wrote an appreciation of GET LAMP, and a bit of a musing on applying IF-type thinking to real life. Oh, and a couple of non-interactive pastiches. But actually reviewing a text game? It's been over three years! The last review I wrote was for Peter Nepstad's 1893: A World's Fair Mystery. Considering that I used to write hundreds of them, that's quite a decline.

So recently I found myself with a little spare bandwidth, and having just enjoyed the Oscars, I decided to embark on a little mini-project of playing and reviewing the four games nominated for the XYZZY Best Game award this year. I ran the list through my handy-dandy randomatic scrambler, and out popped my first assignment: Zombie Exodus by Jim Dattilo. I was excited! It had gotten 10 nominations — more than any other game — and a nomination in almost every category! I'd never heard of Jim Dattilo, but I've been way out of the loop, so that's to be expected. Off I went to check it out!

That's when the surprises started. The game has no entry in IFDb. What kind of IF game has no entry in IFDb? So I just plain Googled it, and found that in fact, it's a commercial release by Choice Of Games, makers of fine "Choose Your Own Adventure" (or CYOA) type stories. That required a little expectation adjustment, but it wasn't all bad. I'd played a couple Choice Of Games offerings, and enjoyed them. Except… wait. Despite a press release which makes it sound as if Zombie Exodus was produced by Choice Of Games, it wasn't, actually. It uses their ChoiceScript language, and is hosted by them, but it wasn't actually created by the company. Still, that's not a dealbreaker either. The vast majority of IF games are produced outside a commercial context!

Nevertheless, once I had done a little reading about the game, it became clear to me that I was not its ideal audience for a couple of reasons. First, it's a survival horror game, a genre which I approach with trepidation. I'm not big on stories that aim to produce fear and disgust, without any particular reason or metaphor behind them. Second, it's a CYOA game. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed many a CYOA book as a kid, and I still have affection for the genre, but compared to parser-based IF, I don't find it particularly immersive. I tend to make decisions at random, at least at first, as I find that the majority of CYOA books and games play pretty fast and loose with the connection between choice and outcome. And indeed, that's how I approached Zombie Exodus.

The game starts out well enough. A highly infectious virus is turning people into virtual "zombies" by disabling higher brain functions and triggering aggressiveness (though it later appears to be able to reanimate the dead as well; the story's mythology isn't quite in order), and society is starting to break down. As the player character, you have a more immediate problem: your sister Emma is out there in the chaos. Fair enough: setting and goal. The game begins with a somewhat clumsy PC construction section, taking the player through choices like "Are you Emma's brother or sister?" and "While sleeping you dream of a time long ago… well, actually the past few months. In your time off, you had several activities keeping you occupied. What do you dream of?" The latter question helps establish a couple of specialties for the PC, which appear to (sometimes) open up options later in the game, RPG-style. Then, based on the choices you make in PC construction, you're given a couple of choices for inventory items to carry. Awkward though it was, I liked the idea that RPG-ish and IF-ish features were integrated into the game's basic CYOA structure. Those aspects promised to lend a greater depth of interaction and immersiveness than a vanilla CYOA narrative could offer.

Some of the time, it succeeds. There were definitely moments in Zombie Exodus when I felt very engaged with the story, and reconnected with that feeling of excitement I had as kid, flipping my way around some new Edward Packard or R.A. Montgomery book. Of course, those guys never wrote about zombies feasting on human flesh, but still, a driving story with meaningful choices can result in a very compelling experience indeed.

Unfortunately, all too often, the choices in Zombie Exodus are almost devoid of meaning, like the following, which comes up when you decide you'd like to steal a car to travel to Emma's location:

Which car do you choose?
  • 2011 red convertible BMW 6-series
  • 2008 tan Cadillac Escalade
  • 2004 gray Dodge Ram Pickup
  • 2009 white Ford F-150 Pickup
  • 2010 blue Honda Accord
  • 1995 faded red Honda Civic

This is a fantastically meaningless choice, not to mention a level of observation that implies an incredibly car-obsessed autistic PC. How many people can identify not only the make and model of a car, but the year? How on earth could it possibly matter what color the car is? I guess maybe the bigger cars might be of more use in breaking through blockades and such, but other than that, how could a player possibly know what matters about these? This sort of thing is why I always have the randomizer handy when playing a CYOA game.

Another type of meaning-lite choice comes up rather often in battle scenes:

Heather's back faces the zombie, and she does not notice the imminent threat.
  • Shoot her with your rifle
  • Shoot her with your assault rifle
  • Shoot her with your revolver

Now, in the first section, I actually chose to configure my PC with a passion for guns, so the fact that she didn't just grab the nearest gun to hand actually felt in character to me, but at the same time, the game starts to feel like a very degraded version of Doom when it asks me to select what weapon I'd like to use to blast away at the threat of the moment. Interestingly, there were moments when this type of choice worked well — for instance, when a zombie horde is advancing, the assault rifle seems like the clear choice. Unfortunately, I was given the choice whether or not it seemed to matter.

Aside from meaningless choices, the game's other major flaw is that it stumbles occasionally into some pretty rocky prose, like "Now is time to make a decision", or "There is an undescrible comfort to the room", or "No zombies have spotted your group, though you keep watch on the closest creature thirty feet away across the street and wears a mailman uniform." Some of the problems are just typos, and some of them require the intervention of an editor, but there are enough of them to make the game as a whole feel sloppy and unprofessional. It's not an epidemic or anything — I'd say 95% of the game's prose is trouble-free — but 5% is too high for anything that's asking for money.

The biggest problem of all, though, came up right in the middle of the story, and it looked like this:

You have reached the end. Part 3 is in development, and begins with your arrival at the cathedral safehouse.

This game is not finished! Nowhere in its beginning, or its press release, or its "About ZE" web description, does anything suggest that you will suddenly be left hanging in the middle of the storyline. That is not okay with me. I'm not against episodic IF — I've committed some myself. But in my opinion, there are some crucial rules to follow. First, let your readers know upfront that they're reading episode one, or episodes one and two, or whatever. Second, your release must tell a satisfying story in itself. It's one thing to play through a game whose ending leaves some questions unresolved or hints at further developments. It's quite another to play through a game that has no ending at all, that cuts off abruptly in the middle of a suspenseful scenario. In my opinion, such a game is not ready for release.

The fact that this game was nominated for so many XYZZY awards is fodder for an interesting discussion in itself, but I'm going to leave that aside for this review, except to say a few things. First, I think it's perfectly legitimate to include CYOA games in the XYZZYs. Second, I think that when it comes to voting on finalists (not on nominees), voters should only weigh in if they've played all the games in the category. Finally, I thought the awarding of a "special recognition" XYZZY for Zombie Exodus was well-handled.

Overall, the game wasn't my cup of tea, but it obviously has its fans, and I can see why. There's plenty of suspense, plenty of gore, and a fair number of stretches that feel compelling and engaging. Once its prose is better edited, its meaningless choices are removed, and its story is, ahem, finished, it'll be worth the time of horror devotees. Until then, the game is kind of a zombie itself, shuffling forward despite its crucial missing organs.

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