It's game on in Aberford, where 1950s housewives save the world from zombies

Women of the 1950s go head to head against zombies in Aberford -- a melee brawler game under development that delves deep into the social issues of post-war suburbia.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
5 min read

Sketchy Panda Games

On the surface, the 1950s might seem like a halcyon era. World War II had come and gone, and America grown prosperous from the ashes of the Great Depression thanks to the industrial opportunities offered by global conflict.

Scratch the surface of any society, though, and imperfections bloom. The 1950s, for instance, were a deeply oppressive time for women, sent home to the kitchen after tasting independence and relegated to a social status only a little higher than that of children.

And it is through the lens of the zombie apocalypse that independent studio Sketchy Panda Games wants you to experience the era in a game currently under development.

The setting is the eponymous Aberford, a slightly less-than-typical 1950s suburb, peopled with scientists working on futuristic weapons.

Clockwise from top left: Betty, Peggy, Sylvia and Doris. Sketchy Panda Games

And the heroes aren't your typical heroes, either: as the men succumb to a mysterious event that turns them into the shambling undead, the women of Aberford must pick up arms (and vacuum cleaners and cast iron skillets) and protect their home.

The result? A deliciously entertaining, vividly coloured melee brawler that's as thoughtful as it is fun -- or so Sketchy Panda hopes.

It was all born from an image that was doing the rounds on Tumblr: four oil painting-style images, blogged by Tumblr user Goddess of Cheese, of women in 1950s tea dresses wielding objects recognisable as video-game weapons. "This makes me want a video game about a zombie apocalypse that only affects men so it's up to the housewives of 50s' America to save humanity," she wrote.

Sketchy Panda, looking for an idea, felt a strange affinity.

"I actually first saw the Tumblr post as a pin on Pinterest when we were brainstorming ideas for video games. It was one of those weird moments where I looked at it, and kinda laughed because the idea seemed so silly, and then I stayed awake all night figuring out how to make it a reality," explained Sketchy Panda co-founder and writer Adam Clark.

"It really took hold in my brain because it had the potential to be something so fresh and different and interesting. So we crafted out a town, and women to inhabit it, and story of how a zombie virus would infect the men and they (the women) would have to fight them to stay alive, and it all came out very real and grounded and exciting."

After clearing it with Goddess of Cheese, the team set to work on the game; but they didn't want to create a superficial brawler with nothing behind it. So, while there is lightness and maybe even silliness to Aberford, there is darkness and depth, too.

Aberford concept art. Sketchy Panda Games

"A game like Aberford (female leads, set in 1950s middle-America) is an excellent platform for addressing a wide range of relevant social issues, and we want to make sure we don't waste that opportunity," Clark said.

"So we're trying to capture the types of sexism and racism that would have occurred in the '50s (for historical accuracy) while selecting angles that are going to resonate more with a modern audience. The '50s were such a bright, modern, optimistic time, and yet they were also some of the darkest and most miserable times for a lot of people, and we felt that had strong connections to where we're at right now."

Each of the characters will have her own story arc. The four main characters are Betty, a young nurse who has had to fight racial prejudice to gain and maintain a place in Aberford society; Peggy, a former professional baseball player, now a housewife; Doris, a former factory worker, now a waitress; and Sylvia, who had to leave her career as a scientist when the war ended.

Aberford promo posters feature each of the main characters. Sketchy Panda Games

These women are the medium through which the story will come to life -- a story where the fears of the 1950s are given rancid flesh and sent shambling through the streets.

"NATO countries were afraid of violence from the Soviets. American citizens were afraid of violence from secret communists. Outspoken critics were afraid of violence from their governments. And women were (and often still are) afraid of violence from men. As with the Cold War, that violence often never materializes into anything real, but living under the threat of violence causes deep emotional scars," Clark said.

"It makes people afraid. It makes people conform. It keeps people from living and enjoying life on their own terms, because that shadow of force is always looming in the background. So part of what we're doing with Aberford is taking that threat of physical violence and making it real. The threat of violence that men represent to women turns into actual violence through the zombie plague."

It's through this threat -- what Clark calls a sci-fi buffer that will allow the team to explore dark themes -- that the women, previously thought of as incompetent and needing to be coddled, need to step up to the plate. With the men out of the picture -- indeed, with the men turning into the threat -- there's no other option.

And the world theses women inhabit -- apart from the zombies -- will be as much like the real world as possible in the physical sense. The characters will use as weapons only items that could reasonably be expected to be found in the average 1950s home (and maybe a few sci-fi surprises): household implements and appliances, such as skillets, rolling pins, baseball bats, and throwable items such as jars and balls.

Concept art in a similar style to the image that inspired it all. Sketchy Panda Games

This puts the focus on fighting with intelligence, Clark explained -- even with ranged weapons, such as guns.

"Guns won't really be a big part of this game (due to the heavy focus on melee combat), but you will encounter some, and they'll get better as you go along. Often, the focus of ranged weapons is more utility than outright killing, which rewards players for being smart and creative," he said.

As players progress through the game, levelling up will simply take the form of improved weapons, rather than complex skill trees and stat points. This keeps the focus on the fun of the combat, the incongruity of a colourful 50s setting filled with zombies, and, most importantly, the stories of the women.

"Once we really started thinking critically about the story, we realized that a 50s housewife was uniquely well-suited to surviving a zombie apocalypse. They were badasses. They grew up during the Great Depression and they kept their country running during WWII," Clark said.

"They did more housework in a day than I could do in a week, and they did it day after day, all while looking like they we're headed to a fancy party the next moment. They had grit and stamina and willpower. They were some tough women, and they're wonderful protagonists in a zombie apocalypse story, and we're very excited to share that with everyone."

Aberford is headed for Kickstarter funding sometime in the near future. You can keep an eye on the Sketchy Panda website and the Aberford Steam page for updates.

Updated on September 25: Aberford is now seeking funding on Kickstarter, where the PC version of the game is being offered as a reward for a minimum pledge of $25.