Monday, April 16, 2012

Dead Island Book Review

When I picked up a copy of "Dead Island: The Book" by Mark Morris, I really didn't have high expectations that this novel would be anything noteworthy, since most novelizations of video games aren't very good. Thankfully, I was wrong.

It's pretty darn good actually.

The characters are fully fleshed out and act like real people. 
The story is told from Sam B's point of view-- which I thought was cool because that's the character I played on my first play through of  "Dead Island." While Sam is one bad mother in the novel, he isn't a stereotypical sexist rapper with a big mouth and a small brain. He is actually a caring, sympathetic guy and a good lens with which to tell the story of Dead Island.

When we first meet Sam B, he is on a plane trip to Banoi; a resort town on the tropical island of Papua New Guinea where he is going to perform a rap concert at the Royal Palm Hotel. Sam believes that the concert may be his only chance to jump start his failing rapping career. He is tired of being a one hit wonder and is desperate to prove to the world that he is talented and capable of much more that just one good song. Sam longs for a return to stardom and a chance to fix his past mistakes.

Sitting next to him is Logan Carter- the ex-football star- who is drunk and belligerently harassing the stewardess.

Logan had to stop playing football when he got into a car crash and shattered his knee. Unfortunately, the car crash resulted in the death of the pretty girl that was in the passenger seat. Logan managed to wriggle his way out of going to jail for negligent homicide, but he will never forgive himself for what he did. His guilt drives him to drink, and he has become dependent on pain killers for his bad knee, and antidepressants. His bad knee keeps him from some of the action in the jungle, but at least there's a good reason why he can't go with the others.

Purna Jackson is sitting in the seat behind them on the airplane and butts into their conversation, accusing Logan of being a murderer. Purna is an ex-cop who killed a pedophile after his money bought him a pass out of jail. Since then, she's been wandering the world, being paid to be a body guard. Purna is a tough as nails, no nonsense pragmatist and often the voice of reason when things get dangerous.

Xian Mei joined China's all-female Special Forces squad and was soon shipped out to Banoi to spy on rich people that were vacationing there. She wanted to follow in her father's footsteps, but soon realized that her squad was a publicity stunt when she was sent out on a special assignment to be a receptionist at the hotel in Banoi. Xian Mei has some crucial lines in the beginning of the novel, but by the end she becomes a secondary character that is mostly in the background.

Sinister Motives
When Xian Mei checks Logan, Sam B and Purna in at the hotel, they discover that they have each won an all expenses paid trip after donating blood to the US National Blood Drive Campaign. The blood drive links all of the player characters together in the story. This vital information that gives a reason as to why these four people are in Banoi, and why they are suspiciously immune to the zombie virus. Unfortunately, the blood drive is never mentioned in the game as certain plot points and explanations were taken out before the final version of "Dead Island" hit the shelves. I'm not sure why they decided to leave it out, as it would've given a hint as to why only those four are immune to the virus and why Ryder White knew that they were immune shortly after the outbreak in the hotel.

If they had kept certain plot points in the game that are covered by the novel it would've made the zombie outbreak all the more sinister than it already is. I'm not sure if they just didn't want to go the whole Umbrella Corporation route, or if they just ran out of time and decided to scrap the whole thing because it couldn't be properly incorporated into the game. At any rate, these differences make the book all the more interesting of a read, and gives fans insight into the driving forces that caused the catastrophe on Banoi to occur in the first place.

Video Game Vs. Book
"Dead Island" the video game doesn't bother with  in-depth explanations of plot or character development-- in fact, it doesn't allow the player characters to choose anything at all. It's like you are just running a soulless avatar around the zombie infested island. When you come across a non-player character (NPC) that wants something done, you can decline, to which the characters accuse you of being heartless and cruel, or you can agree to do it. There is no middle ground, no optional dialogue, no discussion of events, just characters giving you a narrative of what is going on and sending you out on fool hardy missions, most of which you have no choice but to agree upon in order to get experience points, weapon upgrades and to move the storyline further along.

This of course, is one of the major downfalls of the game; for all of its sandboxy goodness--your ability to run around and explore just about anywhere on the island while you play-- it still railroads you into one straight line of action without any deviation whatsoever from the main plotline.

"Dead Island: The Book" actually has a backstory for all of the characters, which make them feel more like real people. Even better, it makes Ryder White a sympathetic victim of circumstance, and explains what exactly caused the zombie outbreak.

In total, there are six main differences between the video game and the book. However, these differences do not make "Dead Island: The Book" a bad read. In fact, the novelization actually adds sub-text and missing information to the Dead Island story; facts that are necessary for people to truly understand what is going on in the video game setting.

1. Charon/Kevin

In "Dead Island" the prisoner Kevin helps out the player characters (PCs) at the prison armory. He also pilots the helicopter that they use to leave Banoi. For strange some reason, during the end cut-scene, Kevin mysteriously smiles and says that the world will never be the same again. His strange reaction hints that he is more than he appears to be; that he quite possibly has a connection to the events that occurred on Banoi. But this paltry amount of information is given at the very last possible second of the game and the timing is, in my opinion, inappropriate as there was no hint whatsoever that he was involved with the virus or Emily White's demise during game play. It virtually comes out of nowhere.

Charon was going to be a quest character in the Ryder White DLC but the character and his quest was removed from the DLC prior to its release. As a result Charon is mentioned only once, during the radio report that plays during the end cut-scene.

In the novel, Kevin is the hacker Charon. Charon is a member of a terrorist sleeper cell who works for the "Organization" (Seriously, that's the name of the group. Real clever there guys.). He gasses the characters in the elevator and steals the vaccine from them, not Ryder White. Charon handcuffs them all and takes away their weapons, so they are helpless as he taunts Ryder White. In the end, he reveals that Ryder is a victim of circumstance and is quite simply a loving husband who is desperate to save his infected wife. Ryder is not the villain in the book, but a pawn in Charon's schemes. Ryder had such a high ranking authority in the military that he could order a nuclear strike on the island to stop the spread of the zombie virus, but he held off in the vain hope that a vaccine could be made and that it would save his wife. Another difference is that Ryder White does not turn into a hulking monstrosity at the end of the story- his wife does instead and Kevin/Charon kills her.

2. The Organization
According to the Dead Island Wiki, the Organization was originally mentioned in the Ryder White Campaign DLC along with the blood drive information, and like Charon, it was removed from the game.

In "Dead Island: The Book" the Organization orchestrated the entire thing, from infecting Ryder White's wife Emily with the zombie virus to getting the PCs all together at the hotel in Banoi.

My question is, if the zombie virus outbreak is a conspiracy orchestrated by several global wide "super-secret" companies that are war profiteers, how come they remain nameless?  Why is it that their presence, brand name products and monetary influence have no affect on the setting or the characters in anyway? And, if they are so influential, why is it that the Organization is just a side note mentioned at the very end of the book?  To me, that just comes across as lazy story telling.

If a company or group of companies is big enough to orchestrate a war campaign in order to directly profit from it, they have to have a front company that is a household name. For instance, the Umbrella Corporation is a huge conglomerate that sells everything from pharmaceuticals to foodstuffs. Umbrella Corp. was a household name long before the zombie outbreak occurred in Raccoon City. Heck, it's shareholders and wealthy CEOs had enough money to create elaborate laboratories and death traps for the S.T.A.R.S. members. So what exactly is the Organization doing with it's free time? Building resorts on tropical islands?

3. Important NPCs are Now Bit Players

Some NPCs that are quite memorable from the game, such as Sinamoi and Mowen are glossed over in the novel and their roles are kept to a bare minimum as supporting characters. Sinamoi is a young buff life guard who can't speak English very well and allows the group to stay overnight in the lifeguard station. Mowen's only motivation to ferry the group around on his boat to make money. He doesn't speak English well either. And John from the church? Well, he isn't even in the novel.

4. Jin

Jin, thankfully, isn't so annoying in the book as she is in the game. In the game, after she tricks up the armored bank truck, her only purpose was to serve as a backpack for the stuff that you can't carry. Even worse, all of her actions are stupid, reckless and just plain old aggravating. I found her to be so annoying that by the end of the game, I was happy when she died. Seriously. I was.

I mean, come on! Who would actually be stupid enough to take a box of food to the Raskols (the tough criminal gangbangers in Moresby) that have holed up in a police station to "help them out" when they are blasting on loudspeakers exactly what they will do to you if you get close to the building? Who would honestly think that men like that would "thank them" for acting like a decent human being? Unfortunately,  naive Jin wanders over there playing Santa and is captured and raped.

In the book, Jin is studying to be a nurse and knows a little about fixing cars because of her dad. She still wants to help people in need, but she doesn't stupidly decide to go help the gangbangers that took over the police station with John (mainly because he isn't in the book). Instead, she becomes a hostage when they go to the police station and Purna and the others have no choice but to leave her there while they fetch food, as the men insisted that they get them food and in exchange they'll release Jin, Dani (a guy from the church that installed the weapons vault in the police station who knows the security codes) and give them some guns that are locked up in the police station armory.

Unfortunately, the men lied. Dani is killed by the Raskols and Jin is raped. This change in events makes a naive character undergo more rational, believable actions, which makes her far more sympathetic in the novel than in the game.

Jin's actions at the end of the novel are different as well. Instead of a stupid one-liner to Ryder White about how hard it is to kill the one you love, where she unleashes his undead wife Emily on him (which gets Jin killed), she grabs the vaccine from Kevin and tries to run it over to Ryder White so that he can use it to help his wife. Kevin, not Ryder, kills her in the story and it makes her death poignant and meaningful, as opposed to the game where I was just freaking glad to have her whiny ass gone.

5. No Mutated Monsters
The novelization does not have any Thugs, Suiciders, Rams, Floaters, or Butchers. There was one zombie in the prison that sort of resembled a Butcher with its arms ending in sharp pointed bones, but that was about it. With the exception of the uber-zombie Emily Ryder (which I suppose counts as a Thug) the main characters only fight the infected or zombies. I was a little surprised that Morris decided not to use the other monsters from the game in the book. They would've made things a little more interesting, as after a while the combat became repetitive with them constantly whacking heads apart with machetes as though they are over-ripe coconuts.

In the sewers, when they are running from the church over to the police station in Moresbury, I thought for sure that a floater would pop up out of the water and attack them. But no-o-o-o, they are attacked by a crocodile instead:

"They walked on, passing another shaft and then another. Suddenly Sam stopped.
'What's wrong?' Purna asked.
'Thought I saw something in the water.'
'Like what?'
'I dunno. Something surfaced, then went back under with a splash.'
'A fish?'
'Maybe. Or perhaps just a log or something.'
'I wouldn't worry,' said Purna. 'I don't think the infected can swim.'
Sam nodded, and was about to set off again when something erupted from the water a few metres ahead of them. In the flashlight beam he saw a pair of wide-open jaws edged with pointed teeth, and an enormous grey-pink gullet.
Purna shoved Sam aside and fired both shotgun barrels into the elongated mouth before he had registered that it was a crocodile."

For some reason this scene made me think of the giant mutant alligator in the sewers that you fight in "Resident Evil 2."

6. It's British!
If you noticed in the quoted text above, the word meters is spelled metres. That's not a typo. The book is written in British English, with British terms and spellings for everything. Not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just that it's a little jarring when characters that aren't British use British terms for things. Both Sam B and Logan are American and at times, the terms they use are strictly British in origin.

For instance, when Sam is talking about an elevator, even though he is from New Orleans where they call it an elevator, in the novel he calls it a lift. This doesn't really detract from the overall reading experience, but it does stand out and it's kind of ridiculous for those terms to be there in the text. I guess it's because as a writer I believe that one should study and learn local colloquialisms prior to writing dialog to ensure that the character's voice matches where they are from. But, other than a few strange instances British English dominating dialog or inner thoughts, the book is actually written quite well.

"Dead Island: The Book" is a fast paced and entertaining read that fully captures the spirit and essence of the video game on the written page. It was so close to the gaming experience that it made me pick up my controller and start a new play through. If you like "Dead Island," you'll love the novelization by Mark Morris.

You can read the prologue to the book here or pick up your own copy of "Dead Island: The Book."

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