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Dead Island ... offensive?

12:00 PM on 02.18.2011 // Jim Sterling
  @JimSterling

Thanks to their innocence and the unending soppiness of human beings, children have become sacred in media. It's very rare to see a child suffer or die in movies, TV shows and videogames, which is especially weird in zombie-themed media -- the world would realistically be crawling with zombie kids during an undead uprising!

With that in mind, it was refreshing -- and quite chilling -- to see Dead Island's hot new trailer focus on the massacre of a family and the zombification of a young girl. Judging by the response around the Internet, it was quite effective. The Guardian, however, asks if the trailer is set to be known more for its controversy than its emotional power. 

The article quotes MCV editor Ben Parfitt, who wrote, "I just can't get away from the fact that I'm uncomfortable watching a graphic depiction of the horrific final moments of the life of a young girl ... perhaps from time to time we do need to ask questions of what we choose to glorify and what elements of our industry we choose to defend and to celebrate."

I am personally in the camp that loved the trailer, and I respect that a developer had the balls to do what it did. Just like that opening of the Walking Dead television series, there is undoubtedly an increased amount of horror when dealing with children. It might be manipulative in a way, but damn if it doesn't work.

Parfitt argues that we need to choose our battles carefully, that we should be more selective when it comes to defending videogame controversy. The implication is that this is one thing we should not defend, and I completely, utterly disagree. This is exactly the kind of stuff we should be encouraging from the videogame industry. Something with some bloody spine. 

Other mediums are allowed to address controversial subjects when they see fit. Subjects such as 9/11, religion, sex and, yes, sometimes violence towards children. If you're one of those people obsessed with videogames being "taken seriously" or if you'd just like to see the industry get interesting and tackle some more socially relevant themes, then we shouldn't cower and cringe the moment a trailer gets just a little bit edgy. 

It would have been easy for Deep Silver to commission yet another commercial where some chiseled man in a vest smashes zombies in the face with a baseball bat. We'd have watched it, sighed, and written it off as one more zombie game for the pile. Instead, Dead Island played its marketing smarter, and it worked, as evidenced by the fact that The Guardian is giving it some great mainstream exposure. 

Dead Island's trailer will go down in history, alongside the famous Halo 3 "Believe" video and the Gears of War's "Mad World" commercial. Yes, it's true that the resulting videogame may be nothing like it -- the bar has been set unreasonably high by that footage, and the skeptic in me says that the final product won't be half as emotionally engaging. That doesn't matter right now, though. What matters is that a beautiful, engaging, utterly spine-tingling piece of digital art was released this week, and we should applaud it. We should not be afraid of it. 

If we stopped doing things because we were worried that they might offend somebody, we'd barely have a culture at all. Fear of offending people is one of the biggest barriers to progress that I can think of. Yes, there are fathers and mothers out there who have lost kids, and as The Guardian notes, they may not enjoy seeing a child brutally flung from a window. I hate to be callous about it but ... so what

Pretty much any form of violence in media, any kind of joke, and any type of sensitive material is bound, by the laws of probability, to upset or offend somebody in some part of the world. If the potential for offense is what governs our entertainment, we might as well close every TV station, shut down Hollywood, and never develop another game again. 

We shouldn't pick our battles carefully when it comes to videogames. Provided it doesn't break laws in its creation (actual child abuse would, of course, be dreadful) then we should have the guts to say that it's either all okay, or none of it is. That's a black-and-white stance, but anything less than a stark line in the sand is little more than craven cherry-picking. 

You condemn Dead Island for its trailer, and you condemn the potential of all games to do something a little more interesting than "Bald space marine shoots some bullshit."



Jim Sterling, Former Reviews Editor
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