After the Apocalypse: A Dead Island Retrospective

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.


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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As a player, you’re just one person moving through this world and so the story of what happened and the cause of this apocalypse isn’t spoon fed to you. The player has to seek it out and they may only find pieces of it. The more they look, the more they’ll find. It’s up to the player to put it together. We thought that could be an interesting part of co-op, talking to your friends as you move through the world and trying to figure out the source of this outbreak. Future DLC will provide even more pieces of the puzzle.

RP: The zombie game genre is pretty full up right now. How did you plan to differentiate your zombie game from other zombie games?

HO: Dead Island‘s primary point of difference is that fact that it’s an open world co-op game. I think that’s the perfect genre for a zombie apocalypse game. It’s just you and your friends (or strangers) figuring out how to survive and work together in a world gone to hell. Left 4 Dead is fantastic, but it’s very linear, and there’s not much room for exploration. Resident Evil is also very linear. Borderlands and Fallout 3 are open world RPGs, but Dead Island has a very different feel since it isn’t set on another planet or in an alternate future. It’s set in today’s world with all its conflicts, politics, prejudices and problems.

When we first started working on the story, the idea was that there would be AI companions to follow the player even if he/she played alone without co-op partners.

We picked Papua New Guinea as a setting for a number of reasons. First of all, for the huge variation in environments, from the beaches to the jungle to the mountains to the crumbling city. It’s one of the most dangerous places in the world even without a zombie apocalypse. There is a huge problem with local gangs and crime and warring clans that fight in the highlands. Much of the jungle is untouched and unexplored and there are indigenous tribes that until very recently still practiced cannibalism.

RP: How well do you think you hit those marks?

HO: I think we did pretty well, but I also think we can do a lot better. Much of the story, including the cut scenes, were finished before the final design and mechanics were all worked out. If we did a sequel we could adjust the over-arching narrative to fit the game mechanics in a much more seamless way. For instance, when we first started working on the story, the idea was that there would be AI companions to follow the player even if he/she played alone without co-op partners. Later that was changed to make the single player experience much more frightening, but we didn’t really have the time or the budget to go back and re-record and re-adjust the story to account for that.

RP: Do you necessarily agree that deference should always be given to gameplay over story?

HO: This touches on the eternal question when it comes to writing for games. What’s the proper balance between story and player agency? As a gamer, I think a really fun game with a weak story is better than a great story in a game that isn’t much fun to play. Now the best games have both, but it’s always a balancing act. It’s a bit easier to pull off with a more linear single player game. When you throw in four player co-op in an open world, adding a cohesive over-arching story is just more difficult. When you design and/or create a story for a game, you’re trying to predict what the player will do. If he has three paths he can take, you need to work out the story for all three. But if you have four players, those paths increase exponentially.

There are also different kinds of gamers. Some like story, some prefer less, and you need to appeal to both. I think the story should be there for those who want it, but it shouldn’t be forced on those who don’t. For those who aren’t that interested, you’re simply giving some context to the play. The truth is the story is all around them anyway and they’re absorbing it even if they don’t realize it. The reason Dead Island feels immersive has a lot to do with the story elements, some of which are communicated entirely through the environment. So a lot of players are experiencing the world and story on a subconscious level even if it’s not top of mind.

RP: Couldn’t it also be true that sometimes gameplay gets in the way of the narrative, as in when people are too busy laughing about crunching zombies to listen to the audio logs?

HO: If players are laughing and having a great time talking smack and curb-stomping zombies, I don’t want to get in the way of that. I want a deeper story to be there if they want to find it, but I want players to play the game the way they want to play it.

RP: How did you want the player to feel about this world they were moving through? Apart from “killing zombies is fun,” what did you want the player to leave with as a result of interacting with the narrative?

HO: For us it was about illustrating the full range of what people might do when caught in such desperate circumstances. We started work on this a few years after Hurricane Katrina and I couldn’t help but think of New Orleans and what happened there. The poor neighborhoods of the city were basically abandoned. Story for me always comes down to characters and Dead Island was a great way for us to explore how wildly different people would react to waking up to a zombie apocalypse. Some people would be cowardly or selfish, some would be selfless and heroic, while others would panic and kill for every little scrap. You see the best and worst in people when they’re put in desperate circumstances. I don’t think anyone can really know how they would react until they’re put in that position.

If it was up to me, I probably would have kept some of the narrative elements that were dropped.

What’s great about an interactive medium like a videogame is that we can put players in that desperate situation. As a player in Dead Island you can save people or you can leave them to die. Do you want to help people find their families or do you just want to enrich yourself? Personally I like that fact that we didn’t have a good/evil mechanic. In the real world, everyone’s a little bit of both. That’s why the playable characters were flawed as human beings. They’re not heroes. They’re just people trying to figure out how to survive.

RP: Do you think it’s possible that the kind of sociological narrative we’re talking about here is impossible to present in a videogame? Could it be that there are “written stories,” and “movie stories” and “game stories” and that presenting a daring, nuanced and challenging narrative in games falls outside of the bounds of what works in “game stories”?

HO: I think it’s all about tone. The tone of the gameplay has to match the tone of the story. A lot of smaller indie games do this very well. I worked on Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3 and I think the narrative did a good job of matching the gameplay. The same with Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood. The narrative tone in the Uncharted series matches the game play perfectly.

I think a daring, challenging, and nuanced story will one day be found in a game, but for that to happen it will need to match the gameplay mechanics. Some games have come close, but I don’t think we’re there yet. It’s partly a problem of technology but it’s also partly how games have evolved. L.A. Noire‘s facial motion capture tech was amazing and there were moments that felt pretty real, but there was still that uncanny valley to navigate. Plus a lot of the game mechanics were very videogamey and that quickly pulled you out of any kind of reality. I still really appreciated the ambitiousness of it all. Videogames are still in their infancy, but I think eventually the medium will mature and the stories will get deeper and more nuanced.

RP: What would you have done differently with Dead Island knowing what you know now?

HO: If it was up to me, I probably would have kept some of the narrative elements that were dropped. Knowing the final game mechanics and the fact that you can play entirely alone or co-op with two, three, or four different (or identical) characters, I would have relied less on the player characters to tell the story and given more of the story to the NPC’s. The cut scenes probably wouldn’t have had the player characters in them at all.

RP: Would you be up for a Dead Island sequel?

We all learned a lot creating this game and I would love to take what we learned and apply to the next one. So I would absolutely love to try again.

Interviewee byline: In addition to writing the scripts for videogame series such as Command & Conquer and Call of Juarez, Haris Orkin has written for theater, television and film. His script for Red Alert 3 was nominated for a Writers Guild Award. He is currently at work on his next game.

Russ Pitts is the former Editor-in-Chief of The Escapist and the former Producer of TechTV’s The Screen Savers. He is currently writing freelance and blogging at False Gravity. Follow him on Twitter.

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