The science of building war zombies: An interview with Call of Duty: WWII Nazi Zombies developers

Mere hours after the reveal of the trailer for Call of Duty: WWII Nazi Zombies at San Diego Comic-Con, I settled in to talk Nazis, zombies, science, historical accuracy, and story with creative director Cameron Dayton and director of development, Jon Horsley. Our interview room overlooked the San Diego Convention Center, and we broke the ice pointing out amazing cosplayers, collectors having difficulty navigating the crowds while carrying massive bags, and spent an embarrassing amount of time talking about Pokemon. Finally, we turned our attention to the topic at hand: Zombies. Specifically, zombies of the Nazi persuasion.

So first thing’s first: It’s a bit of a departure to go from the traditional Call of Duty experience and dive right into zombies, don’t you think?
Cameron: Yeah, right? It’s funny though, we so love what the single player team is doing with this very legitimate, historically based narrative and environment, that we thought, “What a great place to launch from ourselves!” I think horror, by its very nature, is more visceral if you feel like it’s something that could happen. Being chased by a zombie in a cartoon ice cream land is much less terrifying than being chased by a zombie in your backyard, and so we actually decided to make it something that is rooted thoroughly in the universe of our single player, but it’s kind of like the darker corner of that.
Jon: It’s still set in World War II, towards the end of the war, a very believable setting, consistent with the guns and period pieces and costuming. All of that’s the same, but of course, we have the fantasy aspect of zombies that comes in, and that’s our story. We’ve got a small squad deployed as part of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives — the so-called “Monuments Men” — although there’s certainly more than men who are part of that effort, and they’re looking for stolen art from the Naiz. They get deployed to this little village in the middle of nowhere, and unfortunately for them, they find a lot more than stolen art… they run into a whole undead army. We have a narrative that stays pretty much correct, except we have the conceit that what if the Germans could figure out a way to raise an army of undead? What would they do with it, what would it look like, and how would they construct their zombies for battle? Because these zombies are soldiers, and they’re brought back to life for a purpose; it’s not just to eat your brains, but to defeat your enemies. So they’re a departure from the typical zombies that you typically see.

So you’d say that your zombies are a little bit more 28 Days Later than Night of the Living Dead?
Cameron: I’d say that we tried to go in brand new direction. There’s nothing wrong with the bio-plague/virus zombies, but we feel that is a thoroughly explored branch of the genre, so went a slightly different direction. We said, what if the nervous system is intact? What if you could still run energy through the spinal cord, and you could fire the muscles? So it’s not a disease thing, it’s not a catching thing. How would the engineering work around that for an army that wanted soldiers that could march across the frozen expanse of Eastern Europe, and what would happen if we could custom build soldiers for specific gasp in our army? It was surreal taking a very pragmatic approach to questions like, “How would we build this zombie?” And if you notice any of the imagery of our zombies has pistons and joints and they’re stapled together and, again, very engineered.

Call of Duty has always been very historically accurate, so how scientifically accurate are you going with your zombies… given that they’re, you know, not real?
Cameron: Similar to our historic background, we wanted to give it a scientific starting point, so the roots of where it began are real but obviously, things get a little wild. The fun thing was, physics at the time was going through this revolution! This was when we had the first openings towards quantum physics and the strange events at a distance, they were pushing into brand new realms. So there was a very cool space to start creating a zombie story in.
Jon: This is obviously going to be a little change of pace for Call of Duty, this particular release is providing a very realistic portrayal of the effort, but it’s a little change of pace. Gives the players the chance to experience a slightly different part of Call of Duty.

How would a military madman build a zombie? How would he engineer them to fill the gaps in his army?

So if this isn’t a viral spreading kind of zombie, does that mean that players don’t have to be worried about getting infected?
Cameron: You’re not going to get infected, but they might kill you, which can be just as disappointing! I was asking myself this question of getting bitten verses just being murdered straight up, and it’s a surprisingly fine line, it didn’t change too much. It’s fun to take what’s been a strong part of the American entertainment culture, the zombie, and to explore a new direction with it. Take them as: what about zombies as deliberately constructed weapons?
Jon: By a deranged lunatic! So you do get, I think, a whole new zombie take from that kind of fiction. Some of which you’ll see in the trailer, if you watch it!

What new strategy and gameplay elements do zombies bring to the game, besides just shooting zombies instead of regular, living people?
Cameron: If you’re a military lunatic creating these tools for the battlefield, they’ll each have their different strengths, and as you’ll see in the trailer, we’ve got your core zombies, your basic zombies which you use basic tactics against, then we’ve got these zombies that are engineered as the fast-assault ambush zombies, and they’re more lightly armored — and that’s just the beginning of what we’re gonna show. We’ve got all sorts of them! It’s fun when the narrative and the gameplay dovetail, and it turns out there’s a great reason, tactically, why a general would create these, but also, they’re super fun to play against. So yes, there are different zombies with different attacks and different tactics that need to be used. We’re pushing a lot towards the four player teamwork, the co-op elements of this game are something that we want to completely celebrate. We’ve opened up ways for items to be shared, and used, and encouraged the co-op nature of the game.
Jon: I would also share that probably the newest thing we’ve provided to the mode is the notion of the most scary zombie experience to date. And everything is in service of that; evoking that tension, then breaking it, and scaring the players as they go through the world. We do that for setting, story, zombie design, audio, vocals — all that services the scariest zombie mode we’ve ever done.

I’m actually not entirely sure if I’m excited about that or not.
Jon: Yeah, we met a lot of fans yesterday who were both excited by this and a little bit nervous, I sometimes wonder if we’ve gone too far.

I grew up watching Night of the Living Dead and all those zombie classics, so it’s neat to see this kind of re-imagining.
Cameron: That was our homework for this! Like I’ve said earlier, the zombie presence in pop culture is so huge that we couldn’t make this without making nods and allusions to this. Now there’s all sorts of layers to what we’ve built here, that is the core of the zombie mode: Easter eggs, hidden elements, surprises, we’ve woven all of that in. The core story is accessible to everybody, but you’ll see clues and hints and suggestions of other thing that will definitely further enlighten the elements of the story and gameplay.

This is the scariest zombie mode we’ve ever done.

How did you guys decide to focus on zombies for this game?
Jon: The franchise has always offered a multiplayer experience and a single player experience, and a cooperative experience, and the cooperative experience has a zombie theme, so the zombie theme isn’t new to this. What’s new to this one is a kind of back-to-the-roots, World War II, kind of grounded experience for the players. The weaponry, the setting and all that, it’s not new-new, it’s been done before. But we’re visiting it with a higher fidelity and a higher attention to the details that this kind generation of platforms can bring. So in that sense, this will be the best World War II experience ever.
Cameron: And our studio has its DNA, it’s rooted in horror, in horror games. So that’s been a lot of fun for a lot of the members of the team, just to get back to their roots, really.
Jon: We have good roots in horror, and have expertise in the first person shooter, so putting those together was really fun and rewarding for the studio to lend all of its passion and talents to it, so it was really cool.

What are you most excited about letting players experience? Or can you not talk about that yet?
Cameron: No, I can, in very general terms, discuss this. As a game designer and a writer, I’m a big believer in the power of narrative in games, and there are challenges to involving a story in any type of game, but especially this game, a wave-based game, where your levels, on a very high level, are kind of an arena where they can be moved around. That made it challenging to tell an A, B, C kind of story, where the beats follow through. I think we’ve done it, though, and I think we’ve been able to embrace a lot of the transmedia elements of the story with some of our marketing team, and I’m excited for players to uncover this, and for players to make connections with our characters. We’ve got a stellar cast, David Tennant, Udo Kier, Katheryn Winnick, Elodie Yung, and Ving Rhames, and they’ve brought life to these characters! Exploring their dynamic is, I think, gonna be an awesome, exciting, and unexpected part of this game.
Jon: The performances were great! We have ways of amplifying fear, and one of the ways is their vocal performance, when under duress, is reflected in their speech and it’s… you’re scared, they’re scared, everybody’s scared. It’s a really powerful, emotional experience, and it turned out great.

Is there anything you’re really eager to tell people?
Cameron: We’ve hinted at this previously, and even in the panel, but what you see in the trailer, the elements that we’ve revealed, is just a sliver of what’s waiting. I’m talking about all sorts of amazing surprises as you dig deeper into this level, as you uncover more of the horrors created by Dr Straub, and dig more deeply into the origins of what is animating these monsters.

I really like how narrative-driven it sounds like this is going to be.
Cameron: It’s a direction we’re really excited about. It’s a new direction for this mode that we’re very proud of.
Jon: Yeah, Cameron and the team have done a great job of bringing the kind of human side to the story, what’s driving the characters. A large part of the mission is a sister’s love for her brother, and trying to get them reunited after a parting of ways over the Nazi Germany political beliefs, and there’s a lot of people leaving the country. That tore a family apart and her coming back, in large part for an emotional journey, to try and find her brother, and reunite, and so that’s a really nice narrative piece, and it has an emotional tenor to it that really rings true to me. I listen to their voices back and forth, and their letters, and it’s a human side of a giant war.

How easy is it to slip in and out of the narrative, given the co-op nature of the game? Is there a separate story mode for the game?
Jon: No, it’s one mode. Here’s something interesting that you do in almost any game: You’ve got the main story beats, and you’ve got to make sure that all four characters have a role in getting through each of these story beats. Then, depending on which character you chose, they all have a different perspective on what’s happening. We’ve got a character who’s more of a scientist, we’ve got a person who’s more of a humanities… arts expert, we’ve got a character who’s more of a warrior, and we’ve got a character who understands much more of the local culture and countryside. Each of them bring a new perspective, but they’re all aimed at these same major story beats as you go through. One of the big advantages of this is that every time you play, no matter which character you play, you’re getting a new version of the story.

So how can we learn more about these characters?
Cameron: As the countdown has led up to the release of the trailer, we’ve released just little tidbits about each character, and we’ve been running a transmedia campaign where different influencers have been coming across a jack-in-the-box toy box that has letters that Klaus has hidden to his sister, Marie, and that has allowed them to unlock parts of her journal. So if you go to the website with the enigma machine on it, there’s a slow unraveling of the story. The focus right now has been on Marie and her brother, because that’s the backbone of the story, but as each of these characters come in, we’re going to learn more about them, as well.

We met a lot of fans who were both excited and a little bit nervous, I sometimes wonder if we’ve gone too far

So you’ve gotta get more people involved to unlock more things, or is a time locked thing?
Cameron: Oh no, it’s little by little — the jack-in-the-box is opening!
Jon: There’s some secrets and then there’s some material which is time locked.

Are there just-for-fun game modes also, if you just want to go shoot some zombies?
Cameron: Yeah, that was a big thing for us! We wanted to make sure that if you had ten minutes and you just wanted to hop into the game and shoot a lot of dead things, you can do that, it’ll be totally rewarding for that. If you wanna spend a lot of time digging deep into the story, down to the roots, that’s all there for you, too.

Do you have any favorite fan reactions to this so far?
Cameron: We have been just laughing over and happily appreciating the reactions we’re getting to the panel, to the trailer. It has been this amazing combination, as John mentioned of excitement and fear and it seems like the timing is right for this. People are ready for a game that is going to scare the crap out of them and allow them to shoot lots and lots of zombies.

Call of Duty: World War II Nazi Zombies will be available on November 3rd on the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC. You can learn more about this terrifying co-op mode at the official website, you can try your hand at the enigma machine to unlock secrets of the game and learn more about the characters, and you may just want to binge watch some classic zombie horror movies, just so you can be the first to identify those delightful Easter eggs Cameron spoke about. What part of this co-op mode are you most looking forward to?

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