Dead Last: No Escape started as game that was an “endless shooter” but it didn’t begin as a zombie game. You can read about how that happened here.
Once we realized that the gameplay fit well with the idea of placing a hapless character in the center of non-stop hordes of the undead, we needed characters, settings, and, perhaps most importantly, zombies. We also needed a “vibe,” and it was decided early on to aim for a tone similar to the 1993 console cult classic Zombies Ate My Neighbors. We liked that ZAMN was intense, but not scary, and its treatment of zombies evoked the positive vibes of drive-in movies versus the bleakness of something like The Walking Dead.
Level design had its own special challenges. They were going to be top down, so any information had to be conveyed via that bird’s eye view. On top of that, the level would be mostly obscured by zombies, so the visual information had to be clear enough to create an impression while not conflicting with gameplay.
A school cafeteria was the first level to be decided upon, and it actually ended up being the first level in the game. Overturned chairs and tables and a scattering of food and trays would create the impression of chaos, and made sense as items the zombies could walk over as they approach the player.
The beach level was chosen from nearly a dozen levels pitched by one of Rocksauce’s designers. Many of the pitches had potential (and some involved time-traveling!), but the beach was selected due to its shorthand visual clarity. Sand and water is about all you need to create a beach, and some minor details, like beach towels, were added for visual flair.
With two levels down, we realized that with the third and final level, we had the opportunity to convey some sense of story to the game, beyond “hey, there are zombies.” With B-movie sci-fi in mind, we made the third level a crash site – perhaps aliens had something to do with our outbreak? This became more concrete as game development progressed and inspired the cinematic that opens the game. Yellow and black caution tape litters the grassy environment, as zombies scrambled over a UFO embedded in the ground.
Anden Sureshot was inspired by a family member of our founders, both in age and in name, and it was a given that he’d be the character associated with school. Out of all the characters, he went through the least process in terms of design, since a real person was providing the inspiration.
Sandi “Sharkslayer” came with the beach level in the aforementioned pitch package (and was named “Sally” almost down to the last minute, but we love our puns too much). Taking inspiration from pro surfer Bethany Hamilton and, honestly, Aquaman, we gave the Pacific Islander Sandi a modified prosthetic she could use as a weapon in battle against the zombies. It was also important to us that she wear clothing accurate to real-world female surfers, and not just a swimsuit.
Agent Ross started life as Dr. Han, the first character designed for the game. We had no story established at that point and the initial character sketch had her fleeing from zombie monkeys (perhaps a subconscious reference to 28 Days Later). When we started moving toward aliens as the reason for the undead, we shifted focus on more of an FBI agent type.
Agent Ross went through a couple of vastly different variations, including a male version that looked so similar to Cobra Bubbles from Lilo & Stitch that he was tossed out right away. We ended up leaning heavily on a more archetypical FBI agent for Agent Ross, but ripped the sleeves off her standard uniform to show her as more proactive and ready to fight. In one of the view overt movie references in the game, Agent Ross gets her name from actress Gaylen Ross, who played Francine in the 1978 version of Dawn of the Dead.
To populate the cafeteria with zombies, a horror version of a “lunchlady” was decided on pretty quickly. The jock started as a basketball player nicknamed “Hi Top,” due to his high top sneakers and high top fade hairdo. In order to make the jocks zombies read better in large groups on the small screen, Hi Top transitioned into a baseball player with a bat and a ball cap.
Arguably the most horrific character design went to the musclehead zombie who’s missing a chunk of his shoulders and neck up to the midpoint of his face. Hey, but his sunglasses are left standing! Our lifeguard is like something straight out of Baywatch, but more nightmarish.
The National Guard zombies were pretty much there from conception of the level. The concept of Dr. Han evolved into the research scientist zombies, but changing her hazmat suit for something that looked slightly more medical when shrunk down for use on the phone. The UFO that flies by and the “screamer” aliens were originally intended for the Area X level only, but their gameplay advantages were too important. After testing, they were brought into the other levels of the game.
We hoped you enjoyed our behind-the-scenes look at the world of Dead Last: No Escape!