"This is how I died": This has been the slogan of a highly ambitious video game project for more than a decade.
As early as 2011, the "ultimate zombie survival role-playing game", as its makers advertised "Project Zomboid", could be bought and downloaded directly from the developers in the form of a first alpha version.
From 2013, the game, which is visually reminiscent of the life simulation »The Sims«, was then also offered on the Steam download platform as a very early representative of the so-called Early Access model. Players can buy and try out games before they are completed; the income from that phase flows into further development. There is no guarantee that an Early Access game will actually ever be finished, so some players are skeptical about this distribution model.
Such a long development time as with "Project Zomboid" is usually an alarm signal in the gaming industry, and not only for Early Access games.
In the case of this game by a Canadian-British indie studio, which started out with just four young men, things are different.
Constant sales at a solid level have made it possible to consistently develop »Project Zomboid« over the years.
The mixture of absurdly detailed role-playing game and survival sandbox had a small but loyal and steadily growing fan base right from the start, which asks itself a fascinating question again and again: How would you do in a zombie apocalypse?
Undead in the terraced housing estate
In »Project Zomboid« you don't control a radiant hero, but a normal person - that alone makes the game interesting.
The character editor allows differentiated figures, the selected advantages and disadvantages must be balanced.
For example, you can start the post-apocalypse as an overweight and smoking but particularly skilled carpenter or as a fit yet claustrophobic cook.
Or one decides for an illiterate lumberjack with little need for sleep.
All other people in the freely explorable game world with several small towns and settlements have become zombies, stumbling around on the streets or locked in their houses and apartments.
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There is no goal set by the game in »Project Zomboid«, other than surviving in a world that is becoming more and more uncomfortable by the day.
At the beginning there is still a lot of food, tools and material stored in the orphaned houses.
But that's not enough for long-term survival.
Electricity and water will also be turned off during the first few days of play.
One way to stay alive is to fortify a zombie-proof, barricaded base that is self-sufficient through growing vegetables, fish, or the occasional foray.
Alternatively, you can also travel from place to place in a hijacked car in order to escape your - inevitable - end as a nomad for a while.
Multiple difficulty levels, a flexible sandbox creative mode, and tons of community-supplied game modifications provide an unusual amount of variety.
Complexity miracle and story machine
What distinguishes »Project Zomboid« from the multitude of other video games with a similar zombie setting is the complexity and small-scale nature of its simulation.
Like the classic rogue-like »Cataclysm – Dark Days Ahead«, which is similar in content but, according to the developers, does not directly influence the game, »Project Zomboid« now also offers a wide range of possibilities and game systems.
For example, the hero's psychological and physical condition is managed right through to the infection of small and large wounds, calorie requirements and states of anxiety.
A variety of skills allow cooking elaborate dishes, wood and masonry work, but also sewing, electronic tinkering, farming or car repairs.
This mass of possibilities and a detailed simulated world make »Project Zomboid« a story machine in which every attempt to play generates its own anecdotes.
Like many sandbox games, "Project Zomboid" offers its audience a stage on which personal adventures and crazy stories unfold for each and every one.
The plot that develops in this way thrives on the high degree of difficulty, the random factor and your own ambition.
All the more so when several players fight together for survival in multiplayer mode.
With new update to mass success
This multiplayer mode is one of the main reasons for the current meteoric rise of what is actually an ancient game.
The average number of 4,000 simultaneous players in »Project Zomboid«, which is respectable by indie game standards, has increased tenfold since the beginning of December.
In January, a record 65,000 concurrent players was reached on Steam.
A long-awaited update brought not only new animations, new game systems and graphical improvements, but also the return of multiplayer, which had been absent from the game for a while.
That, and the attention of some Twitch streamers with an audience of millions, has made »Project Zomboid« one of the first games phenomena of the 2022 gaming year.
But although there are more players than ever in the virtual post-apocalypse: "Project Zomboid" is still not finished.
It may be months or maybe even years before the last promised game elements are delivered.
As the next major update step, the team calls the introduction of non-player characters (NPCs).