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In Memoriam: a Dead Rising retrospective – Part 2

by Will Ooi on 05/29/12 11:59:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 


This is the second part of In Memoriam: a Dead Rising retrospective, looking back on the game's influence on the reinvigorated popularity of the zombie genre, and the controversial design decisions that defined its core identity. Having examined the title's roots in Capcom's first foray into Survival Horror and its thematic inspirations from George A. Romero's Dead films in Part 1, this time we'll assess closer the game design and mechanics that made, but for others, broke, Dead Rising, along with the incredible demands of the unlockable, pretty-much-as-crazy-as-it-sounds, Infinity Mode.


Players would get used to that awkward image of Frank West's back as he stood at the urinal overwriting that one save file of theirs, yet another potentially last pee being performed for the umpteenth time prior to heading back out into the expanses of Willamette Mall in a combined state of fear and curiosity. Players would also become overly familiar with that annoying walky-talky ringtone whenever the mall's security officer, Otis, would phone in at the most inopportune moments with more 'Scoops' on what strife some other poor sods had gotten themselves into on the other side of the mall, phoning back in anger if Frank had the nerve to hang up on him as he balanced his very survival with a large bottle of orange juice and an electric guitar in each hand, perhaps also whilst running away feverishly from some pyromaniac throwing molotovs and driving explosive remote-controlled toy race cars in his general direction. As a general rule, these ringtones signified impending doom. Dead Rising fans would even get used to seeing those same story cutscenes playing over and over again after being forced to restart from the very beginning, probably catching themselves mouthing lines of dialogue as if it were a favourite movie. And despite all of these annoyances, for those who still chose to persevere by drawing inspiration from some remarkable source of inner strength, seeing their improved progress get utterly destroyed thanks to either another mistimed save or a horrendously unexpected and unprepared-for boss battle as the game mockingly asked whether they'd like to give it another go, from scratch, players would definitely get used to that Groundhog Day sensation of End of the World proportions: sick to death of this horrible, ceaseless purgatory and wishing that all these problems, these zombies, this...nightmare... would just go away forever.


Chances are, however, that not everyone would swat their controllers away in a haste or angrily confront their Xbox 360 disc trays with pointed, accusing forefingers as they vowed to never play the game again/snap the disc/nastily lend it to a 'friend' like it was the VHS out of The Ring. Indeed, in the midst of all that rage and frustration they'd long suffered at the hands of lead designer Keiji Inafune and his co-conspiring in-game rabble of psychos, innocents and idiots, to say nothing of the forever respawning masses of undead, perhaps these remaining few players could still conjure up the courage and brace themselves for the heartbreak to give the game another chance - by hook, or more probably, by crook - to make things right in the world, once and for all.


But even if players did find themselves conditioned to forever face these staple moments of agony in Dead Rising, akin to the equivalent thrills and shocks and gratuitous gore and unnecessary nudity a in low-budget horror film, it surely didn't mean they derived enjoyment from any of it, did they? 



Or did they?



"When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth [over and over and over...]" 

Whilst Dead Rising may have been thematically inspired by both Dawn of the Dead and the original Resident Evil, much of its design influence owes greatly to the runaway success of the latter's sequel, Resident Evil 2, Inafune himself amongst the staff. Once again offering a story mode that could be played through as a female or male character, the experience in RE2 allowed greater divergence through the implementation of an innovative 'Zapping System' which allowed Claire Redfield's and Leon Kennedy's paths to often intersect, granting the narrative an illusion of these separate events occurring simultaneously. Cleverly, the inclusion of a shared locker allowed players to either store or take objects for the benefit or hindrance of the second, a save-game feature designed for the experienced to improve their future performance through what was essentially an act of self-beneficial altruism.


Such values, though, were seen in perhaps less charitable or tangible equivalents in Dead Rising. Instead of a shiny new rocket launcher or a health replenishing can of healing spray, players would quickly come to realise that salvation manifested not in the form of material objects (Romero would be proud, lawsuit aside) but rather as knowledge of one's previous experience through the game; the key word there being "previous", as in acquired during a past life ended prematurely. Think of the online messages left by friendly strangers in Demon's/Dark Souls, only that here, you suffered those nasty deaths first and memorised them yourself for later; not so much a 'New Game Plus' mode as it was, for many, 'New Game Negative/Bad/NOT AGAIN'. And just as RE2 rewarded the considerable effort required in achieving the highest performance ratings with the memorable unlockable game modes "Fourth Survivor" and its parody, "Tofu Survivor" (why do I get the feeling Inafune had something to do with this one), successful Dead Rising players needed to invest that knowledge in exchange for the most valuable commodity in the game, time, in order to sample the ever-changing scenarios and weird events of Willamette Mall and all its inhabitants, not to mention that elusive A ranking for the best ending.

Image from the Dead Rising Wiki
~

But what if you didn't want to play Dead Rising "properly"? No problem! With an in-game clock counting down over a 72 hour period, players could completely disregard the main storyline at their leisure (or rather, they could try completing the story at first and fail it pathetically) and spend the remainder of that time limit mucking around, probably discovering something useful to go back to later on in this life or the next. If only one's mortality in a real Zombie Apocalypse could be approached quite as lackadaisically. Multiple playthroughs were also well supported with a mix of achievements ranging from the humourous, such as 'Frank the Pimp' where he had to escort 8 female survivors at once, to the ridiculous, with ''Zombie Genocider' requiring a zombie death toll of 53,594 - a figure making up the entire population of the once-peaceful town of Willamette and also referenced in an equivalent Left 4 Dead 2 achievement - which also had the adverse effect of turning an entire, dedicated run of the game into one hell of an almighty grind. But with no shortage of stores to visit and unmarked events and characters (and boss fights) to bump into along the way, the game's replayability was immense in almost guaranteeing that no two games would ever be the same, even if their boundaries were strictly limited. So limited, in fact, that many people simply hated it, bemoaning the lack of a true free-roam mode to go with all the previous complaints.


Yet being stuck in a horribly placed or timed save didn't always have to render one's progress dead and buried: abiding by the game's rules whilst experimenting with and creatively using the mall's items on offer could allow players to figure out their own strategies for post-apocalyptic world domination. The hidden attribute-boosting books used in combination with the right items, along with the knowledge of the most efficient path through the world map gained via one's previous footsteps, gave determined players the tools with which they could ultimately conquer seemingly insurmountable deadlines. Skateboards, bicycles and even cars were scattered about within the confines of Willamette Mall for the express purpose of speedy travel to combat that ticking clock - or simply as alternate means of dealing death - depending on the goals of the player.


Herein lies the basis of the love/hate relationship people experienced with Dead Rising, frustration often going hand in hand with reward and knowledge where the solutions and most efficient objects were present all along within the vast range of choices available, but with the correct contexts in which they could be applied reserved only for those  who displayed the necessary persistence to discover them in the first place.

"There can be no more divisions among the living!" 

Speaking in terms of the game's thematic inspiration, were it not for the much-criticised single save file and ticking clock mechanics in Dead Rising, how else could the emotional reactions present in its source material truly be captured? The gameplay limitations were there not only to provoke strong reactions, but to also drive players forward to succeed where they had previously failed: in place of that gang of bikers that interrupt the survivors' helicopter escape in the original Dawn of the Dead, you have the notoriously difficult convicts driving their jeep around the park. For all those moments in zombie films where mistakes immediately led to regret, for instance 'the other Frank' character in 28 Days Later [spoiler] needlessly getting himself infected through an uncharacteristic act of carelessness - was its equivalent in Dead Rising not that very same reaction of anger and remorse right after you screwed up your one precious save file?


And just as it had been portrayed in its film inspirations, as players became more familiar with the layout of the mall after making Frank traversing back and forth - his initially slow and staggered steps getting increasingly nimbler as he levelled up over several lifetimes, they were even faced with some unexpected results as the precious seconds ticked away. The presence of the zombies themselves would become more of a nuisance than a threat as they blocked the path to more important events, brushed away and, preferably, altogether avoided rather than eliminated. The ones that did need eliminating, though? Flashy but laborious tools of death like the Excavator were abandoned in favour of the faster, more methodical weapons like steel pipes or knives which allowed Frank to kill quicker and more efficiently. Ahem. Even a few difficult questions would be asked as several of Otis' scoops conflicted directly with one another to present moral dilemmas: will you risk the time and danger required to travel across the map and rescue these people - and can you even afford to? Weapon efficiency analyses aside, is this not the essence of a true zombie apocalypse? The zombies might be everywhere but - just as in Left 4 Dead's co-op experience  - it's really got nothing to do with them: it's about you and your reactions to the other survivors and the surrounding environment, and Dead Rising's interpretation of those reactions were to, basically, get its players to scream in pained urgency or loathe in the regret of making the wrong choices.


Regardless of all the supporting arguments claiming that the very appeal of Dead Rising was in the manner in which it had been built and, conversely, all the complaints about the time limits and save system and compulsory trial and error learning to manage what was essentially an almost perfect playthrough, the biggest irony was that in achieving the highest possible rank in the game, players were rewarded with - you betcha - that much requested sandbox gameplay in the form of Infinity Mode. But as with so many other aspects of the game itself, it sure came at a price; and I'm not talking about controlling a piece of tofu in this mode, either.


INFINITY MODE: How about free-roaming with NO save system, then?

At least Frank's continence issues were gone for good, if that's any consolation.


If you thought that one save slot was bad, try no save slot in its place. It was as if Inafune and his team were so aware of the outrage the game's design decisions would cause that not only would they include the most yearned-for mode of the game as an unlockable bonus and make it available only for the most ardently indestructible players, they would also completely strip it of its most basic and already-criticised feature and, seemingly for the hell of it, add a survival-focused Tamagotchi twist to the ghastly proceedings, laughing hysterically and surprisingly not getting into any trouble with the Xbox's Red Ring of Death hardware problem back when that was a big deal. You see, in Infinity Mode players were let loose in a completely open Willamette Mall with no story to worry about or survivors to rescue but with the very significant catch being that they could not save the game - ever - effectively turning willing participants into the zombies themselves, sleepwalking within their own very real and now extremely invasive living hells. Gone too was the ticking clock,  replaced with an ever-dwindling health bar meaning that even though his bladder issues had been fixed, in its place Frank was now suffering from insatiable hunger and needed to be constantly fed. And just for good measure or to further rub salt in the wound, depending on how one saw it, food items were now extremely rare, too.


Needless to say it was all just plain sadistic but, at the same time, an utterly ingenious way to play the game: frustration going hand in hand with reward and knowledge once again, but now only for as long as you could personally sustain it.

"Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives."

Perhaps another throwback to the game's own Survival Horror roots or maybe merely existing as some sort of sick prize for the masochistically morbid fans who weren't satisfied after tearing themselves through to the completion of the main story, Infinity Mode could almost be seen as a satire of the main game itself, almost as if it had developed a wicked sense of self-awareness overnight as the disease took over. Instead of leading that assortment of NPCs with horrible artificial intelligence back to the safehouse, their poor decision making was now a good thing as you hunted them down mercilessly and plundered all the tubs of yoghurt and slabs of steak in their possession. Not a fan of the deadlines or the time management required in the story mode? Well try it again where you're now forced to sacrifice your social life and basic freedom of movement to remain housebound for, say, a whole weekend, where the better you performed would directly correspond to the longer you spent playing. And - hell - we also hear that you didn't like having to replay the story over and over, reloading your ill-advised saves? Well here's PERMADEATH in its place, you ingrate.


A quick look at any of the helpful online strategy guides for Infinity Mode will tell you the basics:

  • Get those three food item-boosting books as quickly as you can, from you know where.
  • Hide in a safe area to wind down the minutes (specifically, 100 seconds in real-time before one of Frank's life blocks disappeared, with the total 12 blocks of his full health working out as 20 minutes) in order to maximise the effects of the food you're carrying.
  • Hunt down fellow survivors and bosses and consume their food first.
  • Pause your console overnight when you need to go to sleep.
  • And finally, always - ALWAYS - be prepared for unexpected enemies, and don't ever let your life bar go down to its final block unless there are no dangers in sight.


I've lost count of the number of times I'd stocked up and was ready to go for days (in the game and in real life), only for a random, miscellaneous (and completely heartless) zombie to end things right then and there with a fatal and completely avoidable chomp. What followed swiftly afterwards was just one of those typical Dead Rising-conditioned reactions like the sound of a bell to a salivating, window-bursting dog: a quick lashing out of anger/regret and its subsequent retry. As addictive as it was maddening, Infinity Mode practically turned the game into a strange cross between an OCD-inducing resource management and awkward role playing game as that prior memory of the map and boss battle strategies became even more vital than ever, and where the absolute upper limits of one's internal desire to do better the next time round were severely stretched by nothing less than a horribly draconian punishment making even the single save slot now seem a luxury.

No saving meant that you had to wait out long and excruciating periods of nothingness, intentionally or not perhaps a commentary on life itself as you found other things to do to in the mall to while away the hours and stave off the impending madness. Trying on different outfits. Gathering food. Looking for safe shelter. All with no end goal in sight, or even any real purpose except for...what? A couple of achievements and your name on a worldwide leaderboard. Had one's existence really been reduced to this level of vanity and pointlessness? As you pondered these meanings while conforming uncomfortably closely to that negative stereotype of the basement dwelling gamer, Infinity Mode also raised several other questions, chief among these whether (a) this 'bonus' mode was even worthwhile, and (b) was it even truly infinite, as in did players really leave their consoles on forever?


Actually, those leaderboards can help to provide the answers: at the time of writing, the world's best player in Infinity Mode has netted a score of 17 days, 7 hours and 1 minute, with the next 5 players tied in second spot having stayed alive for a single game minute less including someone with the username 'DEADRISINGSUCKS', which probably sums it up best, really. These latter totals amount to 34.5 consecutive hours in real life, so while that's a definite 'NO' for (b), it's still just barely short of an entire average working week which certainly highlights the immense dedication and, let's be honest, bonkers nature of the fanbase, so for that incredible display of faith and loyalty alone I'm making the answer to (a) a resounding 'YES'.


Well, faith and loyalty and possible mental health risks, that is. If the forced introspection wasn't enough, over time the average Infinity Mode player might have started seeing Frank as something like a little virtual brother, constantly needing their attention in 20 minute blocks as they got up and brushed their teeth and did, well, whatever it is that normal people do with their lives while being constantly glued to a screen. Even worse, still - never mind turning into a zombie - there was an awful risk of becoming Frank himself. Personally speaking, one Saturday afternoon while waiting in a safe spot for his health blocks to drop down to their last as I readied a pizza for him to munch on, I also promptly ordered a home-delivered one for myself, my excuse being that the texture on his looked deliciously realistic. But conquering just physical hunger with real life Super Supremes can only take you so far.


The longer it went on, the more paranoid you'd get. Forget angrily refusing to play the story mode of the game after receiving an averse outcome and not returning to it for weeks or months: Infinity Mode made it so that stepping away from your machine even for a moment would end predictably with you rushing back in case "something bad" had happened to Frank. As your eyelids began to feel heavy, you'd feel that same burden of a fatigued film character whose turn it is to keep watch overnight as his dependent friends snoozed away; dozing off would mean Frank's certain death and, again, your own remorse. But the pinnacle of Infinity Mode's side effects? Even if Frank no longer needed to pee, we still did, and in some bizarre reversal of the Dead Rising meets Real Life universes, our time spent in the bathroom could well have ended up killing him.  So once more, if these emotions and that sense of connection and obligation to that one last person left alive with you doesn't capture a real Zombie Apocalypse in game form (like Viggo Mortensen's  father character's obligation to his boy in The Road, or for that matter, the relationship with Wilson the volleyball in Castaway), then I don't know what would. If nothing else, Dead Rising taught you solidarity, man.


A solidarity, though, that would come to be tested in the game's sequel and episodic follow-ups which jettisoned not only Infinity Mode in its entirety - in some ways perfectly understandable - but also several key elements in the main story mode that were missed only once they were gone (or not). The very components that made the original Dead Rising as unique, compelling, and true to its source material were also the mechanics that, to the series' eventual detriment, completely polarised opinions and people's willingness to play it or even accept it for what it was.

The Aftermath

Whilst Dead Rising 2 stuck to the same formula with improvements in several areas - 3 save slots instead of 1, the ability to move and aim at the same time, a much touted weapon creation system, etc - and a new protagonist in a Las Vegas-style setting, the concessions made for accessibility were much more noticeable by the time Off The Record's "reimagining" of the events of the sequel arrived, with it perhaps being no coincidence that Keiji Inafune had departed Capcom by this time. Even though Frank West was back as the playable character in Off The Record, it was more so in name rather than spirit as the spin-off title brought in more "improvements" to gameplay such as autosaves and checkpoints that were completely at odds with the original game's design philosophy, even after Demon's/Dark Souls had proven that there was indeed still a market for challenging games with old-school difficulty. And when that "true" free-roaming sandbox mode everybody had seemingly wanted was finally included, it had been stripped of virtually all the series' prior emphasis on learning and discovery, the satisfaction and reward for forethought and planning, and most importantly of all, the sense of danger and very real regret which was part and parcel of the original game and all its influences.


Even though free-roaming with no consequences may still have been fun, at the end of the day it was aimless and, certainly in the context of the original game's identity, a huge departure. To its credit the online co-op features in Dead Rising 2 and Off The Record were extremely welcome additions, but one can't help imagine the range of very real emotions that could have been elicited via, say, an online co-op Infinity Mode in trying to stay alive with a friend, sharing in but ultimately competing for a common and limited pool of resources. Whether players could save in this imaginary scenario though, is something we're arguably better off not knowing...


Where the Dead Rising series ends up next is anybody's guess, but a return to its Survival Horror design and harsh learning curve is likely out of the question. We probably won't get anything close to what Infinity Mode offered ever again, that's for sure, where a game mode so casually and almost to the point of insult invaded players' lives with an outrageously brazen premise which was also, at its core, a promise: we no longer needed to witness again that awkward image of Frank West's back as he stood at the urinal overwriting that single save file. In fact, it was left up to us to take our bathroom breaks hastily and with an efficiency and consideration not unlike those earlier demands of the story mode, lest we returned for the umpteenth time in a combined state of fear and curiosity to discover the sudden and preventable passing of our favourite war-covering photojournalist. And for that amazing virtual merging of bladders, along with the unique portrayal of what a real Zombie Apocalypse might feel like with all its associated emotional outbursts and breakdowns, and the purposefully divisive design choices amongst all those other great, bizarre and angry memories, Dead Rising will be missed.

...

Originally posted on personal blog 


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