Kickstarter is the home of dreams, but rarely so literally as in ZED. In this first-person adventure, which more than met its modest $48,000 crowdfunding goal, you’re invited to explore the impossible, mercurial worlds inside a dying man’s head. You’re shifting mental blockages, reconnecting a dementia sufferer with his memories. The worlds are fading, but the dreamer knows there’s still a way to leave a legacy for the granddaughter he won’t live to meet - if he can only remember it.
“I think a lot of people at some point have to wonder what it’s like to get old and stop remembering,” says Eagre Games creative director Chuck Carter. “Everybody wants to have a good end to their lives. They have things that they want to get finished, and this game is about trying to finish that last thing or say that last goodbye.”
Carter got the itch to build worlds while working in newspapers 25 years ago, playing the likes of The Manhole - the beanstalk-climbing adventure made back when Myst’s Robyn Miller was still hand-drawing his games. Once Miller discovered the power of the CD-ROM, it was Carter who helped him translate Myst’s enigmatic environments for the screen.
Looking at some of the “dream symbols” in early ZED screenshots - the strange fossil-shaped cogs and fortress-like floating blocks that draw from Carter’s own sleeping unconscious - and the odd puzzles that will take up the bulk of the player’s time, it’s easy to see the connection.
But it’s less Myst and more where Carter went next that he wants to return to with ZED. At Westwood, Carter worked on the B-movie brilliance of Command & Conquer and Red Alert. As cinematics artist and graphics supervisor on Emperor: Battle for Dune, he was given the latitude to imagine numerous worlds “pretty much any way that I saw fit”.
“I want to recapture that sense of wonder,” explains Carter. “At Westwood we had a chance to really exercise our imagination. They pretty much just turned us loose on stuff, and we fed off each other’s work. That is something that I’m trying to do with ZED in a lot of ways.”
Carter founded Eagre Games (“a tiny little company”) last year after growing tired of management roles that had taken him out of the creator’s chair. His most recent hire is an artist still in college.
“It’s nice I can finally braindump some of my ideas, and he’s actually able to build out what I’m asking for,” Carter says. “That’s rare.”
Working in Unreal Engine 4, the creative director finds that the gulf between the concepts in his head and the art his team implement is smaller than ever before.
“Obviously we have to be efficient with the modelling and textures and everything else like that, but the engine gives me pretty much exactly what I see in my mind,” he says.
It’s a world away from the development of Myst, when a single image could take 12, 24, or sometimes 48 hours to render (“There’s nothing worse. We were really stymied by the lack of speed in the early days”).
Computers today can work as quickly as Carter can think, “so there’s no delay between what I see in my head and what I’m able to express on the screen. It makes what I see in my imagination much easier to reproduce.”
Dreamscapes offer an unlimited palette, and scope to shift the mood of a level in an instant. Sometimes in ZED you’ll come across scrapbooks or items of particular significance as you play, and the atmosphere of the area can alter dramatically as a consequence.
Carter is a big fan of Dear Esther, and the way its narration tells a story without taking the player out of the environment. ZED’s dreamer is played by two actors - one representing the side that’s calm, collected and a bit daft; the other the part that’s confused and angry about his situation.
“He can’t put his finger on all these things that he wants to remember,” Carter elaborates. “He’s talking about the simple act of bending over to tie his shoe, and his fingers don’t work.”
A number of those on ZED’s team - which includes Joe Fielder, writer at Irrational Games and designer on The Flame in the Flood and Underworld Ascendant - have a personal connection to its themes. For Carter, it’s a friend and former mentor going through dementia. On the last two occasions they met, that friend didn’t recognise him.
“The thing with Ed is that even though he couldn’t remember things, there was a part of him that was still so vibrant and full of life. But he just could not connect to it,” says Carter. “You can hear the anger and frustration in their voices sometimes. There’s a story to be told there about that inner turmoil. And often we exorcise our inner turmoil through dreams.”
You can find out more about ZED on Kickstarter.
Editor's Note: PCGamesN selects fantastic Unreal Engine games and interviews developers of their choosing for the long-running "Making It in Unreal" series. Epic has no influence on the editorial process.