State of Decay came out on Steam on Friday, and it’s eaten a substantial amount of my time this weekend. While the superficial play experience might be summarized as “Grand Theft Auto with Zombies,” the real stickiness is that the zombie killing action is layered on top of a hybrid of The Sims and social games. All your actions are feeding a central structure of your band of survivors, and time passes while you’re not playing (or, more accurately, time is updated once you play again); each play session has a number of changes when you first sign in, some of them good (your survivors healed, rested, finished building projects, and might have gathered resources on their own initiative) and some of them bad (your survivors used up resources and had fights with one another, which lowered morale without you there to repair it). You’re encouraged to check in fairly frequently, lest your base be in total disarray when you get back.

All of this sits on something pretty unusual for a single player game: one save and permadeath. If, say, your starting character (whom you’ve leveled into a one-man army from his very humble beginnings) is ambushed by a boss zombie and a bunch of minions in the middle of the woods, slowly whittled of health as he exhaustedly runs back toward the base, and dies thirty feet from safety… that’s it. He’s dead. You’d have to restart the whole game to get him back.

The designers are very sanguine about things like this happening. Their stance is that no matter how powerful your guy, no matter how skillful your play, eventually you’ll get overconfident or just get unlucky and one of your cherished characters will die.

When it happens, you’ll be frustrated. You’ll maybe go through the stages of grief, denial taking a very interesting form of trying to figure out if you can hack the save system. A character that you just put a few hours into playing is gone, slaughtered by zombies with no one to save him. The more you played the game like a standard action RPG, the worse it will be; if you focused on your starting character, all the other options will be extremely far behind him in skills. It’ll momentarily feel like starting over.

But it’s not, really. Everything you did before you died was saved: the resources you gathered, the outposts you set up, the survivors you rescued and befriended, and the missions you completed. The community of survivors moves on, and that first death really makes you understand that it’s the community you’re playing. You start swapping characters more, and come to realize that your first loss was only as powerful as he was because the advancement system is deliberately fast: it knows you’ll rocket to power and die in a ditch covered by zombies. Pretty soon, you’ll have a whole stable of skilled survivors, and be wondering if you can keep the rest of them alive…

I went over a lot of the utility of this system for tabletop in my XCOM post: an OD&D-esque collection of PCs per player that are switched out as they become unavailable or unoptimized for any particular scenario, with some kind of centralized organization to explain how all the PCs switch out from game to game. But a State of Decay-inspired game adds a few things:

  • The central organization receives more mechanical support than individual PCs: your accomplishments and failures are reflected systematically by this entity. The better your success, the more your group advances and can bestow better rewards on any member.
  • Additional potential PCs are rewards: new members for the organization that become available for play. They may be well-developed as NPCs before the player touches them, or may be left as mostly a blank slate for the player to fill in upon becoming a PC, but you are picking in some way from the stable. When your PCs dies, if the only remaining available group member is Bob the Janitor, then Bob the Janitor you will play; you can’t make a new guy with exactly the stats and background you want that joins out of nowhere.
  • Character options are randomized, and sometimes a new recruit has something that nobody else can get. Maybe it was actually a fight over who got to play Bob the Janitor, because he has nascent psychic powers that nobody else has, or just a really high Strength that lends itself to a career as melee badass.
  • Character advancement is fast, less advanced characters can hold their own in normal circumstances, and abnormal circumstances can kill even the most advanced character. The game world hates you and wants you to die, and rapid accumulation of additional character elements is the prize you get by putting it off for even a little while.
  • You can and should swap PCs regularly from your stable. Not only do PCs get worn out from adventuring and need to heal or just rest, but there’s benefit in having several characters at more than their minimal power. When the horde of zombies attacks the base, and everyone has to pitch in for a giant combat scene, you’ll hope even the least of them has been on a few easy missions to accumulate some degree of competence.

Interestingly, I expect that this style would be both an interesting roleplaying challenge for those that like that sort of thing, as you have to swap characters frequently, and equally fun for those that don’t really get that deep into character and see their PCs simply as the device by which they access the story.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go play some more State of Decay before bed.

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