The Kobayashi Maru of Games

There may not be a more emotionally-charged game trailer than Wednesday’s trailer for Dead Island. The afternoon reveal spread like wildfire, quickly breaking into Twitter’s global trending topics (where it still remains as of Friday morning). I don’t know that I can recall a faster spread for an original title – whether people loved it or hated it, it sure got them talking.

As a three minute CG short film, I personally find it a stellar piece of work. For a game, however, the trailer sets a fantastic tone and atmosphere that is probably unlikely to be represented in the shipping title. Compare the closing shot from the trailer (above) to this screen in which we observe a red-skirted woman with a sword facing down a straight-jacketed zombie that appears to be a mix of Hannibal Lecter and the Quake 4 Berserker.

This is not a new problem, nor a new complaint. CG or otherwise pre-rendered trailers are typically more about style and theme than accurately representing gameplay. What makes Dead Island an interesting case is how far the theme and style of the trailer appears to fall from the actual game. While previews of the actual game still sound promising, I can’t help but wonder – what if the trailer actually did represent the game?

While imagining what this version of the game might be like, I immediately thought of Star Trek’s Kobayashi Maru test. First seen in Star Trek II, the test places Starfleet cadets in an impossible scenario – a civilian freighter, the Kobayashi Maru, has been damaged in the neutral zone between Federation and Klingon space. When the cadet enters the neutral zone, his/her ship will be intercepted by multiple Klingon destroyers.

It is impossible to dissuade/defeat the Klingons, rescue the crew of the Kobayashi Maru, and escape back to Federation space. That, of course, is not the test. The test is of course actually meant to measure the cadet’s actions and leadership, even in the face of certain death. As Kirk describes in The Wrath of Khan: “How we face death is at least as important as how we face life.

Just a couple weeks ago, friend and colleague Matthew Breit recently wrote about the prospects of Groundhog Day: The Game. As he describes ways one might start exploring this hypothetical game, he touches on the movie’s scenario of the old dying bum:

Someone else discovers the old bum dying and starts a blog indexing his various failed attempts to save his life, trying to find the secret golden path through the game’s dialog and action options that helps the poor guy see the sunrise, and slowly evolves into a must-read meditation on accepting death.

This to me was the most poignant part of his entire write-up – the idea that, like the Kobayashi Maru, some outcomes are inevitable. What matters is no longer the resolution, but the actions taken along the way.

Most games, however, still predominantly focus on victory, usually in dramatic fashion. Our vernacular still refers to completing a game as “beating” it. Failure is rarely touched upon beyond dying and reloading the last checkpoint. Mass Effect 2 includes an ending where Shepard and his/her entire crew is killed – but you practically have to try to die. Halo: Reach’s story focused around the fall of Reach, but only really represented that fall by occasionally killing off core characters and including a brief “survive as long as you can” encounter at the end against an overwhelming swarm of Covenant.

Perhaps the best available example of inevitable failure I’ve seen is the flash game One Chance. You are a scientist whose cure for cancer turns out to be fatal to all life. You have six days before all life on the planet dies. How do you spend those six days? With your family? Desperately working for a cure?

Back to Dead Island. What if the game’s trailer is the bookend of its story, beginning with a normal family vacation, and ending in inevitable death? What do you do? Hole up in the hotel and wait/hope for rescue? Attempt a daring escape by boat/helicopter/plane/any transportation mode available? If you are separated from your family, do you try to save yourself, or do you go back at great personal risk to attempt to save them?  What measures are you willing to take to prevent your family from the horrible fate awaiting them?

How do you die? Torn apart by zombies while reflecting on how poor a plan you just tried to execute? Cowering in a corner, afraid to venture out? Sitting and watching as your family is slaughtered in front of you, or overwhelmed while desperately trying to defend them? At the hands of your own just-turned daughter?

Dead Island will likely be a grittier, less slapstick Dead Rising. And that’s ok. It may even be a great game. But to truly match the bleak outlook of the trailer, Techland has to be willing to let us die. And we need to be able to come to terms with that.

5 thoughts on “The Kobayashi Maru of Games

  1. Josh Sutphin

    There’s a lot of debate about the role of story in games, and a sizable faction that believes games’ best storytelling potential is when the player is the one creating the story. Minecraft, Dwarf Fortress, and EVE Online are all really great at this. The buzz around those games seems to have less to do with the games themselves than the player-created stories that emerge from them, and it’s very potent.

    The design you’re alluding to would be — at least as I interpret it — a AAA, zombie-infested approach to that. Even better would be if it’s short-form: a good run keeps you alive for maybe 3 hours, but not much longer, keeping the player story to a consumable duration and encouraging replaying the scenario in different ways, creating and sharing different stories. The community interaction around Matt’s theoretical Groundhog Day game would in all likelihood happen here as well. And maybe, several months after release, that one guy would figure out that you actually *can* flag down a passing cruise ship or aircraft, and escape to the safety of the mainland, and everyone’s minds would blow up.

    Sadly, we’re probably not going to get that game. 😦

    But if we do, I think it could become very important.

    1. Andrew Weldon Post author

      I think anything like this kind of has to be short-form. I don’t think you want the scenario where you’ve dumped 20 hours in a desperate effort only to fail, and I think part of what makes this sort of thing interesting is the ability to go back and create those different stories out of the choices you make.

      These things all keep cycling around to that Alien-ish thing I’ve mentioned in the past. I think this game needs to be made. 😉

      1. Mike Dunbar


        Your mentioning of the Alien-ish thing reminded me of a game called Enemy Zero for the sega saturn. It’s probably not exactly what we’re talking about here, but it more or less ripped off Alien. You played a woman on a large space-ship journeying back to earth, you were awoken from cryo and found that an alien had got on board and was gradually killing off all your friends. In the end your only option is to escape the ship, and the final cutscenes showed you tender moments you managed to have with your friends before their deaths.

        The interesting mechanics were that it was in a sort of real-time, and that the alien was invisible and had to be detected by sound.

        Here’s that ending I mentioned, quite bittersweet.

      2. Andrew Weldon Post author

        Oh, wow, I’ve wanted to make almost that exact game for years, and there it’s been all along. I might have to see if I can track down that PC version.

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