Zombie survival game State of Decay emphasizes the human element of the zombie genre, giving players command over a community of survivors and letting them explore how humanity bands together in the ultimate struggle, according to Undead Labs artist John "Gronk" Gronquist.
Gronquist describes the game as "a mixture of Grand Theft Auto-type freestyle play" and "Animal Crossing with zombies." Players will form their own community of zombie apocalypse survivors and spend time building shelters, hunting for supplies and building up the skillsets of each community individual.
The zombies vary in their behavior. Some are sleepy and non-responsive, even when you are making a lot of noise or beating up another zombie just a few feet away. Others are aggressive, sprinting after you with their arms flailing or jumping onto your moving vehicle and tearing off the car door.
"We're all really big fans of the genre, and we wanted to be faithful to it," Gronquist said. "There's a lot of nods to different zombie lore and zombie movies."
The demo provided at PAX East his weekend began in one of the game's largest "bases," a building complex turned into a refuge for survivors. I collected some gear and supplies — health-boosting coffee and a baseball bat to be precise — and headed out into the zombie-infested world beyond the chain link fence. I was immediately attacked by an aggressive and very determined zombie, then took out a few sleepier ones hanging out around a parked trunk before jumping in and driving off to look for more zombie heads to smash.
Gronquist said the development team was going for a "faded Americana" look, with a fairly modern feel but presenting more retro elements like older cars and building styles. Undead Labs wanted the game to "feel a little bit like it was set in the past" and provide the sense of being in a real "Anytown, U.S.A.."
"You need more than one person to survive."
In State of Decay, people are the primary resource during the zombie apocalypse. Undead Labs wanted to create a realistic survival scenario that focuses on people and how well they could defend themselves.
"People are the most important part," Gronquist said. "You need more than one person to survive. One person on his own in the zombie apocalypse is going to wear down, get fatigued, he's going to die very quickly.
"Fatigue and injuries in our game are a very real thing," he added. "If you get injured, it could take two or three real-time days to heal. If you get fatigued, you have to sleep for a good eight to 10 hours of rest in real time. It's like Animal Crossing, with zombies."
Money has no meaning after the zombie apocalypse, so players must obtain supplies and assistance from others with Influence points, which Gronquist calls the game's currency. Influence can be obtained by providing the community with beneficial services, such as collecting resources, saving NPCs and destroying hordes of zombies. Influence can then be used to purchase items and call in favors, and the higher players' Influence, the more other characters will trust you.
The relationship between the human survivors and zombies in State of Decay is one of strife without unrest. Zombies are a persistent threat, always shuffling around outside camps and forming hordes, infesting buildings and essentially creating zombie colonies. Players have to take out these zombies before they attack other survivor groups in a "real-time strategy-type situation," says Gronquist. Letting these zombies be will allow them to attack other humans and spread, overrunning areas when their numbers get out of hand.
There is no infection system in the game, however, and while community members can turn into zombies, NPCs can get sick and turn into brain-munching monsters. Players will ultimately have to decide whether to spare or kill them, the latter being the best option to protect the community.
"How do we survive a threat like that together?"
"We wanted to stress that fact that you are in a very harsh environment," Gronquist said. "It's not about preserving yourself, it's about surviving as a community.
"It's really about the community," he added. "A lot of the story is based around human characteristic and choices, about 10 to 20 hours of core missions."
The zombie genre is about people, and that's why its tropes have become so prevalent in current culture, according to Gronquist.
"If you think about it, zombies are one of the most ridiculous threats imaginable," he said. "They don't have any brains, they don't fight very much. You look at zombie films like Night of the Living Dead and 28 Days Later, and they're not really about the zombies. The zombies are there as a threat, to show what people do when they are under threat. And that's something we really wanted to try and represent as well.
"Other zombie games that have come out haven't really focused on that at all, they sort of just present a villain and add it to already-existing gameplay and then make it easy for players kill a lot of things," he continued. "Dawn of the Dead, classic example. You never really see the zombies; they're outside the mall for over half of the movie and the other half is the people inside. The story part of it focuses on that a lot. Characters will betray and hurt each other. It's about that struggle to survive. How do we survive a threat like that together?"
Undead Labs would like to add co-op multiplayer at a future date, said Gronquist, but right now the company is focused on honing its single-player experience.
State of Decay will be available later this year on Xbox Live Arcade and Windows PC.