Saving the Dots

“What are we gonna do? They’re surrounding us!”

“Don’t worry, honey. Everything will be alright. The chopper will be back for us. I promise.”

That’s how I imagine the exchange between the two yellow dots who, knowing there was no escape, suddenly stopped and seemed stunned as hordes of zombies approached them from both ends of the street. Moments later, they were both infected by the undead and perhaps they still wander the streets of the abandoned and derelict city, forever together.

The game in which I experienced this is the brilliantly titled Atom Zombie Smasher. Despite its apparent silly approach to the zombie apocalypse, emphasized by the quirky and nonsensical story vignettes that appear occasionally and the sometimes futuristic zombie-smashing weaponry the players have at their disposal, it contains an interesting viewpoint on the necessity of prioritizing when disaster strikes. The players take the role of some government official and must direct the rescue operations in the cities across the country when the undead rise, beginning only with a simple evacuation helicopter but slowly expanding their arsenals.

At its core, the game is simple and revolves around racking up the largest amount of points you can. Deceptively simple, that is. While it may not been the intent of the developer, Blendo Games, I perceive the game as not being simply a hunt for the greatest amount of points, but rather being about a rationalization of how the government can rescue the largest number of citizens. The player quickly learns that in the face of the zombie threat, it becomes absolutely impossible to save everyone, and without thinking twice you block off some citizens from entering the temporary safe zones you can create with the use of barricades.

And once you’ve played the game for a while and understand just how important it is to crush an outbreak before it starts (plus, it gives more points!), you become more careless with how you treat the civilians. They become expendable. Maybe even tools. When fire rains from the sky, it’s just too bad that a few civilians are caught in it. There are greater things that must be saved. By viewing it from the cities from above, like a god, you are distanced from what happens in the streets, and can with cold blood make all the harsh decisions. You decide who lives and who dies. But occasionally episodes like with the two lovers occur. Well, they weren’t exactly lovers, they were just yellow dots! But they demand that the players look into themselves and consider the massive power they have. How can you make a choice between people you’ve never met?

Depicting the people you are to save from the hordes as yellow dots – or blue if they are the very valuable scientists – may just be a decision regarding funds made by the developers; after all it’s certainly cheaper than creating a huge, polygon-rich world, but in Atom Zombie Smasher it serves its purpose as dehumanizing the civilians. By simplifying them into squared dots it becomes easier to regard them as something that serves a particular use for you, rather than thinking, feeling beings. In fact, they bear a certain resemblance to the pellets Pacman eats, and to the player that’s all the people in Atom Zombie Smasher really are. Objects that that must be collected to empower yourself and to survive in the long run.

So what does it all mean? Well, it shows that a game can convey a powerful message without crafting an intricate and involving storyline, without relying on music or visual cues to show the meaning of the game. The game is meaningful purely through the elements that make it a game and not a film or book. This is something that’s severely lacking in many video games. At least, most of the games I would consider “beautiful” or “meaningful” aren’t so because they are games, but because of audiovisual and narrative elements from other mediums. Of course, I’m well aware that video games are, in some ways, a synthesis of sound, imagery, story and naturally gameplay, but I’m slightly perplexed that few other games really embrace their gameness, especially so for mainstream games where I sometimes get the impression that the interactivity is a mere side dish, a bonus. But even on the indie stage this can be observed, for example the recently released Capsized is a phenomenally beautiful game when you look solely at the visuals and the audio, but the game part itself is redundant, consisting of some fairly standardized platforming. The game part might be necessary for the creating the journey through the world, but it is merely the vessel that carries the beauty. The beauty itself would still exist even if it were not a game.

Everything I’ve said so far could be a load of bullshit. Hell, it probably is! Because unlike many modern games the more or less subliminal meaning is not rubbed in your face, it is only available if you wish to see it. The simplicity is not detrimental to the experience, rather it adds to the quality. Anyone can go through the game and enjoy it for the fun game it is, but once you discover the layer hidden underneath it suddenly becomes a unique experience and an intriguing comment on the choices people in power must make, and the desperation those caught in the midst of those decisions experience.

“Sir, we estimate at least 3000 deaths if we choose to fire.”

“And if we don’t?”

“The city will be flooded with undead in a matter of days. We could quarantine the city, but there’s no way we can keep them contained. The infection will spread. Sir, this is the only option we have left. If we don’t fire tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands will be infected.”

“I know major, I know. But everyone of us in this room is responsible for those deaths. I want you to be completely aware that we signed their death sentences.”

“…your orders, sir?”

“Fire the suborbital cannon”

Sometimes, you’re not really sure whether you’re on the good side or not.