“I must arm myself to fight you by making weapons out of my imperfections. … But I’m dead inside.” – Henry Rollins/Tool, “Bottom”
The zombie genre isn’t what it used to be. Once the star of the show, it has now been somewhat overexposed and has entered into its post-rehab second-rate reality TV appearance phase. All signs point to it dying of an overdose in a bathtub after falling offstage, drunk.
When the solace and terror of the certainty of death is taken away, all that remains is the pursuit of life.
Yet into this slightly fading limelight walks Dead Island, begging you to stay for just one last song and doing so with such verve and panache that you just might be tempted. If so, then what you will experience in the game’s 40-plus hour single-player/co-op campaign (and refreshingly open-ended multiplayer component) is nothing short of a reimagining of the way the zombie story is told in games. Not through a reimagining of the zombies themselves, nor really even the game, per se, but rather by turning the traditional model of zombie story-telling upside down and using the infection apocalypse as an opportunity to take a videogame experience deeper into the larger questions of human nature and society itself than almost any game ever made.
What Dead Island knows is that the zombie story has never been about the zombie itself. The zombie is and always has been a metaphor for the creeping, insatiable fears lurking just under the surface of our “everything is all right” culture. The zombie story is a reflection of our darkest terrors that forces us to focus on what really matters most in life. For when the dead rise up and begin to assail the living, what really matters anymore? Death is the one true certainty of life. It informs, enriches and overshadows all of our hopes, dreams, grand plans and petty irritations. Take that away, and what’s left? What survives the upheaval of the most basic fundamental principle of life?
All zombie tales, in their own ways, attempt to answer this question, but there is really only one answer: When the solace and terror of the certainty of death is taken away, all that remains is the pursuit of life. Survival, in other words, is our most important goal, the first order of business, and sometimes it takes the uprising of a horde of walking, formerly-living beings to remind us of that fact.
In Dead Island, you face the challenge of survival and meet it with an array of weaponry that gives you an incredible sense of joy when you use them to decapitate, eviscerate, crush, stomp, electrocute and set fire to the walking dead. You, as a character, however, are also presented as part of the puzzle in that you are mysteriously immune to the infection turning most everyone else into zombies. Your overarching mission is to help find a way to cure the zombie plague by seeking out the cause of your own (and others’) immunity, thus giving some of your life, in a very literal sense, to safeguard the lives of others.
Again, this is a well-worn path through zombie horror, and its inclusion here is not extraordinary apart from the deft handling of its implementation. What sets Dead Island apart from the teeming multitude of zombie-themed entertainment options is in how much further it sets its sights in telling the tale of living versus dead, how much more it has to say about our world, and how expertly it tells it. How it grabs you with the visceral thrill of using MacGyvered tools of death and then whispers into your ear about questions of life, death and social hierarchy. Come for the bloodshed, stay for the philosophical enlightenment.
Dead Island oscillates between the conflicts of individuals and the conflicts of society, where the stark division between the Haves and Havenots is glaringly apparent.
Start with the game environment itself. Most zombie tales take a familiar setting and then subvert it. A shopping mall. A high school. A small town, or a big city. Places we inhabit every day without a thought. A subversion of these spaces is a reflection of ourselves and how we interact with others like us, but little more. To get a more complete view of ourselves, it’s necessary to to leave the world we have constructed around our Western needs and beliefs and see how we appear in the eyes of those without such beautiful lives. Dead Island sets out to do just that, oscillating between the conflicts of individual humans and the conflicts of the global society, where the stark division between the Haves and Havenots is glaringly apparent .
Instead of setting its story in one of the well-trodden structures of the Western World, Dead Island drops you into the less-familiar environs of a tropical resort, a place built for prosperous Westerners in the heart of an impoverished tropical wasteland. It then takes you to the third world shanty town just out of sight from the sculpted gardens of the resort, the place once inhabited by those who built your island paradise and served your vacationer’s whims. Next it takes you into the heart of the island itself, into the jungle wilderness, a place inhabited by natives, refugees and outcasts, before showing you the island’s hidden secret: the laboratory where a wholly different category of Western needs are tended through the harvesting of the secrets of the jungle’s natural bounty. Finally, your journey ends on an island detention center, where you learn the truth of Dostoyevsky’s assertion that the level of civilization in a society can be discerned by entering its prisons.
What you will learn on your journey into these spaces is that, in addition to the fact that zombies explode real good (and catch fire and electrify, etc.), the world outside the bounds of where we normally trod is pretty fucked up – and, for the most part, we helped make it that way. Yet even in the nooks and crannies where Western avarice hasn’t yet stained the culture of the native peoples, there’s still fucked up shit going on, because people, in general, are fucked up. We were fucked up before the zombies came and will be fucked up after they are gone. The wealthy white Westerners who lived and ate like kings will be the first to fall to the brain-eaters, the inhabitants of the island nation will contribute to their own ruin afterward. Even the natives, sheltered in their jungles fastness, will be revealed to have terrible hearts of darkness, contributing perhaps more than anyone else to the fucking of this once beautiful paradise. You will also learn that in the real world, it is often hard to tell the difference between the good guys and the bad, because, on some level, everyone is both.
Heady truths, to be sure, but what’s striking is not that these topics of conversation are included in a videogame, but how they are included. It’s possible to play the game in its entirety and remain blessedly unaware of some of the larger implications of its message. Instead of being painted in glaring colors, the lessons are artfully infused throughout the fabric of the game experience itself, woven in and around the activities you’d be doing anyway, even if you didn’t give a squat about global socio-economics.
Instead of being painted in glaring colors, the lessons are artfully infused throughout the fabric of the game experience itself.
You can’t ignore that the resort, with its spacious grounds and posh accommodations, is a much nicer place than the claustrophobic squalor of the city, but the game never comes right out and proclaims that this is due to the inherent inequality of global trade or the indiscriminate geographical dispersion of early man. The game isn’t waving a little red book in your face each time you lay waste to a motherfucking zombie in a motherfucking jungle, but if you feel like look looking deeper as you slay, the game’s intriguing social message is there, waiting.
Take, for example, the game’s four main characters. While distinctive and somewhat larger-than-life, they are not presented as the types of caricatures you’d expect to see in a videogame. They are real, fleshed-out people with all the layers of emotion and hidden motivations of any normal human being. Instead of super-human space marines, they are (in no particular order) a rap singer, an office worker, a security consultant and a former athlete. Each has a detailed and informative personal story, but none are in any way remarkable as characters in the way of traditional videogame clichés. Rather they are more like the tragic heroes of literature, each having wrestled with personal (if mundane) demons before finding themselves thrust into the role of savior and protector. And yet none of this is telegraphed. You don’t even have to know your character’s name or former occupation. You can just play “the big guy” or “the gun woman” and ignore the rest, unbothered by the psychological weight of your characters’ motivations.
This deft touch is also present the narrative, particularly with the events set into motion by the discovery of the secondary character Jin, whose father helps the game’s main characters fulfill one of their early missions before himself succumbing to the zombie virus. When Jin is later abducted, her rescue, while definitely the primary objective of one of the game’s key missions, is nevertheless underplayed, as if rescuing a woman held captive were not the storied, heroic act it has been portrayed to be since the earliest days of videogaming, but instead simply something that has to be done for the sake of doing it. That the main characters then treat Jin with barely-masked (and in some cases open) contempt for getting herself into her situation only adds to the impact of the game’s emotional artistry. Similarly, when Jin must face her zombie father, the event is allowed to unfold with a minimum of commentary and melodrama.
That Dead Island will largely be remembered for its design excellence and the sheer amounts of fun to be had with it is not a condemnation of the inclusion of a deeper meaning in the telling of its story, but rather a compliment to it.
It’s as if the game’s developers, in creating this world with all of the depth and complexity of our own, were nevertheless aware that most gamers couldn’t give a shit, and would rather get straight to the part where they get to beat zombies in the brain with a barbed-wire-wrapped, flaming baseball bat than waste time contemplating the implications of Western excess. That such statements regarding the state of the global economy are themselves presented within the context of a multi-million-dollar entertainment product to be consumed by the use of a highly-advanced technological creation, designed in the West and constructed in the third world and which, as a generous estimate, consumes approximately the same amount of electricity over the course of playing Dead Island as many homes in the developing world will consume in a year only extends the necessity of taking a light touch. Not to get all “meta,” but it’s important to keep the overall picture in mind.
That Dead Island will largely be remembered for its design excellence and the sheer amounts of fun to be had with it is not a condemnation of the inclusion of a deeper meaning in the telling of its story, but rather a compliment to it. In the grandest traditions of entertainment media, Techland has created a game that is engaging and fun, yet dares ask its players a few, well-chosen and very well formulated questions. Gamers and media critics asking themselves when videogames will take their rightful place in the hierarchy of meaningful entertainment would do well to notice.
Russ Pitts is the former Editor-in-Chief of The Escapist and the mastermind behind its domination of game-related web video. You can read his blog at Falsegravity.com and contribute to his embarrassing proclivity for social media experiments at About.Me/RussPitts