Zombies alone don’t make for a good apocalypse

Long-time readers will recall a particular zombie theme that once adorned this space. I began my blog writing days under the guise of “ZombieApocalypseToday”, a nod to my interest in works of post-apocalypse fiction, especially if they were zombie-themed. That genre has always captured my imagination for the way it looks at humanity laid bare in its worst moment. Survival against all odds is a theme in fiction that I’ve often latched onto; a theoretical test for my quiet worry over the possibility of a owning shaky resolve.

For me it was never really an interest in zombies as a monster, so when they were suddenly in vogue, with zombie-themed games and media everywhere, I turned away from the name. I re-framed this blog using my go-to online pseudonym as the inspiration for a fresh theme, (why “PatientRock” is a story for another day) and here we are.

Over time I’ve found a little niche for myself, being one of very few places that examine geolocative games and experiences in all shapes and sizes. That kind of coverage here has been slim as of late as the sort of developers who would have created such projects have moved onto the new gold rush of augmented reality (AR). Games that use real world exploration as a mechanic are much fewer in number these days and if/when new ones come along, they are almost guaranteed to include some AR component.

Despite a hip aversion to the now passé zombie fad, I was intrigued by the app The Walking Dead: Our World. Its blurb announces that it’s a “first-of-a-kind location based augmented reality mobile game that immerses you into the zombie apocalypse.” Ok. You’ve got me, app, I’ll bite.

I’m alright with The Walking Dead, liking the first volume of the comic before its roller coaster of character death got too exhausting. I wasn’t into the TV show for reasons I never cared to nail down, but I found the first season of Telltale’s episodic series of games to be near-masterpieces. Understandably this app is drawing from the TV show because of course that’s currently where the money is, but nevertheless, it has a lot of fairly-strong background material to work from. Surely, even a mediocre product would be buoyed by that wealth of supporting content.

Our World turns the Google map of your neighborhood into the zombie apocalypse populated with shambling walkers who need to be put down, cornered innocents who need rescuing, and supply crates that need to be ransacked. You walk along your real streets and when you’re within proper (and thankfully generous) distance of one of these incidents on the map, you tap to activate them.

The Walking Dead Our World

The game is built around collecting and leveling up “cards” of weapons and heroic sidekicks that you get from successfully completing these little waypoints and, oh boy, does Our World heave card after card at you. From the start of the game you’re assaulted with all these new cards you’ve “earned” with very little explanation as to what they do or why you should care. It’s an immediate turn off that I could have gotten over as I explored and learned the game, except then Our World also laid bare another type of expectation.

Walking Dead Our World upsell
I mean, come on. At least let me explore the game for a few minutes longer before you ask for my credit card.

Ignoring the crass, blatant cash-grabbing, I went forward with Our World and used my lunch break to enjoy a long walk on a sunny day to go save some people from zombies. I was bored and even a little frustrated within the hour. Most encounters in the game are basic shooting galleries where you and your computer-controlled sidekick blast away at zombies who patiently wait motionless for you to begin firing before they respond.

Then you’re showered with an award of random cards once more.

Walking Dead Our World cards

The game mechanic in Our World that most captured my imagination at first is that you can build semi-permanent safehouses on the map. Once established, you escort rescued people back to those structures and notably, other real players of the game can see them on their map and interact with those safehouses too. Theoretically you could even build a local gaming community around that mechanic with everyone working together to build up a central base in your shared neighborhood. But, beyond the award of some perks that aren’t explained very well, I’m not given any reason for why I’d work so hard to solicit help from strangers to increase the level of my safehouse. It feels like a missed opportunity to not have extensions on that idea like say, you bring enough resources back to the safehouse and collectively you can build new rooms or utilities.

There isn’t much for a low-level player to do but I could see that a handful of other things might later become available to me if I worked for it. For instance, there was a “infestation” event on the map nearby and it was only available to players higher than level three.

Curious, and seeing that I wasn’t far from leveling up, I decided to work towards earning the necessary experience points so I could quickly come back and see what that infestation marker was all about. I did so and… surprise! A new message on the event noted that *whoops*, I needed to now, actually, complete a level four infestation event first before I could touch this one. How silly of me.

Walking Dead Our World infestation

Don’t even get me started on the augmented reality portion of Our World. It’s truly just there as a marketing bullet point. Instead of shooting zombies on your screen, they instead can be poorly placed into the real world.

Or you can pose with awkwardly positioned characters in your house just like you’ve always wanted.

I can SEE and HEAR the board room meeting where Our World was being pitched. “Pokémon Go but with our hit intellectual property! Augmented reality is so hot right now!”

Poor diagramming of how players are to interact with Our World is rampant throughout its design and it all stems back to a complete lack of narrative. Not just narrative in a story-building sense but also that Our World never establishes tension or sets the stakes for my time in this game. Beyond running on a hamster wheel for more cards to level up, I’m not working toward anything, I’m not building anything, and I’m not developing a community of survivors in a post-apocalyptic world.

I’ve been harsh to this game because I’ve become intolerant of experiences who refuse to draw from what has come before. Location based smartphone gaming is not that old of a concept but plenty of apps have now done this work. Like, when I’ve got Our World running, play some audio cues when I’ve come into distance of a new waypoint so I don’t have to look at my phone every ten seconds. Or, when my phone is inverted while the game is open, put it into battery-saving mode. If you’re going to ride Pokémon Go’s coattails, at least steal the small things that make that game such a polished experience.

I play location based games because I like an extra reason to get out and explore. If an experience isn’t explicitly designed to guide me to interesting places then it needs to competently offer some other hook that rewards my wandering. The Walking Dead: Our World does not tell a story, it’s not a good contribution to the zombie apocalypse genre, and it’s not even a good slot machine. It’s especially inexcusable since most of aforementioned The Walking Dead world of media products understand what’s interesting about the fiction of a zombie apocalypse.

I did derive some pleasure from playing Our World though, only because it’s been a while since I’ve gotten to tackle a new location based game. I know of at least one other game of this sort coming out soon that is also attached to a major license. I hope it and any other new games in this genre learn from what has come before them and use those lessons to their advantage. Our World sure didn’t.