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After the Apocalypse: A Dead Island Retrospective

Russ Pitts | 18 Nov 2011 09:00
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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.

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