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After the Apocalypse: A Dead Island Retrospective

Russ Pitts | 18 Nov 2011 13:00
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For the feature article Dead Inside, author Russ Pitts examined the narrative subtext of the popular zombie action game Dead Island, and what the game's creators were trying to say about the sociological and economic implications of a zombie apocalypse, as seen through the lens of survivors in the South Pacific. Following publication of this article, the author began a conversation with Dead Island writer Haris Orkin, about what went right with Dead Island, what went wrong and what he would do differently next time.

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Russ Pitts: How did you feel about the critical reaction to Dead Island? What criticisms do you think were spot-on and what, maybe, missed the mark?

The designers wanted you to be able to play any character in the four player co-op. So that meant there could be four Sam B's simultaneously which, of course, made no sense in terms of the over-arching story.

Haris Orkin: It's interesting because the reviews have been generally very positive, but also all over the map. I think that had a lot to do with expectations of the game based on that amazing trailer. Some critics felt betrayed that the game didn't elicit the same emotion as the trailer. But the critics who played the game without those expectations, for the most part, really enjoyed it. The trailer did a fantastic job of communicating the fear and hopelessness and brutal irony of a zombie apocalypse set in an idyllic tropical vacation spot. It generated a huge amount of attention which is difficult to do when you're launching a brand new IP. But clearly for some people I think it raised unrealistic expectations.

Most of the positive reviews talked about the game play and combat being a lot of fun. They enjoyed the RPG elements and the weapon's crafting and all the quests. They loved the world as created by the brilliant artists and level designers at Techland. They loved the sound design and the music. But the story, the characters, and narrative weren't really considered that important. Most of the time they were barely mentioned.

RP: What were the over-arching goals for the characters and narrative in Dead Island?

HO: Our main goal was to drop the player into the middle of a zombie apocalypse with all the drama and tragedy and black comedy there would be in that kind of scenario. We wanted a wide variety of environments and characters and quests and a narrative that pulled you through them in a logical and hopefully exciting way. But the narrative had to work with the four player drop in/drop out co-op. Having played games like that before we knew that the player's own personal narrative becomes a lot more important than the game's narrative. When four people are playing and talking together it's hard to pay close attention to the over-arching story. So the decision was made to keep it simple.

It's also difficult to create a heartfelt drama in an environment where people are laughing as they run over zombies and taking turns decapitating them with electrified machetes. We knew most of the story would be told through environmental clues, the NPC's, the collectible recordings, and the Banoi Herald factoids you find as you move through the world. We gave the playable characters in-depth character bios to begin with because we knew that once the player was immersed in the game there wouldn't be much opportunity to get deeper into those characters. Plus all four characters have to work with every NPC and situation the same way. We did have additional detail about the playable characters that didn't end up in the game. Originally, the characters were going to have a different takes on the story and discover different parts of the mystery, but those narrative elements were getting in the way of game play and mechanics so it was decided to remove them. The designers wanted you to be able to play any character in the four player co-op. So that meant there could be four Sam B's simultaneously which, of course, made no sense in terms of the over-arching story, but it did give the players more choice and more fun.

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