Dead Rising & Interventionist Media Ethics
(originally written for http://jag.lcc.gatech.edu/blog/)
This news begs the question: does the exclusion of the photography mechanic in the Wii version of Dead Rising change anything about what the game says about photojournalism as a practice? Let me first explain what the game is.
“The first thing to learn in opinion writing is that you must unlearn one thing probably central to your idea of what a journalist is all about. You’ve picked it up in journalism courses: A journalist must stay out of the story, stay objective, stay dispassionate. Right?
Well, that was then – in reporting or newswriting courses – not now, when you must move from objective into subjective writing, when you must insert your ideas and your emotions into your writing, not eliminate them.”
“You’re a photojournalist, right? In another country. And there’s this humanitarian crisis going on. Do you try to help out, or is it your duty to just take the pictures now and hope they influence policy later?”
I had no idea how to answer. A few years later I attended the premiere of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset. Julie Delpy’s character can barely contain her contempt for her photojournalist boyfriend:
“Well, once we were in New Delhi and we pass a bum, that was lying down the sidewalk… Anyway, like, he looked like he needed help, but his first reaction was to photograph him!
He went, like, really close to his face, fixing his collar, to make it look better. He was like totally detached from the person.
You know, I’m not… I’m not judging him for it, you know, what he does is essential and incredible.
…All I’m saying is that I could never do it.”
In Dead Rising, your character hitches helicopter ride past a military blockade and into a shopping mall at the epicenter of a zombie holocaust. The scenario is familiar to any fan of zombie films: Dawn of the Dead famously features a helicopter landing onto a mall occupied by the zombie horde. The setting immediately associates consumerism with a braindead mentality; zombies are drawn to the mall, because in their undead stupor they seek the solace of the only place they were happy when they were alive.
The game begins with a tutorial on how to take photographs. Frank, hanging out the side of the helicopter, snaps a few shots of the zombies slaughtering the few remaining humans and coursing toward the shopping mall. Extra points are rewarded for viewing greater numbers of zombies, zooming in to frame the shot properly, and capturing particularly gruesome or otherwise evocative (sexual, pyrotechnic) imagery. Players raise their camera at risk of being attacked while framing their shot (they cannot shoot/bash while taking a picture). The basic controls allow zooming in and panning/tilting/tracking to set up the shot; focus and lighting are adjusted automatically. Being a Japanese game (har har), you gain experience points for taking better pictures and slaughtering zombies; these points lead to gaining levels that grant health, combat, and inventory bonuses.
One can assume that this decision will streamline the action of the game and reward proportionately more experience points for battle prowess. Just as in the Resident Evil 4 port to the Wii, I expect that the shooting controls will improve with the Wii’s ability to point and shoot like a mouse; the difficulty of aiming a gun in the original 360 version was incredibly frustrating, especially considering how seamless the photography controls were (we can assume that these would have been more intuitive with the Wii-mote as well). Melee fighting will in the Wii version will, of course, be comprised of shaking the remote – though the coupling between shake and game action will be more akin to Mario Galaxy‘s simplistic spin attack than the tightly matched controls of Wii Sports.
Running around the mall in Dead Rising, players are constantly given “scoops” or changes in the game state that provide meaningful action to the player. Without these scoops, there would be little to do in the game beside the objective of survival (Frank must wait 3 days for his helicopter to return). Scoops can include any of three things: survivors located in temporarily safe nooks and crannies of the mall that must be escorted to a saferoom, psychopaths slaughtering zombies and survivors alike in their PTSD-induced mania, and story progression points. There is a strong narrative motivation for these scoops: two NSA agents in the saferoom constantly monitor the mall through security cameras and send information to Frank via walkie-talkie.
The act of taking photographs of the slaughter does help couple the photojournalistic narrative trappings of the game with its gameplay, but the game’s more important argument about media ethics will likely remain intact when the game’s Wii port goes to shelves. One can certainly subvert the narrative of the game’s current Xbox 360 iteration by avoiding involvement in the crisis altogether and just snapping evocative photographs for three days – in fact, this strikes one as a much more intriguing utilization of the game’s affordances than, say, pretending to be a snap-happy tourist in a Grand Theft Auto game; however, this would be an exercise in purposefully arguing against the interventionist rhetoric of the game.
At the end of the day, the question still remains unanswered: “To what degree is a photojournalist morally compelled to become an agent of goodwill during a humanitarian crisis.” Because Dead Rising takes place during a fairly cut-and-dry zombie apocalypse, Frank’s decision to act for his survival is trivial. It will take newsgames that incorporate the strong points of this game to truly delve into the question of how far a photojournalist can go before risking manufacturing news through her ethically-motivated action. I’m sure Fink’s books go into details and practices that would help make this decision more clear, but an analysis of these works escapes the scope of this article. What I can say is that it is a shame that the Wii version of Dead Rising will only incorporate the photojournalist’s role in narrative as opposed to coupling it to gameplay with the camera mechanic and the realtime scoop system. Luckily, the narrative’s connection to the media ethic I’m suggesting is hiding beneath the thin veneer of zombie horror will likely remain intact.