Dead Island Promised The World, and Falls (Predictably) Short

Geek Culture

Dead Island may have turned out to be a middle-tier game, but I’ve enjoyed the hoopla and conversations that it’s inspired.

In case you missed it, this is the game that came to fame through a CGI trailer depicting a little girl falling prey to a Zombie disease and then attacking her dad — rough watching for parents, but also evocative and intriguing. People responded differently to it, but it was obviously an effective vehicle to publicize the game — I found it a bit unsettling and Z appreciated the filmic grammar it drew on.

The game is now out and, having been inundated by comments (mostly disparaging) on my Dead Island trailer article, I decided to measure the game by the criteria I laid out back then — did it deliver on the promises it made with its controversial and effective trailer?

My argument, although this seemed to be unclear to most responders, was not that Dead Island‘s trailer suggested it would be a bad (ethically, not mechanically) game but rather than it promised more than I suspected it would be able to deliver. My fear was not of the effect it may have on family gamers, but rather that it would not be able to engage in an ongoing fashion with the themes of loss, protection, impotency and family that it had started.

Getting started with Dead Island, I had a pang of excitement at the prospect of it turning out to actually address the substantive issues touched on in the trailer. On the face of it there was no reason why this wouldn’t be true. The technology and delivery is surely based more on the will to tell a story beyond the horror and violence than on technical prowess or budgets (take Jason Rohrer‘s diminutive and thought provoking games like Passage for instance).

Dead Island

As I played on I enjoyed the rhythm of scavenging and combat. Dead Island creates an atmosphere that is both imposing and horrific — in a good way. There is real craft in the creation of the world that although based on much lower tech, easily measures up to the quirky inventiveness of Grand Theft Auto or Red Dead Redemption. This is a once lived-in but now deserted holiday space that keeps the collapse of leisure and fun into the terrifying infection ever-present in your mind.

Others will want to pick holes in some of this. Many of the missions are repetitive, and the control and movement of the characters feels approximate at best. The combat itself often feels lifeless as you struggle to land head blows or maneuver into the correct proximity to connect. Dead Island is comprehensive, but after the initial rush of the zombies and expansive world it soon becomes a bit of a chore.

Dead Island

However, my criticism lies elsewhere. I’m quite happy to forgive Dead Island for its mechanical foibles — after all, it creates a hugely impressive world and threads you through it with copious amounts of things to do. No, my problem is the game’s oblivious nature to the promises made in its trailer.

The ideas Dead Island’s marketing put on the table were very emotional, evocative and exciting — and, more than that, they were issues that gaming is very well-equipped to address. But rather than attempting to deliver on these promises and then failing, they didn’t even take a shot.

One day a game will grapple with the real stuff of life for real, and that day (to quote Mr. Beede again) will be a very exciting day for us all.

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