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Why I can't get behind 'Dead Island'

Omar Gallaga says the "Dead Island" trailer is part of a growing, disturbing trend in video games.
Omar Gallaga says the "Dead Island" trailer is part of a growing, disturbing trend in video games.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The trailer for zombie survival horror game "Dead Island" has sparked intense interest online
  • But game developers seem to be getting comfortable with putting children in peril
  • Gallaga says this is just another reflection of our culture
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Editors Note: Omar L. Gallaga is a technology contributor to NPR's All Tech Considered segment on "All Things Considered." He writes about technology for the Austin American-Statesman and for the newspaper's tech blog, Digital Savant.

(CNN) -- Last week, video game blogs lit up with excitement over a game that was previously on no one's radar. The zombie survival horror game "Dead Island," doesn't have a release date yet, but it's got a remarkable, haunting trailer, one so skillfully made that it's prompted some bloggers to call it the best game trailer ever released.

Told in reverse, presented in slow-motion, it's a stunning piece of work. A chase, intercut into the scene, fills in the backstory and by the end, the two pieces of virtual film merge.

So what happens in the trailer? A little girl dies. Horrifically. She's chased down a hallway by zombies, bitten into, then temporarily rescued by her parents. Moments later, she becomes a zombie herself. She attacks her father and as he turns in pain, she's flung through a window and falls many stories to her death. In presenting the story in reverse, the trailer begins with her body lying broken on the ground, her eye open and staring.

Effective? Absolutely. In less than a day, a game that sounded like a by-the-numbers zombie shooter had a built-in audience of worshipful players ready to buy "Dead Island" whenever it ships. Deep Silver, the game's developer, said there's been strong interest in a movie adaptation for a game that nobody's yet played.

As a gamer and as a parent of two little girls, I can say that as much as I admire the craft of putting such a game trailer together, it's not one that I can enjoy. The game itself may turn out to be fantastic, but the cinematic preview strikes me as exploitative and cynical, a successful marketing ploy meant to evoke shock and pity.

The "Dead Island" trailer wouldn't bother me so much if it didn't feel like part of a growing, disturbing trend in video games. Last year, I played "Heavy Rain," a dark, story-driven melodrama about a serial killer who drowns young boys. In the game, you play as four main characters trying to stop the crimes, including the father of a boy who's been kidnapped by the murderer.

[SPOILER ALERT] It's only in the last act of the game that you discover one of those characters is the killer and at points in the game you were unwittingly helping the serial killer along.

The 2007 hit "BioShock" introduced players to the Little Sisters, mutant children you could save or harvest for power-ups that would help you in the game. Players literally held the lives of the little girls in their hands and had to decide whether to kill.

And in a game I'm currently playing, "Dead Space 2," some of the enemies you mow down with futuristic weapons include small, quick moving "Necromorphs" that resemble fierce little Gollums. The disgusting space mutants, it turns out, were once children living on a large space station. To guide the point home, you're tasked with exploring a day care center where they used to play.

These are all games I've played and enjoyed; "BioShock" was considered one of the best games of 2007. "Heavy Rain" was well-regarded for its uncompromising storytelling and adult themes. And "Dead Space 2" has earned raves from game critics for its unrelenting action and scares.

But, increasingly, I'm getting uncomfortable with how comfortable game developers have become with putting children in peril and, often, allowing them to be gruesomely killed.

If you watch local TV news, read the newspaper or skim through CNN's headlines, there's not a day that goes by when you don't hear about some unthinkable violence or long-term abuse against a child. The video game industry, which has strived since the 1980s to have the same cultural cachet as TV and movies, has found a taboo that can make gamers feel like they're consuming more mature, provocative entertainment.

When such depictions are presented in an artful, entertaining way, video game advocates are put in a position of defending content that might be less palatable in other mediums. Would the "Dead Island" trailer work as a live-action preview of a movie or would it have provoked outrage?

I wonder if our tolerance for virtual gore and bloodshed in games has numbed us to the mutilation and torture of children because they're virtual characters, no more real than the barrel-chested Nazis in "Wolfenstein 3D" or the turtles in "Super Mario Bros."

Or, more disturbingly, maybe we've become so used to hearing about violence directed at kids that its depiction in video games is just another reflection of our culture. Perhaps developers, many of whom have kids of their own, are exploring their own fears as they build complex, dark game narratives, fully aware that once there's an "M for Mature" label on the package, there'll be little outcry.

Perhaps there are some people who like the queasy feeling of taking down kid-sized zombies and space monsters in their video game entertainment.

If that's the case, then the "Dead Island" trailer has done its job. It's horrified me and has left me feeling haunted and sad.

The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of Omar L. Gallaga.

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