Dead Island and The Game We All Wanted To Play That Never Existed
Allow me to beat this undead horse a little more, and maybe attempt to destroy the brain once and for all.
Back at the beginning, waaaay at the beginning, of when Dead Island first appeared on the radar of most gamers, there was simply a trailer. You know the one. It showed three people, a small girl and a couple, scrambling to save one another as zombies crashed through their hotel room door and eventually overwhelmed them. The kicker, though, were the reverse-running footage interspersed with the rest of the trailer, showing the end and the beginning simultaneously. And it showed the death of a little girl first, then (running backwards) her attacking of her parents as a zombie, and finally her infection with the zombie affliction. She helped murder her parents. Her father threw her out a high-rise window.
It was gripping for a lot of reasons. First off, it was a zombified child — something that barely creeps into zombie movies (“The Walking Dead” on AMC has had just the one zombie child reference; Zach Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead has the infamous zombie newborn; 28 Days Later depicts off-screen Cillian Murphy killing a zombie boy of about 10 with a bat). It was a family not only falling to the zombie onslaught, but being forced to turn on each other in the space of a few seconds. It was the ends of three peoples’ lives all at once; it was tragic, horrific, and above all, serious.
Okay, enough about that. A trailer’s a trailer, right? It’s marketing. It wasn’t even made by Techland, the developer behind Dead Island. As trailers for video games often are, it was made by another company, in this case, Glasgow, Scotland-based Axis Animation; and Axis has worked on marketing for other games, notably Mass Effect 2 and Killzone 2.
In the end, as you might have guessed, the game advertised was not the game received, and although there are lots of moments with the kind of potential gravitas the trailer included, Techland never explores them — it never even makes them interactive.
I’ve had numerous discussions with people about Dead Island, in real life, on Twitter and in the comments on my mixed review of the game. Some people love it. Some find it a waste of money. But I think we can all agree that whatever it was that captured our imaginations in that trailer is not what Dead Island is. Long ago, Techland even admitted that the family from the trailer didn’t appear in the game, although the parents have a weak, nonsensical cameo in the final game (you can find them dead, almost holding hands as if they froze to death together on the Titanic, in their hotel room right at the beginning).
But the disparity between the Dead Island trailer and the story it told, and the game as shipped, highlights a colossal missed opportunity as well as, in my mind, a voracious appetite among gamers that simply is not being sated. The Dead Island trailer wasn’t even presenting us with gameplay — only with the promise of a harrowing experience and a (zombie) horror story that wouldn’t pull any punches and didn’t go for camp.
We got about a quarter of that promise in the final release. There are moments of Dead Island that are intense, but much of the game isn’t. And certainly the story isn’t just lacking but practically nonexistent. Gamers who like Dead Island excuse the story as not being the reason they signed up in the first place — but then, those aren’t the people who were drawn to that trailer, and they’re not the gamers I’m talking about.
Those gamers, the ones I am talking about, are likely among the two million who purchased Deus Ex: Human Revolution in its launch week. They’re the ones that make up the communities that spend countless hours in role-playing games. They’re the gamers who give life to a whole side market that allows developers and writers to publish novels based on popular franchises like Mass Effect, Gears of War and Halo.
John Carmack of id Software was once quoted as saying, “Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” I’d argue that, while perhaps developers don’t care about stories, there’s a huge subset of gamers who definitely do, and to them, it’s extremely important. And we’re out here, crying out to be told stories and engaged in the way that only games are capable of accomplishing — by bringing us into the very story being told.
The way I see it, Techland made the wrong game. Or rather, it thought of the wrong game. The Dead Island that was poignant and emotional, the one that made us sad to see a family destroyed in its final moments, that’s a game that not only could find an audience, it has an audience dying to play it. And any game like it. Immediately.
But to make the phantom Dead Island would require a fundamental shift in the way that many developers approach video games. It would mean that devs like Carmack, who see games as a mode of delivering gameplay mechanics and a story as a way to give context to the various massacres or puzzle-solving that follows, need to change their ways of thinking — at least some of the time. It would mean finding the story a game tells first, or at least earlier, and making sure that that story isn’t just worth telling, but is told as well as possible.
If you’re looking for a reason that video games are held back as a medium, I can give it to you straight: The vast majority of games don’t mean anything. Even the most emotional and interesting games, the very best and most artistic ones, usually struggle for any depth and rarely mirror the human condition or leave us affected when we finish them. How can video games be art if they don’t engage humanity at an emotional level?
But the very discussion should be a deafening siren to the games industry: We want games that are art. We want stories that matter. We want to stand in awe of what this medium is capable of.
Give us the Dead Island that never was. We’re all waiting for it.