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Dead Island 2’s Narrative Lead Talks Bringing LA to Life Through People, Environmental Storytelling & More

Image Source: Dambuster Studios

Dead Island 2’s Narrative Lead Talks Bringing LA to Life Through People, Environmental Storytelling & More

Dambuster Studios’ Khan talks about Dead Island 2 in this exclusive interview.

It’s been nearly a decade since Dead Island 2 was announced at E3 2014, so there’s been a lot of questions regarding what the game is going to be when it does finally release later this year. Is it just like the first title? What will the gameplay focus be? Will it be campy or serious?

To help answer those questions, I had a chat with Khan, Dambuster Studios’ Lead Narrative Designer, who detailed how the studio has been bringing Dead Island 2 to life and what fans can expect from his long-awaited sequel.

Andrew: Was the choice to make the first part of Dead Island 2 melee-focused an intentional design choice? Did realism and the ability to get your hands on guns in an apocalypse play a factor?

Image Source: Dambuster Studios

Khan: Like most things in the game, it was a gameplay-first choice. The realism is nice, but when it comes to our pulp tone and this over-the-top situation, we do very much follow the rule of cool. If it is cool, then we will do that, even if it is slightly less realistic. 

Dead Island is primarily a brawler, action RPG, so getting people used to things as up-close-and-personal and melee focused was the reason for the decision. 

Andrew: When I was going through objectives, at first, I would run by a lot of the zombies, but later on, I found there was a lot of incentive to pick them a part in more condensed areas. Is there an incentive to make sure players don’t just blow by every zombie in the open-world part? 

Khan: The level design and enemies team focused on making you want to kill every zombie individually because it’s a fun experience and reward. But there’s also very much so the strategy that you don’t want to let a horde develop behind you because they will eventually catch up, and it will be bad for you. 

When it comes to the narrative, we’ve worked hard on making every corner of the world feel like somebody was there. There are little pieces of environmental storytelling that we worked hard with the artists to make, and so we want to encourage that exploration. 

That applies to the zombies as well because there are certain skill cards that you can only get by killing certain zombies. There are rewards that vary zombie to zombie and location to location. 

Andrew: You mentioned the environment a bit. Alongside the narrative cues, what was the decision behind putting so many environmental-based gameplay elements into combat and puzzle design?

Khan: A huge amount. Don’t get me wrong; the narrative team had a whale of a time working with environment art to populate the world in terms of the story and art. 

But the level design, enemies, and narrative teams had a lot of fun thinking about how we could bring those sandbox elements – fire, fuel, water, electricity, etc. – into the world in semi-believable ways and really look at what those combinations could be and how that could reward the player and experimentation – combine them with skill cards and weapons and all that.  

So there was a lot of iteration on our zombies and how they interact with those sandbox elements. There was a lot of fine-tuning and tweaking with narration; how can we make this even more fun and more intuitive? 

One of our goals is for the game to be fun even with the HUD elements turned off. So how do you make things really visual and rewarding in that way? So yeah, it was very deliberate, and a lot of work went into making it feel as good as it does. 

Khan: The quick interaction with the Major got me thinking back to games like Dead Rising in terms of human elements in zombie games. Are there any human battles in the game? 

So you’ve touched on something that was a hot topic of debate when we first started working on the game as a studio. As you said, other games and properties have made that their main focus, and that’s zombies, not really as a backdrop, but as a storytelling device for concentrating on human conflict. 

You sometimes get “Humans are the real enemy all along,” or this is a way for us to work out our interpersonal relationships. That’s actually not what Dead Island is about. We are zombies at the core, always and forever. 

Our goal is to get you up close and personal with zombies snapping at your face and make that interaction our core loop. That is what we want you to enjoy and how we want you to spend your time. 

So we have deliberately made humanity, ya know, not an alliance, not organized or anything like that – the people you run into are weirdos who missed the evacuation call. And they are the wonderful LA as a character type people. That’s who you meet and who you are working with or cross-purposes with, but we’ve not got you killing other humans. 

Other humans may be misguided or working in cross-purposes, but it is zombies as the enemy. 

Andrew: That does touch on my next question, and that’s who is the main villain of Dead Island 2? 

Khan: (Laughing) So I do want to tell you, but, ya know, spoilers! What I can say is that, like any good villain or villains, ours don’t think of themselves as villains. They feel as if they are doing the right things. So keep an eye out for that kind of commitment, but I will not confirm or deny how many or what gender!

Andrew: Is co-op going to be playable from the jump or is that something you have to unlock as you progress?

Khan: Yes, you do need to unlock it, but you unlock it but we want you to master the basic building blocks, and then we will set you free. 

Andrew: So after, like, a basic tutorial phase?

Khan: Yeah, basically. 

Andrew: When crafting the unique weapon combinations, did you take any inspiration from other games like Dead Rising when it comes to creativity?

Image Source: Dambuster Studios

Khan: I’m not so sure about other game inspirations. We looked at this primarily as an RPG system that focuses on those sandbox elements. We have fire, fuel, and electricity; we have certain zombies that might be resistant to some of them, so how do you add them to your toolbox? 

What do you get to do with these weapons? How do you get to play? You should get to play as much as the zombies get to was the philosophy when it comes to creating those combinations. 

Andrew: Is there anything you want to say to people playing the series for the first time that might have missed out on the first title?

Khan: We worked hard on making sure you didn’t have to play the first one to be able to learn and enjoy the second one on its own merits. But I will say that if you are not familiar with the wonderfully over-the-top gameplay of Dead Island, we worked hard to make the tone match the gameplay for Dead Island 2. 

Really take a listen into the quest hubs where you have NPCs chatting. I feel like we’ve done a really good job making the world come alive in the background, as well as talking to you directly. 

Dead Island 2 is set to release on April 21, 2023, for PS5, PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC. For more on the game, be sure to check out our official preview, which talks about how the title is creating the perfect environment for killing zombies.

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