I'm a big fan of the whole "zombie apocalypse" genre. It's been huge these past few years, bigger than just TV and a few video games. There are firearms manufacturers and custom shops making zombie-themed guns and shooting accessories, mostly colored garish green and red and all "tacti-cool." This speaks of a deeper fascination than just a pop culture fad.
Zombie stories represent a lot of different things. They can be a representation of our collective fears about natural and man-made disasters, or apocalyptic plagues straight out of the bible. They can be dark satire of mindless consumer culture and social conformity. They can be a commentary on how reliant we have become on certain technologies that will be rendered useless or irrelevant in a crisis. They can be a frightening look at the darkest version of ourselves, stripped of reason and emotion and reduced to raw, animalistic hunger. Zombies are the personification of our own mortality, a fear that is perverted and turned against us. Or, in video games, they can represent man-shaped targets that can only be killed with challenging head-shots - an extra level of challenge for the twitchers out there.
I am a fan of AMC's The Walking Dead in particular. The TV show, anyway - I haven't read the comics or played the licensed games, in large part because I don't want to spoil the surprises coming up in the TV series. But also because the comics don't have the Dixon brothers.
Merle Dixon, the racist redneck goon you love to hate and hate to love.
It's an awesome show, and if you haven't seen it, you should probably be deeply embarrassed. Get on Netflix, go pick up the season box sets at Target or Wal-Mart, make nice with a friend who has the current three-and-a-half seasons on his TiVO - do what you gotta do and watch it. Start from the beginning and get all caught up before you continue reading, because I'm gonna be dropping spoilers. You've been warned.
The Walking Dead does two very important things: firstly, it puts the zombie apocalypse on television instead of just the big screen (or the direct-to-dvd bargain bin); and secondly, it examines the huge, bewildering array of emotions and personal conflicts surrounding great tragedy. The survivors have lost so much - family, friends, home, hope - but they dig down deep into that primal nugget of id, down underneath all the emotions and everything else, and they try to carry on living and rebuilding what they can, however they can.
As The Walking Dead is to zombie apocalypse movies and television, so State of Decay is to the slew of zombie titles on the market now. Most of them are just shooters, or games with a primary focus of killing all the zombies. You carry around a ridiculous amount of ammo and an arsenal of rifles, SMGs, pistols, axes, bats, chainsaws and various other skull-smashing/head-and-limb-removal devices, and the whole point of everything is to score a bajillion head-shots. Some of them are horror-survival or adventure games where you solve puzzles in dark hallways, occasionally get startled by sudden loud noises, fight your way through fixed groups of mobs and then fight a boss monster every twentieth or so encounter.
State of Decay is much richer and grittier than that. It's the Walking Dead of the zombie apocalypse video game - even moreso than the actual Walking Dead games, which are adventure stories and not sandbox RP-survival games. The Walking Dead TV series is the very essence of "sandbox" - the characters are basically free to do whatever they want because the rules of society are dead and gone. They can boost cars, desecrate corpses, go live in a jail, go out exploring, root around in peoples' houses for supplies, start a new town, declare war on another group of survivors, or whatever, and they generally do all of those things all the time.
The story of State of Decay is about a group of survivors rather than just one character in particular. While Rick Grimes is very much central in The Walking Dead's story, the show explores the group dynamic, spending a lot of time with the other characters to show how they are reacting to the world around them, and it makes you care about them. Usually, immediately before killing them off in the most devastating way possible.
The same is true in State of Decay, only the story is less centralized. You're not playing just one character the whole way through - you play pretty much all of them. Most of the survivors in your group end up being playable, or recruitable as companions, or both. Each character has his or her own backstory, revealed in snippets during quiet moments between scavenging and skull-bashing. You spend a lot of time with each of them and get to know them.
And, just like The Walking Dead, it seems as though all characters in State of Decay are expendable. As soon as you get attached, that's the moment you stumble into a horde with a Feral planted in the middle of it, without any backup. That's what seems to happen to me, anyway. And when that character dies, the group carries on without him. If your character dies while out on his own without backup, the game switches you to whoever is next in line back at the base, and you get a little snippet of Lily saying a few words in remembrance.Then she gets back on the radio and reminds you that there's some shit that needs to get done.
Here's a quick comparison between a few State of Decay characters and their Walking Dead equivalents:
|State of Decay character||Personality||Walking Dead equivalent|
|Alan Gunderson||Hard-liner who mistakes his own psychosis for pragmatism, eventually needs to be "dealt with"||Shane|
|Sam Hoffman||Prickly warrior-woman who masks her humanity behind a wall of scowls and anger||Michonne|
|Lily Ritter||Core member of a survivor group, looking after her family; has a good heart and acts as the group's moral compass, keeping the members grounded||Hershel|
|Three Random Survivors picked up early on in the game||A group that has been having a rough time surviving on its own, and needs the security offered by a larger, more established group; they aren't afraid of some hard work and tough rules, but they are also entirely expendable||The new guys who have joined the prison group at the start of Season 4|
There are other similarities with the storylines, too, beyond the obvious zombie apocalypse setting. State of Decay starts off with Marcus Campbell and Ed Jones returning from a 2-week fishing trip vacation on a remote lake, only to be attacked by zombies immediately after making landfall. This sort of mirrors Rick waking up from a coma only to discover that the world went all the way to hell while he was unconscious. Both Rick Grimes and Marcus and Ed have to blindly stumble forward to figure out just what in the hell happened while they were away.
The rest of cast of State of Decay has a very familiar feel to it, as well. One could easily draw parallels between any of the game's survivors to equivalent characters in the show. Not all of The Walking Dead characters are represented - there's no Daryl, or Dale, or Laurie, or Carl (or any other children) - but there seem to be a heck of a lot of Jims and T-Dogs and the other secondary characters. There are even groups of other survivors with their own agendas: the Wilkersons are kind of like a hillbilly version of the Governor. Imagine a smaller version of Woodbury run by Merle and Daryl Dixon, and focused around brewing moonshine.
Both the game and the show explore the question, "how do you survive after everything ends?" The Walking Dead approaches this question from a more emotional, human standpoint, focusing on how people react when they are pushed past their limits and are forced to discover new ones. State of Decay takes a more practical view, focusing more on hardscrabble living after the lights go out. Keeping a group of people alive requires food, medicine, tools, weapons and other supplies, and since you can no longer just pop down to the local Wal-Mart and fret about such things as natural versus man-made fibres when buying a new t-shirt, that means scavenging what's available from everywhere you can get into.
Everyone turns into a Glenn Rhee - the guy who goes out and gets stuff. State of Decay has a finite amount of resources available. Once a house has been looted, those supplies never respawn. That house is done, and only serves as zombie shelter (or possibly a mission waypoint) from then on. Mind you, there are a lot of supplies around, and the other characters go out on looting expeditions when you're not controlling them and when they're not recuperating from the abuse you put them through. But they are finite, and the group has to range out farther and farther from base to find them as the game progresses.
This is particularly true of vehicles. There are only so many working cars available. You can use pretty much all of them, but once a car is smashed because you've been using it as a high-speed plow to clear dangerous hordes off the streets, it stays smashed (unless you have the upgraded workshop at your base, and supplies to repair them), and you have one less car to get around in.
It's also particularly true of bullets. They are a fairly rare commodity, and characters have a very limited carrying capacity, so each bullet needs to count. Every bullet that hits anywhere other than the head is one more zombie that needs to be killed with a tree branch.
Rick and the gang run into these sorts of troubles fairly often. It's why they made the bargain with the inmates at the prison for half the food, and it's one of the reasons why Daryl uses a crossbow instead of a rifle. Crossbow bolts can be re-used over and over again, which can't be said of bullets. And even the most citified among them no longer balks at eating owl, possum or squirrel meat, and most of them will even happily nosh on canned dog food during lean times.
It brings to mind the opening scene of Season 3, when Rick and the gang are bouncing from house to house trying to find food and a place to rest for the night. They break into a house and explore it room-to-room without a word. The gang settles in to chow down on some dog food, but Rick is upset that they have come to this, and he snatches the can away in disgust. Their moment of rest is interrupted by the arrival of a handful of zombies, so they bail out of the house and keep on truckin'.
State of Decay's food situation is a little less specific than that. In terms of group supplies, food is a somewhat non-specific resource that gets stockpiled. You don't really know exactly what the food is, but you know how many units of it you have stocked up. In terms of food that can be carried and eaten by the characters, the icon looks like Twinkies packages (undoubtedly a wink and a nod to the movie Zombieland, where Tallahassee could find any food except Twinkies) and the item description is "Snack," but when the character eats it, it looks like an apple. And the description on the resource bundles found in homes occasionally describes the food as "stale but probably still edible" or "pickled in brine." Perhaps it's for the best that the food is not described in great detail - after all the delicious soups, beans and SPAM have been consumed, all that will be left is canned turnip and pork brains in milk gravy. And Alpo, I guess.
Another common theme is the usefulness of crude melee weapons rather than guns. Guns are generally quicker and can be more efficient in the hands of someone properly trained to use them, but they have a number of fairly significant disadvantages. They require ammunition, which can be difficult to obtain, might not work if it's old and can be very easy to waste. Some of them employ complex mechanisms and must be subjected to routine maintenance. A pipe wrench never misfires. A machete never runs out of bullets. A crowbar never jams, no matter how caked it gets with zombie blood and bits of skull and brain and matted hair.
But, even more importantly, guns are frickin' loud. Rick and the gang figured this out fairly early on - if you shoot one zombie, that zombie is dead, but the gunshot is going to attract a crowd because zeds and walkers are drawn to loud noises. Bats and pipes and golf clubs are silent - they take significantly more effort to use effectively. But with a melee weapon, you can get away with only killing a couple of zombies rather than starting a deadly standoff against a slavering herd because you thought it would be quicker to just shoot one zombie in the head.
If you really just can't wait a few more weeks for the second half of The Walking Dead's fourth season, State of Decay might give you a half-decent zombie survival fix. It won't tell you how Rick deals with the most recent spate of heart-wrenching losses, but if it helps, you can scream out "HERSHELLLL!" at the top of your lungs the next time you ram your pickup truck through the middle of a horde.
Some terrible things are going to happen to your characters, but rarely will it ever be as heartbreaking as this.
How do you think State of Decay compares to The Walking Dead? Or to the
Walking Dead games? Or to other zombie-themed games in general? Let us
know in our comments!