In Project Zomboid, there’s just one rule: you will die. Death in this zombie survival simulator takes many forms – from an off ham sandwich to a zombie scratching your arm – and though it’s rarely predictable, it’s always guaranteed.
Although dying is an inevitability, living is an open book. Before you step into Zomboid‘s post-apocalyptic take on ’90s Kentucky, a character creation screen allows you to customise your survivor’s looks, pre-outbreak career, and traits. Picking positive traits -like being strong, or having a knack of mechanics – will cost you points, while adopting negative traits – a smoking habit, or being clumsy – will award you them.
Next week, I’ll have played Project Zomboid for nine years. In that time, I’ve probably boarded up half of Muldraugh’s homes and killed tens of thousands of zombies, and I’ve usually created characters that are lucky, strong, and have a knack for carpentry. But for a while, I’ve wondered what it would be like to play the game as myself – a lanky journalist blessed with severe asthma.
Typically, the gist is that you use Zomboid‘s trait system to optimise your character with as few downsides as possible – but with some downtime over the Christmas break, I had my chance to find out whether a character made in my image could survive an all-out zombie apocalypse.
The first step to finding out involved creating myself as a Zomboid character, which meant stacking negative traits like a miserable game of Jenga. After a few minutes of picking traits that would apply to the real-world me, my character sheet is thoroughly miserable, and we have our survivor: an asthmatic, short-sighted, hard-of-hearing, prone to illness, slow-healing, disorganised Andy. I give myself some credit – I’m a good cook, decent gardener and I can read and learn quickly – but in a crushing moment of ego death, it becomes painfully clear that my few positive traits don’t hold a candle to the sickly hand that life has dealt.
With that painful introspection out of the way, my character enters the world. Waking up in a small one-floor home in Rosewood – a sparse, rural town not unlike my real hometown – – Zomboid Andy is a trainwreck. My own hearing woes don’t hold a candle to Zomboid‘s hard-of-hearing trait, which makes everything sound like it’s buried under a pillow, while being short-sighted means most zombies will spot me long before I’m aware of them. Chuck in the fact that I’m too asthmatic to run or fight for very long, and things don’t look too sunny for my poor sim.
Despite that, I’m optimistic. Picking off lone zombies still proves manageable, and I resolve to be more careful due to my sight and hearing issues. I’m also playing on a multiplayer server which means somewhere out in the world, I have two pals to team up with. After throwing my home’s meager food supplies into a backpack and stepping out of the front door, my experiment begins.
Halfway down the road, I realise that I’m within walking distance of Rosewood’s fire station, which is usually home to plenty of axes – one of the best weapons in Zomboid. A short jog proves more than enough for my frail coal miner lungs though, and by the time I reach the station and clear out its undead loiterers I’m a wheezing, exhausted mess. After a quick rummage through the station turns up an axe, medical supplies and food, I have my first real near-death experience when a zombie bursts from the locker room showers. Because of my hearing difficulties, the attacker’s groans sounded like they were coming from outside the station – so when I open the door and the zombie falls on top of me, I yelp like a child and swing wildly. A lucky shove and follow-up axe swing means that although the room is now dripping with gore, I get away without a scratch – though on the other side of the computer screen, my heart’s thumping wildly.
It’s enough excitement for the day, so I hunker down for the night and tell my pals where to meet me. I didn’t entirely expect Zomboid Andy to last a single day, so I scarf down a celebratory tin of tuna and get an early night – who knows what tomorrow will bring?
At around 8AM the next day, I find out. My fellow survivors arrive by crashing their van into the doors of the station, and one of them comes in and empties a garbage bag full of video games onto my carpet. We’re on a modded server, so I immediately spot titles like Project Zomboid, Contra and Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories. Along with the bag full of games, my friend has an idea: if I’m trying to play as myself, why don’t I spend the apocalypse reviewing video games? To do so we’d need to find a working computer to play the game on, along with a pen and paper to write the review. On top of that, we’d need to get it done before the power grid inevitably failed and left us without electricity. Despite all of that, the idea was simply too good to pass up – so after ransacking the station’s breakroom for food and loading it into the trunk of our car, we hit the road.
I can’t drive in real life, so I consigned myself to the back seat, squinting out of the window as we went over the plan. First, we’d hit Rosewood’s police station to load up on guns. After that, our driver promised that there was a functional computer to be found in Hit Vids, a VHS store located in the neighbouring town of Muldraugh. There, I’d be able to play and review Project Zomboid, and after that we’d be able to barricade a nearby home and settle down. It was the dream, and would be fairly simple if my character wasn’t inherently pathetic – so after parking up at the police station and testing my axe against the zombie horde outside its doors, we barged our way into the building’s armory and loaded up on guns.
While my asthma had made dealing with the zombies outside a nightmare, now it was my disorganisation’s turn to shine – I physically couldn’t fit the guns and ammunition I wanted in my backpack which, curse my messiness, meant settling for a shotgun and much less ammunition than I would have liked. On a whim, checking an office room’s desk means I blag a pen and paper, which brings me one step closer to getting my first review out. Result.
When we’re done, we peel away from the police station armed to the teeth and enjoy an uneventful drive to Muldraugh. Hit Vids is conveniently located on the main road coming into town, so we get there fairly quickly and head in. While my pals start sweeping up VHS tapes – Dog Goblin is a group favourite – I beeline toward the store’s backroom with Project Zomboid in hand, desperate to get my first post-apocalyptic review ticked off. After inserting the disk and watching a thrilling action bar fill out for a few seconds, Project Zomboid is completed, so I crack on with my review. Perhaps it’s because Zomboid Andy has gone awhile without putting pen to paper, but the words flow effortlessly and before I know it, the review is finished. With the holy tome in tow, we pile back into the car – now crammed with VHS tapes – and head to Muldraugh’s nicer suburbs in search of a place to settle down.
Our only criteria is a nice house with a TV, so it doesn’t take long to find our dream home. After checking the home for zombies and unpacking our loot, we gather around the TV of our new home to watch a Psycho parody titled Mother’s Boy, as well as a horror film called Dog Goblin. In a game where I’m an axe-wielding zombie slayer, sitting down to watch a scary movie is the most unrealistic part of my journey – you’d never catch me doing anything of the sort. When Dog Goblin‘s jump scares start to genuinely panic my character, I decide to head outside and gather some lumber, which we’ll use for barricading the house’s windows tomorrow.
In hindsight, it was foolish. It’s already well past midnight when I take my stroll, so when I start swinging my axe into the nearest tree I can barely see – or hear – a thing. In the moment that I sense the zombie behind me, it’s already too late. Crunch. I turn and hack the shambling attacker to pieces, but it barely matters – I’ve been bitten. In Zomboid, you can get away with being scratched or even lacerated, but taking a bite promises almost-certain zombification. Because I’m prone to sickness, it doesn’t take long for the virus to take hold.
It’s a bittersweet way to see my character go. I knew I wouldn’t be in it for the long haul, but managing to write a review and find a home to settle down offered a spark of hope for my poor, asthmatic journalist. Playing as myself in Project Zomboid helped my brain see the game in a different light – not through the eyes of the strongman carpenter I usually play as, but as a fairly average person with their own quirks.
Every session of Project Zomboid starts with a message reading “This is how you died” and without fail, that prophecy always comes true. It’s a brilliant, unflinchingly good survival simulator – but when you’re playing as yourself, the message feels painfully personal. Perfectly optimising your character to be a survivalist Superman is all well and good, but perhaps the best Zomboid experience can be found playing Kentucky Clark Kent.
Project Zomboid is available on PC.