It has been a tough year for Techland, the Polish developer behind Dead Island. In July, the company released the miserable Call of Juarez: The Cartel, which is, ethical questions aside, roughly as invigorating as taking a tranquilizer dart to the jugular. I came to Dead Island with considerable wariness, then. I also came to Dead Island wanting very much to love it. Two of my favorite video games are Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising,1 both of which, like Dead Island, involve zombies. Neither Left 4 Dead nor Dead Rising has much of a story, and neither game needs one. 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.
Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising are very different games. The almost perfect simplicity of Left 4 Dead allows the player to charge through environments dynamically designed for multiplayer experiences, with the added fun of an internal A.I. "director" tweaking the environmental variables so that no two runs through Left 4 Dead are ever exactly the same. The game is all about the pure adrenaline thrill of first-person-shooting your way through bad odds. Conversely, the third person and more RPG-ish Dead Rising is harder, weirder, and far more challenging, with weapons that degrade so quickly they seem made of chalk and an absolutely uncompromising mission structure. The clock is always running in Dead Rising. If you fail to finish certain important story-furthering missions within the time the game gives you, too bad, and the game just ends. Unlike nearly every video game manufactured in the past decade, it is quite possible to spend six or seven hours playing Dead Rising and be forced by some time-management blunder to start all over again. That does not sound like much fun, I know, and it wasn't much fun, truth be told. So what was it? Absorbing. Upsetting. Tense. Scary. Everything, in other words, a zombie game should be.
Left 4 Dead's weapons don't degrade, but the game can be positively miserly when it comes to ammunition and health packets, which is what gives Left 4 Dead a large part of its inimitable jolt. Dead Rising's combat is based upon the fact that just about every object found in the game can be used as a weapon. All of this is to say that scarcity is an important aspect of the apocalyptic zombie game. If the player feels too well equipped, the apocalyptic aspect recedes. If the player feels too powerful, the zombie aspect recedes. In Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising, we see two underlying gameplay systems — one simple, one complicated — achieving a similar emotional effect through different though equally appropriate means. They are games that know exactly what they are about and exactly the type of experience they want to give you.
In this respect, Dead Island is a goddamned mess. Know that I was not expecting Dead Island to have an involving story (it does not) or any interesting characters (they are vile), though I was worried — accurately, it turns out — that it would try its hand at providing both. What I did expect from Dead Island, at the very least, was a viscerally diverting few hours of chopping up and running from zombies. And it did give me that, to some extent. What I did not expect from Dead Island — and what it doggedly, depressingly, and finally infuriatingly provides — is an experience woefully bound up in a concept that only recently leapt the transom of academic gamer discourse and is now being pondered in corporate boardrooms around the world. I speak of Gamification.
Gamification" is a little like postmodernism in that no one really knows whether it is primarily a practice, a stance, an era, or a diagnosis. Equally uncertain is whether it is a perilous thing, a potentially positive thing, or a drear and lamentable thing. Gamification, most basically, involves the constant, subtle incentivizing of everyday life, often in a digital or technological manner. If you go for a jog in your Nikes, say, a chip in your shoe posts how many calories you burned on your Facebook page. Obviously, some version of this shit has been around for a long time. Happy Hour is a primitive form of Gamification. (So are, for that matter, paychecks and military rankings.) But the specific use of numbers and seemingly actionable data in modern Gamification schemes is quite a bit younger. It turns up as early as the founding of Weight Watchers in 1963 and the launching of Dungeons & Dragons — which Gamified the ancient art of campfire storytelling — a decade later. (And now I am wondering if there is not some connection to be made between the two. Never trust a slender Dungeon Master, as I have always said.)
The writer, academic, and game designer Jesse Schell gave a talk at a 2010 game-industry conference in which he laid out the many ways in which Gamification is poised to invade modern life, largely through Facebook and other social-media platforms. In the talk, Schell imagined a future world in which we might get achievement points for doing things like brushing our teeth or working out. A lot of people, including the esteemed game thinker Ian Bogost, have since recoiled in horror from this future,2 but others have proved more enthusiastic proponents of Gamification. Probably the most prominent of these is Jane McGonigal, whose book Reality Is Broken makes the argument that games have become so enticing precisely because real life is so comparatively drab. Anyone who finds real life lacking when compared to video games has basically given up on life. (Believe me: I know.) That is certainly sad. What it is not is any kind of a solution.
So what does Gamification have to do with Dead Island? A lot. Dead Island is a video game that essentially destroys itself through the devices and enticements of Gamification. You might ask, "How can a video game be ruined by the kinds of systems video games are primarily responsible for unleashing upon the world?" I realize this sounds paradoxical. But consider this: World of Warcraft is, by any measure, the most popular video game in history. The game is systemically based upon three pillars: customization, randomness, and looting. The more you customize, the better you can control the randomness. The more you loot (and then customize), the better you can control the randomness. In WoW, every player runs around, randomly initiating encounters, the outcomes of which they have looted and customized to better control. All the while the WoW motherbrain is rolling its internal 20-sided die and determining the fates of its players. Millions of people consider this fun. I am not one of them, but I have played enough lower-octane RPGs to know that there is some enjoyment to be had in customizing a character to mitigate video-game randomness. The part of me that enjoys this is also a part of me for which I have no real use.
Of course, we have Dungeons & Dragons to thank for these fictional experiences overtly governed by statistics, in which you roll to see if you hit the Quickling, evade the whirlpool, slay the Boalisk. The 20-sided die was what enabled those who played Dungeons & Dragons to trust one another. Not even the Dungeon Master him- or herself [sic] was as unimpeachable as the good old D20. This unquestioned trust in the D20 was profound — and profoundly shaped what eventually became video-game design. What the D20 hath wrought is, I believe, a big part of what is ruining many video games.
Techland, if I had to guess, was working away on what it hoped would be a riveting open-world zombie game when the RPG/first-person-shooter hybrid Borderlands came out. To be sure, Borderlands is a terrific game. It was also an unexpected hit. Borderlands is RPG-ish enough to encourage all the customization the average customization weenie could ask for, and it is shootery enough that the average shooter nut never gets bored with all the bullshit customization. In some games, a measure of customization is thematically and internally appropriate.3 Borderlands is a game in which Mad Max savagery meets sci-fi weaponry, and its sheer amount of gun porn is amazing. Video-game guns are open to this kind of conceptualization, in that their real-world counterparts fire different ammo at different velocities and have sometimes drastically different effects on targets. So I get it, I get all this, and I accept that in some games it makes sense that the more you use a weapon, the more skilled you become with it. Where you begin to lose me is when I am shooting at someone in Borderlands and numbers begin to cascade off his body. These numbers represent the amount of health your enemy is losing, which is a pretty amazingly unnecessary bit of information to take in during a gunfight. How about you just shoot at each other until one of you is dead?
Someone at Techland, I suspect, played Borderlands, loved the hit-point cascades pouring off the enemies, loved the endless customization of weapons, loved the facile thrill of leveling up, and decided, "I think our riveting open-world zombie game needs all of this." If this is indeed what happened, I would like the party responsible to know that he made a terrible, terrible mistake. For one thing: "Leveling up." Why do this in a game with no naturally occurring RPG trappings? What purpose does it serve? If the goal is to ensure equal difficulty throughout a game experience, so that player strength and enemy strength are always rivalrous, why not, you know, just sort of design the game to do that invisibly? But why level up, anyway, if the game is going to stay equally difficult throughout? You leveled up and rolled the dice in Dungeons & Dragons because it was impossible to run such systems under the game's hood. You know why? Because there wasn't a hood. Video games not only have hoods but also engines, and all manner of delightfully invisible computation can be dealt with and handled there. So I ask: Why isn't it invisible more often? Why this useless Gamification of what are already games? Why do we tolerate it? What do we actually get out of it, other than some mouse-brain satisfaction of knowing exactly where we are in the maze?4
In Dead Island, your character progresses by gaining levels, which would be fine, I suppose, if these levels were not so deterministic. Every Dead Island zombie has a level, too, and, I have to say, running up to a zombie with LEVEL 7 floating above its head certainly makes for a weird experience. The weapons also have levels, and if you are not at the level needed to wield a weapon, you are unable to use it. This does not make a hell of a lot of sense when the weapon in question is a knife or a pipe or an axe, especially when you have been wielding all of the above quite adroitly for hours. What on earth does a Level 4 Pipe even mean, anyway? Worse yet, the weapons are all subclassed, so you are not just finding a Level 4 Pipe; you are finding a Flimsy Level 4 Pipe or a Homemade Level 4 Pipe, the differences of which are utterly unclear. Techland consulted some real geniuses of nomenclature in coming up with Dead Island's weapons' subclass names: We have the Flimsy Cleaver, the Tiring Knife, the Frightening Mace, the Spiteful Pistol. It all sounds like the work of two Poles with a big bag of weed and a thesaurus. What's next? I wrote in my notes. The Recalcitrant Hoe? Two minutes later, no joke, I found the Languid Pistol. It replaced my Weak Pistol, which was for some unfathomable reason more powerful than the Spiteful Pistol. Let's not even talk about the inventory system, or your character's carrying capacity, other than to say this: You have limited weapon space and unlimited item space. In a game like this, carrying capacity should be one unified, logical system, and that system should either be unlimited or severely limited. Anything else is arbitrary, stupid, and altogether bad game design.
Dead Island's WoW-ish or Borderlands-ish overlays make even less sense with regard to the game's setting, a resort community found somewhere in Papua New Guinea, which could not emit a less Magickal or techno-sci-fi pulsar if it tried. In addition, Dead Island claims to be an open-world game, but it most certainly is not, and the exploration-minded gamer will quite often find the following words on his or her screen: YOU ARE LEAVING THE PLAYABLE AREA. Here is a game that systemizes pipes and knives but has no comparatively complicated system in place for dealing with the player who wanders a few feet beyond Dead Island's shore.
I did not finish Dead Island, and the reason I did not is instructive. For most of the game, the damage you inflict on your zombie enemies remains in effect when you die, and you do die, often, which is fine, because the game does not make player death overly punitive. At worst, you begin again a few meters from your point of expiry, and the visible health meter of the Level 10 zombie that killed you remains reassuringly chipped away. Your degrading weapons' overall condition does not reset, however, so if your Level 15 Punishing Axe was ruined by the encounter that killed you, it will stay ruined. A perfectly cromulent system, all in all. Until, that is, a late escort sequence in the game. The tribal chief (don't ask) I was escorting and I turned up in a village. I had plenty of ammunition for my guns, and my bladed weapons were all in top shape. In this village, we were, naturally, attacked by zombies, most of which I managed to kill, but my tribal chief pal died. I tried again, and noticed that all the absurdly powerful Level Whatever zombies I had just killed respawned. Meanwhile, I had half as much ammo. I tried once again, fought valiantly, and my tribal chief pal died. Again. And again the zombies respawned. Now I had no ammo and half of my bladed weapons were ruined. I tried again. Failed again. That son of a bitch tribal chief! Soon I had no usable weapons and also no quick way to opt out of this disastrous mission without the tribal chief dying and sending me back to the infuriating checkpoint. Ladies and gentlemen, there is a phrase to describe this kind of game design, but a part of this phrase involves a word that Grantland's grandparent company, Disney, will not permit me to use.
Here is what Dead Island should have been about: running from things that want to kill you and killing them by finding weapons hidden away in an interesting series of environments. It should have been scary and primitive and animal and savage. It should have involved weapons that visibly degrade in your hand rather than weapons tricked out with pointless little subscreen health meters. It should not have involved an in-game economy with duct tape you can sell for $3 and buy for $150.
The hell of it is, many gamers will probably love Dead Island. So many numbers. So many levels. No wonder such people turn to Metacritic for guidance. For these gamers I have one question. In a game about running from things that want to eat you, what is more important: the emotional experience of running from things that want to eat you, or knowing that the thing that wants to eat you is a Level 23 thing that wants to eat you? Knowing that the machete in your hand can take its head off, or knowing that the machete in your hand is capable of doing 320+ hit points of damage? On second thought, don't bother answering. That this game exists is answer enough.
Tom Bissell is the author of Chasing the Sea, God Lives in St. Petersburg, The Father of All Things, and Extra Lives, which is now available in paperback.
Previously from Bissell:
The Art and Design of Gears of War
Death Can Be Funny
Beyond Angry Birds: The many pleasures of iPad games
Press X for Beer Bottle: On L.A. Noire
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An imminent shortage of zombie titles that include the word "dead" is, I fear, on the horizon. Oh, wait: Dead Horizon! You're welcome, video-game developers.
Even Schell himself lightly backed away from the apparent optimism of his talk, calling it a Huxleyan vision of what could be rather than an endorsement of what would be.
Like, say, the Fallout games or Mass Effect or the recent Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The last makes skill trees and leveling up central to the game's fiction, given that the controlled character is an augmented human learning how to use his newly androidal body.
I recently asked a game-designer friend if one of the reasons these skill-tree and leveling-up systems actually show up in games is due to the fact that some poor bastard actually had to work for months and sometimes years refining them and planning them and gaming them out, so that everything made sense and demonstrably kept players from getting too powerful too quickly. He said, with a sigh, "Pretty much." Which means that one problem with game design today is the game designer's emotional inability to hide his or her hard work. Oh, the humanity.