If you go and look at Steam storefront right now, the land seems beset by a plague of crafting and survival games with zombies and pvp, like a writhing, homogenous flood of feculent maggots. The trend has not so much worn out its welcome, as gradually turned into a second-rate squatter, sitting around in your favourite armchair flicking snot and wallowing in its own waste.
In its wake, this torrent of obstinately uncreative derivatives has left behind a few interesting experiences, amid all the tree-punching and forging. I played Rust for a bit and found it offensively shit – though apparently it’s been completely rebuilt since then, if only I had a quantum of motivation to reinstall it – but 7 Days to Die has so far stood out as the more engrossing example of the genre.
Since it first started it’s had features added, scrapped and edited with admirable gusto, like a scrap-book project with more zombies and impractically dressed nurses than an average gaming convention. I have to say I enjoyed it more when it was first starting out and was completely broken, because back then it seemed more tightly focused with simple goals – get the fuck in before it gets dark, because every jerk in the fathomable vicinity is going to come after you like a pack of Jehovah’s witnesses right before the Rapture deadline, and they are not going to stop punching things until you are absolutely 100 % dead.
It was simple and to the point, and after a crazy number of alpha updates and added stealth and crafting features it’s become so absolutely stuffed with different mechanics, it would have to come with a game’s guide thicker than a text-book on maritime law. Amid all the stealth, scrounging, crafting, camping, cooking, token RPG-elements, recipes and punching boulders and trees it feels like protecting yourself from the zombie hordes has become a subsidiary rather than cardinal elements. At least the hit detection is still shit, so you can spend several frantic seconds hacking away at invisible grass, while a zombie is meaningfully crawling towards your ankles.
What eventually turns me off, as maybe other players with poor concentration times, is the inevitable dull task of scrounging up materials – punching bushes and rocks and grass – until you can make a tool. Then you can make another tool. Then you can cut down a tree, and saw it into planks using the back of your hand, and make a forge. In your house. With a campfire. And make molds. And iron bars. And more tools. While dealing with an inventory the size of a matchbox.
This is my biggest problem with this whole genre. Starting a new session is always a massive hassle full of repetition. It becomes a routine, a ritual, and that is to player engagement what bullets are to medical care. And here my interest always peters out and I can’t be arsed anymore, because it all seems so exorbitantly pointless.
This is usually the point where emergent game play comes into its own, as you have to think up your own games to make life interesting. What Minecraft and 7 Days to Die and other crafting games do best is turn into digital Legos, where you can give yourself a building project, and three unproductive months later you can admire your very own fortress of Angband, with a little Brandenburg Gate surrounded by Stonehenge in the courtyard. Until someone updates the build, and it all goes tits up, obviously.
The other way is to start making up your own challenges to freshen up the gameplay, adding challenge and changing the game entirely. I’ve already heard of Minecraft challenges where you have to stay above ground and frantically deal with the zombies, or turn into one of the mole people, and dig down with the intention of never coming back up again, this time challenging yourself with keeping yourself fed.
First challenge I came up with was the Mad Vagrant Mode, which is really simple:
1. Create the shabbiest, gnarliest and beardiest man/woman you can (if character creation is an option)
2. Roleplay as a mad homeless person. What would you do in the new post-apocalyptic world if you had inflammation of the brain and was taking massive amounts of paranoia-inducing drugs? Do that.
3. Never settle in one place. Never stay in the same building longer than 24 hours.
4. You can only make the most basic tools. Nothing that isn’t made of rocks and bits of twigs. You can use anything you find and pick up.
5. Do not hoard food or water. Consume it as fast as you find it. Same goes for alcohol and medication. Do not be put off by rotten or spoiled food. You can’t afford to be picky.
6. Lastly, never shy away from a fight. You are frothing at the mouth and in no mood to take any shit from some moaning, smelly, walking corpses. For this reason, you might want to turn down enemy spawning, because you are going to be fighting everyone and anything, with anything you can hold.
Now, with these simple rules you are ready to unleash yourself on the wasteland of undead horror, with certain knowledge that nothing it holds is more abhorrent than your screaming, rank form, wandering through the detritus of human civilization like a psychotic reverse paramedic, smelling slightly or urine and disinfectant alcohol.
You can always think up more challenges. Will you join the Underground Mole People, only coming out at night to raid abandoned houses for cans of catfood and toilet water? Will you be a Hipster Barbarian, a melee purist who refuses to touch those mainstream guns? Or will you roleplay as the most adamantly principled Vegan of the Post-Apocalypse Wasteland, refusing all meat and use of animal skins? Or the Die Hard Pacifist mode, banning all physical confrontation, leaving you to utilize stealth and quick salvage-runs?
It’s up to you, so come up with our own challenge to completely mess up the balance and find new interesting ways to misuse the survival and crafting mechanics. ‘Why not share your favourite emergent gameplay ideas in the comments?’, he said, wriggling his eyebrows suggestively.