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Dead Island 2’s creative director talks quests, quips, and more

Ahead of the Dead Island 2 launch, we caught up with Dambuster Studios to find out more about the game’s development and why the team are "quietly confident".

Dead Island 2 hasn’t exactly had the smoothest development cycles. Over the last ten years, three different studios have taken ownership of the game, desperately trying to push it over the finish line. However, only Dambuster Studios has managed to live up to the task, and now we’re just weeks away from the Dead Island 2 release date.

With a procedurally generated gore system that sets Dead Island 2 aside from its competition, a pulpy narrative inspired by schlocky horror films of the 1980s and 1990s, and a world grounded in realism, how is the team at Dambuster feeling ahead of launch?

Well, pretty confident it turns out. Here’s everything creative director James Worrall had to say in his interview with us.

The Loadout: I wanted to kick off and talk about Dead Island 2’s narrative. You’ve mentioned before that Dead Island 2’s narrative is “vibrant, cocky, and larger than life, with a knowing wink to the camera.” How did you strike the right balance with this and did you ever think you could go further with some things?

James Worrall: Yeah, I mean we’re not aiming for comedy, right? Our player characters are self confident. Even Ryan – who is the reluctant hero – has some self confidence to dig into and push through. And I think when you have that physical self confidence and you’re a slayer of zombies, then humour becomes just part of your armoury.

We’re not trying to be comical, we’re not trying to be hedonistic, where everything becomes a wisecrack. And when it counts, we hope that the players suddenly care and, without that earnest approach to drama, I find that the player tends to empathise and fall in love with characters quicker because you know they’re not manipulating people’s emotions.

So you can be quite cocky or laid back and you can have self indulgent, narcissistic idiots. But when it comes to the crunch, you suddenly care about them because they are people.

As Brits, there’s something that we manage to do when we set our lens on America that allows us to hit a tone that is absolutely spot on. Yes, it’s difficult and some of it has been a conscious effort not to go too far. But some of it is just that natural British approach to this kind of subject.

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I’m also intrigued to know what real world events and people you’ve possibly taken inspiration from? It’s clear there is a dig at Hollywood’s expense.

There are no really clear cut examples. In the original game, one of its pillars was this notion of paradise gone to hell. And we thought Los Angeles gave us the ability to layer on top of that paradise the notion of aspiration and affluence. And it’s quite clear that level of affluence, isolation, and self absorption is just part of our times, right? It’s very much the now against which we were going to use to contrast the zombie apocalypse.

The whole point of a zombie tale is that you have to contrast it with what’s been lost. Yes, we do not exactly take the piss, but we are sort of ironic and satirical to a point. But we do it in a way that makes you appreciate what would be lost that actually we criticise and worry about too much.

You’ve briefly mentioned the skill deck in the Game Informer interview, but how did you settle on the skills available?

Two things happened: one, we started to become frustrated with initial designs, which were much more like a sort of a skill tree or a profession tree. And we thought this isn’t really reflective of what you’re doing, which is effectively finding different ways to punch zombies.

We’d been using movie and other classic pulp references and suddenly, we were reminded of these card collections. I used to collect Star Wars cards when the movies came out and then a mate said ‘oh, I had this amazing horror Top Trumps set with comic illustrations of all the monsters’. And as we thought about it, it seemed obvious that really what the player wants is like a comic book representation of what they want to do – almost like action shots. And then as we realised that, the notion of having to tie yourself to a skill tree just went out the window and we ended up with this process where you can just find a new card.

Once we’d let go of that precious RPG trope, it freed us up, and we discovered quite a happy playground as it were.

It gives players a lot of agency, probably in a way that maybe hasn’t been realised in the series before. There’s also a very real chance that you could put cards together that don’t quite work, so I imagine internal testing has probably been quite fun for the team. Have there been any combinations that have completely blown your mind or that you’ve regretted?

We’ve never got to the situation where we thought we shouldn’t have tried that because as the game comes alive, the more powerful the player. So right in the end game, you are literally chewing your way through hordes of zombies at quite a rate. And there’s explosions going off everywhere, everyone’s melting, everyone’s electrocuting, there’s all kinds of shock and the more chaotic it becomes, the more the more fun it becomes.

But there’s always that chance that chaos might turn on you. We love this notion of this kind of schadenfreude failure, which is that sometimes you’ll die but it won’t bother you because your death was so stupid. You don’t mind – you just pick yourself back up and run back into the combat.

Dead Island 2 interview: A Dead island 2 character jumps and kicks a zombie through a pane of glass in the Goat Pen house

There’s clearly quite a lot of cards available in the game. Is this going to be used for something like New Game Plus?

We’ve talked about options like this, but we aren’t announcing anything yet. We are figuring out what we’re going to do for DLC.

That makes sense. So I want to talk about the side quests as well. I love that they were like fully fledged narrative experiences and each told a story and introduced you to new Dead Island 2 characters.

With the two that we experienced in the preview, I noticed both of the characters ended up going back to Emma Jaunt’s house. It reminded me of The Witcher 3 when they all go back to Kaer Morhen, and it made me wonder whether you can go through the narrative without interacting with those side quests, and whether it would have an impact on the main plotline?

The main plotline is fixed – it doesn’t branch or change in any way like that. But yeah, from the outset, we decided to put an awful lot of effort into the narrative, the story, the world building, all those kinds of things. And that’s one of the reasons we went for not-quite-open-world, but kind of an open district.

Everywhere you look, every square inch, every logo, every little detail, every room has environmental storytelling in it.

And we’ve put an awful lot of effort into that – the narrative team have worked their little socks off – and I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved. You never know until we get bums on seats whether it’s going to land or not but we’ve had an awful lot of feedback that love this [environmental storytelling].

I opted to play as Carla for my preview and I noticed there’s some hyper specific ways in how she addresses certain characters, in particular Emma’s housekeeper. That got me thinking: how different are the characters’ voice lines to one another? And will you discover more beyond the main narrative if you decide to go back and play as different characters?

You can’t change the story, but each of the six characters has a very unique character. And this is another area where the narrative team has really shone. There’s six of us and we each took a character and wrote that character. So even though the scenes stay the same, how the players react to what other characters say gives a slightly different vibe [and] also gives little extra hints [to their backstory and some of the collectibles found in game].

I call it automatic storytelling, where the story just bleeds into your awareness slowly as you go around and experience more of the world as that character.

While Dead Island 2 is a very different game to the ones that came before, there are some very clear – and some not so clear – callbacks to some of the original games. How did you pull apart the old games to give Dead Island 2 some sort of general throughline?

Well, we agreed early on that the original games are still canon. But when it comes to zombie viruses and shadowy organisations and corporations, you know, that’s mostly shells within shells within shells within conspiracies within conspiracies. And what we set out to do with Dead Island 2 was tell the truth and slowly reveal the truth about the zombie, the zombie virus, where it came from, what it means, etc. So there are very specific calls and call outs, and of course, we couldn’t do a Dead Island 2 without Sam B coming back in some form or another.

There also seems like there’s more of a focus on big tanky bosses. We saw it with the clown, the bride in the hotel, and the mutated actor in the studio. Why?

We wanted to reflect Los Angeles in our approach to zombie design. It’s also through the Hollywood lens; we’re going back to much of our inspiration, which was sci fi horror of the 80s and 90s and that big set piece with the final monster is part of that.

And all of these fights are like archetype reveals. The first time you meet a butcher is the butcher, the first time you meet a crusher is the zombie bride. And we wanted each of those to be a special occasion, right, a sort of B movie level special occasion. And that’s what drove that process.

Dead Island 2 interview: Jacob looks at a rifle bullet in Dead Island 2

There is a real theme at the moment of heroes or protagonists quipping through the game. How do you strike the balance between quips that actually add to the story and, in this case, relieve tension, to ones that are just mindless chatter. And as a secondary question, do you think some characters in Dead Island 2 are better than others in this regard?

I find that once you’ve played one character, if you go back and play another character, it’s a refreshing contrast. Generally speaking, our characters try not to quip at everything.

They’ll have an idiom or a general phrase. For instance, Jacob will say something like ‘jolly good’ or ‘lovely’, or something like that. That’s just identifiably him, but it isn’t grating. And we’ve stayed well away from this notion that heroes should suddenly go into this comic exchange that goes back and forth and back and forth. I’d say a good example of that is Thor: Love and Thunder – it was the first movie I’ve watched where I was reaching for the skip button every time they went into some kind of comedy routine. It’s just like ‘please god, take me back to the action’.

So we made a conscious decision to stay away from that kind of stuff. And hopefully, we’ve, we’ve achieved just the right balance.

Now that there are a couple other games with gore systems out in the wild, how do you feel about the FLESH system?

I think ours is the only one that’s fully procedural. And I think the proof in the pudding is in the eating, or the beating, and the slashing, and the dicing, because combat with our zombies just doesn’t doesn’t get old. It is so analogue or fuzzy with the options open to you.

I think the team’s done an amazing job. The tech team behind the FLESH engine – the minds behind it – are particularly sick, particularly talented, and I think that shows in the end product.

Dead Island 2 interview: Several zombies lay on the floor dismembered as a Dead Island 2 character wields a katana

Yeah, definitely. I had a little moment where I was bashing a dead zombie repeatedly just to see what sort of came out of him. I don’t think it reflects very well on me, but it certainly was very entertaining!

So, the release date was moved forward a week. There’s been this theory going around that it was due to Jedi Survivor moving to your original launch date. Is this the case or did you just fancy dropping the game earlier?

We just realised we could release a week early, basically. I don’t think those two products are similar, really. They’re not the same thing. I mean, obviously, Star Wars is a big hitter. But I think ours is a wholly different proposition.

We’ll see. We’re quietly confident.

Were there any discussions or plans to bring Dead Island 2 to a subscription service?

I mean there are always discussions about how you monetize a product, but we plumped for the old fashioned: you pay, you get a game, and everything’s in the game.

We’re also in the age of remakes and remasters. Are there any plans later down the line to possibly breathe some life into the original game [for current-gen]?

No, and I think that might be a mistake, because we’ve already decided to move the franchise on with Dead Island 2, and I think it was the right decision creatively to do that.

We’ll see how we do on release. But again, like I say, we are quietly confident and I think to go back would be difficult to weigh those two products – it’s best to leave it where it was, and it did what it did.

Dead Island 2 releases on all major platforms on April 21, 2023.