Few writers cover games with more depth and insight than Brad Gallaway, the senior editor for GameCritics.com. He plays everything, and he's not afraid to go against popular opinion. So when he sent me a message on Twitter urging me to check out Containment: The Zombie Puzzler, which I had never heard of before that moment, I had to pay attention. I'm glad I did.
We can probably agree that zombie apocalypses are played out by now. One of the refreshing things about Containment is that its developers seem to understand that, too. It's a puzzle game that strings together its setups with a tongue-in-cheek narrative, written in the first-person plural. The presentation is great: you're watching a top-down view of a city, and as the camera glides past burning buildings and crashed cars, the story's prose is projected against the asphalt and rooftops.
Instead of going for a lurid, Lovecraftian style, the writing is direct. The narrator sounds less terrified than exasperated, especially upon the arrival of — ready for this? — zombie wizards. No, it doesn't make a lick of sense, but that's the point. It's just one damned thing after another!
In the same way that Containment takes familiar plot elements and gives them a spin, so does it add something new to the concept of falling-block puzzles. Here, the blocks are people, color-coded by occupation. The cops are all in blue, the military guys are all in green, and so on. Whenever a zombie appears, the player's job is to surround them on all four sides with like colors by swapping the positions of the survivors. Only then can the humans exterminate the undead hordes. The narrative takes pains to emphasize the rapidly dwindling human population, but it's funny — every time they're needed, another gaggle of survivors drops down from the top of the screen, Tetris-style.
Players can use the environment to their advantage, blowing up the occasional gas tank to take out a group of zombies — collateral damage notwithstanding. They'll also pick up the occasional power-up, like a sniper shot to instantly eliminate a foe, or HAZMAT suits that turn whoever dons them into wild cards. It's simple to pick up, although as the game progresses it takes a hard turn from too easy too difficult, without a lick of warning. And, at least on the Windows PC version, it's not always clear which character is selected or how to de-select them if you erred. Worse, in the thick of battle, you'll almost as often as not pick an unintended character, and nothing is worse than watching your good-hearted survivors turned into zombies, one by one, because of an interface problem.
Still, what you want from an indie game isn't necessarily flawless execution, but a compelling concept. Containment: The Zombie Puzzler has that. It takes inspiration from a lot of familiar sources and makes them into something new. Even if it's not successful across the board, it's a great example of a game that has a voice, and more proof that it's always a good idea to listen to Brad Gallaway.