Chungking Espresso

Dead Rising & Interventionist Media Ethics

Posted in Game Analysis, Newsgames, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on February 6, 2009

(originally written for http://jag.lcc.gatech.edu/blog/)

I’ve put off writing about Dead Rising in the context of journalism and games for awhile. It pained me to think of the negative review I’d have to give a game that I enjoyed so much. Luckily, in the past few weeks Capcom has released some information that helped get my ball rolling: Dead Rising’s port to the Wii (Dead Rising: Chop ‘Til You Drop) will not feature the ability to take snapshots with Frank’s camera. Cue Chris Hecker sound byte about the Wii’s processor not being able to handle a virtual camera (also, the Wii won’t be able to render nearly as many zombies in one location as the 360 could).   

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.

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Dead Rising is a survival horror third-person action game produced by Capcom, the makers of the popular Resident Evil series. You play a photojournalist stuck in the middle of a zombie outbreak in a shopping mall. Much of the gameplay is hack-and-slash: the mall is littered with hundreds of consumer goods that the protagonist Frank can use as melee weapons (hockey sticks, baseball bats, antique samurai swords). Gunplay in the game can be frustrating at times, as anyone used to the shooting in Resident Evil games can attest. Being a photographer, Frank can also snap shots of the zombies terrorizing human survivors. The idea is that he’s going to eventually leave the mall via helicopter and break the news story to the world.
My formative opinions on the subject of photojournalism and media ethics come from a dinner I shared once as a college freshman with UGA journalism professor Conrad Fink, the author of Writing Opinion for Impact. The opening words to this book are almost inflammatory:

“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.”

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Fink (pictured in the middle) has numerous other publications on the subject of media ethics under his belt. The night I met him, he goaded me with a question while I stuffed my mouth with baked ziti; I paraphrase:   

“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.”

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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.

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Let’s not overestimate the imagination that went into incorporating the camera mechanic into the gameplay. The system of scoring points is identical to its earlier implementation in games such as Pokemon Snap. This N64 safari-on-rails game allowed players to goad various Pokemon into striking poses that one then attempted to snap photos of at ideal times. Extra points were awarded for capturing herds of the animals or catching them in interesting situations (eating, doing a mating dance). Snap was innovative because the N64 was one of the first consoles that allowed players to move through realtime 3D environments. What’s most interesting about the mechanic in Dead Rising is the tight coupling between taking pictures and the overall goal of the game: to break news of the zombie uprising despite government black-boxing. Now, what changes the Wii port of the game by taking the camera away from the player? 

 

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.

Also, changing Frank’s camera batteries presents quite an aggravating task for the player; one constantly finds oneself running out of batteries and having to trudge to a few key points in the mall with hobbyist camera shops. The bigger change may come in yet-unseen changes to the storyline to make the game more linear (instead of having objectives emerge and disappear in realtime, players will be able to take their time and accomplish all the game’s many goals).
Besides these gameplay changes, it becomes more difficult to see greater effects to the game’s rhetoric. This is because the game’s narrative embraces the ethic of Fink and Linklater: a (photo)journalist in the field has the duty to insert themselves into a crisis (somehow).    

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.

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Frank only has a short time to complete the tasks sent to him. Most of the gameplay is a difficult yet mentally stimulating exercise in time management. If Frank fails to reach a survivor in time, their blockades are overrun and they become zombies; psychopaths will disappear into deeper recesses of the mall to either perish or continue torturing unseen survivors. Missing the story progression points has a more concrete consequence: players are given something similar to a “Game Over” screen telling them one thing only: “The truth has faded into darkness.” One can continue to play out the three-day survival experience, but your failure to uncover the governmental-conspiracy causes of the zombie outbreak will result in a highly unsatisfactory ending.
Trying not to spoil much, the player does not merely collect the interviews and photographs required to discover “The Truth.” Rather, Frank becomes the key figure striving to prevent a terrorist attack that threatens to spread the zombie plague outside the no-fly zone cordoned off by the military. This thoroughly mainstream third-person action game somehow manages to model the experience of being a photojournalist in a way that we don’t see in many explicitly educational games. Dealing with stringent deadlines, finding the safest or quickest course through potentially hostile territory, time management, the idea of missed journalistic opportunity, and the sometimes tedious necessity of arriving for a scoop prepared with adequate battery power and room in one’s camera for enough shots to capture the situation – all of that is there.   

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.

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4 Responses

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  1. Jonathan Mills said, on February 6, 2009 at 5:13 pm

    I’ve been thinking about this subject in relation to games from two different angles. I’ve been playing Beyond Good & Evil as part of the Vintage Game Club and have been interested in the relationship between Jade’s status as a journalist and the gameplay. While BG&E and Dead Rising are both interventionist, I think it’s more a gameplay necessity than a conscious thematic goal–which doesn’t invalidate your analysis of the narrative. [Note: I’ve only played Dead Rising in passing, so my impressions of that game are ill-informed and may be off-base.]

    I never got the sense that the camera minigames or the scoop system significantly informed the progression through the game’s plot. After all, the game relies heavily on familiar mission tropes: escort, boss battles, timed survivals. Complete a gameplay task and you get rewarded with the next level. That being said, I’m intrigued by the way the game creates a sense of urgency by allowing the plot events to continue whether you’re there to witness them or not. That game element, in particular, does seem to make successfully playing the game a matter of journalistic and narrative priorities. Does Dead Rising force you to make ethical decisions as a consequence of the narrative goals? Do you have to choose between getting the next scoop and saving civilians in trouble? If so, then that represents a major step toward dramatizing the plight of a photojournalist more than the challenges of preparation or time management.

    At the risk of going off-topic, I’d like to talk about Beyond Good and Evil a little more, primarily because I’m more familiar with it. To successfully complete missions, Jade must uncover and publish evidence of a government conspiracy, which seems quite parallel to Dead Rising. In BG&E, this isn’t part of the game’s meta-narrative, but a required component for completing each section. In the Factory level, which I think is a fairly representative level for the game, Jade must sneak past a number of enemies and snap a picture of an undisguised enemy. After the level’s completion, the NPCs in the game begin to rebel against their rulers, not because you successfully combat the level’s boss, but because your image was published for all the world to see. This may suggest that Jade’s purpose and the game’s meaning is a journalistic one, but this is a false construction of plot and not a consequence of actual gameplay. At its heart, BG&E is a traditional combat-focused platformer, where the most important ability is beating up enemies. I suspect that Dead Rising is the same way.

    I think the best way to unpack the role of journalism in these games is to first identify what the games value in play and then to see how that is changed to suit the game’s narrative goals. While this is probably too blanket a statement, all games are interventionist. Witnessing a game’s program isn’t sufficiently involving for a rewarding gameplay experience; the player must affect his or her game environment. Even Pokemon Snap is guilty of this; the biggest in-game rewards come when you first transform and then document your surroundings, as when you push a Charmander into lava to cause it to evolve. Could a designer create an involving and emotionally satisfying game with a non-interventionist mentality? Perhaps, but I suspect this would require a game that rewards the player’s documentation of a crisis with an indirect change in the gameworld that is explicitly a result of a related gameplay mechanic. For example, if a player documents the commission of a war crime, that photo could shift public opinion or be used as evidence against the perpetrator. I think Beyond Good and Evil is trying to get to that point, but the game devalues the process of journalism in favor of capping off combat with a quick camera snapshot.

    While a zombie or alien invasion does seem like a credible use of “humanitarian crisis” in the context of videogames, it is hard to reconcile these outlandish and violent struggles with their real-world equivalents. We’re really talking about the ethics of photojournalism during wartime, which is unfortunately way above my head and beyond my capacity to respectfully discuss, although I think I would like to return to it at a later point.

    The second way I’ve been thinking about this issue is in relationship to Resident Evil 5, although by way of non-games media. I’m going really off-topic at this point, though, so I’ll save that for another day.

  2. chungkingespresso said, on February 6, 2009 at 6:12 pm

    Thanks for the accompaniment piece! This adds a lot to the discussion. I’m not going to address your points in order, but you’ll be able to figure it out I think.

    First, I already state that a zombie apocalypse and a real humanitarian crises are different things – the whole end of the piece is about how we still have a lot of work before we’ve got a real simulation of the kind of ethical choices that need to be explored eventually by newsgames. Also, I addressed the fact that the camera mechanic has little to do with, well, anything else in the game (unless, of course, the player wants it to).

    Second, I have to review Beyond Good and Evil for the same research group next week… haven’t actually played it yet, but if I observe the same things as you then I’ll give you a citation.

    On the idea that the intervention in these two games is just a gameplay necessity: one has to understand that the research group I’m writing for mostly covers newsgames. A lot of these games, such as Global Conflicts: Palestine and Argentina or NewsU (a journalism training simulator), actually are non-interventionist. The players literally gather facts to present a news story.

    In any case, it would be entirely possible to alter Dead Rising so that survival is the key goal and involvement in the political intrigue isn’t included in the narrative – while maintaining a fairly engaging gameplay experience, no less. What’s interesting from your recap of the BG&E mission is that what you’re describing is decidedly non-interventionist. Sneaking past baddies? Snapping a photo of a villain in order to break a story and incite the people? This is something even a completely detached photojournalist could *and does* accomplish in the real world. Not to say that this kind of work isn’t vital. (Also, I’m going to have to play the game before I can understand why you think stealth + photosnapping to defeat a boss doesn’t constitute a gameplay change).

    An important secondary interest for me evades this edugame vs. mainstream game gameplay divide completely, because Dead Rising actually simulates the tedium of being a journalist better than these journalism education artifacts like NewsU and Global Conflicts (this is outside the scope of the ethics issue and more addressing some other considerations we have about journalism education at our research studio).

    To answer your question about how the scoop system works: yes, unless you’ve got the realtime events of the game memorized (even a walkthrough won’t help you on your first playthrough), you’re going to have to allow many (most, for me) of the civilians to die in order to make it to the narrative progression points on time. I did a lot of savestate reloading trying to save one or two more civilians before my time ran out, but it was incredibly difficult to do so.

    In the end, no matter how “imperfect” Dead Rising or BG&E might be for the lofty goals of understanding a moral issue that I’m pretty sure nobody could completely explicate, you have to admit that it’s an incredible step forward that we even have two mainstream games with journalists as protagonists to talk about.

  3. Jonathan Mills said, on February 6, 2009 at 6:46 pm

    The sneaking and snapshots in BG&E is generally an incidental component to finishing a level; the boss fight that I reference at the end of the Factory level is a traditional find-the-weak-spot-use-special-attack-repeatedly encounter that immediately follows the photography segment. Additionally, while stealth is generally the best approach, Jade has the option to strike the enemies from behind, similar to “stealth kills” in military games. I think there’s an element of conquest to most games, even the relatively nonviolent ones, that feels antithetical to the goals of journalism.

    I hope my claims didn’t come off as dismissive; this post was really inspirational. I certainly agree that incorporating journalistic professions and gameplay into mainstream games is cause for hope for the future of the medium, but I guess I wish they were better integrated. One of the things I’m most looking forward to is a nonviolent action game, and I think that journalism, especially in adverse situations like an oppressive state or a time of war, would be the best realization of that ideal.

  4. chungkingespresso said, on February 6, 2009 at 9:25 pm

    Oh no, they didn’t! I just wanted to contextualize the post. Also, Friday at six thinking is about the last thing I want to be doing, so I kinda shot the comment off without refining my prose.

    I’m definitely excited to dig into BG&E and all this is great introductory thinking for that piece.

    But yeah, I agree with you that these implementations just aren’t integrated well. In fact, I’ve only played one game where you actually get to take fact blurbs from the investigation and try to compose them into a coherent article at the end. An algorithm that would judge something like that based on its quality and persuasiveness and then affected an ongoing game-state where you played a war-time photojournalist would be incredible. I think that’d be what you and I are looking for. Pure stealth and conversation/persuasion/bribing/etc.

    As for other possible nonviolent games… in a few weeks I have to read this book called A Force More Powerful: A History of Nonviolent Conflict for a game design class. So I’m assuming I’ll have a lot more to think about in the coming months. Thanks again for the comments, man. Sorry I was grumpy with the last ‘un!


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