Tall Oaks from Little Acorns Grow

On Halloween, my morbid thoughts turn to my old pal Stubbs.  For someone who keeps such a low profile, he’s surprisingly popular; the Escapist recently ranked his debut the #1 Underrated Zombie Game. (Of course, the Escapist has shown him some love before.)  Stubbs acquired a certain cult cachet over the last decade — not from any marketing or exploitation, pure word-of-mouth from fans.  Because there wasn’t a lot of behind-the-scenes press for the game (barring an interview I did with Rue Morgue magazine, and a post-mortem at Gamasutra), there are a lot of people who know about Stubbs but don’t know anything about how he came to be.  I thought it might be worthwhile to write about the genesis of Stubbs from the POV of someone who actually had something to do with it.

So check this out this fancy time machine that will take us all ten years into the past:

Notebook closed

Okay, I lied.  It’s not a time machine, it’s an old notebook.  A crappy notebook at that.  But it was in the right place at the right time.  That place was the desk in my apartment, and the time was 2003.  Wideload was a brand-new company, and we were trying to figure out what our first game would be.

At the time, Wideload consisted of Alexander Seropian, Mark Bernal, and me.  We expanded quickly, but in those early days it was just the three of us, tossing our goofy ideas back and forth.  We had all worked together at Bungie for years, so we shared certain standards — and none of our ideas were measuring up.  We wrote a bunch of one-page pitch docs and tried to sell our ideas to each other via conference call.  Every pitch elicited a tepid “…eh, what else ya got?”  It was starting to get to me.  No one actually said, “Make with the clever, Writer Boy” but I felt a keen pressure to deliver something that would at least get us moving.

So one Saturday morning I hung up the phone after yet another unsatisfactory pitch conference and started pacing around my apartment.  Our continued inability to find an idea that excited all three of us was getting on my nerves.  We knew we wanted an action game, and we wanted it to be funny, but as soon as we stepped beyond those descriptors we seemed to go astray.  I stopped trying to move beyond them.

What is action?” I said. “What is funny action?”  At moments like these I was glad no one lived adjacent to my apartment.  I began rattling off disparate images and descriptions of comic action, and any nosy neighbors would have thought I was reading an incantation from the Necronomicon designed to call forth an army of chthonic beasts for an apocalyptic pie fight.  “Panic in the streets…man against wife, father against son…explosions…people flying through the air as a direct result of explosions…the dead rising from their graves to consume the living…”

Hey, wait a minute, I thought.

It was also around this point that I decided to take a shower.  Partly because I have had great ideas in the shower (often when I wasn’t even looking for them) and partly because I needed one. Two birds, one stone.

Within thirty seconds of hopping into the shower I had hopped back out.  Not because I am super-efficient at showering but because the idea had bloomed in my brain like a mushroom cloud, and I knew I had to capture something of that first blinding flash or risk losing it all.

I sprinted from the bathroom to my office, where that diminutive notebook sat atop a stack of much larger notebooks.  I flipped it open to the first page, grabbed a pen, and scribbled a single sentence.

Notebook open

Temporarily satisfied, I returned to the shower, my mind still alight with the idea.  You have to remember that in 2003, the world was not filled to bursting with zombie games.  Stubbs was a bit ahead of the curve.

When I’d finished the shower and gotten dressed, I went back to my desk and opened up my laptop to write a one-sheet titled The As-Yet-Untitled Zombie Game.  I thought I’d found a golden ticket, but problems cropped up almost immediately.  Why wouldn’t the cops just blow this zombie away with an AK-47?  A zombie could take a beating, but he couldn’t fight back unless he had that kind of firepower himself — but giving guns to the zombie took away everything that was cool about being a zombie in the first place.

What if this zombie fights with his body? I thought. That’s his whole thing.  He’s got the stamina of the undead, and the ability to zombify others by biting them or infecting them in other ways, but he never picks up a gun himself. He makes other people pick up the guns for him.

How would he do that?  After a moment’s thought it came to me: his hand.  He would rip his hand off and send it scuttling into places he could not go himself.  The hand would scurry over walls, under gates, and onto the heads of the unassuming mortals.  Once the zombie’s hand clamped onto someone’s head,  that person would do the zombie’s bidding — opening locked doors, silencing alarms, or just opening fire on their human compatriots.  It would give the game some strategic and stealth elements, and make a nice change of pace from eating brains.

And what about those cops with their AK-47s?  The simplest solution was to set the story at a time when small-town police departments didn’t have that kind of firepower.  So I set the game during the Eisenhower administration.  (The idea of making it an EPCOT-esque City of the Future came later.)

Because I didn’t have a name for the game yet, I figured I should at least name the protagonist.  What to call a zombie who tears off his own limbs, leaving him standing there with nothing but…stubs?  Sometimes the low-hanging fruit is the tastiest.  It rolled off the tongue, as they say.

There were a few ideas in the one-sheet that never made it into the game — like the level set in a football stadium, or Sylvester the lunatic postmaster. (Based on Sylvestre Matuschka and originally envisioned as the primary antagonist of the game, elements of his personality survived in the mad militiaman Otis Monday.)  And as Wideload started to grow and development began in earnest, many other people contributed great ideas and hard work to make Stubbs the best brain-eating revenant he could be.  I summed up the initial pitch thusly: “Essentially you have an undead anti-hero causing chaos in suburbia while the town nutjob takes up arms against him.  By game’s end, everything should be going to hell in entertaining ways.”  Stubbs wasn’t perfect, but we came pretty close to the mark. And it all started with one sentence scrawled in a tiny notebook.

You might be wondering about the other note on that page: “Poet: Arther Clagh.”  I should have written “Arthur Clough” — but as I do know the correct spelling of “Arthur” I suspect the name was mangled in whatever book or web page I copied it from.  One of his poems is “The Latest Decalogue” and contains the couplet:

False witness, not to bear be strict;
And cautious, ere you contradict.

Poor blighted Edward Stubblefield is still dear to my heart, and it’s nice to know other people still care too.  Perhaps some of those people will find their way to this snapshot of his birth.  One of these days I’ll write more about Stubbs — maybe about some of the impossible level ideas we had, or the characters/scenes/barbershop quartet songs left on the cutting room floor.  Tonight I just wanted to remember that first moment of creation.  It was important for me.