When the Obsidian/Troika veterans Doublebear announced that they were making a Zombie-themed RPG, there was an immediate response in our comment thread. Namely, posting comments. It was then codenamed ZRPG. Now, it has a real name. It's going to be called Dead State and we've got the first hard information, screenshots and an interview with head Doublebearer Brian Mitsoda.
Dead State is set in Texas in the fictional town of Splendid, in the middle of nowhere. The idea being to create a landlocked place with few large cities and a distance between towns - and, metaphorically, a dying area in real life too. The game is predominantly rural and suburban in design, with the major cities basically forming a natural border for the map area. Because, frankly, due to the disaster, the cities aren't where you go.
You're in charge of the local shelter - a school - which works as your base of operation. The basic mission is survival. You go out, gathering food and finding allies - and every person who can join you is a defined personality. You stay in, improving your defences and upgrading equipment. The sort of elements of the game are discussed further in the FAQ but the key element is freedom. The game doesn't have any defined enemies. Yes, it has people who you'll likely end up hostile to, but other groups of survivors will like or dislike you based upon your actions to each other.
Zombies, of course, won't like you at all. It's a zombie purist game, concentrating on shambling brain-eaters rather than any manner of super-sprinting-zombie. Alone, they're not really much to worry about. In large mobs, attracted by gunfire - like, for example, you may engage in when fighting other survivors for precious supplies - they're rather more troublesome.
In short, with its freedom to explore and lack of a classical arc, this seems to draw heavily from the Fallout well. Marrying that to an unexplored (in this particular genre) theme, and we've got something that's terribly exciting for anyone who cares about RPGs. We talked to Brian Mitsoda (ex-Troika, ex-Obsidian) about what's waiting out there in the desert...
RPS: Can you elaborate on your vision of zombies? What are you trying to evoke in the game? What kind of things have influenced you?
Brian Mitsoda: On paper, our zombies are really not supposed to be threatening. They’re dumb, they’re slow, they’re unorganized – your very basic shambling corpse. They’re only dangerous when you forget about them. Make too much noise, get cornered, ignore them – that’s when they get dangerous. Most games deal with a Night of the Living Dead scenario where you have to survive one night, one wave, one map. We’re dealing with a long-term zombie threat, where you have to worry about keeping people fed, friends getting bit and infected while scavenging, and the desperation of other human beings. Honestly, the game is not about the zombies, but about how people react to a crisis and what they are willing to do to other human beings and even members of their group to stay alive or protect their own. The zombies are just a cause, like economic collapse or a massive earthquake, and it’s really the human self-preservation instinct and the survivor mentality that we’re interested in portraying.
I think the interesting thing about a disaster is this mentality that everything is going to be okay – that “someone” is going to come in and save me, of course. This idea that as long as you aren’t in immediate danger, you can keep your head down and hope the problem will go away. We’re short-term thinking creatures and we don’t like to think of the big picture implications of our actions – global warming, borrowing money, cutting education/space spending. I think rationally we want to believe the governments of the world would mobilize quick enough to stop a zombie plague (only infected people rise from the dead in our game) but I think that generally we’re only mobilized when we are directly threatened. By the time people start to notice the dead walking in their neck of the woods, the problem has spread beyond containment. The zombies in Dead State are a faceless (sometimes literally) force and dealing with the zombie problem is a lot like waging a war on an ideal.
RPS: You've said that you don't want to have "The bad guys" and can find ways of working with or pissing off anyone. Care to elaborate on that?
Brian Mitsoda: Allies in the game are people who have asked to join or have been convinced to join your group. We did this because we wanted a large pool of unique survivors and also because we wanted some randomness in the makeup of your group. You probably won’t be able to find everyone in one game, and your dealings with many of the survivors may be different depending on how you govern the group, how much they get along with some of the others, their mood/morale, and when you bring them in. Morale tracks the overall mood of the Shelter – if it’s positive, mostly people are happy, if not, you need to start raising mood and accomplishing goals that will make people forget about the horror outside. Allies won’t be 100% loyal to you once they are in the Shelter, so you’ll have to throw them a bone every so often or impress them to make them stay. In a way it’s like being a real leader – you can’t make decisions that please all of the people all of the time.
When we say we don’t have bad guys, what we mean is, we want to leave the moral judgement up to the player. There’s a very specific type of person or organization that might survive a major catastrophe, as you can imagine. We have some other groups in the game, and a few that had a head start over the player’s ragtag bunch. For example, we have a group that is primarily made up of members of a militia. They’re pretty much the kind of people you think you’d find in a Texas militia group, but they were quite prepared for a social disaster to hit the area. You may not like them, but you might be able to come to an arrangement with them (especially if one of your allies knows them), though they may not be keen on it if you’re aiding a group they hate. It’s more likely the militia doesn’t want anything to do with you.
Most of the groups either don’t want to deal with you or they just want your stuff, so convincing them to work with you or teaching them to fear you will take some doing. Not everybody wants to be found and most people will see you as a potential threat. NPC groups will act against each other, so sometimes your help or inaction can have an effect on other groups. We let the player choose their allies and their enemies – there is no ultimate bad guy threat to all the groups, well, I guess unless the player manages that.
RPS: The Combat system will be turn-based, without full party control - though with room for you to equip characters - and heavy on psychological modelling. What are you trying to evoke with the system?
Brian Mitsoda: As I was mentioning earlier, we wanted to make our allies feel as though they were individuals rather than extensions of the player. They can be ordered around by the player, but as to whether they will follow that order or not depends on their ability, their aversion to the task, and their respect for the player’s commands. That might make it sound like they will NEVER do anything you say, but really what it means is if your ally is scared of zombies and you tell him to run into a pack of zombies, he’s most likely going to ignore the order or do it and possibly start panicking as the zombies start to mob him. Each ally has different perks and personalities, and most of these can be altered by your interaction with them. Through dialogue/time they might grow to respect you and be more likely to put themselves in danger to protect you or your encouragement might make them fearlessly aggressive – there’s quite a few ways you can shape their behavior, and not always in healthy, feel-good back-patting.
The big difference in our group and something like Jagged Alliance is these are normal people with little to no combat experience, not a veteran squad of commandos, so they handle like you’d expect them to. It’s best to think of them as intelligent Gradius options – they’re there to assist and absorb damage. They make combat much easier than going it alone, but they can die and you’re really going to have to work at it to bring everyone home all the time. Sometimes you may have to let someone go to get the rest of your group out safely. If everyone else is at the rally point and one ally is still in that house surrounded by ten zombies, let ‘em go, ‘cause they’re gone.
RPS: Care to talk a little about the difference between human and zombie opponents, in terms of how they work in game? I especially like a the genre-staple of a firefight against humans where the gun-shots attract zombies.
Brian Mitsoda: Assuming you’re not hitting a human hideout, humans you meet out in the field are likely to be in small groups, ready to confront you for the same resources or just because. Some of them were working in a frozen yogurt shop up to a few weeks ago, and others might have been hardcore gang-bangers with access to heavy weaponry. Humans are faster than zombies, better armored, and a lot more likely to kill you one-on-one. They might actively seek you out or they might try to stay hidden. Just like our allies, they have their own overriding combat imperatives. They’re unpredictable, which makes them dangerous.
Zombies, on the other hand, are unorganized. They could be anywhere, but their behavior is predictable – they are attracted to noise and will attack the first human they see. They don’t care about sides, so if your opponents are using loud guns, the zombies will go after them. If you can use the zombies to your advantage, you might be able to take on a larger force – and there are some items/strategies that can help with this – but it’s a gamble. It’s generally never a good idea to invite zombies into an area you want to explore. And don’t forget – enemies (and allies) killed by zombies will get back up!
One thing we really wanted to capture with the gameplay was that feeling of dread that was a big part of X-Com. You only have line of sight to what you and your allies see. It’s very easy to be in a situation where you turn the corner and there are five zombies waiting there or a case where you fail to properly sweep a bedroom and one lunges out of the walk-in closet while you’re about to search the dresser. I think that’s a big part of the zombie genre, that experience where your friend gets bit that one time you weren’t careful. It makes the zombies in the game scary and the exploration very tense, rather than just consisting of killing all the enemies in the area and opening all the containers, repeat ad nauseam.
RPS: I suppose leads to another question - what sort of AI does the zombies have?
Brian Mitsoda: Well, we only have one type of zombie – three if you count crawling zombies and zombies that have been set on fire. Zombies are attracted to sound – in fact, you can even make noise to try and lure them out of a building, If you’re unsure how many there are. There’s a noise meter in the combat interface to let you know how much noise has been made. Make noise, local ones will come to investigate. Make a lot of noise and distant ones will start looking for you. Make enough noise and zombies will be lured to that map. It’s okay to be loud once in awhile, but if you sustain noise for too long, they’ll be coming from all over. Stay quiet for a few rounds and they will forget about you if you haven’t been spotted.
Zombies will attack the closest human target that they can see. It may look like they are intelligently mobbing someone, but it’s most likely that the NPC had the unfortunate luck of being the closest or loudest thing in the area. It’s hard to predict where or when they will show up, since they might just be randomly walking around the map. On their own they’re pretty weak and slow. They really gain the upper hand when people get isolated or occupied with another task.
Unfortunately, zombies that see humans will often start moaning, which increases the noise in the area. If a character gets surrounded, generally they won’t have enough action points to destroy all of the attackers in one round. Zombies will frequently lunge to try and knock down humans, to gain better access to the squishy parts. And if an NPC is already weak or wounded they are susceptible to being infected, which is a permanent status, assuming they survive. Infected NPCs will become zombies if they die in combat or stop receiving antibiotics, which is the primary way to control the infection in our game.
RPS: The Shelter is a school. Why did you decide on that - and also, could you elaborate how it leads to interaction. The game ends if it's taken, I believe, and it's the place for the whole hotbed of internal interactions, yes?
Brian Mitsoda: We chose a school as a shelter because American schools are frequently used as emergency shelters for many communities and modern school designs resemble prisons more than schools. They’re designed not only to keep kids in, but to keep out people who aren’t supposed to be there – security windows and doors, metal detectors, perimeter fences. We worked off a couple of actual school layouts – it was fortunate or maybe sad that these schools were built like fortresses.
The shelter is where all the allies can be found – and it might seem like a pretty safe place to be, but once the danger of zombies and starving humans is escaped, you have the petty bickering and power struggle of the allies to contend with. Your player is the leader of the group – there’s going to be a lot of people sniping at them and expecting the player to give them special treatment. You’ll have to gain the trust of allies, raise the general morale of the shelter, and make deals with other authority figures to try and keep everyone loyal. Allies will come to you with their problems or requests and they’re going to expect you to help them – sometimes this means favoring one over another or bribing them with an extra ration. Dialogue skills will help, but they usually open up alternate solutions rather than just bypassing the decision. If you make a promise to someone, they will expect you to follow through, and within a certain amount of time too.
We have certain situations – crisis events – that require the player to make especially difficult decisions. These decisions affect the law or policies of the shelter’s inhabitants, and most every ally will lose or gain confidence in you when you make these decisions. If you have authority figures in the school, they will want to recommend a course of action and depending on how well they respect you or if you consider their advice, they may be able to persuade other allies that you made the right choice.
For example, one crisis involves the supply of antibiotics running low and dealing with the school’s infected allies. You might want to make finding antibiotics a priority or give them to a few key people, or kick the infected out, but it’s not an easy decision and some people are going to die, some will hate you, and some will think you run a tight ship. This is the political side of being a leader, and I think it’s one of the more exciting parts of the game’s story mechanics.
RPS: It' s a survival game. Hence, food matters and such things. Care to elaborate how you see the game working here?
Brian Mitsoda: We definitely wanted Dead State to be about survival, and we needed a resource to reinforce this. Allies need food every day. If they start to starve, it causes morale problems, which can start to impact the ability of the shelter to function. Having to go out for food is risky, but necessary. For gameplay mechanics, it prevents the player from just turtling in their shelter. It also organically raises the difficulty of the game – more allies, more food needed, more (and farther) locations need to be reached to gain access to food (and the chance of running into more hostile groups). Then you factor in luxury items to help with morale and fuel for generators and parts for shelter upgrades and there’s an awful lot of reason to go out and search for more people to help. The more you have, the more you need, and so on. Also, food and other items can disappear over time due to the looting efforts of other groups, so the game gets a bit harder as it goes on, and forces you to start taking risks, like trying to loot riskier areas or take on larger groups for their supplies.
RPS: Thanks for your time.
Dead State will be released "Not in 2010". We'll be following it as it lurches towards release. You'll find further information at Dead State's site.