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After the Apocalypse: A Dead Island Retrospective

Russ Pitts | 18 Nov 2011 09:00
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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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