So I finally finished Dead Rising, a game that came out a couple years ago for the Xbox 360. When I say "finished", though, I mean finished twice. Because that's the only way to say I've finished it. Or at least, finished the story. A story. Let me explain...
One of the less-explored components of games as a medium is replayability. As has been explored a lot in visual art, a basic fact of a medium that takes place in computers is that computers are very good at reproducing data. In fact, space and memory limitations mean that repetition of elements is a major aspect of building a digital environment.
In games, that means you have to deal with a lot of very similar-looking items, enemies, and environments. But also, because of the mission-based structure of nearly every game ever made, you frequently have to replay events that happen the same way each time. Obviously, that's true in shumps like The Belgian's beloved Galaga, which are all about learning the patterns. But it's equally true in games with more narrative pretensions---even in a game that's ostensibly a linear narrative, there's always parts that you have to play through again due to dying, which means tediously enduring the cutscenes and dialogue one more time, with the compensation of knowing in advance about the rocket-launcher guy around the ridge who killed you last time.
Dead Rising, though, plays with the option and necessity of replay in an interestingly self-conscious way, making the repetition central to the gameplay experience, and even to its storytelling. Which is appropriate for a game about zombies, those poor, shuffling, post-death bastards, driven by "memory of what they used to do."
In Dead Rising, you play as Frank West, a sleazy photojournalist who's gotten a hot tip about a mysterious outbreak in a small American town. You end up trapped in a shopping mall, together with various survivors and a couple of Dept. of Homeland Security agents who seem to know more than they're telling. From there, you have 72 hours before you're evacuated from the mall (the game happens in realish time, with 2 hours of real time corresponding to one day of game time). At the end of those 72 hours, the game ends, no matter what you've done---it's considered winning the game as long as you just survive the 72 hours, even if you don't do anything else.
Not that there isn't plenty of else to do. The game's missions come in two flavors: story-based missions that reveal the plot, and side missions where you save survivors of the outbreak, put down people who've gone crazy in the mall, or look for "scoops", where you can get dramatic pictures of the carnage.
The problem I initially had with the game is that doing any of the above is really, really difficult. The first time I tried to play through, I was approaching it as one does a game: When given a mission, I would try to complete it, and I pretty much gave up when mission after mission was just too! fucking! hard!!! Fortunately, a gaming guru I know explained the zen of Dead Rising to me: The first time you play, you're not supposed to finish most of the missions---what you're supposed to do is level up in anticipation of the next playthrough.
Y'see, you start Dead Rising with stats for strength, speed, inventory size, and other attributes. Throughout the game, you get experience points (XP) to boost your stats, which makes it possible to finish missions that were too hard before you leveled up. Once you finish a 72-hour play-through, you can then restart the game from the beginning, equipped with your new, more powerful stats, which lets you complete missions that you had to ignore previously. This option is even available within the game---any time you die, you're given the choice of reloading your last save, or restarting the 72 hour period with your most recent stats.
There's a few different ways to get XP in the game. One---the most common---is by taking pictures (photojournalist, remember!), with extra points awarded for composition and content of the pictures (a delightful twist on the first-person view that I wish more games would try). You also get lots of points for finding survivors scattered throughout the mall and convincing them to follow you back to safety, with still more points awarded if you get them there.
But the thing is, on your first play-through, you don't have a chance at actually saving anyone---you just don't have the mojo to keep the zombies away. So if you really want to max out your level points, the winning strategy is to find survivors, promise to get them out of the danger zone, lead them to someplace really exposed, then run to high ground, and... take pictures as the zombies eat them.
And that's every bit as horrible as it sounds, especially since each survivor has their own individual screams and death animations, all of which are quite blood-curdling. This is totally horrible, and you feel like a bad, bad person, even though it's really the parameters of the game that have forced you to make such a dreadful choice.
But it also means you get immensely more satisfaction on your next run through the game, as you find the people you previously condemned to death, and save them from the fate you've already seen. It's sort of comparable to the time-scrambling of John Travolta's death in Pulp Fiction---the medium trumpeting its ability to defy death, even as it makes you aware of the artifice needed to resurrect the dead. Amusingly, my wife (who insists that I refer to her on this blog as "The Fuzzwife") flatly refuses to accept this logic, saying that these people are dead and it's my fault, even though they're alive on the most recent playthrough---the very idea of arguing about whether the first or last playthrough is the real one gives you some idea of the questions of narrative ontology that this game brings up.
A similar logic applies to the game's story missions. The first time through, you won't be able to complete even the first day's missions (the story missions happen in time with the in-game clock---if you're too late to a key spot, you'll miss out on the story). So you develop a mentality of "I don't care why the zombies are here; I just want to survive." But each time you play through, you'll be able to learn more about what's going on, and learning about events often changes the course of them dramatically---the last day in the mall is very, very different based on how many of the story missions you've completed.
Since you can take different missions each time through, each with their own cutscenes, the narrative of each playthrough becomes very different. The first time you play, Frank is a monster, cynically seducing people from safety so he can take pictures of the deaths he causes, all the while ignoring the real story that he's supposedly here to investigate. The second time, Frank becomes a hard-boiled detective, pursuing the big story while mostly ignoring the saps who don't have his abilities, except the occasional survivor whose plight especially moves him. And the third time you play, Frank is a superhero, saving the innocents while ignoring the big picture.
In keeping with this approach, the game's cutscenes are very smart about keeping Frank's character ambiguous---he's presented as a self-important sleazeball with glimmerings of conscience, but whether the sleazeball or the conscience wins is determined through your play. There's few games, in fact, where the double meaning of "play" is so appropriate. You "play" Frank West very much like a movie star plays a role---you settle on an attitude to the scripted events, and move through the narrative that's been laid down beforehand, changing it through the application of your personality.
A lot of games create interactive narrative through the strict application of choice, but the choice is usually fairly binary---kill or save this character, investigate this or that path, and the like. What's neat about Dead Rising is that its narrative choices are much more of a continuum---you can be somewhat good, or somewhat bad, with a lot of gradations and varieties in between. You have the option of doing many vile things, like taking pictures of suffering victims, but you can also not do them, or do them and then make up for them by saving said victims. And unlike many sandboxes, Dead Rising keeps you very conscious of the moral implications of your choices, with Frank's lip-smacking photo critiques or survivor's pleas constantly heard based on your actions.
Even niftier is how it makes the repetition of missions, which is a basic component of most game-playing, inherent to the overall vision of the game. In order to really see what the game has to offer, you have to play the same parts in different ways. And because each approach gives you different cutscenes, including a different end, none is the complete or correct version of the story---all are equal options, and all are the real story.
I'll leave it for others to answer why zombie stories so often end up surprisingly artistically ambitious. But Dead Rising is definitely yet another example of a gory little shocker that turns out to have much more up its tattered sleeve. Much as I liked the storytelling of Bioshock or Mass Effect, Dead Rising ultimately seems like the more exciting and experimental approach to interactive narrative, laying down paths that few other games have tried to follow. It's foregrounding of choice and its awareness of repetition makes it the most genuinely medium-specific approach to narrative I've seen in a videogame, creating a story---or stories---that I really can't imagine being told in any other medium.
Plus, you get to run over zombies with a lawnmower. What's not to like?