Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Social Satire of Dead Rising 2

Note: This essay will contain spoilers for Dead Rising, Dead Rising 2: Case Zero, Dead Rising 2, and Dead Rising: Case West.

    Video games have often been accused of not having nearly the same level of artistic value as movies or literature. It's a charge similarly levied at comic books, genre fiction, and other mediums over the years. Certainly, video games have a couple of strikes against them that other genres don't. For one, they're an interactive medium as opposed to a static one.

     You really can't make a video game about documenting a genocide, at least if you want anyone to buy it. I've always felt that video games can, however, serve as a viable look into the world of society. Both my Arkham City (here) and Deus Ex: Human Revolutions (here and here) reviews go into my feelings on the subject in depth. However, today I'm going to talk about a somewhat more controversial entry into this field: Dead Rising 2.

The scary thing about Terror is Reality is, if zombies were real, someone would make a similar show.
    I, honestly, feel this is one of the most scathing bits of satire to come out of video games in over a decade. Dead Rising 2, despite its occasionally surreal even goofy atmosphere, has a surprisingly sharp understanding of the problems currently afflicting modern America. I'll even argue the game manages to resurrect the overused and cliche "Evil Megacorporation" trope in a manner that works wonders for the game's biting commentary.

    The premise of Dead Rising 2 to those who haven't read my previous entries is personal as well as global. Chuck Greene, a motorcross star, has escaped the zombie outbreak of Las Vegas with his daughter Katey. Unfortunately, Katey has become infected with the mutated larvae that turns people into zombies and requires an expensive injection every 24 hours or she'll die. Chuck Greene is forced to compete in a bloody American Gladiators-esque pay-per-view event based around killing zombies in order to make enough money for his daughter's treatments.

    Not long after competing in the sick competition, Chuck Greene finds himself at ground zero for a second zombie outbreak. Discovering he's been blamed for the outbreak due to circumstantial evidence, Chuck investigates the true cause while working to acquire enough of the medicine to get his daughter through the next few days.

     After spending much of his time saving the survivors of the outbreak, he eventually discovers the true culprits are the pharmaceutical corporation Phenotrans. Phenotrans has caused the outbreak to create new larvae so they can continue marketing Zombrex as well as supply their existing (and influential) customers. Chuck Greene, eventually, manages to find evidence enough to clear his name but not enough to indict the corporation.

While Katey isn't as awesome as Clementine. I found her to be a suitable motivation for Chuck to do anything to protect her.
    Taken at face value, it's not really all that deep of a story. Chuck Greene is an innocent man wronged, he has to get a Maguffin, there's a cute little girl involved, and a corporation is ultimately the bad guy. Really, corporations have been a steady source of science fiction villains since Alien and are a 'safe' target. People might object to the government being the bad buys but a corporation is the perfect foe for most gamers. Even Ayn Rand had corrupt corporations in her works.

    However, it is the atmosphere of Dead Rising 2 that makes all of these elements shine. To quote the angry peasant from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, "Now you see the injustice inherent in the system!" The desperate circumstances our hero is forced to endure are the consequences not only of a cartoonishly evil megacorporation but a culture of consumption and greed laid out for gamers to explore.

    This brought home by the setting of Dead Rising 2, the aptly named Fortune City. Fortune City is a transparent stand-in for Las Vegas, America's adult playground and one of the great symbols of consumerism in America. Like a mall, casinos represent something specific to the American psyche. They are representations of an unthinking devotion to wealth and the need to acquire.

Fortune City looked more fun in the brochure.
     In the four or five casinos present in the game, Chuck Greene wanders past thousands of shambling zombies mindlessly shuffling about blinking lights and chiming noises that entrance the undead like children at a carnival. George Romero made use of the mall for the iconic Dawn of the Dead, invoking images of undead shoppers simply wandering around simply because they had no place better to go. It's the same sort of cruel joke as in Dawn of the Dead that the flesh-hungry patrons aren't that different from the way they were while alive.

    Dead Rising 2 doesn't limit its social commentary to regurgitating George Romero's observations on the human condition, however. It extends its social commentary to the hand full of survivors Chuck Green is able to rescue throughout the three-to-four days of game time he has to explore. Almost universally, the survivors of the Fortune City zombie outbreak are selfish egotistical twits.

    They aren't evil and certainly don't deserve to die at the hands of the ravening undead but in the short time Chuck gets to know them, he's exposed to a massive number of individuals more interested in trivialities than their own survival. Chuck encounters people who are embarrassed about being in their underwear, want food, intend to rob ATMs while the death toll rises, and even have completely missed there's a zombie apocalypse going on.

    Those rare few individuals whose primary concern is another human being's life shine like diamonds in the rough, even when it is a close personal relative. The Texas millionaire stereotype may be a cartoon but at least he wants to make sure his wife is safe before going off with Chuck. Otherwise, selfishness is all pervasive in the game with one of the earliest cut-scenes being a man abandoning his girlfriend during an attack to get himself to safety. The game brings home the self-destructive nature of these acts as he immediately regrets it but she's already dead.

    Chuck Greene, by contrast, is an exemplar of selflessness who is not unbelievable in his heroism either. His primary concern is to protect his daughter, a motivation most parents can understand but he's not unwilling to help others if it didn't conflict with this overall mission. His Good Samaritan status isn't preachy but simply relies on him being willing to extend basic human kindness to those around him. The fact he's virtually the only person in the game willing to do so makes it all the more tragic.

    The role of greed and self-indulgence as the enemy of Chuck's selflessness is brought home on numerous occasions. On a very fundamental level, Chuck's primary enemy isn't the zombie hordes around him but the fact the medicine his daughter needs is extremely expensive. Even during the worst part of the outbreak, Chuck Greene finds individuals willing to horde all of the medicine supply for themselves. Not because they fear being infected by the zombies, which would be selfish but rational, but out of a desire to sell it to the desperate people outside.

    If ever there was an argument against treating medicine as a 'for profit' industry, it is the fact that Chuck Greene is willing to sell his dignity for the purposes of caring for his terminally ill daughter. Replace Katey's zombie infection with any number of real-life conditions and poor Chuck is an all-too real example of many father's beggared by rising medical costs.

Fortune City is largely unchanged by Z-Day. It's still filled with mindless hungry consumers.
    The villainous megacorporation Phenotrans has been accused of being a transparent knock-off of Resident Evil's Umbrella Corporation but I'd argue it's a more realistic example of how a corporation might profit off an outbreak. Well, semi-realistic. I doubt any real-life corporation would destroy a major American city (let alone two) when there are so many easier ways of making a fortune.

    Phenotrans, however, is motivated not just by a persistent need to drive up the need for its zombie-treatment but also please its political sponsors. Somehow, a substantial number of Senators and other important politicians have become infected with the zombie larvae and need Phenotrans to care for them. Phenotrans and the government are working side-by-side in terms of causal corruption, both making the other worse for the experience. Yet, because Phenotrans claims its working for the "good of the nation" it has employees who wrap themselves in the flag and justify their nightmarish actions.

    Yet, the game doesn't allow the blame to be squarely rested on the shoulders of Phenotrans or the government. In fact, it resoundingly condemns the whole of society for creating the kind of environment where the megacorporation's corruption can survive. The game's opening mission is to compete on a disgusting game-show called Terror is Reality. You literally slice through zombies using chainsaws attached to a motorcycle in a disgusting pool-like arena where cash is rewarded for however many you kill.

    What makes the spectacle so loathsome is that it's also implied to be a naked appeal to revenge for the audience. Like TV shows which exploit the War on Terror, zombies have become a public enemy to the public at large and there are people who smell money in utilizing it for a cheap ratings gimmick. The host T.K. and his two identical co-hosts combine sex and violence in a gloriously over-the-top spectacle which is only slightly removed from reality.

    Even the Psychos have an important role to play in the narrative as they illustrate human beings unable to cope with an emergency.  Rather than try and save themselves, the majority of them retreat into fantasy worlds where they are living out their previous meaningless lives. People who try and interrupt their fantasies are reacted to violently because these people cannot cope with a disruption to their routine. They have no inner self and are just cardboard cutouts imitating life. In short, they're philosophical zombies.

    Dead Rising 2 is a story about the importance of remembering what is really valuable in our all-too-brief existences. It's not wealth, fame, cheap sex, fast food, or mindless entertainment. Though all of these things are okay in small amounts, at least in my opinion, we shouldn't allow them to dominate our lives. Our lives, the lives of others, and our families are the most important things in this world, so we should guard them jealously. Maybe it's a self-obvious bit of satire but it somehow feels fresh in today's climate.


  1. That... That's an awesome way to see the game. You're genius. :D

  2. I'm just asking but what about some of the psychos like ted? all he wanted to fed and keep snowflake(tiger) safe?

    1. I think the interesting thing about the Psychos is they're individuals who have broken with their environments. When people are being herded around like sheep in the glamour-culture of the setting, it deprives them of the ability to deal with real-life horrors and they retreat in fantasies to deal with it.

      Either that or the game just thought an eclectic bunch of boss battles would be cool.

  3. Welcome to my list of must-read blogs ;)