The major CG trailer for the first Dead Island game was amazing. It came out of nowhere for a game that had almost been forgotten (aside from dreamy doodles on my school notebooks.) We didn’t get any gameplay footage nor a release date, tossed only the barest morsel of a logo to entice us. None of that mattered though, as once the video started we were held rapt. It spun a tale in reverse: the story of a family in their final moments lost in a zombie Club Med. Set to a haunting and simple piano melody, it turned a game that had only released a handful of screenshots many years prior into what many people predicted would be a Game of the Year contender based entirely on a pre-rendered cutscene.
Then the game came out. You probably know the rest of this story.
Right. And he’s not the most offensive of the racial stereotypes in the game.
The family from the trailer were nowhere to be seen, even though you could visit the room and see the aftermath if you wanted, almost like the developers were mocking us. “Oh, that awesome trailer? WE THREW IT OUT THE WINDOW HA. Enjoy some more sewer levels!” What could’ve been a relatively decent open-world zombie RPG (Fallout with…more zombies) was received with skeptical glances and painful sighs. We had been promised an amazing personal experience, something that would shake us to our very cores and cause us to doubt the very nature our humanity. If not that, then we at least wanted to have to make the soul-shattering choice about whether or not to kill our zombie child. No zombie kids? Well can we at least get the song? No? Seriously?
The internet wasn’t shy about its disappointment with the Dead Island we got, so when word came down the pipe that there would be a sequel, I took a guarded notice. Techland had hurt me before, was I ready to love again? Would we finally get Dead Island The Trailer: The Game? The Walking Dead had shown us that we were ready to make those difficult undead apocalypse choices about whether or not to steal food from people who were probably already dead, so it seemed like a shoe-in decision to switch the theme of the game to something more somber and touching. Yesterday, they released the trailer for Dead Island Riptide:
All the elements of the first trailer are there: tropical setting, zombie hordes, slow piano theme, and a touching final moment. It’s almost as if a committee got together, brainstormed a checklist of what made the first trailer great, and sent it down the hall in a manila folder with “MORE EXPLOSIONS” scribbled on it before sitting back in their oversized chairs and sighing in relief. The spirit of the first trailer is long gone, replaced with a hollow mimic.
What specifically went wrong though? I went back and watched the first trailer a few times to try and pinpoint the moment where my throat tightens up and I start to worry about my wife coming in the room and catching me near tears from a video game trailer. It’s that final shot where the family comes together for a photo and you’re given an opportunity to see them as they really are – human beings. After going through this intensely personal experience with them (and what’s more personal than throwing your zombie daughter out a window?) you’re given the briefest of views into their lives. This is what gives their struggle weight and character: not how they died but instead how they lived.
It goes back to every great zombie property out there, from the original Night of the Living Dead to Shaun of the Dead – the most difficult moments are when we’re reminded that all those shambling hordes were once just as human as you and I. When the little girl who’s been hiding her bite finally succumbs to the creeping death, devouring her stunned mother who just can’t bring herself to kill her only child; that’s when the weight of the entire thing comes crashing down.
Had they chosen to include a similarly brief window into the life of this couple (perhaps a few snatched shots of their hopes to escape all of this before being shipwrecked) this trailer would’ve hit far harder than it did. Instead we’re given a look at the death of two characters who, outside of a whispered phrase, are little more than poorly modeled bags of meat intended for zombie consumption.
Perhaps there was no way this trailer could’ve reached the same heights as the first simply by virtue of its timing. Nobody expected what we got back in early 2011, which was part of what made it so amazing: the glittering hope the game might finally push the zombie genre away from assault rifles and horde modes. The disappointment that Dead Island was may have inscribed a terrible tattoo upon the series, something we’ll never be able to forget, regardless of what Techland does.
I’m cautiously optimistic about the game itself though. The Walking Dead has shown us that a slower paced game where the zombies are little more than a shambling catalyst for stories of the horror we visit upon each other can be successful. Knowing this, perhaps the people behind the original trailer are simply laying in wait, ready to spring something even more shocking upon us with Riptide.
Or perhaps we’ll get a zombie game where the main character is a Mexican guy in a giant taco costume.