Say what you want about Deep Silver Dambuster Studios and publisher PLAION‘s Dead Island 2, as we did in our review, but at its core, there is no denying that this is an experience that truly embraces the chaotic nature of fun and humour, and goes over the top with it in way that feels endearingly charming. While that might not be for everyone, it most certainly resonated with much of the community, and is something that the developers were aiming for all this time.
“It’s a very gameplay-first kind of experience. And at the heart of that is this man’s brainchild, which is the F.L.E.S.H system. I love that people are appreciating it and are really getting as intuitive as we, as they should, as we hoped they would,” shared Ayesha Khan, the Lead Narrative Designer on Dead Island 2, who we spoke to alongside Technical Art Director Dan Evans-Lawes.
“We had an interesting tightrope to walk. And the main storyline needed to be relatively straightforward, a good way of moving you through the world. The writing, as you say, it was quite humorous, and that was to match the tone that we were aiming for. For the rest of the game, that pulp, over the top, dial it up to 11, the almost slightly silliness or ridiculousness of a really good like 80s and 90s action movie, that kind of splatter and glee and revelling in its over-the-top nature.”
That meant relying on situational humour, be it the characters or the actual zombies that reside within Los Angeles, and the worldbuilding. All of it allowed the writing team to have “a lot of fun” in making sure the game hit “that joyful tone, almost without being too sort of quippy.” As Evans-Lawes put it, even the “environmental design” and “finding all these little kinds of things” can bring a smile to players’ faces, that is, if they bother to look for it in the first place.
Such an approach was also why Dambuster Studios decided to go for a deeper and more complex world in Dead Island 2, instead of a large, empty one. Players poking their noses into things can find details that explained what happened at a location, who was there, and everything else. It may not always be funny, but the potential is there.
We were definitely chuckling at the sight of the GOAT Pen, an influencer house full of cameras, crazy backdrops, and the unmistakable feeling of crazy young people doing stupid things for attention, now turned into an abode of the undead. It definitely struck a chord, and it was only possible because the narrative team had the autonomy to pitch ideas and make them a reality.
The hard work put in for these aspects also enabled the writing team and those responsible for designing quests and the like to collaborate better to keep players engaged. In particular, the Lost and Found quests in Dead Island 2 that tasked players to find things out for themselves via environmental clues rather than being directive was a nice change of pace, but to get to the polished state took much effort.
“Those quests are specifically meant to not be too handholdy and to have the player put together some information and some clues from text journals or follow the trail and finding the right balance in that is difficult, it takes a lot of rewriting, it takes a lot of thinking and conceptualisation,” Khan explained.
“And quests in general, we work really closely with level design, with environment art, with 3D art with everybody, it’s a really collaborative process. And it takes a lot of iteration and working on it to get right.”
Another area that required much attention was the character designs, specifically the zombies that players would spend hours and hours chopping down in Dead Island 2. The team wanted to flesh things out rather than it being a run-of-the-mill kind of infection that made everyone the same. This meant the condition became part of the overarching plot, and each of the zombies became a version that could help spread the infection just a little bit more effectively, whether it be a hulking Crusher or a disgusting Slobber.
“And I think from a visual design perspective, it was very much a case of trying to keep the variants looking like they were definitely once human. I think that applies to all the zombies in the game. Like the wide range of like, outfits and different costume variants for zombies and stuff like that, different faces. And that was all to sort of try and reinforce that, ‘yeah, this is about zombies. It’s not about monsters,’ And that’s something that we really want to make sure is clear, that this is something that has happened to people that has turned them into these things rather than like they’re a fairly generic monster,” added Evans-Lawes.
Understanding the effort put in by the team definitely allows us to appreciate what they have created even more, whether it is up your alley or not. With Dead Island 2 selling over a million units in just the first three days after its release, there is certainly a large group of players that are enjoying themselves, and who can blame them?