If You Can’t Help Me, Just Die: Survival in ‘Dead Island’

Sam B fends off zombies in Dead Island (Deep Silver, 2011)

Dead Island is old-school survival-horror game, a subgenre that seems to have largely disappeared from the medium with the ascension of the action-horror game.

Dead Island

Platforms: XBox 360
Developer: Deep Silver
ESRB Rating: Mature
Number of players: 4
Release Date: 2011-09-06

Dead Island is a classic kind of horror game. It's one that encourages: running over fighting, hoarding over spending, exploration over linearity. It’s old-school survival-horror, mechanically, narratively, and thematically, but with just enough of a modern twist on the formula to avoid feeling dated.


The combat strikes a precise balance between zombie strength and zombie health. They can kill you easily, but they also die easily. The Runners -- the most dangerous enemy in the early parts of the game -- can kill you in just a couple hits, but they themselves will die if you cut off a single limb. As I wrote in a previous article: “This balance allows the player the feel like a badass one second while he’s decapitating the undead, and a quivering coward the next second after he gets hit once, nearly dies, and flees…Dead Island has its horror both ways: It evokes the survivalist fear of old-school horror with the sense of personal strength of modern action-horror” ("The Paradox of Modern Horror: Staying Alive", PopMatters, 21 October 2011).

That balance also has a major effect on the pace of the game. Since you can die so easily, sometimes it’s best to avoid fighting altogether, and since zombies are naturally slow, it’s not hard to run past them. In this way, the game de-emphasizes combat as a means of survival. Fighting is inherently life threatening, so it should only be used as a last resort. This allows for some classic zombie-movie moments to emerge during your play: you’re running from zombies only to get stuck at a dead end with a horde behind you, you run from one zombie right into another, you jump to any elevated surface for safety (car, van, dumpster, etc) and end up stuck with no easy way out. If you were a more competent zombie killer, moments like these wouldn’t be as exciting or frightening as they are in the game. Unlike action-horror games, Dead Island isn’t built to emphasize combat even though you do a lot of it; the game is about survival, and combat is the last, desperate means of survival.

The focus on melee combat is also a classic trait of survival-horror. The game forces you to get up close to your enemy, to fight face-to-face. Such intimate combat with an enemy is something that we naturally want to run from, making all combat more uncomfortable. Normally, uncomfortable combat in horror games stems from awkward controls. For the most part, Dead Island controls well. There are various subtle assists that the game offers to make you more accurate, which in turn makes combat easier while keeping it uncomfortable and dangerous. But when it comes to guns, Dead Island is classically frustrating: The reticule sways a lot when you’re aiming, making it extremely difficult to hit anything at a medium or long distance. However, this awkwardness doesn’t damn Dead Island like it should because these controls stem from a very specific player choice.

At the beginning of the game, we get to choose a character, and only one character out of the four is a firearms expert. By not choosing her, the player willingly gives up the ability to use guns with any effectiveness. By giving players a choice, Dead Island is able to evoke the clumsy gunplay associated with survival-horror in a way that doesn’t reflect badly on the rest of the game.

(Of course, if players do choose the gun specialist, the game must acquiesce to this demand and make guns effective. This makes Dead Island less of a survival-horror game, but the fact that it allows the player to somewhat tailor the experience for themselves makes it a better game overall.)

Survival horror is also about exploring unsettling environments. What’s Resident Evil without the mansion? What’s Silent Hill without the hospital? Dead Island creates its own iconic environment with the Palms Resort Hotel. Like all great horror stories, the game takes a familiar and comforting location and twists it into something nightmarish: beach blankets splattered with blood, swimming pools filled with bodies, etc. By reappropriating the relaxing imagery of a beach resort, Dead Island makes its world scarier. This supposed safe haven is anything but safe.

Once it establishes a scary world, Dead Island is able to use RPG mechanics to support its horror. The quests we accept force us to explore every nook and cranny of the world. This RPG-like structure allows the developer to tailor a series of quests in such a way as to to ensure that we see (or at least pass by) every bloody set piece on the map. The loot mechanic pushes us even further with the tantalizing promise of a new weapon. These systems encourage us to take risks that we wouldn’t normally take. At some point, your inventory will get filled up and you’ll have to decide if it’s time to head back to base or if you really want to keep looking for one more weapon crate.

That forced inventory management is another staple of survival-horror that Dead Island handles particularly well. You spend a lot of time collecting and upgrading weapons. However, your weapons degrade over time and must be maintenanced on a regular basis. This means that you must keep track of each weapon’s status. When one gets too damaged, you switch to another. You’re constantly managing your weapon status. On top of that, weapons level up with you, so as you explore, you’ll find better blades and clubs and must decide what to keep and what to throw away. It’s not uncommon to find a good weapon and struggle with this decision.

It’s important that we only have to manage our weapon inventory. Crafting items and quest items don’t count towards our overall inventory limit. This removes much potential frustration. We’re okay with sacrificing a good weapon for another good weapon, but we’re never okay with sacrificing a good weapon for a useless quest item that we’ll inevitably lose once we complete the quest. We only manage what matters in Dead Island.

Dead Island (Deep Silver, 2011) reappropriates spaces of safety and relaxation for the sake of horror

Narrative and Themes

What makes Dead Island a pure survival-horror game isn’t its adherence to specific mechanics, but something far simpler. At its core, it’s game about survival in a horror setting. Survival is an overall theme represented in the quests and overarching plot.

A common criticism of Dead Island is that most of its quests are fetch quests, but within its fiction, the fetch quest is important because it relates directly to the game’s larger theme of survival. Everywhere that you go, every group of survivors has a list of things that they want you get, ranging from necessary items like food, water, gas, and guns to comfort items like alcohol, teddy bears, and personal mementos. Their survival, physical and mental, depends on you, and the quest structure reinforces this idea.

The game loses its focus later on, once you meet the scientists. You’re still doing fetch quests, but now you’re looking for research information, extraneous stuff that doesn’t help your (or others’) moment-to-moment survival. It’s here that the game gets too caught up in the fetch quest structure that it forgets why such quests matter. Thankfully, the game remembers for the final area, the prison.

The prison is an interesting place because it contains the one fetch quest that you’re forced to fail. At one point, you’re asked to find a stash of guns, but all the weapons are gone by the time that you get there. This leaves the populace helpless, and when the zombies inevitably attack, everyone dies. Your failure directly relates to their death, it’s a moment that showcases just how much the others rely on you for their survival.

Yet for as much as they rely on you, you don’t rely on them at all, and to the game’s credit, the characters acknowledge this imbalance. Early in the game, the four protagonists realize that they’ll never escape the island if they try to save everyone, so they quickly decide to focus on their own survival, which means abandoning the others as soon as possible. The team only accepts Jin into their group because she offers very specific benefits, both in terms of narrative and in terms of gameplay, fast travel and storage space. It’s telling that Jin dies at the very end of the game, just when her services are no longer needed. The moment that she becomes more of a hindrance than a help, she’s disposable.

Meanwhile, other characters seemingly less important, like the native woman, still have their uses. She has her use as a potential vaccine, so she’s allowed to live. It’s important to notice that the one prisoner to survive is the one piloting the helicopter. He must have a use, a clear role to play, otherwise, there’s no point for him to be three. Of course, he’s really just there to leave room for a sequel, since this is a guy who has dealt with terrorists and had access to zombie virus samples and whatnot, but it’s interesting that the developers still felt the need to make him relevant to the current situation. Thus, he’s the pilot. Anyone that can’t help the player must die.

The game’s use of violence adds to the brutal survivalism of the world as well. Dead Island finds the perfect balance between Resident Evil and Silent Hill, that is to say, between explicit violence and implied violence. The visuals of death are everywhere, constantly driving home the idea of what happens if you don’t survive: not just a death, but a violent, gruesome death.

It’s a very bloody, very violent game, but its use of violence is never exploitative. There’s no super gratuitous shot of someone’s guts spilling out, as there might be in an action horror title like Dead Space. The specter of death is treated with serious fear, not glee, because the violence here has context and consequence. Those consequences are where the implied violence comes in, the blood stains and blood trails, the many bodies, the unattended luggage, and even the gory bodies of the zombies themselves. Clearly, something horrible happened here and you’re late to the party. We mostly just see the aftermath of a zombie attack, which leaves our imaginations free to write the scenario themselves, which will naturally be tailored to our individual fears.

The context is where the explicit violence comes in. Zombies are brutal, unrelenting enemies, and the only way to deal with them is to be brutal and unrelenting in return. Cutting off their limbs is gory but this gore isn’t exploitative because it has a tactical purpose. We’re disarming them (pun intended), taking away their weapons. We commit acts of extreme violence because it’s the best way to survive in this world. In this way, Dead Island weds horror and survival in a way that most games don’t consider, as two things intrinsically linked. To survive in the resort, we commit the very acts of horror that leave those disturbing blood trails across the world. There’s a cyclical nature to it, allowing us to be horrified by our own violent acts of survival. But if that’s what it takes, "so be it", says Dead Island.

The game is at its best when it strikes a perfect and precarious balance between violence and support, offering up zombies and health packs in equal measure. It fails when some aspect goes out of balance, like in the city of Moresby, in which there are far more zombies than health items. Here, it can feel like the game is ganging up on you and your death is unfair. Thankfully, Moresby is the outlier in Dead Island. In the rest of the game, death feels fair, as long as you’re willing to abandon friends for your own survival that is. Despite its co-op mode, Dead Island pits you, and only you, against the world. Now that's survival-horror at its finest.


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