Reviewing the Game Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead

You are Forgotten amongst the billions lost in the Cataclysm...

Throat clearing

There is an eclectic little list of competitors for the title of Most Complicated Videogame of All Time. Which is strange because there is an obvious winner: The Roguelike Dwarf Fortress or Slaves to Armok: God of Blood Chapter 2: Dwarf Fortress if your particular, is by far the most complex game you will ever play (unless maybe you get deep into Eve:Online in which case Abandon All Hope) there simply isn’t another game where every player recommends you get a series of third party spreadsheet plugins so as to simplify your playing experience. And i doubt there’s another game to have provoked a novel length lets-play like the saga of Boatmurdered.

And yet once you get into Dwarf Fortress, it doesn’t feel painfully complex. The experience of Dwarf Fortress is like that of having an unusually exciting terrarium. You set up the way things will be you alter the environment a bit and then you watch the adorable little dwarves go. You can micromanage and try to fix this or that, but you make a few decisions and the Dwarves do all the work. And then the dwarves do all the drinking, then the vommiting, then fighting off invaders, then the making of monuments to their dead, and then the delving too deep and too greedily.

All while you stay delightfully above the fray.



You are above nothing in Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead. Directly Controlling a single survivor, you have to do everything.

Car out of gas? Better find a funnel if you want to fill it from a jerry can. Revolver out of ammo? Enjoy reloading it one round at a time. Want to drink clean water and not get debilitating food poisoning or dysentery that can result from drinking straight out of a toilet tank? Then you have to load it up into a sealable container for travelling, build a fire, have something you can boil it in (a tin can works), boil the water, and then load it up in a second sealable container that doesn’t have trace contamination in it.

CataclysmDDA is simply one of the toughest survival/SHTF/Zombie Apocalypse simulators you will ever play, and while it doesn’t match the raw quantity of simulation Dwarf Fortress pulls off, the consistency of simulation in CataclysmDDA is something to be experienced.


There is an artificiality to most games that most players just accept. If your blasting your way through enemies in Max Payne and your health gets too low you can pop a Painkiller and it will heal you up some amount, pop enough and you’ll get back to full health. But what if you suck at Max Payne and you keep losing health, and you’ve popped over 100 painkillers in the course of the past 5ish levels? Wasn’t all of this game supposed to take place over one night? And isn’t Max drinking heavily in the cutscenes... and isn’t this a stupid line of questioning since the painkillers are just a gameplay mechanic exclusively to restore Max’s health, no different than the red mushroom in super Mario or the first-aid kits in other games. Of course it won’t interact with Max’s drinking in the cutscenes and of course taking too many won’t cause an OD. Its a gameplay mechanic and calling it a “painkiller” is just some neo-noir window dressing.

You can OD on painkillers in CataclysmDDA. And whats more painkillers don’t heal you. They just reduce your experienced pain so you can function while you still have unhealed injuries. Indeed use them too often and you can become chemically dependant on them and experience pain just from your addiction even if you are otherwise uninjured. Or if you don’t have painkillers... you can drink some liqueur. With all of its attendant side effects and long term implications. Also be sure to read the label of any medication you might be taking.

Again this is just pain management, actually healing your injuries is a complex, resource intensive process of disinfecting your wounds, bandaging them, and getting sleep, with slings, crutches and other devices being very useful when it comes to more serious injuries. Of course you can cut corners, sleep it off and things might work out.... but didn’t i mention this is the zombie apocalypse? If you don’t disinfect your wounds serious complications can strike, which will only cascade if you don’t have antibiotics on hand. Beyond that blood loss is no laughing matter, at best you can luck out and a clot will let you escape merely dramatically weakened.

Indeed if there is one piece of advice I’d give to anyone playing CataclysmDDA... you know aside from “at the start you can use a rock on the ground to bashup the metal lockers at the evac shelter and fashion a makeshift crowbar and some makeshift lockpicks”... it would be “act like its real”.


The Crash: An adventure in 5 acts


The Crash

Amy was a straight up badass. She was a Special Operator for a unit she probably could tell you about now, but won’t out of habit.

Her unit was redeploying after yet another “loose ends” operation when they realized that a spitter zombie’s acid attack did more damage to their tail rotor than they first thought.

It was a hard landing. (Scenario: Helicopter Crash)

Amy was a perfect killing machine, able to hoof it hundreds of Kilometres with a full pack, and able to shoot a quarter sized grouping at 100 meters... and she was alone in the apocalypse with a broken arm and a broken leg.

Coming to, she looked over the pulped remains of her comrades and the helicopter. She had been thrown clear of the crash site and that probably saved her life. Not only had none of her comrades survived the crash, but almost none of the equipment either.

Mercifully a first aid kit was amongst the few items to escape and she was able to tend to her leg. Beyond that she managed to pull a intact rucksack from the wreckage, some piping she could use as a crutch and a makeshift bludgeon, and the helicopters black box, with luck there might be some maps or other info on their she could use to find the military again... or at least their supplies.

Finally Amy had her two weapons: an RM2000 experimental submachine gun, with suppressor, in 8x40mm caseless(goodluck finding replacement ammo) and a “tactical”Kukri she had ordered online in a fit of whimsy. The other guys had laughed at her when she showed up with it sheathed to the back of her tacvest. But who’s laughing now!?

So Amy limped off towards the nearest settlement. The frosty New England spring chilling her through.


The Hamlet

Getting past the zombies was a challenge, they were slow but so was Amy, but with a bit of patience, scouting, and the occasional suppressed shot (fuck ya die you zombie bastards), she managed to bust into some nearby houses. The first few had some medical supplies (disinfectant and painkillers mercifully) but in the third house... JACKPOT! A fully stocked fridge in the kitchen and a fully stocked bar/mancave in the basement.

There wouldn’t be quite enough water to last her in the house’s toilet tanks, after she had boiled it in her porta-mess (battery operated stove), and she would need the coolers in the fridge to stay fully hydrated, but that could be filed under the category of happy accidents.

Amy reset her bones, disinfected her wounds and enjoyed some much deserved R&R for the next week, barricaded in the windowless basement mancave, which until a few weeks ago she would have described as creepy, but was now the perfect hiding place, Amy settled in with a beer in one hand, some old magazines guns and ammo, Beauty monthly, Playboy, and some electronic devices she had found in the upstair bedrooms. It was a solid vacation.


One week later...

The food was done and the water had slowly been surplanted by cheap wine and now beer. Amy drank one of the few remaining non-alcholholic cola’s and thought, she was partially healed but couldn’t risk a straight up fight, there was however a gun-store in town. It would be risky and she could be caught out in the open, but it was the right move.


The Gun Store

Under the pitch black of night Amy slipped up the street to the gun store, using the lock picks she had fashioned she set to work of the reinforced steel front door, there being no other entrance and all the windows being barred. She struggled with the lock, breaking her first set of picks on failed attempts. Painful minutes passed in the blackened town.

She heard the merciful click of victory, When a zombie child, no more than schoolgirl, appeared out of the pitch blackness right next to her. Amy ran in the door, as the zombie tried to bite her. Amy blasted through the door way with her submachine gun. Killing the schoolgirl for a second time in a disturbing display.

If there’s one thing gun-nuts will go off on over and over again, its that suppressors are not “silencers”, you simply can’t realistically make a gunshot silent. And Apparently that holds even when your using experimental, pistol caliber, mission specific ammo that really fucking should have been sub-sonic! (There had been arguments which Amy had lost)

Zombies appeared out of the darkness, tough zombies, bloater zombies that spat a blinding and binding slime, and spitter zombies that spat acid, and zombified soldiers, zombified policemen, a zombified hazmat crew.

Sure the shots were suppressed so she didn’t have to worry about the hoards out in the country coming for her, but the entire town was now coming down on her.

Amy blasted and ran to close the door. But the dead school girl was blocking the door open. Amy blasted one massive mag dump in full auto, reducing the bloater zombie to jelly, then she dropped her gun, grabbed the schoolgirls lifeless body and chucked her out into the street.

A zombie bit Amy but her tac-gloves saved her, then she chopped his face clean in half with her kukri, before slamming the steel door shut and closing the 2 inch thick dead bolts.

Amy had won. She had gotten in the gunstore and should have felt like a kid who just broke into a candystore...but there were atleast 20 zombies behind that door and she didn’t know if it or the windows would hold. She did a quick assessment grabbed a mini-m14 and a crate of .223 and hid in the back, and waited...and waited, but the sound of busted steel and broken glass never came.

The zombies were still there in the morning, but they had made no progress through the steel door or the barred windows.

Then Amy recognized her circumstance for what it was: a shooting gallery.

There was an almost limitless supply .22 long rifle. One of the weakest rounds on the market, suited for rodents and plinking and little else, Amy was pretty certain it wouldn’t audible for any range outside the shop and, being nigh useless in a real fight, Amy felt no compunctions about grabbing the ruger 10/22 on the shelf and blasting every zombie she could see.

As expected it attracted most of the zombies from the surrounding hamlet, but not the wandering hordes she was worried about. 7-10 shots a zombie sounds really bad when your engaging at 5 meters, but when you have boxes of 200 or even 500 rounds surrounding you and you’d have near no use for .22lr again... well you can crack open a beer and have some fun!

Realizing she might be able to clear out the hamlet Amy let out a yell “Die you zombie bastards!” And more came shambling. It was one of the best range days she ever had.


The Road

Strapping holsters, backup revolvers, sheaths, combat knifes, little messenger bags, and of course a rucksack fully loaded with food, water, beer and all the necessities of life, Amy walked out of the little hamlet fully equipped for anything, her mini-14 in hand complete with the a supressor she found in the back of the shop. Beyond this she had found tools in one the garages, a map of the area, and , mysteriously, a grenade in the surrounding houses.

The only problem is the encumberment from all her gear made moving somewhat a pain, so, the spring having warmed up. She set off in hot shorts and a tank-top like some overloaded infantry sister Tank Girl never mentions.

Amy camped out under the stars the first night, she cooking her food on her Porta-mess to avoid attracting attention and went to sleep.

She awoke to fink a wolf gnawing at her boot. In a heartbeat drew her revolver and turned him into a canine soup. (She’s sleeping without a sleeping bag in nothing but short-shorts and a tanktop (it was a warm night) and he bites at her boot? Guy can’t take a hint).

Well better get moving after the noise.


She camped out the next few nights uneventfully before she found it.


The Prison: Final

A prison seemed the perfect base from which to plan her next step.

Wether the next step was contacting the army, a road trip, warlordom, rescuing other survivors, or just a mini retirement while she let her limbs fully heal, the prisons high walls, razor wire fencing, and extensive facilities would be perfect. What’s more it had road access and and ample parking if she could finally get a car working (the infantry-woman’s dream).

She unceremoniously blasted the few zombies she found around the perimeter the slipped through a torn gap in the wire to get in the prison proper.

She didn’t have the keys for anything in the prison so using a hammer she pulled from the garage back in the hamlet, she tore apart some of the guards lockers and fashioned lock picks and a crowbar from the scrap metal.

Making her way through the prison was slow going. These locks weren’t meant to be picked and these doors weren’t meant to be pried open. But man if this was how hard a time she was having getting through imagine how well It’d keep out the zombies!

She finally got passed a reinforced door when she saw them: dozens of zombified prisoners, some pretty tough looking, shaking and rattling their cell doors. She stood slightly bemused as a zombified guard came at her a she blasted in with her mini-14. The guards had locked down the prison but not fast enough.

She continued on. Ignoring the prisoners: who might actually make a solid security force incase anyone other than zombies tried to raid her. If only she could get the prisons controls up and running. Sure It’d violate the Geneva convention on biological weapons... but hey, her and the boys had been doing that long before it was cool.

She pryed open the doors to the stairwell and proceeded lower. She passed the guards break room and the control room (best not fuck with that until i have the keys and know where everything is) she proceeded passed the cafeteria where several dozen tough prison zombies were still wandering, their meals uneaten.

“Ok not going through there”, Amy thought, and turned down to pick the gated lock to a back corridor, when she heard a commotion.

The zombies had come to the door and were eying her menacingly.

Amy laughed at them. She had seen time and time zombies struggle and fail to get passed steel bars. So she bent over to pick the lock to the access corridor and half considered giving them a mocking wiggle of her short-shorts, when she heard an ominous crunch.

She had seen regular zombies struggle with a steel door and barred windows, and she had seen individual prison zombies struggle with their cell doors. But this was the first time she saw a dozen prison zombies forcing an extended wall of steel bars.

It crunched ominously again. Amy was further from the hallway she came in than were the zombies, there was also no way she’d be able to blast all of them before they made it through and trapped her, so she had one option. She redoubled her efforts to pick the lock. If only she could get into the access corridor she could seal the steel door and fight them at a choke point...

And then her pick broke.

Amy blasted the zombies trying to take out the strong ones, but it was too late. With a final crunch the entire wall of bars gave way and they had her cornered.

She shot them with her mini14 and her revolvers and when they got close enough she took a few out with her kukri but with dozens more pouring through the hole she knew it was over.

She pulled the pin on her grenade.

and as the first zombies bit her she yelled, “DIE YOU ZOMBIE BASTARDS!!!”




The. Above was a real game i played in CataclysmDDA and the real ending. Some of it was my invention, I have no idea what “Amy” “actually” “thought” about the various things that she did throughout the cataclysm (although the moral mechanic gives me hints) and certainly most of the meaning is ascribed by me and not something generated by the text or systems of the game... but that’s why its art.

It successfully engages with the subjective.


Games like Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead don’t get much support. A game that only consists of complex systems and almost literally zero graphics (seriously you can play it entirely on ASCII text) has very limited appeal to either a gaming audience that chases the hottest graphics and aesthetics, and a Gaming Press that chases the hollywood cutscenes and importance and culture critic credibility that comes with analyzing AAA storylines for representation and political messages.

Creating your own characters and ascribing your own meaning to their mostly dialogue-less struggles with an uncaring environment, as simulated by equally uncaring systems and subsystems just isn’t something that appeals to critics, or the wider gaming public.

And yet this is an aesthetic experience almost entirely unique in the history of gaming and art in general. All those complex survival and simulationist systems that where pretty-much unusable and went untouched in the back of Dungeons and Dragons,or more obscure RPG, manuals, are now perfectly and instantly simulated for your you, with the result that complex and deeply touching stories are creating entirely by the efforts of the players and their decisions.

You can go online and read the epic lineages and bizzare histories of a Proud Dwarf Clan that was only ever experienced by a lone player before being deleted. Or the melancholy adventure of lone wanders like Amy whose every decision and flaw where created, consciously or sub-consciously by the player themselves, and whose death ended with the auto-deletion (as is roguelike tradition) of the character and any record of their existence.

This is an entirely unique development and actually lives up to the craziest potential the most wild-eyed dreamer could have ever had for video-games or digital media, and it goes pretty much ignored.

Ive read stories of epic rebellions and last stands in dwarf fortress that were deeply touching and were far richer often than most fantasy you read, and its because it meant so much to that player that they needed to write it down.

I read a particular story from CataclysmDDA of a player coming upon a dead survivor with two spent casings and a recently filled hole beside him. In the hole the player found the body of a child, a young boy, putting two and two together the player concluded this survivor had lost hope and chose to spare his son the painful death that more than assuredly awaited them but took the time to bury his son before taking his own life. The player moved by this scene expended a valuable afternoon (when he could have bern covering ground or gathering supplies) burying this father next to his son and erecting two grave markers for them.

This is powerful stuff, and whether it was programmed by one of the volunteers as a specific encounter or the systems for the behaviour of other survivors are just that complete, the unique narrative that came of it and the multiple storytellers it had to go through to get from uncompleted code to me repeating the story to you is a development in storytelling and art thats worth examining.

And its entirely powered by passion. Both Dwarf Fortress and Cataclysm are free to download andplay with the two man team who a kepton Dwarf Fortress running for over a decade depending on donations and C:DDA depending on collective of volunteer programers.


In Conclusion

I encourage you give Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead a try (also open source on Github). Delve into Dwarf Fortress, go read stories of other people’s crazy adventures and harrowing survival episodes. Read Boatmurdered if you want a book length treatment of the lives of Dwarven administrators.

And if you have any fun stories of your own please share them here!

C:DDA is also available in the apple store for free. .



[also if you do play Cataclysm:Dark Days Ahead: play around with the worldgen. If you turn on hordes, either turn down the spawn rate or turn starting spawn off, it’s really easy to create an unplayable world. Also Human NPCs you can interact with are default off for some reason so be sure to turn them on as they keep things intersting]