If you haven't noticed, videogames are just starting to crawl out of a twenty-year rut. This isn't an insult to your favorite game; I'm not talking about quality, or "innovation", or creativity. For what it is, Metal Gear Solid will always be a work of transgressive genius. OutRun2 will always be a flawless example of reinvention. Doom will always forever have changed the face of PC gaming. All I'm saying is that up until a couple of years ago it was not at all popular to seriously challenge what it means to be, or to play, a videogame.
In 1985, Shigeru Miyamoto came to down with a truckload of tropes, and they were so wonderful, they did such a great job at filling the creative vacuum of the time, that it took two decades for people to notice the limits to their application. Now, step by step, we're kind of getting back our perspective. Under Satoru Iwata's oversight, Nintendo - so long, so much to blame for the entrenchment - has painted a huge "EXIT?" sign in the air, with a wave and a sketch. Valve has suggested new ways to design and distribute software. Microsoft and Nintendo have tinkered with how videogames might fit into our busy, important lives. Blog culture is helping aging gamers to explore their need for games to enrich their lives, rather than just wile them away. And perhaps most importantly, the breach between the Japanese and Western schools of design is finally, rapidly closing.
Somewhere between note-sharing exercises like the Game Developers Conference and the growing impact of games like Grand Theft Auto and Gears of War on the Japanese charts, goaded on by the phenomenon known as "gamer drift", in which existing players stop playing and no new players can be found, Western games have slowly begun to resume their aborted influence on Japanese design - just as Japanese design has influenced the West since Nishikado's Breakout-tile Invaders first began to boop down from orbit. Now that everyone's getting a little too bored with the industry to hold to his own sense of propriety, desperation has forced the discussion back into a two-way exchange - allowing both sides to contribute what they do best.
What Is It?
Enter Dead Rising, the self-appointed answer to everything wrong with videogames as they are now. A fun tidbit is that this is basically the first original thing (Onimusha aside) that Keiji Inafune has done since creating Mega Man, twenty-as-it-happens years ago. After the millionth sequel, Inafune looked around and realized that, above anything, Japan needs some new blood. There are solid, if rough, ideas all over - particularly in the West - that Japan, with its head down, is ignoring almost entirely. If Inafune could just refine those ideas; get at the heart of what they were trying to do, and present it in a clear and appealing way, maybe he could just make a difference.
The first and most obvious target was Grand Theft Auto, the game that popularized "sandbox" design. In contrast to the linear action-adventure games of the '90s, GTA throws the player into a sprawling world dictated more by physics than an outward goal. The theory and hype to the game is that since, in a videogame, narrative is dictated by the player's interaction with the gameworld, an overt structure is therefore both unnecessary and limiting to the player. Of course, without structure all the game really consists of is wandering around and breaking stuff until the player gets bored and checks in for his next mission - each of which is simply a game of tag overlaid on the familiar playground, using the familiar props. Play enough mini-games and you'll unlock a new area, into which to expand your pointless wandering.
As clumsy as this model is, the theories behind it are pretty ancient and primal. At its core what Grand Theft Auto wants is to recapture the glory of Asteroids and Centipede - the old American school, from before Atari fell off a cliff and the PC scene got weird. In Asteroids, the player's mere presence is significant in that it shapes the world. Every move the player takes or fails to take, within his limited ability, determines the very structure of the landscape. Compare to Super Mario Bros., in which the world, the characters, the monsters are all fixed; they exist in a permanent and deliberate state, whether the player is there or not. Although there is plenty to do along the way, the player's role is merely to zip through it all, and get to the end of the story.
GTA aims for the former model, and lands somewhere in between. Its world is fixed, yet its relationship with the player is more or less unstructured. The player is significant in that his whims define his relationship with the gameworld, yet that significance is undermined in that he can cause the world no real lasting change. It's a world built for screwing around, in which nothing really matters and nothing really happens. Like an Atari arcade game it's friendly to casual, leap-in-and-out play over a long period; the player can screw around until he's bored, and turn it off again. Its lack of a pressing goal makes it... well, not so much replayable, as there is so little motivation to "finish" the game in the first place. Yet it's easy to pull off the shelf and play whenever you're in the mood for a little mayhem.
Dead Rising is that same idea, plus structure. It completes the picture by dragging GTA back into Ed Logg territory, and turning it into the modern equivalent of an Atari Games battle of attrition. Namely, sort of, Gauntlet.