Fail to Succeed in Atom Zombie Smasher

Independent games have a great way of distilling game design down to its essence. They strip away the high-end graphics, production values and story elements to get at the core of a good game experience. One game I’ve played recently that got me thinking about game design is Atom Zombie Smasher. You are tasked with evacuating human survivors from cities being invaded by zombies.

The game limits you to up to four units each turn. One of these units is always the evacuation chopper which rescues the survivors. The other three units help you in different types of ways. These can be active units which kill zombies with guns or weapons, passive units which hamper or inhibit zombie movement or trigger units which have an effect on the zombies.

The twist is that, on default settings, the game assigns you the units. This means you can get stuck doing a mission with only passive units. At first, I found this frustrating and annoying. Without the active units that can directly slaughter zombies it became hard to mount any kind of rescue as I tried and retried a single mission, unable to keep the zombies at bay.

However, once I stepped back and assessed the situation and thought about what each unit could do and, more importantly, the synergy two units might have together, I devised a scheme to divert zombies into a trap and spring it. The result was astounding. In a single click, I destroyed all but one zombie by funneling them all into a choke and then blowing them up with dynamite.

This made me think about something our little medium does that is usually seen as a negative: failure. It’s an inevitable part of playing Atom Zombie Smasher. In fact, I restarted the entire campaign because I found myself too overwhelmed. Most popular games want to avoid player failure, but I think that failure is something that should be embraced and Atom Zombie Smasher is a great example of why I think failure is key.

The inherent limitations of the tools almost ensure that the player will fail at some point in the game. However, by not allowing them to pick new tools, it forces that cycle of failure to become a learning process. In order to progress, the player must learn how to use these tools in order to accomplish their goal. And it’s not an unfair system, as I learned after achieving great success after a period of failure.

Some would argue that this failure is the fault of Blendo Games (the makers of the game) being too cryptic, for not making certain associations, strategies and relationships clear. I would argue that the designers are actually putting good faith in their players by trusting them to develop those skills through the process of failure and the immediacy of retrying.

Another element they use to encourage this is allowing the player to restart the planning phase of the game with the units where they previously placed them on their last try. This allows the player to try little tweaks or think about the holes in their strategy after a failure. And since each mission is very short, usually around a minute, the turnover is fast and the player is able to quickly retry with as little downtime as possible.

In modern society, so much value is placed upon being a success, no one wants to fail. However, what games like Atom Zombie Smasher remind us is that failure paves the way for success. Good failure will always make us rethink and reevaluate our approach while analyzing the inherent limitations of the tools we are using to pursue our goals. That’s not just a great way to go about succeeding at a game, it’s a decent way to take on many of life’s problems.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing