Okay, I promise, this is the last time this year I’ll talk about it, but after several fits and starts and test games, the epic playthrough of State of Decay: Breakdown has taken over my life. Something simmering on the stove? Knock out a mission. Taking a break from wrapping gifts? Mission. Finishing up that last grading of the semester? Do it while the infirmary gets upgraded. Breakdown has been December’s Big Thing around here, and I’m happy to report that the game’s ratcheting-difficulty sandbox mode has all the things I talked about when I first got into the main game, and more: realism, emotional attachment, and choices that matter. I’m in love, reader, but it’s a tough love, a bumpy ride, and one that might well threaten the integrity of my holiday dinner, because if things get any more difficult, I might just throw the turkey out a window.
Breakdown drops the player into a Groundhog-Day-esque cycle of escaping and restarting: you collect your team, you choose the best people, you build up your resources, and then you and your five nearest and dearest skip town for a new, friendlier location… except there’s only the one map, so every level sees you starting over again in the same places. Somehow, no one ever notices.
Maybe they are too busy fighting a feral zombie while trying to avoid the cloud of bloater stink that means certain death. Because, you see, with every level, things get more difficult. Resources are more scarce. The cars that litter the streets in the early game start to disappear. And the zombies? Multiply. When I took on Breakdown for my Power Hour review, I could barely scratch the DLC’s surface. This is not a game to be mastered in an hour. An hour in, you’ve barely hefted your blade. Nearly a month later, however, I’m ready to talk a little more about why Breakdown is one of my contenders for best release of 2013.
But first things first: a not so humble-brag/bitch moment: Breakdown, I have to say, is buggy as hell, and one of those bugs cost me thousands of points on the leaderboard. Understandably, I am pissed off here — I’ve worked hard, emotional, gut-wrenching hours to climb into what should be the top forty, and am instead at 80-something. But I’ll say this: I’m only concerned about scores in those moments when I happen to open the menu. When I’m in the thick of it? It’s hard to care. Yeah, okay, once twelve rucksacks I had scattered around the map disappeared, taking all the resources I’d gathered with them. Sure, once a headless zombie (double the undead, I guess) threw my guy to the ground. But despite the bugs and issues, this game is such a thrilling, harrowing experience that I’m willing to forgive, and hell — some of those problems feel like par for the course in a disintegrating world.
Except the score thing. Man, you guys. Top forty! Y’all know how hard I worked for that?
In the beginning–well, after the false starts that came with not having played in a while — Breakdown felt ridiculously easy. Every building was packed with resources. There were cars everywhere. Even the zombies seemed pretty easy to slice and dice. I unlocked level one and two heroes with the greatest of ease and assembled a team I was pretty proud of. By level five, I had a core team of six people who were in it to win it: Damien, my marathon man, always the starter because he could run further than anyone; Amelia, who could slice and dice a dozen zombies without breaking a sweat; Robert and Rylan, my cowboys, one a mechanic, the other a researcher and medic; Calliope, the gardner of all people, who turned out to be surprisingly adept, and then a rotating open slot for experimenting. These were my people. My husband and I joked about them. Oh, definitely take Damien for that one. Oh, geez, Calliope’s afraid again, take her on a walk and clear her head, so you can use her to clear those infestations. Everyone had a role, see, and they’d been with the team for so long. Damien and the cowboys were from level one; Amelia and Calliope, levels two and three. I’d lost a few people to bad moments, but these folks, they were my core.
Now, at level ten, only Damien and Calliope are left, and as they struggle out to search houses, ill-equipped, sick, possibly injured, I feel as though I’m rebuilding this base not from scavenged bits of wood and metal, but from the bodies of the heroes who got me this far.
The cowboys went first, one left behind in favor of some unlockables that turned out not worth the loss of an original teammate, and one lost to a bad moment with a horde. Amelia opened level ten, the first to start a level since, well, ever; the job had always been Damien’s, because he had the skills to run get a car anywhere on the map. But Damien was hurt. I stepped up with Amelia, who was strong, valiant; she cut through fifteen zombies in a parking lot and ran down the highway, juking, swerving, stopping only to kill when she had to. And then, friends, there was a feral, a bouncy, quick zombie with a penchant for ripping survivors in half. They fought. He went down. Amelia, with only a blinking sliver of life, went in for the finishing move… and a rotting, gassy bloater appeared from the bushes. Dilemma: run and let the feral get up, and try to take meds? Kill the feral and try to take meds? It didn’t matter. The bloater exploded. Amelia died. Later, I would discover she was some thirty feet from the car the would have meant relative safety.
Friends, I had to turn off the game. I had to take a moment. This was my girl. She had nicknames. She had skills. And she will never respawn, and even if I play through like this again, with her as my starting character — because she is a Hero, I can choose her — it will never be the same.
I didn’t go back to get her dropped items for a full day, though I’ve been here before, in the original game, the first time I lost Maya, one of the first characters you encounter. I keep coming back to this point, attached to characters who have only a few rotating lines of dialogue, who sometimes have twins in the base, whose only real personalities, for most, are those I assign them. Sure, they have amusing stats sometimes (lots of people are very skilled in “gossip,” for instance; others loved reality TV), but they are little more than that. And the game has no great emotional moments, really, particularly in Breakdown. You run out. You get things. You do missions. You find the RV, leave town, and return to do it all over again.
So why am I getting so attached? What lies at the heart of these emotional connections? I’ve thought a lot about this, actually, and keep coming back to the simplest answer: what’s done here is done. You can try to save a character by turning off the game before things get really hairy (I owe Walter-the-Scientist’s continued existence to a quick shutoff in level nine, in fact), but it doesn’t always work. But what’s more is that it’s easy to screw up here. Not paying full attention, making a bad decision, trying to search that one last spot when you know the multitudes are coming… one wrong step and you lose someone. It can happen fast, and though I’ve actually only lost six team members in this playthrough, I’ve felt each one of them keenly, because they could have been avoided. Because I could have saved them.
Now, at level ten, the game has become gut-wrenching. I’ve struggled to establish outposts, to create any sense of safety around my base. I’ve had a lot of close calls. My people are constantly hurt or sick, and there’s so little out there for us to find. I feel the crushing weight of the apocalypse upon us. What happens when the supplies run out? What happens when we can’t get the materials to repair our cars and our bodies? Then I lose another, and another, and that’s hard to face. I open the menu and wonder who might be next.
And that emotion, that level of attachment, all that keeps me coming back for more. Well, that and the need to make back those thirty thousand points or so that just didn’t update!