Friday, 18 February 2011

The Dead Island Trailer and the Future of Games

By now most of you have probably seen the teaser trailer for Dead Island. If not, you can check it out here:

This trailer has been getting tons of attention over the Internet and many seem to think that it is one of the best game trailers ever. I find that this is quite interesting, since just about everything that makes the trailer good are things that modern video games lack. I would even go as far as to say that a video game made using modern gameplay-centric design could never create something that gives the same experience.

This is why I think so:

Non-coherent narrative
The video does not have follow the normal rules of making a narrative (where time flows coherently through plot events), but instead provide a disjointed one. Past and present are not explicitly stated, but is something that the viewers must figure out themselves. Game with a focus on story just do not work like this and instead go through plot points in a predetermined (although sometimes branched) fashion.

In order to get the same kind of feeling you get from the trailer in a game, stories needs to be looked upon in a different way. A story should not be seen as a string of plot points, but as a certain essence that is meant to be communicated. (See this post for further discussion on the subject).

Violence is not the focus nor the fun part.
This is something that I have talked about lots before, most recently in a discussion on Dead Space 2. When you start to focus on making sure that all gameplay is fun, then that trumps any other emotions that could have been evoking. The violence in the Dead Island trailer is not fun. It is desperate, repulsive and tragic. How can you possibly hope to evoke the feelings of a man forced to "kill" his own daughter if your aim is for it to be fun?

Hard-to-repeat moments
An important part of video games today is that they stop you from making progress unless you meet specific requirements. This is mostly in the form of some skill-based challenge (succeed or restart), but can also be in the form of navigational or puzzle-like obstacles. While of course imperative in some games, this sort of design can greatly decrease the emotional impact of events. Mainly because forcing a player to relive an event dilutes its impact and sets focus on mechanical aspects. Secondly because blocking the player from progress can make certain situations unbearable.

The trailer has both versions of this problem. For instance, the chase sequence where the child runs to the door is not something that works when repeated. Also, the event when the child falls through the window is an example of something that you do not want to replay or get stuck at. (A more in-depth discussion can be found here.)

Just so I am clear here: I do not mean that a game should try and replicate the events exactly like in the trailer. Video games are a different medium from film and needs things to be done differently. Instead what I do mean is the recreation of the essences of these events and situations; to provoke the same kind of emotions and thoughts. Not to make a direct copy.

A holistic experience
What I mean by this is that you need to see the whole thing to get the full experience. Unless you see the trailer until its end, you will not the get full meaning of the work. Mainstream games almost never work in this way, but rather focus on maximizing the entertainment value moment-to-moment. This is partly because of the goal to make games "fun" above all else. Other causes are the focus put on length of the experience as a large part of the value, and a general attitude of games as products rather than works of art (explained nicely here and here).

With the above in mind, it should come as little as a surprise that I find it highly unlikely that Dead Island will be anything near what the trailer is like (although I hope the reactions to this trailer inspire them to give it a shot and perhaps succeed!). I think there really is a desire for games that offer a different and more emotional experience, the attention this trailer got being a clear sign of that. But if we stick to the tried formula of making video games, these kind of experiences will remain beyond our reach.


  1. Some games focus on blocking the player from progressing: Super Meat Boy :)

    Another excellent article! Just realised I didn't have this in my feed list yet, so now there's a nice stack of articles out there to read.

  2. Another excellent article, please keep it up :D

  3. Great read, as a side note, I heard that this trailer was acually produced from an external source, not the studio itself so I don't expect too much from the game given it's being produced by Deep Silver (famous for average games such as Boiling Point).

    I'd like to think that the average gamer is looking for these kind traits for games, but I believe it's popularity stems from the fact that it is being viewed by more hardcore gamers who have a fairly good idea about what makes a good game, rather than your run of the mill COD player. I hope i'm wrong, but either way, great article.

  4. Excellent blog. I certainly agree that the final product must deliver a genuine experience. The trailer has taken some risks. Provoking different emotions will keep the player immersed into the game, but I believe that keeping this restricted can reverse the effect.

  5. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories

    [I was was going to leave my comment at that, but will search previous blog entries now to see if you've already mentioned this game. If not, let me elaborate: everyone needs to play it - I feel it touches upon a lot you said here.

  6. I thought of a few of the things you mentioned. While this trailer was great, it doesn't really help people realize how the game will play. Yes, we were given the information as well, but as a video game trailer it doesn't paint a picture of what we can do within the game. If the game can keep these emotional ties, then I can see it be a huge success (in terms of story)

  7. Rob:

    The trailer was most certainly not made by Techland. But I'm sure that Techland were the ones that wrote and directed the trailer.

    I'm quite surprised that Deep Silver are publishing the game. They mostly publish low budget titles and that CGI trailer couldn't have been cheap to make.

  8. @the author of this blog post:

    Let me get this straight: this post's premise is that the Dead Island trailer is something that can never be done in-game (not from a grpahics pov, but from a gameplay pov of course) and then you analyze why it can't be transferred to gameplay.

    Do you even realyze that it was just a hype trailer? You know, something like a cut-scene or a standalone short story that uses the game's setting. Not all videogame trailers depict actual gameplay (you should've seen old Squaresoft trailers that were all CGI cutscenes).
    Do you even understand what i said above? I mean your whole's pointless, really, to analyze a hype trailer and reach the conclusion it's not representative for the game? Way to go Sherlock...

  9. I'd add one more bullet point: Failure.

    In the trailer, the deaths of the characters are presented as tragic, whereas in a video game, death is just an obstacle. You allude to this with the idea of "hard-to-repeat moments," but there's also the idea in the trailer that the family's efforts to survive are futile. Video games set players up with the opposite mentality, that no matter what happens, they're going to make it.

  10. The trailer works brilliantly on an emotional level - I thought "they CAN'T be doing this to a kid!", but then it became clear that it was something necessary in the situation as the trailer wound back.

    Anyway, while gorgeous, I generally dislike trailers that aren't ACTUAL gameplay footage because too many people get into fits about "ooooh! this game is gonna RAWK!" or whatever based on something that doesn't even show gameplay (or in-game visuals in some cases). Those two or three excellently rendered Old Republic trailers were awe-worthy, but I was basically sitting there saying, "Great movie... NOW, where's the game to back it up with those same dynamics in terms of action?"

    Oh, and not ALL video games are set up where WINNING or SUCCESS are objectives or even part of the overall plot, kids. Siren, the Silent Hill games, Dead Space and a quite a few other titles both popular and not have had downbeat endings or irreversible deaths of major characters (add the multimillion and counting Final Fantasy VII and Aeris' demise to that pile of games). Not to mention Amnesia: The Dark Descent...

    Death in games where you're supposed to be some sort of cartoon character or bad-ass weapon swinger that's supposed to get a reboot just to serve the player (and overall sequel potential) are a lot more common and yes, it's a big deal to most gamers that death not be seen as nothing but an "obstacle". Another good example is every King's Field game where you meet NPC's that have interesting back-stories or might be helpful or likable characters. But if you know FromSoft's games, you don't want to grow attached to any of these people, as they tend to end up dead as part of the plot.

    To me, the medium grows when it allows players to see that sometimes, dying isn't a simple matter of reloading a checkpoint and getting a do-over, racking up high body counts or anything else common to most games. The level of emotional investment in certain games would go up a lot more if one was told that they HAD to keep their hero alive through a game or else, that's for sure...

  11. "Violence is not the focus nor the fun part."

    This is perhaps the only point I disagree with as it is perfectly possible to make a game with this characteristic. Games are required to have as a sole purpose the player to have "fun", but to make the player feel a variated range of emotions.

  12. A little digression: have you seen the Silent Hill Downpour trailer? It just makes me sad... While the graphics are OK, the animaion is worst than in SH 2 - and remember that this is not some indie developer, and that this is a highly acclaimed series (at least it used to be...), so this is simply something that can't be tolerated. AFAIK, no one from the team silent is involved in any way, they changed the composer, they are trying to change the feel of the game... While this is not necessarily a bad thing, there's a lot in that trailer that makes it feel like a bad omen to me. It looks unpolished in many ways, looks like there's gonna be a bit more gunfight-oriented than it should, the monsters that can be seen look uninspired... Only a good story(telling) can save the day, but somehow I have my doubts about that, too...

  13. OMG, Dead Island trailer is really beautiful.

  14. "Games are required to have as a sole purpose the player to have 'fun'"
    I think the word you want to use is "engaging", the word "fun" is more closely related to "having a good time" and similar. For example, I doubt many people would call "Schindler's List" a fun experience.

    Silent Hill Downpour:
    Seen it, but I kind stopped caring about Silent Hill around the third game :) Silent Hill: Shattered Memories looks interested though, but I lack a Wii so cannot play it.

  15. @Thomas

    Shattered Memories is very good. It's well worth a play.

  16. The game experience definitely won't match the trailer experience (I mean come on, Techland calls the game a "zombie slasher action-RPG", not a "psychological zombie drama thriller").

    BUT have you read any of the previews for the game? The concept sounds completely awesome. A lot like Oblivion on a tropical island full of zombies.

  17. Regardless of it being a purely hype oriented trailer or an indication of the type of game they're trying to produce, it is evident that the major interest in the trailer stems around the sweet, seductive, unspoken promise of a game that takes a flooded and desensitized archtype and shifts the focus to a more emotionally driven, simulated psychological-thriller experience.

    In short, the trailer alludes (purposefully or not) to a zombie-survival-horror game that goes beyond spot->attack->advance->repeat. That is what people are latching on to.

    If the idea is actually implementable or not is the subject of this thread, but I just wanted to point out that there is a clear desire from players out there for some developer to give it a serious try.


  18. "The game experience definitely won't match the trailer experience" - you're right about that: they just hired Axis Animation to make them a near trailer, and they got a work of art. It's not unlike the not-so-uncommon situation where a TV series intro sequence is way more better and inspired than the series itself.

    @Thomas: "I kind stopped caring about Silent Hill around the third game :) " - Is that SH3-inclusive (you thought it was good, too)? People mostly say the 2nd game was the best, but to me, SH3 was superb - far more visceral and primal, and well thought of. Maybe people expected more of that melancholy felling of the 2nd game... Didn't bother me, cause I played them backwards - SH4, SH3, SH2, SH1 (, and then the disappointing SH5).

    BTW: When you are going to update the wiki on your Amnesia dev tools? It would be neat to have some more info. (Have you done it already? Didn't check.)

  19. I can't really agree with the installation of tragedy in a game's intended narrative; ie, trying to allow for situations with an emotional, "you won't survive" moment in its gameplay rather than cutscene. From experience, that sort of game tends to piss me off, even if it doesn't have that effect on other people.
    When I'm playing a game as a stress relief, I like to feel that I'm getting something done - that my hours of thumb-twiddling are making some undeniable good, even if it's something as simple as rescuing the princess. If you introduce intense failure into that, then fine - you surprised me, and triggered an emotion - but it's not necessarily a good one. I want to feel happy with the way a game ended, or even with my individual actions in a game. In games where I learn that "I'm the bad guy" or that my actions were a waste of time, I tend to feel kind of betrayed. This is different from a movie, when you just get to reflect on an external character's failure.

  20. @Katana
    If you are only playing games just for stress relief, than by all means don't play these sorts of artistic games (Dead Island probably isn't).

    You obviously haven't played Brothers In Arms.

    You are a troll that needs to learn how to read. He was merely using the trailer as a means of describing what games are so far, not trying to accomplish.

  21. The game might utilize an emotional connection with the characters and their subsequent loss as a motivation for the violence against the zombies, but more likely the game will be a fun-gun gorefest. Which is fairly disappointing.

  22. Katana:
    This is an interesting discussion really and I remember having heard from other people that any kind of non-happy does not resonate with them. I felt this a bit when completing the first half-life and I think it is simply because that has been how games have been made for so long.

    When you pick up a game you are so used to face a challenge and to provide a sort of positive experience. Since you fight through the levels, anything that does not make you the hero in the end feel like a coop-out.

    I think this is something that we need to learn to get away from as I think it is one of many obstacles in order to evolving the medium. One need to look at the videogame experience as something more profound that simply "providing a good time".

    More and more games are doing this (for instance, SH2 had no "good" endings) and it is getting more common. So while still an obstacle I think it is one of the few things that will work itself out without much change.

    Regarding SH3:
    I was not blown away by it, but I liked it. It is very similar to the 2nd in many ways though and did not provide as many surprises as the jump from first to second.

  23. @Lance Burkett: "He was merely using the trailer as a means of describing what games are so far, [b]not trying to accomplish.[/b]"

    This was written by the author: "[...]it should come as little as a surprise that I find it highly unlikely that Dead Island will be anything near what the trailer is like" - it looks to me that he was expecting the game to be like the (movie-like) trailer hence his conclusion that the game won't be able to accomplish that.
    Q.E.D. that he was using the trailer to point the game won't be like that. Learn to read ;)

    I just pointed that it's a given that the game won't resemble (in any way from a gameplay perspective) a CG trailer with a short-movie like narrative. Which was my whole point, all of his analysis just to reach the obvious conclusion.

    "You are a troll that needs to learn how to read."
    You need to learn to calm down and stop calling people trolls. I could easily offend you but you're not worth the seconds it'd take me to write it ;)

  24. @Shuyin

    The reason why it is highly unlikely that Dead Island will be like the trailer, is because the majority of gamers would prefer a less dramatic and more fun experience from a game. But the trailer shows what we expect to see from a short film compared to the average game, is far more meaningful.

    He wasn't saying that the game is incapable of being like the trailer, he was saying that the game is unlikely to resemble the trailer due to the standard audience expectation.

    Also, yeah I sort of over-reacted, only retaliation though for what seemed like a rather unfriendly comment.

  25. Continuing the previous discussion:
    Majority of gamers (or people in general, for that matter) don't really have a clue what they would prefer, because they are all the slaves of habit, reluctant to explore new horizons unless their Facebook friends buzz around the web about how something new suddenly became cool.

    If you want to push the limits of how storytelling is done in games (or any other limits - for that matter :D ), you can't rely entirely on what most people want or expect. You have to take it into account, but you can't let it lead your way. If you did, no great works of art would ever be made, but everything would become dull and "commercial".

    The thing is:
    (u need money to make games) --> (u make a game and hope it'll sell well)
    --> (u need more money to make better games)
    --> (u need to make a game that 'll sell well & be good by YOUR standards)
    --> [repeat]

    If you make something that is an example of perfection, a flawless work of art, but that's way ahead of it's time, the gamers well treat it as an alien entity and all your effort will be in vain.
    If your creation is something cool enough to be sold, but essentially just an uninspired clone of what's already out there, you may earn some money, but the game will soon be forgotten, buried by the sands of time.

    So you need to find the right balance. Take baby steps, steps towards the goal of your mission. Games can be art, and in many respects they ARE art. Games can also be something less, but if you are a developer, with the desire to send a message, to improve the medium, to give all you can give - you won't be satisfied with "something less" than art. And you shouldn't be: true artistic inspiration incorporated right can never hurt a game, and can never disappoint the gamers. You just need to find out what is the right "dosage", given the current state of the gaming community.

  26. Speaking of movies.. If there's going to be a movie adaptation of Penumbra/Amnesia, you have got to be the producer (or the director or the screenplay writer) of the mentioned movie or else it will s*ck big time...
    Anyway, great post, as always.. Keep 'em coming!!

  27. @Thomas

    First of all, thanks again for another great, interesting and very informative article.

    I don't know if you've heard about the interview that Dan Pinchbeck and Robert Briscoe (the guys behind the Dear Esther Remake) had on Podcast17 this weekend. It was an informative and an impressively detailed interview about Dear Esther, but also about games, art in games and topics like that. I wanted to mention this, because you might be interested in this aswell, actually i'm pretty sure about that. They were also praising you, Frictional Games, and your blog. I think... Dan said that he's very interested in your blog, because of the intelligent topics and detailed information that you provide almost every week.

    This link will direct you directly to the interview:

    Best Wishes,


  28. Notch, (he of Minecraft fame) posted a comment on Amnesia

    "In other news, all the lights are on here. I tried playing Amnesia, but it turns out I’m a coward. If you’re reading this, Frictional; AMAZING JOB! I’ve never been this scared in a game, ever."

    (from Be interesting to see if this causes a spike in sales

  29. I agree wit several points you made but not the focus. Which is that emotional experiences cannot be captured in games. It is difficult and you bring some good points, and you are not incorrect in saying that if video games continue the tried and true then it is not possible. I can honestly say most games don't move me. But some games have. There is one thing this whole article I believe is missing.

    Presentation. Something most ignore in fictional works impaction is the presentation that achieves a desired affect. I do not think it is impossible to reach emotional impact in games, it just presents a different set of challenges. Video games are non-linear, and I don't think a story should be shoved down a players throat or take away from the gameplay. However, I do believe a strong narrative can still exist in a game with emotional power to pack with it.

    However, I believe in creative media presentation is important if you desire emotional affect. Attachment, atmosphere, and other emotions can definitely be sprung by a game. Audiences are smart though, you can't force them to feel something. However, there are ways to express something and then see if the audiences formulate the emotions themselves. Presenting it in the right light can help players come to their own emotional conclusions and I believe that the one who dares to try and set-up this challenge will be greatly rewarded as there is evidence people do like emotional impact in their games, hell, I know I do. It shouldn't come before a gripping game but emotional impact can leave a lasting affect on players.

    Now I'm not saying Dead Island will accomplish this, but I disagree with games not being able to support emotional impaction and that games as they are now can't achieve that. I just think not enough games have tried. A few games I got emotionally involved in include some atypical answers; Shadow of the Colossus, Silent Hill 2, ICO, Alan Wake, Limbo, and those sorts. However I do think the potential of emotion in games has been left heavily untapped.

  30. *sigh* Reading this article reminds me of the cancellation of Project Offset. It's true how games are treated more like products than works of art. The big video game companies would rather hurry up and get things done by the set date than take their time to create better.

  31. Absolutely! Reading this article I was thinking "yes yes YES!" I thought I was alone in a sea of "fun". Brilliantly written. I'm so sick of seeing an awesome intro and then the game utterly fails to deliver anything close to it, Dragon Age comes to mind.

    As to tragedy, I think that can only happen dynamically in a game unless it's incredibly scripted. I can see this happening in a serious multiplayer game, but currently there's very little connection to other characters/players.

  32. The trailer reminds me of the movie Memento, where past and present events are happening at the same time, where they eventually meet the middle to convey the overall meaning. I really like this effect because it makes you go "Oh, I see!" at the end when you piece the events together.

    Unraveling mysteries through an effect like this is something I would love to see more of.


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