A Uniquely Fun Video Game Filled With Intentionally Ordinary Characters

State of Decay 2 (Undead Labs)

Forget superpowered heroes and techno-equipped protagonists. Forget parkour acrobats and the guys in capes and cowls and anyone who can wield a 2-ton machine gun.

The heroes and heroines in State of Decay 2, the Microsoft Xbox One exclusive that released late last month, are a lot more like . . . your high school teacher. Or you taxi driver. Or you aunt. And yes, says design director Richard Foge of Undead Labs, which developed State of Decay, that's a little bit risky.

But he promises you'll have fun.

"Your Master Chiefs, your Marcus Fenixes, they have these huge personalities, and they're always the central characters in these destiny of the world stories," says Foge, invoking two of the biggest names in Xbox lore. "But what if you had to survive with only your knowledge, the knowledge and the skillsets of the other normal people around you?"

Welcome to a different video game. Ever since the first game was released in 2013, the State of Decay series has committed to making sure you felt completely . . . unspecial. It's a daring juxtapose to your average nonsports title, which typically goes through great pains to make sure you feel special, either by building a narrative that casts you as hero or by placing you in control of a hero with special abilities.

In State of Decay 2, you're just a person looking to survive after the zombie apocalypse. You won't meet anyone else who's terrifically special, either, although you'll run into plenty of other people who just want to survive the apocalypse too, eventually banding together with them to settle an area.

"These are not your typical Hollywood or video game action stars that kind of become comic book archetypes," says Foge. "But characters are way more relatable when they're . . . human."

It's an idea that works well in content built around the zombie apocalypse. Plenty of video games have you facing down superheroic odds, so that demands a superheroic lead. But zombie video games are different; here, your opponents, often slow and lumbering, are imposing only in quantity, so there isn't always a need for an unstoppable protagonist.

So the zombie genre can often be built on the shoulders of average Joe leads. AMC's "The Walking Dead" is driven by normal people. Sony's The Last of Us (it's not zombies, but then again, it is) featured unimposing stars in Joel and Ellie. Go all the way back to "Dawn of the Dead," an inspiration to State of Decay's creative team, and you see the same trend.

"In all these, a lot of it comes down to how people interact with each other," Foge says. "The fantasy here is: How will we survive? What matters about me that makes me special that I'm going to be able to contribute in a zombie apocalypse?"

The resulting game is filled with relatable characters, most of whom are procedurally generated once you get past the initial game-opening starter cast. All these characters can permanently die at any point in the game, too, something that Undead Labs worked hard to make possible.

In the original State of Decay, a handful of characters were off-limits from perma-death. In this sequel, Foge says, ensuring that any character could die at any moment was critical. It was also a major development challenge. Making any character subject to permanent death brings new gravity to the story, but it also means any storyline can end at any moment. That creates all kinds of storytelling hurdles, but Undead was happy to take on the challenge.

"How do we resolve these things if a certain character dies? Are there ways to keep stories moving?" Foge says. "Finding reasonable ways to tie things up wasn't easy."

Then again, State of Decay 2 isn't supposed to be easy, because, sans superpowers and super strength, the zombie apocalypse won't be easy. This game wants you to feel that challenge, and feel what it's like to be completely reliant on your world, with not even a special item ability to bail you out.

And by and large, State of Decay 2 succeeds in its quest. It's stars aren't perfect, which is why they're perfect for this game.


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