Dysfunction is what I remember about the original State of Decay. The group of survivors huddled at a rural hilltop church were not people who would have chosen each other as friends, for the most part. Some of them—notably a small town cop—were suspicious, selfish assholes. Or like Sam Hoffman, they were loners who found themselves forced into tight-knit interdependence.
I remember Sam asking my main character, Marcus, to come join her on a zombie-killing expedition so she could blow off some steam. It was just a few days before Marcus died in an encounter with a feral zombie just outside the barbed-wire fence, practically within sight of safety. But of course I didn’t know this was going to be the last time anyone would really talk to Marcus. Sam just needed to talk.
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It was a small gesture, and I could imagine how hard it was for someone like Sam to always be there for this group of strangers, and to trust that they would always be there for her. She chatted a bit about some of what she was going through as our two characters chopped-down zombies in the perpetual radioactive twilight of State of Decay’s daytime hours. Then we went back home, to the not-quite family, not-quite community that had formed in the midst of this zombie apocalypse.
Several hours into State of Decay 2, I don’t feel anything like the same connection with the game’s characters… or even much confidence that they are characters. They talk past each other in meandering anecdotes that lead nowhere, and receive non-committal replies in return. That’s when they talk at all, besides making observations about a new mission prompt, or to remark on the state of the camp. Even my two original characters, an estranged brother and sister, have not had one real conversation since the scripted tutorial concluded. Their exchanges fit together as poorly as pieces from two entirely different puzzles, revealing just how atomized these procedural personalities really are.
What I find so striking about the contrast between these two games is that State of Decay 2 features more of everything that made the original game feel so refreshing and exciting for me… but it’s as if all those elements have reached toxic levels in the game’s atmosphere. I’m asphyxiating in a cloud of procedural characters, relationships, missions, and events, dying for just one clean breath of context or meaning.
Now, State of Decay didn’t have a whole lot of either once you got outside the main story missions, and only the major characters in that story really had fleshed-out personalities and meaningful exchanges. There weren’t many people you met in the at world who could carry on a conversation like Marcus and Sam, and there was always something preposterous around the way characters took each other out for bonding sessions over a good zombie infestation. But however few and far between those moments were, however small they were, they established your survivors as people with their own baggage and outlook that lent meaning to every adventure you shared. State of Decay 2 cuts all of that out and lets the simulation do the work—or fail to do it.
The other day, a long scouting expedition was finally wrapping up as two of my characters drove a loot-laden car back through a zombie-infested downtown. As we rounded the corner in front of a row of shops, we heard a burst of gunfire to our right, and then a small mob of zombies went sprinting past us into a hardware store. Inside, a group of survivors were trying to fend them off, so we disembarked and started chopping down the nearest enemies we could reach.
Once the zombies were dead, however, I noticed that red icons were floating above the survivors’ heads. They were hostile, for some reason, and without a word they took a shot at one of my new recruits, Dylan. I could barely see them inside the darkness of the shop, but their icons gave them away and I had a combat shotgun. I blasted three rounds of buckshot through the front windows at neck-level and instantly wiped them out.
“I used to wonder if we could survive this,” Dylan said, practically before the last gunshot had faded. “Now I’m not even sure we deserve to.”
It’s a common enough sentiment in survival games, practically a requirement of the zombie apocalypse genre. But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it vested with less meaning, because the entire encounter was so nonsensical and inscrutable. This hadn’t been a tense deal gone wrong, or a fight over scarce resources. I just saved a group of people who for whatever reason had been set to be hostile, and then one of my characters said the thing that people in these stories are supposed to say—while coming across as oblivious to the fact that one of those ungrateful assholes had tried to gun him down, and I’d just saved his life.
Because it fails to support the themes of these stories, State of Decay 2 ends up missing the point of its own genre even as characters occasionally mouth its commonplaces. Survival stories in general and zombie survival stories in particular tend to ask questions about what is essential to our humanity outside the trappings of civilization and its comforts. When need and danger are close by, who are we really? What do we reveal ourselves to be?
Telling that story requires both elements of humanity, and space for tension to form between the pressures the drive us to pragmatism and the hopes that idealism always harbors. State of Decay understood this, I think: The clock was always moving and it was hard to help everyone you wanted to, but those pivotal decisions always had space to breathe. It was even possible, early in the game, to allow your very first buddy, Ed, to sicken and die because you put off getting him a doctor. But before that happened, people reminded you of his worsening condition for days before he passed. Every time you felt pressured to go on an ammo or food run to protect the settlement, you knew you were putting off Ed’s treatment and hoping that he’d keep another day. When he died, you felt the weight of that moment because you had considered and rejected saving him so many times before. It was on you.
A lot of the same dynamics drove the action in the first game as in this sequel. But they were situated in relation to certain characters and storylines that gave them some actual stakes. Your group of survivors was not, at the start of the game, just a group of random personalities thrown together to create an ineffectual commune. They were authored characters, people with their own specific backgrounds and hopes. The fact that all of that humanity could be ended and lost in the blink of an eye—from a lapse in concentration, a single bad decision, or pure misfortune brought on by those procedural systems—is a huge part of what made State of Decay’s ever-advancing clock and evolving world feel so special. The game would continue to function and time would continue to pass, but your characters’ life stories could be cut-off mid-chapter.
State of Decay 2 doesn’t really have people or stories. What it has is a self-perpetuating machine that generates a never ending stream of choices, but their sheer frequency and the lack of personal connection to them annihilates their meaning. I will never care about Lucy and the Grocery Raiders the way I cared about Ed or Lily in the first game. The Grocery Raiders will never be more than part of a chorus of squawking strangers in need. Ed and Lily were people I cared about in a world that never stopped moving. The Grocery Raiders are just spammers. I never even make a choice to ignore them before they’ve already turned against me.
While some of this could probably be ameliorated by changes to State of Decay 2’s grueling pace, the real issue in State of Decay 2 is how little investment it manages to earn. In its function, it feels like a world founded on the idea that if you can just imbue it with enough randomness, enough player-independent activity and interaction, enough probabilistic cogs and gears to let random characters and random story beats to fit together, we can imbue that world with life as well. But rather than a world, we get an infinite nothing. And State of Decay 2 ends up feeling a lot like the zombies the populate it: All movement and raw appetite, with not even the faintest heartbeat to be heard.