There is a moment early in the first act of Dead Island that sums up most of this bizarre, almost zen-like zombie-hunting experience of a game. You are driving your character towards an ominously dark tunnel when a woman on the side of the road flags you down. If you get out of the car and go to speak with her, she exasperatedly explains that her car turned over and her husband is still stuck inside. You are then given the option to complete the quest displayed to you on a pen and paper your character conveniently remembered when leaving the house to go slaughter zombies and scavenge for supplies.
If you accept, you walk several feet to the car and start to pry off the jammed door before you are beset by several of the shrieking and sprinting variety of the undead—known as “the infected”—which pummel and chew at you in a blind rage until you put them out of their misery. Once they’re dead, you return to opening the car door and finally succeed in wresting the man from underneath. The wife thanks you profusely, and opens the trunk to invite you to take some of their supplies.
This type of random encounter is standard in open-world games such as Dead Island, and it is scripted and performed well enough that it feels natural. As you explore the vast and beautiful terrain that makes up the game’s resort beaches, ravaged cities, and jungles, you periodically hear calls for help from the stranded and helpless. You can make the choice to stop and intervene when you see a group of zombies pounding on the door of a boarded up house, or simply continue on your way.
Compare this to a random encounter in Fallout 3, another open-world, post-apocalyptic game. When making the long and contemplative walks between the different towns and ruins of the game, you frequently run across people less equipped to survive the harsh and Hobbesian landscape. Once I came across a family being held prisoner by a group of raiders I had just killed (in self-defense, I assure you). With the mother looking directly at me and imploring me for help, the game gave me a choice: take the family’s supplies and leave them to certain death, or set them free and gain nothing from the altercation just suffered with the raiders. At that point, my character was burnt out and wounded, my weapons were falling apart in my hands, and I had little to no money. The choice was mine, and considering how frequently I try to always pursue the “good” path in such a game, it disturbed me how long I sat there weighing the two options.
The dramatic and ultimately ludic lure of the post-apocalypse is a Heidegerrian fantasy of unabashed solipsism; it imagines a world devoid of structure, leaving the player with the sole ability to redefine ethics, morality, and ultimately society. Dead Island gestures to this early in the second act of the game, when a nun who is trying to care for survivors hiding in a church expresses her ambivalence over your generosity: “I don’t know if you’re here to save the world, or bring it down.”
It turns out you can’t do either. Playing through Dead Island, I am not struck by how expansive the world is, a detail that seems to captivate many of its more positive critics. This praise, if anything, puzzles me when normally thoughtful publications like Kotaku spend their entire review talking about how big the game is. We don’t normally laud films or albums simply for being very long. If anything, we’re usually more wary of entertainment that asks us to invest more of our time into it, a cultural disposition that thinkers such as game designer Jonathan Blow argues gamers still need to develop as a community.
What I’m struck by is how little you really can do in Dead Island. Yes, you can kill zombies. Many, many, zombies. And you can kill them in a number of spectacular ways, with home-made weaponry, up-close and personal to see their heads pop off under the heel of your boot or far away with a number of customizable throwing knives and firearms. There are some wonderfully intense, visceral experiences here. When you face off bitterly with the last zombie in a group that just attacked you, circling just far enough away to keep your distance without attracting more attention as your character wheezes heavily to regain stamina, you feel exhausted and invigorated.
These moments hinge on a primal, instinctual sense of survival that can seize you when playing Dead Island. Much of the item-hunting and inventory management adds to the persuasiveness of this desperation, as you find yourself wondering grimly what load out will actually help you stay alive until you can find a way to repair your weapons again. Hunting through piles of discarded suitcases and food cartons left to rot on the side of the road gives the environment a frightening sense of detail.
But imagine how different a game Dead Island would be if that moment on the side of the road was changed. What if you were given the choice not just to accept or reject the quest, but to take the woman’s keys either by deception or force, and leave her and her husband alone on the side of the road? What moved me in the moment from Fallout 3 was how powerfully it depicted the destruction and desperation of the world these characters inhabited, a sense so profound it pushes even the gamer to question their own moral and ethical choices in the game world.
You can fault games with a skewed or simplistic morality system, but at least they attempt to show some effect of the player’s actions. In Dead Island, nothing you do has consequences beyond improving your character’s experience and weapons loadout. Quests lie open until you find the time to finish them, and when you do, little changes besides the check mark on your journal. Items and zombies alike regenerate as soon as you leave an area, characters come and go only to ask you for mundane and frustrating favors. And this is ignoring the tremendous amount of bugs and glitches it was released with that either make the game impossibly difficult (why on earth do bottles of liquor go straight to your weapon load-out, leaving you suddenly plastered in the middle of a fight?) to the game-breakingly easy (try knocking a “thug” zombie over and punching his arms with your fists for a surprise). As the title of the one of the main quests, ”To Kill Time,” demonstrates, this isn’t a game where every moment feels unique, or even particularly interesting.
Part of this is the constraint Techland had in designing Dead Island to be available for cooperative play—it is difficult to meaningfully impact the story and environment when players have to be able to join each other’s games whenever they want. But the consequence is a flimsy story and increasingly repetitive gameplay. Without any incentive to actually interact with the game’s characters or environments in a meaningful way, play quickly shifts to mindless gear-hunting and leveling up—the exaggerated flaws of an MMO like World of Warcraft without the larger community of gamers with which to interact.
Experiencing Dead Island ultimately feels more like flipping through an artist’s sketchbook than playing a full-fledged game. The numbers of damage and experience flying off of the zombies as you fight strand out like scribbled notes and eraser marks in the margins. It is a beautiful and expansive universe, but it is one that is incomplete.