Dead Rising Retrospective

The first ten minutes of 28 Weeks Later are brilliant. Don’t get me wrong, the rest of the film is a fine example of messy dialogue and unconvincing performances brought together in an inch-deep plot, but the first ten minutes are an absolute triumph. It introduces a concept that is often touched on in the zombie/survival-horror genre of both films and video games, but has never before been executed with such subtle realism. Robert Carlyle’s character has barricaded himself in an old cottage, along with his wife and several strangers. For whatever reason, the infected find the group of survivors and begin their usual routine of forcing an entry and eating everyone up.

So far so good, but the twist comes when Carlyle’s wife runs upstairs in attempt to find a young boy who has hidden himself in a closet out of fear. Carlyle pursues, and standing in a doorway to the exit tells her to leave him, to which she refuses. As infected burst into the room, Carlyle’s character doesn’t spring to the rescue. He doesn’t pull a gun and save the day, or concoct some genius plan by which he heroically leads an escape through an open window; he simply closes the door and runs away.

There are no long goodbyes, and no apologies, despite his already established love for his wife; in a single moment survival is proven to be more important. In a film that insists on spending the following hour and a half turning itself into a schlocky action flick, the first ten minutes are a poignant and thought-provoking experience. The reason I bring this up here, is that in spite of all the influences that Capcom drew from films and games gone-by, it’s the first ten minutes of 28 Weeks Later that most represent my experiences with the original Dead Rising.

Interestingly, this experience is not a product of a well-written script – it has little to do with the narrative at all. Instead it is a result of the combination of the game’s time constraints, limited save function, and free-form sandbox nature. There are many out there who condemned Dead Rising for the way in which it combined these three elements. Often it was said that the limitations of the saving system – allowing only one-save slot that would be constantly overwritten –ruined the game, basically breaking it.

There were many that found the time limit in which to perform certain tasks completely unrelenting; turning what should be an amusing (albeit rather cheeky) recreation of Dawn of the Dead into a stressful experience. And finally there were those who found the concepts of being able to go anywhere in the mall too overwhelming, complaining that it was impossible to successfully perform all the objectives in a single play-through. The thing is, that is exactly the point.

Dead Rising was the first game in which I truly felt complete and utter helplessness. My instinct as a video gamer told me that I had to win. It told me that no matter how many times I failed to reach a survivor on time, before they were ruthlessly devoured by the shambling masses, I had to restart my save because I had to win the game. It was frustrating, and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t understand quite what it was that I was doing wrong. Until after a year-long break from the game I finally put it in my Xbox and realised exactly what the issue was; there are no winners in a zombie apocalypse.

Mainstream video games have always been about winning, achieving the highest possible score at whatever it is a person is doing. The majority of complainers approached Dead Rising with the same mentality that I originally did, and unfortunately many of them gave up without realising just how clever the game really was. Dead Rising is a survival-horror, and unlike the majority of games that came before it that group themselves in the same genre, it really is about nothing but survival.

I play video games with a sickening amount of good intent; I find it near impossible to take the evil route in role-playing games. When I see that there’s a mother trapped in a jewellery store on Alfresca Plaza, I make it my business to save the day. But Dead Rising doesn’t want me to win, and on realising that I saved too late in the timeline to get there in a timely fashion, I simply have to stand and watch as the timer runs out. Leah Stein is dead.

And this is why Dead Rising is secretly one of the best survival horror games to have ever been released; because people die and there’s nothing you can do about it. In a situation in which thousands of zombies are pouring into a mall, it gets to a point at which you have to stop and realise that you can’t save everyone. It’s a hurtful realisation, especially if like me you suffer from overwhelming bouts of guilt – whether it is ‘just’ a video game or not. The moment I realised that there were moments where my own survival meant turning my back on those survivors trapped in far-out areas of the mall, I finally understood the supposed flaws of Dead Rising.

The single-slot save system is there to reinforce the concept of making mistakes. Combined with the constantly ticking clock, it encourages slip-ups; acting as a wake-up call to those who depend on the mystical reincarnation that has been allowed in pretty much every video game to date. It’s the very reason why on restarting the game post-death, you still have all your previous stats and upgrades – because death is encouraged.

It’s encouraged because to die in Dead Rising probably means you’re a better person than I am. Outside of the typically difficult and traditionally standard boss battles, the main reason for dying in Dead Rising is usually because you were trying to save some sorry soul from dying an unfortunately gruesome death. Granted it means you lost the game, because it’s all about survival – but it also means that despite your understanding that dying means the potentially annoying trip back to that ONE save you made ages ago, or that even if you survive it means you lose the trail of the larger story, you still upheld your moral obligation to your fellow man.

If anything, I often think of Dead Rising as the stepping stone between traditional video games and the perma-death runs of certain games that fanatic (and arguably masochistic) gamers often try to accomplish. Many gamers attempted to play Far Cry 2 through to the end, treating any single death as their only death – restarting from scratch should they fail. It increases the intensity ten-fold, forcing players to really contemplate their actions, should it potentially ruin their chance for survival.

Quantic Dreams’ Heavy Rain operates on a similar idea, where mistakes are treated as a positive influence on the flow of narrative – rather than a reason to reset to a save-point and try again. The difference being that the concept was already made aware to the audience before the game began. Bad decisions still stirred huge amounts of guilt and regret, but at least I knew I wasn’t always supposed to ‘win’.

Dead Rising’s main problem was that audiences weren’t ready for its rather bleak commentary on human nature and the underlying sacrifices made in survival situations. Approached as an amusing zombie action game, it’s understandable that its strict mechanisms would be scrutinized. But the truth is, Dead Rising is actually an incredibly intelligently designed game – and regardless of its actual narrative, its use of the medium to evoke emotion through player-actions is something that should be praised for years to come.

It’s less than a week until the release of the sequel to Dead Rising, and already we’ve had a taste of it through the XBLA game Case Zero. While many will be glad to see that changes have been made, I am not one of them. To me, Dead Rising’s brutal combination of time- and save-limitations were the very essence of the game, and the idea that these have been supposedly ‘fixed’ fills me with great concern. I can only hope that the team at Blue Castle have taken it into serious consideration, because if Robert Carlyle had saved the day in those first ten minutes of 28 Weeks Later, I’d have probably asked for my money back.

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