Dead Island 2’s Narrative Lead Talks bring LA to life through people, environmental stories and more

It’s been almost a decade since Dead Island 2 was announced at E3 2014, so there have been many questions about what the game will be like when it finally releases later this year. Is it just like the first title? What will the gameplay focus be? Will it be cheesy or serious?

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

Andrew: Was the decision to focus the first part of Dead Island 2 on melee combat a conscious design decision? Did realism and the ability to get your hands on guns in an apocalypse play a part?

Image Credit: Dambuster Studios

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

Dead Island is primarily a brawler action RPG, so the reason for the decision was to get people used to things that are so up close and personal and melee oriented.

Andrew: As I was going through the objectives, I ran past a lot of zombies at first, but later found that there was a lot of incentive to play them in tighter areas. Is there an incentive to make sure players don’t just knock down every zombie in the open world part?

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

When it comes to the narrative, we worked hard to make every corner of the world feel like someone was there. There are small pieces of environmental stories that we worked hard with the artists to create, and so we want to encourage that exploration.

That goes for the zombies too, because there are certain ability cards that you can only get by killing certain zombies. There are rewards that vary from zombie to zombie and location to location.

Andrew: You mentioned the environment a little bit. Besides the narrative cues, what was the decision to incorporate so many environment-based gameplay elements into the combat and puzzle design?

Khan: A huge amount. Do not get me wrong; The storytelling team had a lot of fun working with environmental art to populate the world in terms of story and art.

But the level design, enemies, and storytelling teams had a lot of fun thinking about how we could bring those sandbox elements – fire, fuel, water, electricity, etc. – into the world in a semi-believable way and really look at what that is is combinations could be and how that could reward the player and experimentation – combine them with ability 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 tweaking and tweaking with the narrative; How can we make this even more fun and intuitive?

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

Khan: The quick interaction with the Major made me think back to games like Dead Rising in terms of human elements in zombie games. Is there human combat in the game?

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

Sometimes you hear “man is the real enemy all the time” or this is a way for us to work out our interpersonal relationships. This is actually not what Dead Island is about. We are zombies at our core, always and forever.

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

So we created humanity on purpose, you know, not coalition, not organized or anything – the people you meet are maniacs who missed the evacuation call. And they are wonderful LA as characters of character. That’s who you meet and who you work with or work with, but we didn’t make you kill other people.

Other humans may be misguided or have conflicting goals, but zombies are the enemy.

Andrew: That touches on my next question, and who is the main villain of Dead Island 2?

Khan: (Laugh) like i do want to tell you, but, you know, spoilers! What I can say is that like any good villain or villain, we don’t consider ourselves villains. You feel like you’re doing the right things. So keep an eye out for that type of engagement, but I’m not going to confirm or deny how many or what gender!

Andrew: Will co-op be playable from the start or do you have to unlock it as you progress?

Khan: Yes, you have 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 a basic tutorial phase?

Khan: Yes, basically.

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

Image Credit: Dambuster Studios

Khan: As for other game inspirations, I’m not so sure. We thought of this primarily as an RPG system focused on those sandbox elements. We have fire, fuel and electricity; We have certain zombies that may be resistant to some of them. So how do you add them to your toolbox?

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

Andrew: Is there anything you would like to say to people who are playing the series for the first time and may have missed the first title?

Khan: We’ve worked hard to ensure that you don’t have to play the first to learn and enjoy the second. But I will say that in case you are unfamiliar with Dead Island’s wonderfully over-the-top gameplay, we’ve been working hard on matching the tone to Dead Island 2’s gameplay.

Really listen to the quest hubs where NPCs chat. I feel like we did a really good job bringing the world to life in the background and speaking to you directly.

Dead Island 2 is scheduled for release on April 21, 2023 for PS5, PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S and PC. For more on the game, head over to our official preview, which talks about how the title creates the perfect zombie-slaying environment. Dead Island 2’s Narrative Lead Talks bring LA to life through people, environmental stories and more

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