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If you cast your minds back all the way to 2014 you will remember the original Dead Island 2 trailer. The trailer showed a guy jogging along the L.A coast whilst the world descends into chaos behind him. On his run, he began to decay slowly becoming a zombie.
The trailer was incredibly iconic for a few reasons, but as we got further and further out from that initial trailer it began to feel like we would never see Dead Island 2.
Now, nearly ten years later and a couple false starts, Dead Island 2 is about to be released. In anticipation of the next chapter in this universe, we sat down with James Worrall, the Creative Director of Dead Island 2 to discuss everything from the characters, the location and why Deep Silver Dambuster Studios took on the project.
What made you decide to take on Dead Island 2 and the inspiration behind the project?
‘I think we could see the potential basically, it was a great trailer [the original 2014 Cinematic Trailer] and in a way some of the tonal shift was indicated in that trailer, the potential for taking it to Los Angeles, that was really the only thing we carried over was the location.
We saw potential in Los Angeles for telling stories, and framing an outbreak, making amazing locations. Everything else [was scrapped], so part of our pitch was building everything from the ground up, particularly the FLESH Engine, (Fully Locational Evisceration System for Humanoids) we thought what was a central part of the Dead Island franchise and we should try and allow that to sing.’
The FLESH Engine, L.A, the themes and the way the game is written is a funner take on Zombies, a subject matter that has become increasingly grim in recent years, was that part of your goal?
‘Absolutely, as you say there are a lot of zombie IPs (Intellectual Properties) out there, and they have become, well, grim, quite frankly. There are lots of zombie IPs out there that I respect creatively and I have enjoyed parts of them, but I find after a while you’re just grinding the same meat.
So the zombie outbreak itself, as a big fan of that kind of horror/sci-fi, I often find that a lot of the zombie IPs out there don’t tell me the stuff I am really interested in. Things like “where did it come from”, “how’re we going to deal with this”, “how do zombies think” that kind of thing, and all those questions are shoved to the side, the zombies become wallpaper, then it is all about how awful humans are, that we all deserve it and we’re a cancer on the Earth.
So, we made a decision early on to make it just about fighting zombies, the zombies are the bad guys, humans are the good guys and rather than scurrying around trying to survive all the time, we were going to come out as swaggering heroes, stride down the centre of the street, look cool and do some zombie slaying. That is what really appealed.’
You mentioned L.A earlier being the only thing you wanted to keep, were there challenges putting a unique spin on a city we have seen in games before?
‘I think the fact that it was going to be in contrast with the zombocalypse, use L.A to provide a solid foundation, a solid relatable foundation, and then paint a zombocalypse over the top of it. We made a decision early on that we would approach this through the Hollywood lens, kind of like a love letter to a cinematic Hollywood, or cinematic Los Angeles, if you see what I mean.
We thought it would keep that relevance for a worldwide audience. It doesn’t matter if you have been to L.A or not, most people have an idea of what L.A is all about, we wanted to conjure that up.
We made a decision to make L.A quite fresh, in the same way an infected human zombie is still quite fresh, we wanted the zombocalypse to have the same impact. It is still vibrant and colourful, but it has just happened.’
What were the pressures of coming into a pre-established franchise for the third game, or was that an enjoyable part of the challenge?
‘Dead Island has a really, really dedicated fan base, right? So the challenge does come with a responsibility. We were taking on the project after a couple of false starts, so there is added pressure. But, there was confidence in the team, we have a very talented creative team here. Once we honed what we were going to do down to its very essence, tested it out and knew it was going to work, there was quiet confidence all the time.
However, it’s been quite a hard trudge to keep going and not tell anybody about it all this time. I often use the analogy that it’s a bit like everyone else has their products, their fleet on the surface cruising along in the sunshine, whilst we have been this submarine that’s following everybody else’s announcements all this time, then at Gamescom we finally managed to break the surface and go “woo-hoo we are here”.
The reaction from the fans and gamers in general, there is a lot of love for the franchise, and they reacted really positively to what we showed. It’s nice to finally be able to talk about it.’
Was there a big sense of release, apologies, I meant relief once you got to announce it at Gamescom?
‘I think you’re right with release then relief, there was a bit of relief, but I think we were quietly confident with what we were making anyway. Finally being able to say “we’ve made this, this is our baby, here we go” and the response has been fabulous. So we have now moved to just above quietly confident.’
In terms of fans of the original games, what are you most looking forward to seeing about their reaction?
“When you’re revitalising an IP, it’s important you literally revitalise it. We wanted to make a big splash and you can’t just do that by doing the same thing again, it has to move on. Every first iteration of a game is a bit of an experiment, so there are elements that work really well, but others that perhaps you don’t need.
I am hoping that our belief of what is really important about Dead Island the franchise has been retained, but we have just added a twist, or a revitalising boost of energy and a slightly different perspective that will elevate the IP, to make it a proper next stage in the experience. Like I say, the feedback we have had so far is that we have managed that and obtained it.’
During my preview, I felt as though the characters felt more real this time around. I played as Amy for my preview, she felt like a genuine person where she does talk about her ambitions and what she aspired to be. How did you manage to capture that, despite this type of outlandish setting?
‘Thank you, well we have a great narrative team and it was quite a challenge to write six different [playable] characters that are going through exactly the same story. All of their dialogue needs to fit, but we still managed to be the pessimist, the optimist, the cocky overconfident type, the determined type. Amy is much more of an even killed determined type.
Sometimes people see humour as comedy, but that wasn’t what we were going for. What we were aiming for was the level of humour that a confident, swaggering, zombie-slaying hero might have and how they use that humour to face adversity.
It also gave us the ability to contrast with the moments where you’re really meant to care, where you suddenly realise “oh actually, on the surface I thought this NPC was a bit of a jerk, but now they’re dead I actually quite miss them” and you realise that is how we make friends in real life.
In real life characters don’t bump against each other and go “you must like me because of this” and then “I do like you because of this”, it’s about learning their quirks and their vulnerabilities and their idiocies as well, that helps you fall in love with characters and care.’
You mentioned the challenge was getting the six playable characters through the same story, so is there no deviation at all with the story. It remains the same?
There is no deviation with events, and what the NPCs will say, yet there is deviation with how, and this is the clever bit if I might blow the narrative team’s trumpet, it’s getting their [the characters] different perspectives. So it may be that one character might notice something, or react to something in a way that makes [the player think] “huh”, so you then go off and look at something else.
We have put an awful lot of effort into, not just varying the character type, but also giving little windows into the world building and what may be going on.”
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That is impressive getting six different characters and personalities through a singular narrative. Do you have a favourite out of the six?
‘Well I wrote one of the characters, I won’t say which one it was, and I am pretty proud with how they turned out. I played the game with all of the characters, and something I found was that replaying the game with a character that hadn’t really jumped out at me beforehand worked really well. I found that there were subtleties, and differences to how they approach the world and how they fit into the world that really worked.
Combine that with the slight difference with how the skill card unlock for each character – so towards the end of the game will have access to all the skill cards – but at the beginning they start of with two skill cards that give them a little edge in one or two ways, and the way they actually unlock is slight different for each character so you get a slightly different approach to the world. I just find that the way that the characters are written, reflects their playstyles as well. It’s just really rewarding.
I found myself, because normally I would be the kind of nimble, ninja, stay out of trouble, dashing, dodge kind of player and then when I started playing some of the more tanky styles, I realised “I have been missing so much of this game” because all of a sudden you’re right up in the fight with all the gore in your face, as you’re not always avoiding stuff, it’s all there [in front of you] and I found that really rewarding.
This may seem like a mealy-mouthed response, but no I don’t really have a favourite because I have learned to love the uniqueness of each of the characters, I think we have done a good job.
We don’t have a lot of time left but can you discuss what is next after you ship Dead Island 2?
April 21st is launch day. We are really excited, obviously the response we have had from the press, journalists like yourself, has been really uplifting. So we are pretty confident, really excited and yes of course there will be more in the future, but we won’t be talking about it right now.
A huge thanks to James Worrall for answering our questions. Dead Island 2 will be released very soon on April 21st.
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