Feminist ’50s Zombie Smashing With Aberford’s Adam Clark

aberford

When you think about the 1950s, you probably think about a few things: suburban expasnsion, big floofy skirts, apple pie, diners, drive-in movie theatres. One thing you probably don’t think about is zombies. What you definitely don’t think about is one of those housewives in the big floofy skirts taking a rolling pin to one of those zombies’ faces. Sketchy Panda GamesAberford wants to change that.

Aberford is a zombie apocalypse game set in the 1950s and featuring entirely female leads. There’s Peggy, a former baseball player who isn’t so happy with her idyllic housewife life; Betty, the ideal ’50s housewife; Doris, a former riveter during the war who now has to make do earning tips at the local diner; and Syliva, a former scientist who is now a mother of two. Aberford is the name of the quaint all-American town that they live in, that is suddenly plagued with a zombie problem, and these ladies have to work together to both beat down those monsters and figure out exactly what happened. Aberford promises brawler-style combat mixed with a compelling narrative experience. It’s an ambitious project, and we had the chance to talk to the game’s writer, Adam Clark, about pros and cons of the zombie genre, body diversity in games, and of course, how Aberford aims to be a feminist game.

Paper Droids: Some people might say the zombie game has been played out. What makes Aberford different from all those other zombie games out there?
Adam Clark: First, the type of zombies sets us apart. In Aberford, we didn’t want the zombies to be cannon fodder so we avoided the shambling corpse trope. They’re infected people who don’t feel fear or pain and seem to be abnormally strong and resilient, rather than seeming to be abnormally squishy, so defeating them takes a lot of work. And we don’t give the player lots of convenient guns and ammo to fight with. It’s a very melee focused game, using the sorts of weapons that a 50s housewife could quickly find if zombies suddenly attacked. And our brawler engine focuses on how a small, clever person could fight a group or larger, stronger, tougher enemies without getting overwhelmed. Plus, early in the game, the zombies show very little outward changes, which helps bring home the horror that these are people, and something that’s already dead.
The other, and probably more important difference is the WHY of the zombies. Aberford moves away from “zombies as convenient enemies” and returns them to their Night of the Living Dead roots, where the zombies are a stand-in for people’s fears in post-WWII America. The Aberford zombies stem from the fear of violence that helped shape the 50s (Americans afraid of the Soviets, citizens afraid of the their governments, people who were different being afraid of their neighbors, and even women being afraid of men).
I think people get burned out over lazy writing, lazy stories, and lazy characters (which is rampant in zombie themed games), but people’s appetites for well-crafted games never seems to diminish.

aberford

Why set it in the 1950s?
The 50s gives the game a couple of really interesting elements. One, it gives us a “sci-fi” context to example a lot of modern social problems from a position of relative safety. So many of the sexism and racism and militarism issues that plague us today were prominent in the 50s, so we can break them down and explore them without the game getting too “preachy”. We want people to learn something, but we also want them to enjoy the game.
Secondly, the 50s were very bright and “modern”, which creates a wonderful contrast against the violence and grit of a zombie story. There are a lot of great things the 50s lets us do with atmosphere.
And third, the 50s housewife is a wildly misunderstood character. People tend to think of them as only aggressive domestics who let men walk all over them, but in reality, they were tough, resourceful women. They grew up during the Depression. They took over men’s jobs and kept the homefront running during WWII. They broke through lots of gender barriers, and we think they deserve a chance to be remembered in a more positive light.

Tell me more about the combat – particularly utility skills. What are they, how do they give your housewife an edge?
So your primary damaging skills are done by chaining melee attacks together, either with fast one-handed weapons or heavier two-handed weapons. Speed and timing let to wear down a single opponent, or keep a group of them off balance. And then to protect yourself (since the zombies don’t stand in a circle and politely attack you one at a time), we’re putting in an intuitive counter-attacker, which when properly triggered will turn a zombie’s attack against them, using your superior agility and intelligence.
The utility skills fall into two categories: ranged and cooldown. Ranged attacks are either thrown objects or single-shot weapons with knock back, disorient, bleed, blind, deafen, or trip your enemies, making them more manageable. Things like revolvers, or a flare gun, or a glass jar filled with screws. This is where your RPG elements come in, where the choice of ranged weapon greatly impacts the play style. Cooldowns, on the other hand, can be almost anything. Instant healing, or aoe knockback or an instant kill. Effects like that. As you progress in the game, you’ll unlock new cooldowns that get more interesting, or more powerful, or have shorter recharges, allowing you to beat increasingly difficult challenges.

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Aberford is ultimately about smashing up some zombies, but you promise a satisfying story too. How much of the game is story-based?
The fighting actually exists to serve the story. The backbone of the game is the combined narrative of our four main characters (Peggy, Betty, Doris, and Sylvia), where the player guides the conversations and moral choices, and the game switches to combat mode when zombies attack in the story. And once the fighting is done, we switch back to the story. Essentially, we took out the part where you waste time talking around trying to figure out what to do next. In the campaign, either you’re enjoying a great story or you’re smashing up zombies. And there’s a lot of story planned for Aberford.
But for people who aren’t all that into story, we’re also including a freeplay or challenge mode, which just lets the player just in and play the combat without the story elements. It also includes our four expansion characters, Norma, Patricia, Mary, and Alejandra.

Looking at the story and character descriptions, I’d definitely say that this game has a feminist bent. All of the women appear to have been active during the war and had a role outside the home. Will Aberford have something to say re: women’s roles bother inside and outside the home?
Our goal with this game is to make people think. All of the main female characters have had huge parts of their lives decided by men, and we want people to think about how that’s unfair and see ways that sort of injustice still exists today. We want to put the player in those women’s shoes. We want them to feel a little (or a lot) outraged over how the male characters are dismissive or condescending to the female characters (or how certain white characters treat the minority characters). It’s more show than tell. But experiencing how unfairly the characters are treated, the player can internalize it and learn from it. Message is a tricky word, because it means the conclusion is already drawn, and we want players to draw conclusions for themselves.
If we have a message, it would be that female video game characters are just as interesting and exciting as male characters, and everyone should be excited to play them.

Aberford

One thing I love about your game and really drew me to it is that your characters actually have body diversity. This doesn’t happen in games very often! Was it always a goal to have characters with a myriad of body types?
Yes, because the goal was to have a myriad of different women. Their differences, both in personality and body-type, make them interesting and make them a good team. Peggy played baseball, so she has a small, athletic body. Betty is the ideal 50s housewife and her body reflects that. Doris is physically and emotionally strong, having worked for years as a riveter, and so her body is thicker. Sylvia’s intelligence is intimidating to men, and we wanted her height to have the same effect.
Unless you’re on TV or in Taylor Swift’s squad, a group of women will have very different body types and we wanted to capture that element of realism.

Femininity is not something is often celebrated in games, but because of the 1950s setting, it seems like in Aberford it’s almost celebrated. Is this something you considered while making the game?
In designing the game, we wanted to very careful not to fall into the “men with boobs” trap that some other games fall into. We wanted to show how interesting and appealing female leads could be, so we needed to make sure their femininity came through. But on the other hand, we didn’t want to fall into stereotypes of what “females” are supposed to be, since that’s one of the issues we’re tackling with this game. So their femininity is expressed differently for each of them, and sometimes in very untraditional ways. Hopefully, we can show that femininity is something that should be celebrated, and that it can be defined in a lot of different, equally valid ways.

The team on this game is majority women. Did you find having so much input from women has made Aberford better?
I think so. And they’ve certainly done a wonderful job of realizing the atmosphere and design that can really make this game stand out. Their passion for this game has really come out in their work and helped refine the look and personalities of the characters.
There’s also a lot of women who helped contribute behind the scenes, back when we were first developing the story and characters. They helped us work out the details of the personalities so they’d be believable and relatable, and helped us find interesting angles that we could address during the course of play. They’ve helped me improve and refine my understanding of feminism and the ways video game developers could and should promote it. They all deserve a really big thank you, because this has been a community effort from day one.

Your crowdfunding goal is ambitious, to say the least. Do you have a backup plan in case you don’t meet your goal? Will Aberford still get made?
That depends on how we do. We’ve laid out a pretty ambitious (and awesome) plan for the game, but it’ll require a lot of funding to ensure that we can complete it as promised. And we’ve already put a lot of our time and money into this game. We believe in our audience, and now we’ve thrown ourselves upon their mercy.
If we get close, we’ll probably put a pin in the art, spend a few months working on the game engine, and come back with a playable demo. It’ll give us more access to media and celebrities, but there’s some downside. In the months it’ll take us to program the demo-ready combat engine (working part time), a lot of our art team may end up moving to other projects and we may have to make changes in our line-up. The other risk is that enthusiasm for the game might cool off in the meantime, and we may never be able to get the momentum back. So it’ll be best if we can fund now, because there’s no guarantees we’ll be able to make it if we don’t.
If we reach less than half of our goal, we’ll probably go back and redesign the game to be shorter and easier (and thus cheaper) to make. It won’t be as feature- or story-rich, but it might still satisfy people’s desires for smacking zombies in a fancy 50s dress.
If we fall hilariously short, we’ll probably set our sights on mobile games or less ambitious indie projects. We’re gambling that there’s a market for high-quality, mid-priced games with diverse casts, but if that market isn’t ready yet, we might have to wait and try again later.

If you want to support this amazing sounding game and team, check out the Aberford crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter.

Writer, editor, and founding member of Paper Droids. RPG-lover, baby game maker, owned by corgi. Spends way too much time on Twitter @mk_patter. To reach by email: sciandtech@paperdroids.com