Thursday, June 7, 2012

Game Translation: Dead Island

Despite the fact that Dead Island really had very little to do with the tragic melodrama and personal horror contained within their trailer, and went more for adrenaline-fueled action with a wide variety of quests, I still enjoyed it wholeheartedly. It wasn't the game that the trailer led me to anticipate but it was still a fantastic ride and still touched on enough elements of horror and human tragedy that made it feel like a worth-while zombie experience.

For those who are unaware, the game involves four survivors waking up after zombies have infected the majority of the population of Banoi Island. Though you get bit, it soon turns out that you four are somehow immune. You start off just trying to survive and help others survive but soon turn your attention to the search for a cure - well, an innoculation. You can't really cure rotting death.

You begin in the resort area and then slowly unlock new areas by following the main quest line. This helps them build up each area to have it's own unique feeling. The startling beauty and heart-breaking backdrop of the resort area provides a contrast against the horror of the zombies. The ragged urban decay and adrenaline-fueled onslaught of zombies mix well in the poorer urban areas. The labrynthine sewers grant a real feeling of claustrophobia and desperation as it's often better to run than to fight. The wild and untamed jungle with its mix of traditional looking homes, urban fences, and off-road vehicles - as well as an interesting port village full of criminals. While you can generally return to previous areas with relative ease, the time spent in each new area gives you a chance to fully immerse yourself in each new experience before moving on to the next.

This is something that can work out quite well in a game of exploration. Psychological experiments on animals have shown that even in small enclosures, animals will generally respond better if they can only rarely explore a certain section of that enclosure which is otherwise blocked off. By breaking up your game world into different sectors and encouraging players to remain within one area for awhile before moving them to something very different, the players cannot only indulge their senses in what they have found but they can become reinvigorated when they reach a new area.

Of course, this can be a little trickier in a role-playing game that doesn't have in-game barriers like collapsed tunnels to block them off (and what's to stop them from going off-road) but you can use other factors such as quests that revolve around a particular area or a certain need that won't be fulfilled if they go elsewhere. With a zombie game, this can be as simple as a group of survivors who won't live through the week unless you provide them with what they need before moving on.

This game allows ultra-violence that doesn't make you feel bad because the zombies are dead and therefore don't feel pain. In fact, the gore really underscores that fact because anything that responds to losing both arms by head butting you is obviously not human. So the hyper-violence blends well with the gore that blends well with the monstrous opponents. I wouldn't have found it nearly so much fun to dismember police officers and petty thugs (but that may be just me).

Hotel Hang Over

In keeping with the themes of ultra-violence, the weapons themselves are pretty unrealistic but a lot of fun. Poisoned blades that deal poison damage to dead flesh, electrical wiring that zaps the dead and more prosaic options like hammering nails into a paddle are all designs that can be applied to your weapons.

With a bit of forethought, you can certainly allow these options in your game as well. If you're playing a d20 system you could use some of their weapon enhancements and just change the aesthetics. In WoD systems you just need to change the damage type (i.e. bashing to lethal), give it extra bonus dice, or give the new weapon different status effects (i.e. stun). It's a little trickier in certain systems like BRP but with a bit of imagination it's not too hard to jury-rig mechanics. I'd also heartily recommend giving them laundry lists of necessary items they'll need to collect so it has that real Dead Island feel. 3 batteries and 2 coils of copper wire ahoy!

So now let's talk about the combat itself. It's pretty pervasive and you can easily find yourself surrounded by zombies with even a super-zombie thrown into the mix. If you had to do up a new character sheet every time you died in Dead Island, well, you'd get pretty frustrated and there'd be far few trees in the world.

To compensate, there's a lot of different health items littered around the island. It wouldn't be too hard to have it so that in your roleplaying game an apple gives a hit point back or a snack bar gives two hit points back (or more, depending on the system and the number of hit points). Sure, it stretches realism a bit but Dead Island doesn't really keep to the This-Could-Be-Real style of play anyway and neither does your campaign.

Another thing you could do is simply have dead player characters re-spawn. In the event of a total party kill, you could have all of the player characters re-appear in a random location or return to an event that occurred earlier in the campaign. A little strange, yes, and it would take all the fear of death out, but if you want to run a game where everyone just wades into combat and tries their best, you could go with it. Encouraging caution doesn't really work when the zombies notice you pretty easily and they all come rushing at you no matter what you do.

A more common zombie-style method of dealing with character death is to have a big list of pre-generated characters with a short bit of information on who they are up the top. When someone dies, pass it to them and then figure out a way for that character to rock up. I've done this before with some very low-level, generally 0XP world of darkness character sheets, where I've also rolled up whether they had weapons and what sort (which led to people without any skill with guns having picked up a shotgun). It worked out fantastically and the players loved it, though that was more of a Walking Dead-style scenario than the oncoming hordes of Dead Island.

Dead Island also hands out quests and, in any game where you have a myriad of quests, it's a good idea to write down the quests and rewards for the players (or get them to do that themselves). If you're going for a very Dead Island experience, you could even list the difficulty to help them decide whether they really want to do one more quest on the way back or whether they should rest first.

Finally, Dead Island has weapon decay. This is trickier to do but you could create weapon item cards with ammunition on the back of the guns and keep a record of the number of uses on the back of melee weapon cards. It's kind of like ammunition, in that they'll be useless once all their 'uses' are used up.

A campaign based around Dead Island, or including elements of it, would certainly appeal to Action Heroes with nice environments to poke around in that will keep Explorers happy and plenty of space for quick thinking that would give Tacticians plenty to do. Investigators will doubtless find more of interest in the history of the zombies (so keep dropping clues) and any other little mysteries (it was betrayal, not an accident). Communicators will want to spend time learning more about the other survivors and dealing with life as a survivor so may get a bit tetchy and bored if they don't have any opportunities to do so.

If you'd like to take a look at the trailer to learn more about it, you can check it out here. If you'd like to read the sort of tropes that Dead Island used, you can find them here.

For the next Game Translation, you have a choice of these: Left for Dead, Fall Out 3, The Sims 3, Half Life 2, Prototype, Skyrim, Deus Ex, L.A. Noire, The Last Express, Assassin's Creed, Realms of the Haunting, and pretty much any survival horror or horror game. If no one picks anything by next week, it'll be Assassin's Creed.

If you want to see the list of games I've done thus far, you can find the Game Translation series starter over here.

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