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The Virtual Life – Finding Humanity In State Of Decay

by Javy Gwaltney on Aug 10, 2016 at 10:02 AM

Ed Jones is a thorn in my side. He’s pathetic. He whines all the time. He eats all the damn food. He’s a drain on our group’s resources. With each passing day, I become more convinced I will have to orchestrate his death for the good of the group.

Welcome to State of Decay, a zombie survival simulation released on Xbox Live Arcade back in 2013 for the Xbox 360. It’s been ported to Windows and the Xbox One since then. Truth be told, the game’s not particularly stunning visually and, despite numerous patches and rereleases, it still has countless technical issues including everything from cars glitching into walls, characters being slung across the landscape courtesy of physics bugs, and your standard, disappointing performance chugs. And yet beneath all that grime, State of Decay shines in a way that few games do, as both a fantastical simulation and one of the most interesting emergent storytelling experiments you can play.

I decided to revisit State of Decay this past weekend, partially because of the sequel’s announcement at E3, but mostly because my internet was down (thanks Comcast, you’re the best, xoxoxo) and it stuck out to me in my library when I was looking for something to play. The game casts you as a group of survivors in the aftermath of what appears to be the undead apocalypse, trying to stay alive as long as possible in a valley filled with a few towns and farms. Quite possibly the most interesting quality about State of Decay, and what sets it apart from other zombie simulations like Project Zomboid, is that there really is no main character. The protagonist is the community: born-to-be-leader Marcus, badass Maya, pathetic Ed, strong-willed Lily, rude Alan. All of these characters, as well as the countless other survivors you can meet and recruit, come together to form the hero, or would-be hero, of State of Decay. You can’t control all of them, but you can control a good deal of them, bouncing around from perspective to perspective, inhabiting each character and their various strengths and weaknesses. For example, Maya is probably a better shot than anyone in the group because of her army experience, while Marcus hits harder than most characters. Ed, who can’t do anything right, has weaker health and stamina because Ed is simply the worst.

Permadeath is in play for the majority of these characters. If they die out on a mission, they’re gone for good, leaving behind only whatever items they were carrying. Unlike most games, this is not necessarily a bad thing. All the characters who stay in your camp have needs: they need food, medicine, and to be reassured in trying times. As the hivemind that controls the majority of them, not only is it your task to go out into the world and fetch supplies to build a better home for them, but you also have to manage their needs.

Like most simulation games, the true foe in State of Decay is entropy: the growing disorder that occurs in an isolated system. In State of Decay, that’s the needs of the community, and of other communities, as the game goes on. Soon you have countless missions on your map that you have to manage, the majority of them fading away after a bit of time so you have to pick which ones to pursue, as well as having to balance risk and reward. Do you send out a few of your people in the dead of night to wrap up some materials and bring it back to base, or do you do it yourself, taking on a bit more workload and accepting some tedium in order to eliminate any chance whatsoever that your group would be taken out by a horde of roaming zombies. How much do you trust your people to be efficient? And if they’re not capable of taking care of themselves, maybe it’s best for everyone if they uh, if they, y’know, die.

And here we are, back at Ed again. Time is a flat circle; Ed Jones is a moron. If I wanted to, of course, I could simply take control of him, run him into a pack of zombies, and wait for them to eat him alive, but that’s too at odds with the sort of story I want to create with the tools State of Decay provides. Ed is cowardly, sure, but he has a strong desire to survive, one that I put to the test over and over again, bringing him out as support on supply runs and missions to build alliances with other communities. He’s pretty useless, often screaming in terror once the undead start to swarm. During one mission I leave him in the middle of a cornfield filled with zombies, driving away as he runs after my car, me thinking with a grim sense of relief that perhaps this is the last I’ve seen of the poor fool.

It isn’t.

He shows up at camp alive the next day. Funny thing? I’m more impressed than mad. I take him out on more missions. He gets better, stronger, his health and stamina bars raising, his proficiency with weapons improving. Sometimes he even cracks a joke that isn’t awful. Sometimes. Within a week’s time, he’s become a valued member of the group, completing supply runs on his own and even rescuing his friends’ lives a handful of times with a well-placed shot from a revolver. Not bad for some whiny accountant from the big city. 

Find out what happens to Ed on page 2.  

Remember when I was talking about entropy earlier? Games that actually use emergent storytelling in interesting ways often do so because they upend whatever order we think we’ve established as masters of whatever game we’re playing. Entropy is in effect when, in Shadow of Mordor, the careful rivalry you’ve been building against a certain Uruk – giving him scars and his own set of phobias and strengths – ends unexpectedly because you accidentally kill him instead of letting him go at the end of a duel. That sorrow, surprise, or even amusement you feel at his death is the result of disorder overtaking the order you’ve established in this particular system. Entropy is the hinge that emergent storytelling swings on, and sometimes it can produce powerful moments.

Outside of its opening, State of Decay never really dives deep into story the same way that something like Telltale’s take on The Walking Dead or Dying Light do.  In State of Decay, we’re given the typical post-apocalyptic set-up about people trying to make it in a world filled with shambling cannibal corpses and we’re given shades of their personalities, but we ultimately define who these people are through the choices we make when we confront State of Decay’s systems as well as the growing disorder that arises out of those systems, like random zombie hordes ruining my carefully laid out infiltration plans or one of my survivors suddenly transforming into a monster that kills two other people before being put down.

During my time with Ed, I went from hating this sniveling manchild to the point that I literally wanted to kill him to eventually appreciating him. And there were no cinematic, carefully constructed moments that led to this. Instead, it was a sequence of events that occurred thanks to these systems, a comradery occurring between me and some goofy AI companion as we both survived the chaos around us.

Nothing ever lasts though.

Ed Jones died because I was dumb. He and I were on a supply run in a house filled with zombies. I rummaged too loudly through some cabinets and the monsters came running, too many of them to count in a tiny space on the second floor. Ed stood in the doorway, swatting at the pack of them. I emptied my shotgun into the crowd but it wasn’t enough. Soon they overtook him and he was screaming bloody murder, lifting his hand up to reveal a grenade. I dove out the window and took some nasty damage on the fall but survived. Above me the house rattled as the grenade went off and then everything was still. Ed Jones, who I had long spent weeks trying to murder, who only ever wanted to get the phone number of that woman at the bait shop, who unapologetically told bad jokes, who had at long last earned the respect of his community, was finally dead. And I genuinely felt regret and a fair amount of guilt.

I like to think of the best games as being illusions conjured up by skilled magicians, capable of tricking us into having unexpected reactions and epiphanies, like seeing the value in people or things we’ve dismissed as burdens. State of Decay is an unwieldy game, its trappings often too small to contain its ambitions, but when it’s firing on all cylinders, it reveals a surprising amount of ingenuity and even humanity. Perhaps more than anything, I’m excited for games that follow the mold of State of Decay: almost to the point of being nearly broken thanks to its ambitions. After all, technical issues are hardly a bad trade-off to earn riches such as these.