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Mutant: Year Zero changed when its developers fell in love with a duck

A classic tabletop RPG is getting the XCOM treatment

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Mutant: Year Zero is a game that’s difficult to categorize. First revealed in February with a slick CGI trailer, it includes a blend of real-time exploration and tactical turn-based combat. The publisher, Funcom, is calling it a “tactical adventure game.” Its developers, a small independent team called The Bearded Ladies Consulting, tell Polygon that the game will play an awful lot like XCOM 2: War of the Chosen.

But, as it turns out, it will also have a lot in common with Howard the Duck.

David Skarin is the game’s creator. He’s also the founder of The Bearded Ladies, an independent studio that contains principle members who recently worked on Hitman, among other titles. The Mutant: Year Zero property itself, currently owned by Cabinet, is based on a much older tabletop role-playing franchise simply known as Mutant. And, as Skarin told Polygon, that series of RPGs was even more popular than Dungeons & Dragons in his native Sweden when he was growing up.

In the grimdark future of Mutant’s post-apocalyptic Europe, a cataclysmic war has turned the survivors into powerful abominations. That includes human/animal hybrids, like giant ducks and bears, as well as myriad of other strange variations. The original game encouraged players to create characters in whatever way they chose, and then place them in ruined versions of their own towns’ neighborhoods.

Skarin recalls that, when he was about 10 or 11, the game was a potent blend of the familiar and the exotic.

The 30th anniversary edition of Mutant is published in the United States by Modiphius Entertainment. The core book is also called Mutant: Year Zero.
Modiphius Entertainment

“I remember playing it with my brother and another friend,” Skarin said. “My brother, he was a mutated pig, but he had four arms. I was a mutated ninja, in ninja clothing, and we had a single gun between us with just two rounds.

“We played those characters for an entire summer, and I think we ended the summer with one shot left. Our game master encouraged us to use our swords or to make arrows. [...] We were fighting robots with a bow and arrow. There’s something about that that stuck with me.”

Skarin was a programmer on the Hitman team at IO Interactive. He left with the goal of turning his childhood fascination with Mutant into a video game, so he formed a small group of trusted collaborators and pitched the idea. At first, they considered making an expansive, open-world game reminiscent of the classic tabletop RPG itself. But just as quickly, they scrapped the idea.

“We can’t make a completely open the RPG with XCOM combat. It’s going to be too slow, too big too,” Skarin said. “We needed to tell a story in this world. Otherwise it’s just going to be Mario + Rabbids with a cool duck.”

In Mutant: Year Zero, players will take on the role of a small group of mutated humans, each with their own unique set of powers. The story will follow these characters in a singular journey, while combat plays out in traditional turn-based fashion. Characters will evolve over time and, just as in modern-day XCOM, players will likely become attached to them. In fact, it’s that attachment which created so many problems early on in the game’s development.

“Originally, of course, we had permadeath, and we had variations on all these characters that would come back when you die,” Skarin said. “But it turned out we couldn’t really tell as good a story as we wanted to. To bring the open-world of the pen-and-paper game to life was beyond us. We simply wouldn’t be able to do that in the video game. We’re just not big enough. [...] So we figured that it would be better to focus on this one narrative experience.”

The solution was to cut down the core team. Where Firaxis’ XCOM gives players access to an endless stream of fresh recruits, Mutant: Year Zero will only have five characters to play with.

“We all fall in love with our XCOM characters,” Skarin said. “It turns out that when you have a mutated pig and the mutated duck and they have all these cool abilities, you fall even more in love with them. We just couldn’t kill them off. But we still wanted to have permadeath.”

During missions, players will only be able to take three characters out with them at a time. Lose too many lives, and it’s game over.

The other curious part of The Bearded Ladies’ little game is that the beginning of every mission will feature lots of open-world exploration. The goal, Skarin said, is to keep the tempo high during these moments. Unlike the classic Commandos series, don’t expect to lie in wait watching a single sentry walk back and forth, looking for the perfect moment to strike.

Instead, the developers want players to become fluent in quickly uncovering the map. That’s where they plans to work in tons of environmental storytelling. Once they’ve performed their reconnaissance and gobbled up a few bits of storyline, players will be able to pick an avenue of advance. Once the feathers start flying, the bulk of the gameplay will be turn-based tactical combat.

“You want to make the player feel smart,” Skarin said. “I think that’s a good game design philosophy.”

Mutant: Year Zero is slated for a Dec. 4 launch on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One.