Between 'State of Decay 2' and 'Days Gone,' We Can't Stop Talking Zombies


#1

Patrick returns from a week of “vacation” where he made appearances on video game podcasts to ask for advice on how to get rid of the squirrels in his attic. Elsewhere, Austin and Rob could not disagree more on State of Decay 2, Austin gives us his impressions on Days Gone and other games from his recent trip to LA, and Patrick praises Capcom’s approach to re-visiting old, difficult games in the latest Mega Man collection.

Discussed: PUBG, Fortnight, Vacation Simulator, Firewall Zero Hour, Days Gone, State of Decay 2, STALKER, Mega Man Collection, Skyrim, squirrels (not a movie, just the rodent), The Terror (AMC series), Wizard of Legend.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/xwmg9j/state-of-decay-2-days-gone

#2

I’m glued to SoD2 right now frankly, at least until I ‘finish’ a game and see what that looks like. It’s tense and interesting, even if it feels like I stopped progressing in any real way quickly - now I’m just busy surviving, and getting rid of those pesky plague hearts.


#3

The most interesting aspect of Days Gone is that the main character has a red hankie hanging out of his back pocket and lord I hope a bored queer dev snuck that in.


#4

The entire State of Decay 2 conversation in this pod was almost exactly about a topic I posted before, but maybe asking about it here is better? I’m still learning my way around discourse.zone

Austin made it pretty clear that his playstyle often covers up flaws in games by creating his own stories, but then he said that the game should do more to “teach” players to create those stories themselves. Being solidly on Rob’s side of things, I think that attitude would just backfire, since it doesn’t seem like there’s any way for a game to “teach” me imagination. And at a certain point, it would just fill in too many of those gaps where Austin’s stories come from, leaving everyone unhappy. A game like Dwarf Fortress creates extremely detailed stories for every character, but then I’m just overwhelmed with information once getting beyond a handful of characters. Is there any way to satisfy both types of players?


#5

I think the systemic stories are teachable, we even have a model for it (ie how different players respond to various levels of detail and mechanics for deploying story elements) from non-systemic narrative. What is an immersive sim or walking simulator if not a hand-crafted lesson in generating a story? One of the early big hitters in the latter genre, Dear Esther, even mechanically played with this topic by randomising the order of the story fragments the player stumbled onto (and making seeing the ghosts optional). The interactivity and often optional nature of games means designers are always working with how things can work without requiring an authored static story presented to players.

In the case of DF, a reactive system might let players choose to slowly restrict how detailed the stories are for each dwarf as the size of the colony increases, or to pick out a main cast who have more detailed stories than the others (until something exceptional happens or the player spends a lot more time focused on one of the secondary characters and the game reacts to promote them to main cast and slowly fill in more and more story). Not to say any of this is easy but we should be able to let player provide hints (like a difficulty slider does) for the experience they want and customise how the game hands out information to fill in to the detail level each individual player wants to best feed their imagination.


#6

I may have a lore friendly solution to the incessant radio calls.

Radio Stations/Channels.

For example:
Channel 1 (or Station 100.1; or whatever (Station 420.69 baby!)), could just be your home base and outposts. So you’ll only hear banter from those individuals.

Channel 2, just the groups of survivors you are friendly/allied with (I haven’t gotten far enough to know if allies are a thing, but you know.).

Channel 3, groups you have not met yet.

Channel 4, everyone else.

Or more channels if you want to filter even more. Now I know most walkie talkies don’t let you listen to multiple channels at once, but hey, it’s a video game. C’mon.

Now how this could be lore friendly is if you tuned out the groups you haven’t met yet, and they’ve reached the point where they no longer want your help (like what happened to Rob), they could have dialogue such as:

“Oh great, now you’re here. We’ve been calling everyone within range, and we know you can hear us, because we saw your radio come online [insert how long ago the player entered their base for the first time] hours ago!”

Anyway, this was my big shower thought for the day. I want to keep playing this, so maybe I’ll try to apply more of the Austin Walker Method to see if that helps flesh the world out more.


#7

Austin’s modus operandi for making his own narrative reminds me of when i roleplayed a bloodmage for the whole of Dragon Age Origins, leading the fools through the entire story as i carefully rounded up all the hidden lore of my cult and enthralled Lilenna and implanted the demon child on the throne before riding off to my hidden castle.

Likewise the time i got annoyed with Skyrim’s “do it all in one playthrough” and rewrote the game using mods after becoming head mage of the temple adding ten NPC minions, raising the nearby village of fools and rebuilding (via the mod to recreate the village a new) with magic to rule them all, tearing down everywhere i went after that, then once again rebuilding anew.

I wonder though, realising i totally forgave or rather ignored many of the flaws of those games, shunned off the criticisms of the mechanics others raised because i had taken over the role of developer, or rather narrative designer of these games to achieve “my goal” in both these examples. I would twist the buggy game into my narrative and would ignore their failings because i was too busy in my head crafting basically a fan-fic on the fly.

Hearing Austin talk about state of decay 2, with such fervour today i wonder if Austin and others ever think do the same; shrug off the buggy or weak mechanics of a game because you are too busy making a narrative in your head and layering it on top of what you see before you, making that the game? I do not say that to cause offence, and often hear Austin taking a step back in some other “mode” to almost review the games as well as experience of them but my spidey sense tingles whenever Austin talks of narrating his own world OVER the game that is presented to you and found it interesting.

By all account the buggy shit-show that is Vampire Bloodlines is the 10/10 best game ever made by this standard having turned it into my own little GM tool for my own stories, and probably the first game i ever modded (and still do occasionally) including new quests and dialogue. However i doubt metacritic would tolerate a 10/10 for that game, and wonder what impact it has on players and those in the media (as in all of waypoint) when we craft our own narratives.

Zero shade intended, and glad you got to take your merry band of clerks into the apocalypse Austin, and hope it brings you many more hours of fun <3


#8

I want chime in on The Terror - it’s such a fantastic show. It has got some great restrained dialogue and improves on the book in a few ways too, which is a pleasant surprise.


#9

The concept of getting players into a mindset to better understand or engage with a game beyond what the pure mechanics can present A) Has been and will be an ongoing fluid debate forever and B) Is what every game, ever, no matter how mechanics-focused, is actually doing. You’re always filling in gaps that mechanics can’t, some fill in more for you than others, but there are always gaps, and if you didn’t fill them then you probably wouldn’t be into games (or really, most any art) at all, they’d just be dull marionette shows full of pretense and blather. Art is always speaking a language that tries to get your brain to fill in detail where there can’t possibly be any, it’s just that games have become so vividly interactive (plus a bunch of more cynical cultural factors I won’t get into) that it’s easy for us to stumble into believing there’s any one Way Things Are or Should Be in them, therefore the language we expect from them is still very limited and it’s sometimes hard to get us to think differently.

Rob and Austin have different perspectives on the piece they’re presented because of the type of gap-filling they expected, and part of that could be how SoD2’s introduction of its ludic language is misdirected, while another part could be the general change of tone. State of Decay 1 was almost vibrantly optimistic as far as post-apocalypses go, all problems could be ultimately solved if you were On It, you couldn’t really be a dick and people couldn’t be dicks to you, there was a distinctly horizontal structure to your community, it had its own distinct tone and structure. SoD2 is evidently trying to ramp up the tension, be a bit bleaker, and focus on the structural elements that made the first stand out to make for a double-the-price sequel many years later. As a result, the tone and goals of the game’s storytelling are markedly different from SoD1’s, while still trying to introduce itself as if it’s grounded the same way when it’s ultimately not.

Now it’s a question of how can we learn about how SoD2 failed to get Rob into a mindset where he could feel positively engaged with what it was uniquely trying to do, it’s not a problem of making it procgen-focused, but what the probabilities are presented as when they’re fulfilled, how they’re connected, and what system could exist so the devs could better connect elements and more clearly communicate both tone and complexity to the player. SoD2’s balance is going for some pretty standard disempowerment dynamics and use-your-imagination procgen, and while that abrasiveness and stats-screens-you-can-roleplay-with stuff can be engaging to someone expecting that, it can be devastatingly alienating to those who aren’t, especially if the game itself fails to communicate a huge part of it.

And as it always is, it’s an ideological thing. As far as singleplayer games go, the type of individualism that’s expressed was actually pretty positive in SoD1. It had a lot of empowering strategy elements, but there was no one leader bossing anyone around, you were always playing the role of The Community more than any concept of a commander or overlord, and the “worst” any member of The Community could do to other people is tell them “no”. SoD2 still has a lot of this, but now you have a Leader element, you have combat with other human factions, its worldbuilding starts to fall into the bog-standard pseudorealistic misanthropy you’ve seen played out in so many zombie stories.

You could say things like how you prioritize some human lives over others in SoD2 isn’t commented upon enough, you could say the uncritical focus on established norms to make a higher density of systems washes away much of the uniquely hopeful tone of the first game, you could say there’s too much abstraction of its structure and the people in it to make a clear connection to the player. Similarly, you could see SoD1’s tone as too ignorantly hopeful and its hopefulness (in a very Rural American setting) speaking to a weird us-vs-them absolutism regardless of the diversity of the procgen, while SoD2’s tone doesn’t completely lose the idea of the player roleplaying a community and presents at least a better framework for telling more interesting emergent stories. There’s plenty to learn from both games and how they contrast each other, and likewise both Rob and Austin’s reactions and how they contrast each other.

Both games are deeply flawed, both rely heavily on using your imagination and a bit of grounding in written text (the first game just erred more towards thinner procgen and a handful of specifically-scripted characters, the systems-only expansion Lifeline exposing just how thin that procgen could be without them). Saying “both sides are valid” makes me instinctually sick in 2018, but in this artistic case, they’re worth looking at. SoD1 & 2 present some pretty unique lessons on the tone and structure of procgen storytelling, and they’re relatively simple to pick up and play (or even just watch) for such systems-driven games.

edit: i basically didn’t edit this and this is why i usually edit down my dang forum posts, i apologize


#10

Interested to finally play it for myself because I’m really curious to see what side of the SoD2 stuff I land on. I want it to be Austin’s, but I’m not sure if I’ll actually get there. When I was a kid i used to do stuff like this a lot, mostly cause I had a lot of time; I remember this one weekend I spent transforming Super Mario 64 into a documentary/game show combination about Mario’s exploits, mostly inspired by that opening cutscene of the Lakitu with the camera. I’d come up with fictions of my own when playing Galactic Battlegrounds, that Star Wars RTS. But as I got older I’ve done (and been able to do) less and less of that; there are a lot of games that I’ve bounced off of because they get too repetitive, or have nothing to keep me going, or don’t explain/tutorialize themselves too much. I go into RPGs wanting to roleplay a character and end up playing through the same way I always have, which is basically to min/max or do what’s “optimal” for that RPG. I want to believe that I can come up with a fiction for my own survivors and their community, I just don’t know if I’m capable of doing it anymore.


#11

I think the way SoD2’s tutorial starts you off (controlling two characters with prior history) is partially intended to nudge you into roleplaying. Unfortunately it’s not communicated super well, so it ends up implying a level of character interaction that the simulation doesn’t provide. In my case it still worked out – one of the “highlights” of my first run was when my initial sibling pair got overwhelmed and the brother watched his sister (also my camp leader) get horribly murdered while he barely escaped with his life.

I would have liked to see it do more with character relationships, even if it doesn’t directly impact gameplay. Sort of like how Austin’s headcanon is that his characters worked at the same restaurant, the procgen could be biased to occasionally create pairs or trios of characters with similar backgrounds, or specific family/partner relationships. A sprinkle of that stuff could go a long way in making the characters seem like more than a random box of stats and attributes.


#12

I think this really is the core of the issue, which isn’t limited to headcanon. It’s really about expectations going into a game and how you handle the game falling short, which @needmoreloot talked about too:

If the game isn’t doing what you expected, but you don’t have a very active imagination filling in the gaps, or the skills (and patience) to mod the game, then you’ll be disappointed and it’s a ‘bad’ game. But if you go in expecting those problems (e.g. “you should try [game], it has tons of bugs but amazing writing” they’ll have far less of an effect on you or you could even mitigate them ahead of time (with mods, skipping broken stuff, w/e).

I think it’s tough for developers to find any reliable way to manage expectations beyond just avoiding the problems that create those gaps, so a lot of it falls onto players to manage their own expectations and also to be conscious of how they experienced the game when recommending it. Austin mentioned the latter in this conversation too, but a funny example is in this video, Zoe Quinn talks about a game she played as a kid and how it was mysterious and left the player to discover all the mechanics. Then when she got older she realized her entire impression of the game came from the fact that she didn’t have the instruction manual.


#13

I just wanna say I’d like to make the phrase “Ravens on the Rooftop” a term used for elements of a game implemented to encourage player storytelling


#14

The conversation on this podcast reminded me a lot of Rob’s initial Stellaris take (this was a while back can’t remember the episode) as opposed to Austin’s.

Austin was keen to come up with elaborate stories for what and why his space nation did things and how the other nations reacted while Rob said that was just giving credit to a game that neglected to put any of those motivators in the game itself. It’s been a while since I listened so I may not have got those points of view 100% accurate but I feel it was a very similar discussion.

Having played maybe like 5 hours or SoD2 so far I’m kinda leaning with Rob on this one. I totally see what Austin is saying that we sometimes expect the game to spell out and provide us with all story details, but I feel the game still has to give me something to work with.

So far I’ve been bombarded constantly with radio calls to help; there’s so many survivors all around it’s a wonder they all survived for any time before my band of 3 dudes just randomly started living here. When I’m out on a mission someone from a base has radioed in with the same canned line like 4 times, with no context for what has actually been happening. “Person X started an argument in your base due to low morale” with a canned like “NOT okay!” but like absolutely no context for beyond that, and seemingly no repercussions for these two characters fighting (maybe there is one I’m not aware of?)

That and I feel like all the great descriptions in this game are awesome with their own little stat buffs and everything, only to have none of them affect the personalities of the characters themselves, they all kind of seem to have a couple of generic types.

All this said that I’m only a few hours in at this point so I could be wrong about some of the above stuff. I knew this game wasn’t going to have a big narrative or story arcs due to its proc-gen nature but I was kind of hoping for a little more reason to do things than “make your base bigger, level up your characters to make one a leader” even if it was just some sort of vague goal or end point to shoot for.


#15

Thinking that’s podcast #57, same day as this article came out:


#16

i’m running into a similar problem so far playing XCOM: EW after following the Tactical Tuesday streams. to be fair, i’m playing the Long War mod, which seems to expect you’ll have a deeper bench. and Rob and Austin (along w/ the chat!) are significantly better at tactics games than me, so there’s been a, uh, high turnover rate at XCOM HQ so far.

but also, the WWE meets Fire Emblem roster being fleshed out is such a big part of what’s got me invested, and Enemy Unknown def isn’t made for that. it doesn’t give you the tools to, say, lose your first Skirmisher and take on a replacement named Mort “Doom” DeGrir (who is a Combat Genius and doesn’t really like the idea of Best Friends anyway, it’s fine, don’t worry). and that would honestly take it from being a great tactics game to something i could see myself getting really emotionally invested in.


#17

My take away from this podcast: games shipping with an Austin Walker is a million dollar idea. I’m not talking a full personality download ala Case’s mentor in Neuromancer, more a distilled Austin that makes narratives out of basic outlines.