NME

David Stenton

“You can see daylight through the hole in the skull, which is part of the payoff, right?”

Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that David Stenton, game director of Dambuster Studios’ recently launched Dead Island 2, is so passionate about gore. After all, his new game is an uncensored exhibition of bloodshed, pushing players to stretch their creative muscles in the pursuit of one thing and one thing only: making the undead dead again.

“The most important part of the game is killing zombies in fantastic and awesome and extravagant ways.”

If one thing is clear from listening to Stenton talk, it’s that this is a man who’s serious about splatter, and saw the Dead Island sequel as his chance to pay homage to the greats of the horror genre.

He has a type though, and it’s not “navel-gazing at humanity’s ills, putting zombies as the backdrop for humanity’s inter-societal conflicts or anything like that.”

No, he goes straight for the video nasties, the ‘obscene’ horror flicks pulled from shops in the UK amid a censorship panic in the early ‘80s.

David Stenton
Credit: Shaun Wootton for NME

The Evil Dead is the obvious touch point – fittingly, since latest entry Evil Dead Rise hit UK cinemas the exact same day that Dead Island 2 shambled its way onto consoles. Perhaps as proof of his credentials, Stenton admits to sharing my unusual preference for the ultra-low-budget first film in the series – “before it got a little bit goofy.”

He can dig deeper than that though, citing another of the infamous nasty collection: Zombie Flesh Eaters, a.k.a. Zombi 2, Lucio Fulci’s sort-of-sequel to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (which had released in Italy as Zombi).

“That’s got moments of complete, unnecessary excess,” he explains cheerily, going on to describe a “graphic” shot of a woman’s eye being impaled, agonisingly slowly, on a wooden spike. “I just love the tone of that movie.”

“We want to put the player down on the streets and get them to paint the town red.”

That adoration carries through to Dead Island 2, which rejoices in the ribbons of blood and innards that follow your every move, making Jackson Pollock paintings out of its immaculately rendered take on Los Angeles – or Hell-A, as the game’s marketers would have it.

“We want to put the player down on the streets and get them to paint the town red.”

As you roam L.A.’s ravaged streets and mansions, you’re tasked with ridding the city of its rotting residents – a welcome upgrade from the usual Angelenos perhaps.

Much of the experience feels familiar. The semi-open loot-filled world, RPG-lite progression system, and crass sense of humour skirt the edges of been-there-done-that, but the game has a secret weapon: what Stenton calls the “best body deformation tech out there.”

David Stenton
Credit: Shaun Wootton for NME

You see, while Dead Island 2 might adopt a first-person perspective, this is no shooter. There are guns, but they’re almost incidental, secondary to the game’s weapons of choice: clubs, wrenches, knives, and just about anything else you can get your hands on that could be described as either ‘heavy’ or ‘sharp’ (and, every now and then, both).

You’re encouraged to apply those frequently to the heads, limbs, and other accoutrements of the town’s zombified inhabitants, and any damage is lovingly – and I do mean lovingly – rendered in grisly, gory detail using Dambuster’s proprietary ‘flesh system’.

Slash at a zombie’s leg and you might hobble it. Knock ‘em on the shoulder and that arm might stop working. Bash away at their head and – a touch alarmingly – you’ll find plenty of brains and other viscera ready to spray your way from the exact point you were just busy bludgeoning.

Undead bodies become the bloody canvas on which you work your art, and before long you stop trying to put zombies down, and start trying to tear them up.

“As the tech and ambition evolved, we started to realise: what about if you want to burn a zombie? Or if you want to disembowel a zombie?”

“The initial fantasy really was: let’s just be able to dismember a zombie anywhere. [But] do we really want to be making dozens and dozens and dozens of different combinations of zombies getting cut up?” Stenton asked the question early on as the team realised what was to become its game’s USP: real-time dismemberment driven by the player’s exact attacks.

Cutting zombies up was only the start.

“As the tech and ambition evolved, we started to realise: what about if you want to burn a zombie? Or if you want to disembowel a zombie?”

Reader: thanks to Stenton, we now have the technology. In Dead Island 2 you can burn, disembowel, dissolve, and otherwise mutilate flesh almost any way you please. Weapons can be modded with fire, electricity, acid and more; blades can be thrown; explosives can be triggered – even swimming pools can be weaponised, in at least two different ways.

David Stenton
Credit: Shaun Wootton for NME

And whatever you opt for, you can be sure there’ll be plenty of the red stuff to go around.

But there’s art to this artifice, care taken to make sure the gore is just right, to create something that might linger in the mind as long as Fulci’s squelching eyeball, “the type of gore that brings a smile to your face.”

Take one of Dead Island 2’s combat counters, which sees you drive a set of legally-not-Wolverine’s claws into – and through – the head of whichever undead unfortunate just tried to chomp on your face.

“You can punch your fist straight through the skull of the zombie,” Stenton explains, getting straight to the point.

Sounds great! But there was a problem: late in the game’s development, tweaks had made the player character too efficient at slaughter, and the poor zombified victim was dropping off-screen too fast to allow the player to appreciate their, ahem, handiwork.

David Stenton
Credit: Shaun Wootton for NME

Stenton made sure the team returned to the animation, months after it had been finished, to keep that zombie standing just a little longer so you can “see daylight through the hole in the skull.” He let the camera hang for a moment longer, just like Fulci’s had all those years ago.

Or to put it another way: “You punched the hole, you want to see the payoff.”

For all this obsession with innards becoming outtards, you might be surprised to learn that Dead Island 2 is Stenton’s first horror game.

He grew up in Sheffield, playing on a hand-me-down ZX Spectrum from his older brother before making his first forays into creating games on a Commodore Amiga.

“I’m absolutely glad that I grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” Stenton says. “You used to get programming languages on the cover discs of Amiga Format, and applications and software that were pretty hardcore, really. Because they were free you’d boot them up and play about with them.”

“I’m absolutely glad that I grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s. You used to get programming languages on the cover discs of Amiga Format, and applications and software that were pretty hardcore, really.”

He eventually earned a place on one of the UK’s earliest game development courses at what was then the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside. It was there that he had his first real brush with success: a mod called The Hidden that he and his flatmates made for the iconic shooter Half-Life.

“We originally came up with the concept for The Hidden during a game of Counter-Strike. I spawned in one time invisible, which was obviously a bug. But it was the best fun, creeping around invisible and killing off my flatmates and hearing their cries from the other rooms in the flat, and it just sparked an idea. So we started tinkering.”

The resulting game was simple enough: an asymmetrical multiplayer shooter with echoes of Predator, pitting a team of fiercely armed soldiers against a single player with the benefit of invisibility. The Hidden eventually became Stenton’s final-year project, and years later was remade by another cohort of students in Half Life 2’s Source engine, where it went on to find fame as a cult classic.

The Hidden led Stenton to his first job in games in 2002, in Stockport, where he worked at Warthog Games on an adaptation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone for the PS2, Xbox, and GameCube, before returning to Sheffield a few years later to work at Kuju on the PlayStation Portable flight sim Pilot Academy.

David Stenton
Credit: Shaun Wootton for NME

If those studios aren’t too familiar, you might know this next one: in 2008 Stenton upped sticks and moved himself, his fiancée, and his cat to Canada to join Bioware, where he worked across Mass Effect 2 and 3, and then Dragon Age: Inquisition – focussing on technical and level design.

Drawn to the Mass Effect team by the first game’s ‘70s and ‘80s genre aesthetic, Stenton admits that by the time he finished work on the third it had “lost a little bit of what appeals to me,” as the “retro sci-fi angle had gone quite Michael Bay.”

Even so, he remembers being “taken aback” by the fan backlash against the trilogy closer, ire mostly directed at an ending that some felt didn’t do justice to the myriad moral and narrative choices players had made across three games.

“It was a huge undertaking, to try and draw all those threads together,” he says, but is quick to add that he saw the furore as a “storm in a teacup.”

“Yeah, OK, not everybody appreciated the ending… but as a team, you kind of knew that you’ve got a good game at the core of it,” he adds. “We perhaps underestimated the level of passion that people would have.”

David Stenton
Credit: Shaun Wootton for NME

That’s a lesson he drew on when it came to revealing Dead Island 2. The game had already been announced years earlier, with two other studios working on versions of the sequel since 2012. Dambuster’s involvement was made public in 2019, but the studio waited a further three years to give fans their first look. Stenton wouldn’t underestimate their passion again.

“We wanted to wait until we’d got something to show, something real, something to play, because fans had been waiting for so long. It wouldn’t be surprising if they imagined that it might be vapourware at this point.”

The team was so careful about the reveal that they wouldn’t even wear their Dead Island dev shirts under other clothes at Gamescom 2022, where the game was shown, for fear of accidentally letting a logo loose too early.

David Stenton
Credit: Shaun Wootton for NME

Dambuster started the game from scratch when it came to them, choosing not to pick up the pieces of prior developer Sumo Digital’s work. “It wasn’t something that we wanted to do,” Stenton explains, emphasising that their aim was always to develop their own “awesome tech” for gore. It always comes back to dismemberment.

With the original game already eight years old by the time the team got to work, and years yet to go, you’d expect there’d be some pressure to rush it out, to introduce the dreaded industry bogeyman: crunch.

“Games are massively important. Games are my life, games are my career, they’re my hobby. But they aren’t everything in life, right?

But Stenton explains that the delayed reveal of Dambuster’s take on Dead Island served a dual purpose: to manage fan expectations, but also to manage staff stress, to avoid announcing a release date “until it’s ready.”

“Games are massively important. Games are my life, games are my career, they’re my hobby. But they aren’t everything in life, right?

“It’s important to respect that.”

With Dead Island 2 now out, Stenton is finally free to move onto whatever’s next, to set decapitations and mutilations aside for a few years should he so wish.

David Stenton
Credit: Shaun Wootton for NME

But his demons might not let go of him that easily. Lurking in the back of his brain for 20 years has been a singular vision of a solo zombie: a survival game where you’re endlessly pursued by a lonely undead. It Follows made interactive.

“You don’t necessarily need thousands of zombies. If there was just one zombie, and you were out in the countryside, or out in the wilderness, you didn’t know where that zombie was, but you knew that if it saw you, it would pursue you relentlessly? You would never be able to rest because it’d always be moving towards you, wherever you are.

“I like that sort of sinister fantasy.”

If Stenton’s work on Dead Island 2 teaches us anything, it’s that when that one zombie finally catches up, there will be blood.

The post David Stenton is making the videogame nasties appeared first on NME.

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