When I think of improvisation, the first thing on my mind is MacGyver, the campy television show from the 1980s. It's a show about a man who can basically get out of any harried situation—all he needs is, well, anything at his disposal. He always carries duct tape and a Swiss Army Knife, and combined with other miscellaneous items, can create makeshift tools and other wondrous things. He's resourceful, and arguably, probably an inspiration for a lot of the crafting in modern video games.
I like when a game forces me to improvise. Not when Gordon Freeman comes into view with the unlikely weapon of a handy wrench, but when the game itself encourages spontaneous action from the player. For a turn-based JRPG, it might be following an unexpected powerful move from a boss, clearing out three members of my four-strong party. If I'm low on Phoenix Downs or whatever equivalent, it may require some strategic thinking. For a MOBA, it might be a particularly powerful play—the type that would send an arena of esports fans to their feet in sheer excitement, like a disrespectful dunk from LeBron James at a home game for the Cavaliers.
State of Decay 2, as with some of the most hardcore management sims, is a game all about working yourself out of a bad situation. It being a zombie apocalypse and all, you're doomed to always be in a bad situation, no matter your best efforts. Ants might infest your food supply unexpectedly, or a community member might kick over an essential can of fuel. As the game's difficulty ramps up the longer your community survives, a particularly vicious horde of zombies might even claim one of your own while on a supplies run.
It's wild world out there. And it's a bummer the environment is so familiar with the tropes of zombie-apocalypse humdrum. Even the dynamically generated "story" quests for the random survivors the game cooks up feel generic, narratively. It's finding that one distant relative who can probably handle herself. It's a cluster of b-side stories from The Walking Dead. Nonetheless, as I wrote in my review, it's the management simulation that really makes State of Decay 2 memorable beyond its very rough edges, not the zombie blandness we've played a billion times before.
And where it's particularly successful lies in a very hard-to-design element: improvisation. The best ongoing sorts of games rely on improvisation to keep players coming back, such as MOBAs or other team-based competitive games like Overwatch. In Eurogamer, writer Simon Best describes his experiences with improv acting in relation to improvisation in video games, and how improvisation has become a foothold in what he enjoys most in games. "The key to successful improvisation is controlled spontaneity, and the equal challenge for game designers is to build layered systems that give the player the same illusion of creative freedom," he writes.
Where the main topic of Best's piece was last year's Ghost Recon Wildlands and how its clunky openness led to ludicrous situations, State of Decay 2 follows suit in some surprising ways. It's weirdly enough reminding me a lot of Far Cry 3, the first Far Cry game to really build on the formula that has remained relatively unchanged all the way up to the recent Far Cry 5 (for better or worse). When Far Cry 3 released back in 2012, word of mouth for the Ubisoft open world game caught on. People swapped their unique stories at water coolers and on social media—Far Cry 3 felt like a game designed for sharing wild experiences. On some level, State of Decay 2's management sim side lends itself to the same strengths. With unique generated content and multiple levels of systems working with one another, hilarity, tragedy, or anything in between can ensue. It's prime gif fodder, if you will.
While State of Decay 2's action isn't the most exciting in the world, with the number of elements that can go unexpectedly wrong, the entire game ends up feeling like an extended improv sketch rather than something with a puppeteer pulling the strings behind the scenes. In other simulation games sometimes everything feels too telegraphed, like that one choice of not studying or whatever from hours ago made me destined for this snake to bite and kill me. (Thanks, Long Live the Queen).
In State of Decay 2 though, sometimes when things go wrong it isn't your fault; things just go awry, and no extended walkthrough can really help amend that. But also, it's never too dooming—there's always a way out of a bad situation if you narrow your focus and work hard. That's where the best improvisation in games lies: quick thinking when things don't go according to plan, and there's no way to telegraph the mishap in the first place. And, most importantly, always allowing for a way to get out of it too.
Over the course of my dozens of hours with State of Decay 2, there have been countless instances where something went wrong, I made a mistake in trying to amend it, and it seemed like disaster awaited me. Yet I found that running your entire playthrough to the ground is a difficult task in itself—trust me, I tried it purposefully after a series of bad decisions—and coming back from bad decisions is shockingly possible. If a community member dies in some horrible way, if you socialize with other neighboring enclaves you can potentially recruit someone with similar skills to replace them. If your food supply goes down the toilet, you can plot a spontaneous voyage across the map with a roomy vehicle to sort things out. And that's the key to State of Decay 2's best moments: we never really hit a point of no return, unless we fuck up repeatedly. There is always a way out, if you just improvise.
It's weirdly fitting that I gravitate towards improvisation-driven games for what I play daily. Usually, they fall in what I like to call the "podcast game" category—where I can zone out while listening to a podcast, likely an improv comedy one, and play mindlessly. I don't necessarily need to be working towards something, because the improvisation the gameplay and game's world provides is usually enough for me. The best sort of improvisational game is one where every time I turn on my PC or whatever console I'm playing on, the experience won't feel the same as the last time I touched it. It will always feel new.