If science fiction is philosophy for dumb people, then the horror genre is our politics. Texas Chainsaw Massacre as oblique Vietnam War parable, House of Whipcord being a manifesto for corporal and capital punishment, and, more recently, the torture-fest of Hostel mirroring a certain crusade happening right now. But there’s something about the zombie flick that makes their creators mad with power. Most horror movie subtext is watcher-inferred, but zombies have no problem using themselves to cast obvious blanket statements on society. And if movies have this problem, think about video games, whose stories embarrass on a daily basis. Dead Rising, the new zombie-filled title from Capcom, spoon-gouges the tired consumerism commentary with such righteous indignation, you’d think the developers live in a world where disco still strikes fear into our hearts and Dawn of the Dead never made it past pre-production.
You play Frank West, freelance photojournalist stuck in Williamette Mall with both humans and zombies. This is the plot’s best part: you as a rather regular schmuck against something whose nature is mysterious and unknown. But the more the story expands, the more you think Roger Corman’s going to jump out and yell, “Gotcha!” In a wonderful plot turn, Frank discovers the outbreak is a byproduct of government cow cloning experiments trying to sate our appetites for meat. Meat! Yes, Dead Rising turns into a clumsy, extraordinarily embarrassing parable on America’s oil addiction. Yes, this game is about how Americans, zombies, and cattle are more similar than you might think! And, oh my God, yes, you’re going to love hearing about this every 20 minutes.
In Resident Evil 4, Capcom’s zombie masterpiece, you play Leon, an American yahoo running through a foreign land, fighting an enemy he doesn’t truly understand. I sat on the edge of my seat, not because it was too tense, but because I was waiting for somebody to drop the proverbial bomb. And Leon eventually does, calling the situation “terrorism”. At least, in RE4, it’s done with some self-effacing: the bad guy sneers at how that’s such a popular word nowadays. “Terrorism” and its permutations are established as worthless buzzwords in Resident Evil, but the DHS agents in Dead Rising obnoxiously use it as an accusation at least seven times, all without irony. Even our average guy turned hero uses it, and that’s when you understand the America being portrayed here: a shell shocked nation, incapable of realizing horror without resorting to our little mindless descriptions of bad intentions. Maybe that’s true, but by sandwiching this between cheesy dialogue and melodrama the game’s writers aren’t coming off as class acts either. In the end, the stereotypes Capcom uses to portray the hypocritical Americans reveals nothing but their own bigotry.
But the game itself, in-between shameful cutscenes, is rather entertaining. The mall’s gorgeously designed, hosting a great variety of stores each with items to use, eat, or jam into a skull. There’s some environment and item popup, but it counts where it counts: the shuffling zombies spread out before you for hundreds of feet, without slowdown.
With everything designed for maximum grisliness (for example, stab a zombie with a showerhead and you create a walking blood sprinkler), surprising that it’s the save system generating controversy. With every five seconds equaling one minute in the game, Frank has three days (six hours for us) to crack the case. Frank has to be in specific areas at certain times in order to forward the story. Failing to do so even once gives you two choices: miss the real ending and continue gaining experience points by beating up zombies, exploring the mall, doing side quests until the three days are up; or you can start over, saving all the stats you’ve accrued for Frank. The twist is that you can only have one save file per profile, so if you’ve saved in a bathroom with only a jug of milk and three minutes to get to the other side of the mall, you’re hopelessly screwed and have to start over to get the real ending. Irresponsible people need not apply for this gig.
The initial reaction to this has not been kind, but I think everybody eventually comes around. It takes about an hour to get used to this (and perhaps one “How can you do this to me?!” scream fest). To be honest, it’s refreshing; it demands that you truly plan ahead, or otherwise reap the repercussions. And as long as you don’t get carried away with playing zombie bowling with the convertible, saving’s not a major problem.
And even if you do miss a vital event, an awful lot can be done in the remaining hours. While exploring the enormous play area, you can waste zombies, go after psychopaths (crazy folk that occupy the mall), rescue survivors (guide them back to the safe house), or take pictures with your camera (the more danger you put yourself in for the picture, the more points you receive). Practically everything grants Prestige Points, and with enough Points you level up with new wrestling moves, more maximum life, or expanded inventory space. While many games offer minigames for distraction, Dead Rising‘s virtually the only one where it all directly relates to Frank and his quest. As zombies are always easy to avoid, the game deftly goads you to get well acquainted with them for the Prestige Points. And so even the photography bit pans out: Frank wants the scoop at any cost, and that satisfies our own urges to see an idiot put himself in face-shredding danger. Us zombie Americans are bloodthirsty for entertainment, didn’t you know?