It is a staple of zombie fiction that, in amongst the crush of bodies, the hands that grasp, the roots that clutch, a person may discover who they truly are. The landscape changes and a shopping mall becomes a battlefield, a coffee shop in a food court becomes a safe haven. There is a lovely moment in the Dawn of the Dead remake when a heroic character reveals that they were previously just a guy who sold TVs. Yes, zombies want to get at what's inside you, but sometimes, in the process, they also get at what's inside you. In the darkest hour, you find reserves you never knew you had.
I have never been ravaged by shambling and reanimated corpses, but a few years back I reviewed the original Dead Island off of debug code for a magazine, and so I feel, in a way, that I know what that experience might be like. The original Dead Island was charmingly buggy even when it hit the shops, but I played it in a pre-release state and, reader, it was so much zanier. Now that the game occupies a space in which people feel a distinct fondness for it - and now that an HD re-release is here - it feels like the right moment to share my most terrifying and unexpected experience from that review process. I fought against horrors, and I was engulfed by them.
Let's start off by saying this: Dead Island on debug was hopelessly broken at times. It was a melee game that had such severe clipping issues that my lunges with a baseball bat would often pass politely through the people whose bones I was trying to break. It was a complex navigational challenge in which the GPS marker on the mini-map would often tangle itself up in knots or disappear entirely. More importantly, it had a handful of missions with trigger points that were comprehensively borked. One of them was even entertainingly borked.
Midway through the game I remember a mission in a jungle. I will never forget this mission in a jungle, to be honest, although it is possible that my memory has embellished the details. I was trying to get to a character who would lead me to a boat. The journey to meet this guy was tough: I drove for a bit, and then set off on foot down a narrow channel that, in my memory at least, went on and on and on. It was one of those corridors that video game jungles are filled with, and it was liberally scattered with former-people who now needed a good shoeing. It felt like it was about a mile long, and then, at the end of it, my reward: I saw the man who would give me the boat. And behind him, I saw a bend of river and the boat itself.
I went over to the man. He suggested that he was definitely about to lead me to the boat, and I followed him. Metres away from the vessel, however, he suddenly spun on his heel and headed back the way he had come, and then he did it again, and again. We were deep in the jungle, but this strange action of his made him briefly resemble Sherlock Holmes, the master detective, pacing the floor of his Baker Street rooms as he sought to make sense of a knotty problem. I left him to it and went over to the boat. No good. Without my guide, it was not really a boat at all: it was the geometry of a boat, but without the trigger that would start the engine.
I spent at least an hour there with that man, wandering in circles. I walked beside him and tried to nudge him into acknowledging me. Eventually, I sighed very deeply and restarted the mission. I drove a bit. I walked a bit. I fought a bit and then I made it back to the man and his boat.
And again: the wandering, the circles. I tried again. And again. You know what they say about doing the same stupid thing over and over and expecting a different result? They say that you must be playing Dead Island on a debug. Anyway, eventually I gave in and emailed the extremely pleasant PR person who had given me the code. He said he would get in touch with the developers, and an hour later I had a workaround.
But if Dead Island had bugs unlike other games, you should see the workarounds. This bug, I was assured, would be fixed in the final game, but for the time being there was a very simple thing I could do to progress with the adventure and get in that boat. Very simple. Can't believe I didn't think of it myself, really. I read the email with the instructions. Then I read it again. Then I thought long and hard about retraining as a vet or a librarian or the wing-walker in an aerial acrobatics show.
I thought about the worst moment of my working life to date. I was employed in a cinema foyer serving hotdogs and nachos. The nacho cheese was a villainous yellow liquid, thick as exterior paint and only slightly less delicious, and the hot dogs were heated on rollers, which would have worked beautifully if we didn't store them in such tight confines that they all came out of the packets squared off, with four neat edges rather than the smooth sausagey curve of a traditional hot dog. On one dark day - the worst working day of my life - the square hot dogs were failing to turn on the rollers when one of them suddenly gave in to the ennui that ravages the quiet hours of a square hot dog, and burst into flames. I looked around the cinema foyer, but there was nobody on staff to help me: they had all snuck off to see the part in Cherry Falls where Brittany Murphy makes the guy out of Revenge bite her. I had no immediate assistance, and I am not very good at thinking, so I put out the fire the only way I knew how. I doused a hot dog fire with nacho cheese. I was twenty-one years old and far from home. Even that seemed preferable to the Dead Island workaround.
Eventually I steeled myself and reloaded the game. I got in the car and drove a bit, but this time I didn't get out of the car when I hit the corridor in the jungle. The car was not meant to access this point but, as the developers had promised me, it just about fit, and I eased my way down the long jungle track, travelling at about five miles an hour so as to protect as much of the vehicle's frail physical integrity as I could.
I reached the man with the boat. I got out of the car and spoke to him. He started to lead me to the boat and then changed his mind. He started to walk in circles again. I got back in the car, re-read the email workaround instructions, and then I started the engine.
I was about to do something very precise and surgical, you see. Sadly, I was about to attempt this particular surgery in a Dead Island 4x4 with a dodgy motor and a cracked windscreen.
I nosed the car forward until the front bumper connected with the man who was walking in circles. Then, using a car as you absolutely never should use a car in real life, I started to nudge him towards the boat and the invisible trigger point that would allow me to access it and get on with my life - or at least the large chunk of my life concerned with playing the rest of Dead Island on debug. One metre, two metres, three metres. I had been in this jungle for the best part of an afternoon now, so I got a little impatient. I picked up speed, maybe hitting the 10 mph mark.
And then the guy I was nudging towards the boat made a noise and dropped dead. Somehow, I had run him over. Somehow, I had orchestrated the world's oddest slow-speed RTA. At that point, I heard another noise: the ping of my phone, telling me that an email had arrived.
It was the PR. "One last thing," he said, or words to that effect. "When you hit him with the car, remember not to hit him too hard.
"Because you might kill him."
I never played Dead Island on retail (and nobody reviews from debug code anymore), but I gather that the jungle bug is long gone. A shame. I kind of enjoyed it.