Horror Review: Dead Island by Mark Morris

The first time I read Dead Island, I slapped it with a 2-star rating, the equivalent of, “It was OK.”

Six years later, after playing through the game for the fourth or fifth time, I got to thinking about the novel, and wondering if it was really as 2-star worthy as I felt the first time. Having some free time to fill, I fired up my eReader and read through it again. I came to the conclusion two stars was nearly too generous.

First off, I want to say that, while this novelization is a two-star read, Mark Morris himself is not a two-star author. It’s hard, damn hard, to novelize a video game, because games and books are two completely different mediums of entertainment: one interactive and consumer-dependent, the other non-interactive and non-consumer-dependent. Morris is a good writer who was the wrong fit for this assignment, pure and simple.

I can pick up and play the Dead Island video game pretty much any time. It’s far from the best game ever made, and playing it through, especially to 100% completion, quickly degenerates into a grinding chore of fetch quests within fetch quests as the devs bloated the game’s playtime. Rare is it that a quest which ostensibly sees you going to one location and returning with something from that location is that simple–more commonly, you’ll be sent either to multiple locations right off the bat (hanging up the ‘Missing’ posters in Act II, for instance), or you’ll be sent to a main location but someone or something there will send you to a different location to retrieve an additional item before you get access to the first item you were looking for (still picking on Act II, the main quest to restore water involves not just clearing out the gang who took over the water treatment plant, but then driving around the city to close off five roiling fire hydrants). Some in-game quests are so sprawling you’ll traverse multiple acts before you can fulfill them: locating the downed jetliner and finding Nikolai’s satellite phone are the chief offenders here. So while there’s still something undeniably enjoyable about building your character up to be able to stomp more heads, let’s just say story isn’t Dead Island‘s best trait.

“Michael, this is supposed to be a book review. Why are you talking about the game, you fart-knocking ass assassin?”

Because a chief concern of mine for ‘whether or not a game deserves a novelization’ is how easily the game’s story allows for one. Dead Island has a fine story for dissemination across 15-20 hours of playtime, but a lousy one for filling a 330-page novel, and whoever authorized this should have known better. The best zombie fiction writers in the business would have struggled to adapt this game’s story into something literary–Mark Morris was doomed from the start.

The primary complaint from readers who played the game is that it’s practically nothing like the game, and this is a totally valid point. Major characters like Sinamoi the life guard, who plays a pivotal role in the early game and who, in fact, saves the player’s life during the prologue, are reduced to pidgin-English-speaking bit players with whom the four main characters have to play charades in order to advance the plot. I don’t know what the game’s development was like: maybe Sinamoi was meant to be more tribal in the game’s early stages than he wound up being after they cast his voice actor, and chances are that Morris was working with an early version of the script and these changes are not reflective of his creative input, but the point is many of the characters in the book’s pages bear little to no resemblance to the NPCs, or sometimes even the PCs, populating the digital version of Banoi. I share this as my primary concern with the book, though if you never played the game, this critique isn’t as important as it could be.

Absent this issue, my next problem stems from the protagonists. In the game, there are four characters to pick from. In a co-op game you can have other players join you, but in the solo experience, you see the story only through the eyes of the one you selected. The rest are with you “in spirit” and show up in the game’s different cut scenes, but the selected character is the viewpoint through which you as the player experience the story. Juggling two protagonists is hard enough, but here, Morris has to juggle four, which is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. In order to pull it off, there are times when characters are left behind and out of the action for long stretches of time. Logan is specifically abandoned for a significant chunk of the book to basically sleep off a hangover with Sinamoi in the Lifeguard Station while Xian, Purna, and Sam fight their way into Moresby. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (much like in the game, Logan’s a self-absorbed douchebag whom the reader will almost certainly be rooting against throughout the book), but it proves once again why novelizing Dead Island was such a poor choice.

Condensing the game’s narrative also means vivisecting much of its content, and even the game’s main story line is pared down not just to the bone, but to marrow. Most of the game’s minor events and NPCs land on the cutting room floor, which is only to be expected as they were filler to begin with. However, significant events, like the excursion to the hotel garage in order to acquire an armored car for the trip into the town, and the subsequent need to get it to a handyman for additional reinforcement, both from Act I, are also completely stripped away, to say nothing of other major story quests from later acts. I don’t need to see every quest represented in the book, since the result would be a 2,000-page tome and there’s no compelling reason to include the teddy bear hunt or delivering a total of fifteen bottles of alcohol to a random guy holed up in a cabana with a bad hangover, but the amount of stuff Morris had to ignore for the sake of maintaining the pace will shock anyone who’s played the campaign.

All that’s small potatoes compared to what I consider a more severe transgression involving the enemies. The game introduces a number of different undead types in addition to your bog-standard Walkers and your 28-Days-Later-style running Infected, including the self-destructive Suiciders, the lumbering Thugs, the vomit-spewing Floaters, the obscenely fast Butchers, and the wrecking-ball-like Rams, yet Morris for some reason eschews all but Walkers and Infected, much to the story’s detriment. The four main characters need never adopt new tactics or vary their approach, because the enemy they fight remains constant and consistent from start to finish. That said, I applaud Morris’s ability to come up with new and violent ways of dispatching zombies in pretty much every encounter. No two baddies meet their end the same way, and that’s a hallmark of talent to me considering frequent amputation, decapitation, evisceration, and enucleation are the order of the day.

But the real elephant in the room’s the ending.

Oh god, the ending.

I won’t pick on Morris for the cliffhanger, no-answers-forthcoming conclusion to the book, because the game ends similarly (although the Ryder White DLC mission and subsequent sequel, Dead Island: Riptide, provide some additional information). What I can fault Morris for is committing one of the unforgivable sins of storytelling: the ending of the novel castrates (metaphorically) the four main characters, as one of the NPCs defeats the “final boss” while Purna, Sam, Xian, and Logan stand and watch, handcuffed and unable to participate. The final boss isn’t who or what you expect from playing the game, and I’m OK with that change since it doesn’t ultimately matter to the story, but having someone else do the dirty work? These are the heroes of your narrative, Mr. Morris, the warriors of your tale, and you left them to stand around while someone else took care of the problem. There’s no excuse for that, and one cannot blame the game’s narrative: the four main characters are the ultimate agents of change in their story, and to deny them that agency when it is most expected and critical is to commit literary blasphemy.

Two stars? Yeah, two stars. Morris’s descriptions and scene-setting are top-notch, but characterization, storytelling, and conclusion are all average at best and distressingly awful at worst. Don’t waste your time with Dead Island. I read it twice so you wouldn’t have to. Don’t let my sacrifice be in vain.

Michael Crisman

In 1979, Michael Crisman was mauled by a radioactive Gorgar pinball machine. After the wounds healed, doctors discovered his DNA had been re-coded. No longer fully human, Michael requires regular infusions of video games in order to continue living among you. If you see him, he can see you. Make no sudden moves, but instead bribe him with old issues of computer and video game magazines or a mint-in-box copy of Dragon Warrior IV. If he made you laugh, drop a tip in his jar at http://paypal.me/modernzorker (If he didn't make you laugh, donate to cure his compulsion to bang keyboards by sending an absurdly huge amount of money to his tip jar instead. That'll show him!)

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