The world is over, pretty much. It's 1986 and some sort of cataclysmic infection has wiped out most of North America. Now an everyman survivor must reach a safe house in a bleak, crumbling Seattle as zombie-like victims emerge from the rubble and armageddon looms.
This is the grimly nihilistic pitch behind Deadlight, a scrolling 2D adventure that counts First Blood, The Road and The Walking Dead among its major influences. For Raul Rubio, the CEO and creative director at developer, Tequila Works, the premise is a simple one: "We wanted to ask ourselves, if I, a normal person, were to wake up tomorrow in the apocalypse, what would I do?"
At the centre of it all is Randall Wayne, a fire warden from British Columbia. "Randall is not a hero or a solder," says Rubio. "This story is not about what happened, it's not about saving the world, it's not about conspiracies. It's about a regular guy who's trying to survive a holocaust."
Although Rubio talks about capturing the old school gameplay of 2D adventures like Flashback and Another World, there are clear nods to the original Resident Evil titles as well.Randall will usually find himself without weapons, and even if he does pick up a pistol or shotgun, ammo is always scarce, and firing a gun in a city of silence is like ringing the dinner bell for the ravenous undead.
So Deadlight is a game about intelligence and evasion, working out how to use the many objects scattered around the densely detailed maps. In the demo section I'm shown, Randall is scrabbling through an industrial sector of the city, looking for the mythical safe house. There are abandoned factories with torn plastic window covers flapping in the wind; there are dank sewers and underpasses covered in apocalyptic graffiti. And there are the dead, wandering sullenly about the place, waiting for a human lunch buffet to pass.
The key is in using their stupidity against them. At one point we come to a downed power line that's electrified a pool of stagnant water. You can leap onto a platform above the site, then whistle to attract a group of nearby zombies - they stumble toward you and are instantly incinerated. Inside buildings, there are metal lifts that can be lowered onto enemies, or heavy boxes that can just be flung down onto rotten zombie heads. Players just need to work out the deadly purpose of every moveable item.. "We define Deadlight as a puzzle game with zombies, rather than a zombie game" says Rubio.
The game has the classic mechanics of a cinematic platformer. Randall can jump, and also grab on to things, often having to climb up ladders of pull levers to progress. He can also set up barricades to halt the blood-thirsty killing machines patrolling the wastelands. That's if they really exist of course...
Here we come to one of the most intriguing elements of Deadlight - its use of an unreliable narrator. "The story is told by Randall himself," explains Rubio. "The narration is not a tool for the player - it's quite the opposite: Randall is using you to remain sane and alive. He has been alone for so long, living in this stressful situation, that he's getting paranoid. So he's telling his own story, but as everyone knowns, when you tell your own story you're the hero - you'll always try to justify your actions. Randall is trying to convince you, but we wanted you to question for yourselves the things that you usually take for granted in zombie game."
There's an important example of this just before the section we're playing. Randall has been deserted by a pack of survivors because he shot a woman. The narration says it's because she was infected, but the others don't believe it – and it seems there will be points in the game where we might not believe Randall either. It also turns out there's no solid explanation for the zombie virus; Randall thinks its a strain of rabies from Alaska, but others are blaming the Russians – it's 1986, remember; the cold war has yet to defrost. It's a fascinating set up.
The story is the work of renowned dramatist Antonio Rojano, whose work has been shown at the Royal Court in London. Although there is dialogue, the team has also sought to tell stories through the scenery – at times you'll walk through nightmarish scenes of destruction, like an immense fractured road bridge, with burned out cars and buses strewn across its charred tarmac or hanging over the shattered safety barriers. There are elements of Stephen King's The Stand in these grim tableaus of urban panic.
Created by a team of just 12 in-house developers over the course of two years, this seven-hour narrative experience looks to be a truly dark, highly subjective experience. And with its unreliable lead character, it's sort of The Walking Dead, with Alan Wake in the lead role – indeed, you can uncover missing diary pages as you explore, lending more detail to the back story.
There is something poetic about the game, something akin to The Road and its imagery of life being snuffed out like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the Earth. This is the sort of territory the Silent Hill series once occupied, and which gaming has shied away from in recent years.
"The world is dying," says Rubio matter-of-factly. "Everything is in shadows: Randall is a shadow, the zombies are shadows of their former selves... Civilisation is fading away – like a shadow erased by light."