For the past nine months, myself and one other have been working on an indie PC-only game called Zafehouse: Diaries. We announced it, quietly, at the start of last week and the plan to release it in the next few months. We have a website, a forum, a Twitter account. The online basics, as it were. Most importantly, we have a game-thing. Why, then, am I so completely terrified?
Originally, I'd planned to post regular updates on Kotaku about the game's progress. That, sadly, never happened. Many, many times I rested hands on my keyboard in an attempt to commit a least a few words to the digital foreverness of the internet and many times, my hands would retract into my body, somewhere, without outputting a single glyph.
It would've been nice to go over the history, to re-read my thoughts at the exact moments they were conjured. But, I think it's turned out better this way — I can look at the adventure thus far as a whole and identify the more critical twists and bends.
How about we start with the actual game? That makes sense.
Another Game About Zombies?
Zafehouse: Diaries had to be different. Most games about zombies just don't get what the genre is about. I'll give you a hint — it has nothing to do with zombies, shooting zombies or people getting eaten by zombies... though it's always neat to watch.
Day Z is the closest we've gotten so far. Even in its raw state, I regard it over titles such as Left 4 Dead. Not in polish or productions values, but for understanding on a coarse, primordial level what the zombie genre is. In Day Z, zombies don't kill people so much as people kill people. There's also Dead State, which I'm looking forward to. So much so, I'm glad Zafehouse: Diaries is coming out before it.
Watch any zombie or pseudo-zombie film, from Night Of The Living Dead to 28 Days Later and even the TV adaptation of The Walking Dead. At their core, are any of them about corpses reanimating (or crazed, living infected in the case of 28 Days Later)? Is the horror forged from make-up and shock scares, or something subtle, yet just as terrifying?
What the genre examines — and why I love it so much — is the fall of civilisation and the effect it has on those who survive. The lucky ones who, through hardship, death and desperation, slowly begin to realise that, perhaps, they weren't as lucky as they'd like to think.
Zafehouse: Diaries is our attempt to capture that. The relationships, the fickle nature of personalities, the fact that these people aren't automatons. They're not your slaves. They're real people, with motivations and prejudices that won't align with your own, or even the others they share their living, unending hell with.
Ultimately, you'll end up with a diary of events (seen in the screenshots here) you can export and share with your friends, so you and they can reminisce over your disaster of a survival story.
It's a hard game by design, because surviving in a zombie apocalypse is hard. In many ways, the game's environment never improves, it simply deteriorates. Your goal is to make that deterioration as smooth and liveable as possible until everyone dies. There are conditions for victory, but they're constantly changing.
There's no levelling or perks — nothing like that. You might have a mathematician, a builder and dancer. Or maybe an astronomer and a firefighter. Or any number of other occupations at your disposal among your group. Except one hates rich people. Another can't stand a certain race.
Too bad. Those are your resources and you just have to make do.
Programming, The Silent Killer
Making the game has been... intense. And we're still going.
Currently, the most terrifying aspect of the whole endeavour is that I don't know if the game is even good. Or fun. I spend so much of my time in its programmatic guts, ripping out inefficient code like necrotic intestines, that it's hard to see the game as a game, rather than a tangle of lines written in pseudo-English.
I've rewritten the combat engine three times. The UI has been overhauled twice, not countering two prototypes built over the course of five years. The graphics renderer was once entirely software, then mostly software and now it's a bizarre fusion of GDI — the underlying graphics system for Windows — and Direct3D.
Parts of the game are completely mystical now. Sub-routines with critical functionality that might as well be unicorns. I watch in wonder at all the cogs scratching together to move this creature I've created. There are passing similarities to Frankenstein's monster.
The code is mystical simply because at one stage, I knew how it worked. Intimately. Now, as features are locked away and components frozen so they can be tested for bugs I know are there, but ignore so I can add "more better" instead, the intriacies of their operation fade from memory.
The ups and downs are incredible. There are days when productivity and motivation flow through me like the most hardcore of drugs, disintegrating veins as they energise the body. Then, you wake up one morning and they're gone, mugging your ambition on the way out of your body.
That's the real test of one's mettle, making it through the days when you just don't want to code any more, when you look at the bug list, the missing features and think "What the f**k have I gotten myself into?" It's the days when you add up all the wages lost from abandoning the safety of a real job, the days when you realise that if you fail... well, that's pretty much your dreams scattered to the ends of the Earth by harsh winds of reality.
They're all emotional land mines one must navigate carefully. They can't be blocked out, but instead acknowledged, processed and handled. Transformed into some sort of potent creative fuel, if possible.
What gets me through it is reminding myself that I'm creating something I want. I am my own boss. If I want to add a feature, change something... do anything, really, I only have to convince myself.
I could not go back to professional games development. Working to the demands of a publisher, being deprived of the power to make something better or fix it myself... I just couldn't do it. I am a control freak, certainly, and it's a flaw I've accepted and tried to make work for me. I am a producer's worst nightmare.
And The Point Is...?
The point of this post is twofold: To tell people about the game and provide some insight into the indie game experience. I don't know if the paths I've taken are typical — heck, I could be stuffing it up in numerous, monumental ways — but the idea that I'm learning it myself, raw and unfiltered, is invigorating.
Maybe the game will fail. We might sell 10 copies and go bankrupt. But the idea behind Zafehouse: Diaries has remained constant throughout — to do a game about the zombie apocalypse right — and I'm hoping that, along with grotesque amounts of Twitter spam, will be enough.
Zafehouse: Diaries is a PC game currently in development at Screwfly Studios, a decentralised, two-man team comprised of Logan Booker and David Kidd. Its release date is fast approaching, much like a fiery, inescapable comet of doom.