This discussion of Dead Island contains several major spoilers of the game’s main plot points. You have been warned.
After all of the buzz following the release of its often maligned, but more often admired trailer (see below), I have cynically assumed that Dead Island, as a game, would probably not share the emotional weight of said trailer. And I was more or less right.
While Dead Island plays exceptionally well (even in spite of its bugs), takes most of its plot points quite seriously, and even tells an okay story, it doesn’t present the most emotionally resonant storytelling (except maybe when you’re tensing up in fear as a fast zombie charges at you).
Some of the problem of storytelling in the game relates to the game’s design as a multiplayer co-op zombie hack. The player takes on the role of one of four survivors that are (as the trailer’s Lost-esque aesthetic maybe telegraphs) very much in the Lost vein. They are an ethnically diverse group of attractive people that all have some troubling problems in their past that now have to learn to “live together or die alone,” I guess. Since other players can drop in and out of the game playing as one of the other playable characters, the game tends to (very much unlike Lost) not really delve too much into these characters as individuals.
Barring the initial backgrounding of each character at the launch screen to clarify that said troubled past exists, we never get any flashbacks that flesh out these individuals. Cutscenes in the present treat the protagonists as a collective identity, since one or more players may be engaging in any said mission. Thus, all of these scenes make it appear (even if you play through in single player), as if the group has fought together throughout the game and is making decisions together.
Most of these moments simply emphasize general character traits (Purna is tough as nails, Logan is callous, Sam B is a cynic, Xian Mei is a bit compassionate, etc.), but there is little else that we learn about the characters beyond their general dispositions. They aren’t terrible characters per se. You just don’t feel as if you know them and, thus, care much about them as people.
However, these are certainly not the only survivors in the plot, nor are they the only survivors that spend a lot of time in the spotlight. Most notably, Jin, a young woman whose father has been infected and who knows that he will soon be joining the ranks of the zombie hordes, is taken under the grudging wing of the group as a favor to the aforementioned father, who doesn’t want his daughter to become his victim when the infection kicks in.
If Purna, Logan, Sam B, and Xian Mei don’t have tons of personality, they, of course, serve a gameplay role. Each one is merely a vehicle for guns, knives, and sledgehammers that can blast, carve, and bludgeon undead flesh. Likewise, Jin’s most immediately obvious role is gameplay-related. She becomes a storage vessel for the group to store all of their extra equipment “in.”
With a limited inventory system but the ability to collect and upgrade weapons (think Diablo, or maybe more appropriately given its FPS-like perspective, Borderlands), Jin serves a necessary support role for a hack ‘n slash looting game. Every zombie hunter needs a pack mule.
Usually such hack ‘n slash games represent storage as, well, storage—a big chest that you dump your cool sword in that you will power up later, once you find the gems to do so, or whatever. However, Jin becomes a kind of an explanatory tool for the “narrative” of gear collection. As, in aforementioned games, it is always strange that when changing locations, that chest with all your goodies suddenly arrives at the tavern that you are stopping over in before crawling a new dungeon. So, while Jin doesn’t accompany the player on their zombie hunts and fetch quests, she changes locations with them on a boat, for example, that has facilitated a setting or scene change. The additional benefit for the game’s narrative is that here is an individual outside of the collective identity of the playable character(s) that maybe can support a character arc, some character development beyond that which is archetypal.
The weird thing is that this “supply chest” bears not only the weight of the weapons and upgradable materials of the protagonists, but also the weight of the plot. All of the games dramatic moments (most of which are chiefly traumatic ones), the ones that carry the most potential for emotional evocation, are ones involving what is “placed upon” Jin.
It is Jin grappling with the fact that her father is infected and she will be losing him soon. It is Jin who is raped by looters in the city of Moresby. It is Jin who finds herself compelled to “put down” her father so that he doesn’t have to live as a monster. It is Jin who is sacrificed at the end of the plot for the sake of a dramatic ending.
All of these plot points can’t really be smeared across the collective, I guess. It may be that the assumption is that the player doesn’t want to feel victimized, since they are playing one of the “badasses.” It also is admittedly true that some of these plot points would not work if they were assigned to a playable character (the rape, for instance, occurs when Jin is separated from the group, who have to come get her—none of the playable characters can easily “sit out” during these missions, for the sake, of a unified play experience). Whatever the reason, Jin becomes the central victim of the plot and even that victimization seems like something more that she is saddled with than it seems like an exploration of the emotional consequences of experiencing horrors.
The rape, for instance, is somewhat reminiscent of the game’s trailers treatment of emotional provocation. The trailer was certainly willing to go to a very dark place, witnessing the death of and infection of a child and the general destruction of a family by zombies. As I said, Dead Island takes its plot points seriously. This isn’t a story that takes using zombie mayhem as a vehicle for some chuckles (as Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead, or Dead Rising do). However, “going there” is about as far as the trailer goes. The visceral horror of the circumstances are it. There will be no exploration of coping with the consequences of such horror.
Admittedly, it’s a trailer, so it needs to provoke us and move on. However, the rape sequence in the game more or less does the same thing, and a 25-hour game has loads of time to tell a story or return to a plot point at a later time. The rape “goes there” by implying heavily that something bad was done by the looters to Jin, but going no further than having the realization of that trauma shut Logan up (who, at the time, is angry at her “for running off on her own”). Ironically, for a game so concerned with expressions of violence, it is a bit timid about even using the word “rape.”
So, the issue is dead following this acknowledgment of something horrific happening to a survivor; no emotional aftermath is ever explored or considered (admittedy, Purna tells us that Jin is nervous about being left alone with the violent criminals that have taken over a prison in a later scene—this does not seem an unreasonable nervousness for anyone to feel given the circumstances, though, regardless of their prior experience with violence). It is just more baggage for Jin to carry and for the player to forget about once it is out of sight.
Oddly, what may be an unexpected consequence of a bug in Jin, as a storage container (not as a character), may speak more to “loss and pain” than the plot ever does. The game allows a player who has completed the full story arc to restart at the beginning all leveled up and with full inventory. Apparently, though, anything left with Jin will not be there when the player encounters her again. The consequences of Jin’s death at the close of the game are maybe best represented by this absence, this loss of “phat loot” to players more engaged with effective zombie evisceration than with the emotional sophistication to handle horror in a potentially more mature way than horror games usually do that many felt was teased at by the game’s infamous trailer.
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