The Tales Dead Men Don’t Tell

Remember Dead Island? Maybe you saw the award-winning trailer some months back. Internet audiences were captivated by its short, strangely affecting story of a family torn apart by zombies (both literally and figuratively). The reviews coming out now, of course, paint a picture of a game pretty unlike that singularly remarkable advertisement, and the comparisons aren’t really favorable. Dead Island’s ad seemed to promise something new that the game itself wasn’t prepared to deliver, something that developers still have yet to make a reality, something that gamers and even broader audiences are still hoping to see – and it isn’t just an especially emotional zombie game.

Over at Kotaku, Kirk Hamilton offers a fairly comprehensive round-up of critics’ comparisons between the game and its trailer, and some thoughtful consideration of why so many seemed so let down. What was so special about this situation that it should provoke such strong reactions? It is, after all, just an ad, and everybody knows by now that cinematic game commercials typically have little to do with the actual gameplay experience. Why get so worked up about the game being different? Kirk hazards a guess:

The trailer was well-made and engaging; it channeled a hugely popular TV series (Lost) and it showed a little girl getting brutally murdered as her mother looked on. But I think the real reason for the trailer’s impact was that it promised us something that, as it turned out, we wanted very badly.

We may not have known it at the time, but I think we want a zombie game that is tragic and sad, action-packed and tense, full of loss and emotional catharsis. We want a game to make us tear up, to show us impossible loss, to make [us] come to terms with the actual risks and small but human costs of a deadly viral outbreak. Brilliantly, manipulatively, the Dead Island trailer promised us that, and our desire to see our wish fulfilled outweighed our skepticism. It was fun to believe that maybe, just maybe, this game would be different from the others.

I think he’s close, but not quite there. As Tom Bissell writes at Grantland, “There is, anyway, only one story worth telling in a zombie game, and here it is: See those zombies over there? You should probably get away from them.” Sure, on a thematic level, zombies represent all kinds of metaphors about consumerism or our inherent primal nature or whatever – but at the end of the day, the plots tend to be pretty much the same.

I don’t think the world is specifically clamoring for the most emotional zombie story ever. Rather, I think we just want more games that tell stories worth caring about at all, told in a way we haven’t seen in so many other games already. Dead Island looked like it might be one of those games, and it wasn’t.

Big-budget video games with complex narratives are still pretty dominated by the genres typically associated with geeks and young men: science-fiction, fantasy, and horror, with the more “realistic” end of the spectrum occupied by gangsters, soldiers, and cowboys. Think back to the most acclaimed stories in video gaming and see if you can come up with one that doesn’t fit into one of those subsets. Mass Effect, Bioshock, Deus Ex, Fallout, Shadow of the Colossus, the Final Fantasy series, and even the Uncharted games end up at something fantastical by the end. (Honorable mentions go to anything published by Rockstar, though I wonder if it’s no coincidence that they have more mainstream appeal and also come up less often in the “games that made me cry” conversations.)

These are, of course, not exclusively the domain of geeks; they’re also the blockbuster genres of Hollywood action movies. Hollywood, however, has also managed to make some stirring dramatic content in other genres. In video games, if you want drama and high audiovisual production values, you pretty much have to accept that the story’s also going to have wizards, space marines, or – sure, what the heck? – zombies. I imagine that “an emotional story about zombies” must have been seriously enticing for some of the people ogling that trailer, but I think it was too explosively popular for that to be all that was going on.

This is what I think happened: We almost got a rare taste of what we keep insisting video games can be. Meaningful. Emotional. Thought-provoking. Artful. And – this is key – different. The trailer made us wonder if it would be different not just in its story, but in gameplay, each component complementing the other.

When was the last time you saw a major console release that told a grand story and really played differently? The first title that comes to mind for me is Heavy Rain – a deeply flawed title to be sure, but so much broader in its story, in its scenes, in the ways that you could interact with its world, than perhaps any of its peers. Other games map one or two constantly repeated actions to each button – press RT to shoot, X to reload, A to jump, over and over again – but Heavy Rain had us cradling a baby to sleep, searching a crime scene for clues, escaping a car in a wrecker. The controls didn’t always work very well, but the approach meant that we got a real story rather than the same action scene played out over and over again in different settings. No wonder that so many who saw Dead Island’s trailer speculated that it might be Heavy Rain with zombies” – we haven’t really seen other games attempt any story with quite so much range in emotion and content, successful or otherwise. We expected something more than another game about whacking monsters with blunt instruments.

I don’t think we can really hold it against Techland for not meeting our expectations with Dead Island. It’s a rare developer that can risk a AAA console release that bears practically no resemblance to any known genre of gameplay. After all, it’s something of a truism among critics and developers that a game with a good story but cruddy gameplay isn’t worth playing, whereas a game with a cruddy story can still be playable. And it sounds like Dead Island is playable, at least.

I think it’s worth noting, though, that so many of us really hoped for this to be that other game, that special and different game. There’s an audience waiting for this, and I suspect that the developer who finally pulls it off will be celebrated and imitated for years to come – with or without the zombies.