Thursday, June 12, 2008

Dead Rising: Repetition, Iteration, Repetition

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?


Mucki said...

Mhh very nice article! I gave up on Dead Rising pretty fast due to frustration, but I just might try it again with the 1st-playthrough-is-just-to-level-up-approach.
Although I still think it sucks that you are forced to do this.
But I also like the idea that you can play through it in so many different ways and multiple times.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

I'm okay with them forcing you to do that---like I say, the whole point is replay. I do wish they'd made it clearer that you're supposed to do that---there's an option that, in retrospect, explains it, but I think a lot of people, like you and me, just gave up on the game at first.

B said...

I was totally in the same boat, I cursed that game and tossed it away in frustration after only a couple of hours. Now I am really excited to try it again with this mindset. Nice work!

Techni said...

I disagree with your zen of DR. On my first playthrough I found it quite easy to do all the scoop/plot related missions and save a few survivors.

While I loved DR and played through it many times, the first time was not nearly as hard as you think it was.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

@ Techni:

Really? Dang, well then you're a better player than me. I was able to struggle through at first, but the mission where I had to deal with Carlos' giant gun just took me the hell out over and over. Like B and mucki, I gave it up, and only came back when I realized the playthrough-repeat trick.

I do think that's how the developers intend you to play---that's why you get the restart-with-stats option every time you die. But if you can do the whole thing without, well, more power to you! Now, can you play "Through the Fire and Flames" on Expert?

Techni said...

No, my pinky finger is useless

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Then you'll be in big trouble in the Dead Rising sequel---Microsoft's still-secret control scheme is a two-stick, ten-button controller played ENTIRELY WITH YOUR PINKIES! With this, they will beat the Wii.

Techni said...


Iroquois Pliskin said...

Hi! I liked this post-- I never managed to get to far in Dead Rising, which was the very first game I got for my 360. I ran aground on the controls and the onerous save system, and I was frustrated that I was unable to accomplish any of the missions. After this I half-wish I could play through it, I know lots of people who swear by the game.

I thought your proposal that repetition is an essential part of the game's narrative structure-- each time you went through, the game mechanics enabled you to tell a different "story" about the protagonists. It would be really interesting to see a game that made more self-conscious narrative use of this idea. (Something like "groundhog day," maybe.)

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Once again, a poor player who didn't understand the "level up, then do the missions" approach! I didn't either, until someone clued me in. Dead Rising really seems like a victim of a truly innovative mechanic that was inadequately explained to the player; it seems like a lot of people just gave up in frustration. I highly recommend giving it another try now that you know---it's really a fascinating experience, still one of the most original storytelling approaches on the 360.

And I love the idea of a Groundhog Day game! The problem would be that in Groundhog Day, there was only one right way for Bill Murray's character to "play"---the point of the movie was that he had to keep repeating the day until he found it. To do what DR is doing, you'd have to create a scenario with multiple right ways, with rewards for each.

In a way, it's a problem much like the Marvel What If? comics. For those not sufficiently steeped in geekery: What If? was a series in which each issue told the story of the Marvel Universe with some crucial variable changed---What if Spiderman joined the Fantastic Four, What if Phoenix had lived, and so on. The problem was that almost every issue ended in apocalypse, creating a weirdly conservative implication---if anything had been different, total disaster would've resulted. Similarly, in most games, when you play the same scenario repeatedly it's usually because you've gotten a bad ending, and have to find the One True Way that'll bring about a good result.

DR manages to avoid that trap---ending A, the one you get when you complete all the story missions, is probably the darkest ending of all them, but they're all narratively satisfying endings. Like I said, I was especially taken with how DR makes your different options part of the game throughout, not just at the end, as well as how cannily the cutscenes leave things ambigious so they can be resolved through your play. Here's hoping more games will embrace that approach to choice, rather than Mass Effect's and GTA's mostly binary systems.

Paul said...

This was a great article. Dead Rising is still my favorite Xbox game, even trumping my beloved Halo franchise. And it's always fun to read someone else's take on the game.

I still play this game from time to time. I bought it the day it came out and have played through it every possible way. Gotten Every ending, saved every survivor, and even earned the achievement for saving as many survivors as possible (around 40 if memory serves). I even did the5 day Survivor achievement though I didn't have the werewithall to do the 7-day. I would have kept going from the 5-day, but this is the Xbox 360 we're talking about here. It was smoking and about to melt after I finished 5-day and I didn't want to miss out on the Christmas lineup.
Anyway, great read. :)

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Thanks! I'm delighted that people are still finding this post. Beats the folks who end up here after googling "fuzzy sex" (which was, last week, 5 people).

Paul said...

So have you had an opportunity to try the new Dead Rising 2 or Dead Rising: Case Zero?

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Not yet. I played a bit of the demo, which was cool, but I miss the photography so, so much. Though I'm looking forward to the li'l Frank West DLC.

ZZoMBiE13 said...

So did you ever get a chance to play Case West?
I downloaded it on the day it was released but never got around to playing it until earlier this month. Halo has had me by the jewels since September. But over the last couple of weeks I've dug back into Dead Rising 2 and Case West and found myself finally embracing Chuck Greene. Frank is still my favorite, but Chuck is a good lead character too, just in his own way.
Hope you finally got a chance to play it. :)

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

I still haven't played it! And should! I've been on kind of a Wii kick lately---Bit.Trip Flux, Silent HIll Shattered Memories, and Super Paper Mario have been my drugs of choice. I go through these sort of console-loyalty phases often---there's somehow a very distinct difference between when I want to play with the 360 and when I want to play with the Wii, even though I often play more "mature" games on the Wii, like Dead Space Extraction, and more whimsical games on the Xbox, like Costume Quest.