The U.S. has a tendency to be characterized as a country that frequently engages in war, a sentiment that has been reflected in the games that we’ve covered in this series (Call of Duty and Spec Ops: The Line so far). That being said, the country has many, many, many more problems than being a tad warmongering, and plenty of games have looked at the U.S. from a lens much more focused on things like economic strife, political corruption, and social revolution. Enter Dead Rising, a third-person zombie action franchise developed by Capcom and Capcom Vancouver that utilizes its shambling hordes to craft interesting, if not slightly confused, allegories that cover a wide range of topics involving American culture.
Explaining the plot of any Dead Rising game would be an entire article’s worth of text, and the series gets pretty complicated at points, so we’ll be focusing on themes more than plot in this discussion of the series. The thing that Dead Rising is probably best known for are the weapons that players use to kill the games’ zombies. Rather than using conventional weapons like clubs, blades, guns, etc., the characters in Dead Rising utilize daily objects that are hardly meant to inflict harm on anything, let alone an undead monster. Hangers, CD’s, and condiments are all viable (if not slow to kill) options that players can take advantage of in eliminating their foes. The second game took the concept further by introducing a range of combination weapons that are even more out there, like a motor with a pitchfork attached, or a motorcycle with rocket launchers tied to the side of it. It’s all wacky, but it serves an important thematic purpose.
The game worlds of Dead Rising are littered with random objects, frequently commercial products that are meant for a simple, single-task and often go unused in the average American household. They’re items that are vital to people’s survival in the series’ semi-apocalypse, but, outside of that situation, they usually just take up space or prove to be garbage. The items are a result of American excess, the country’s need to produce pointlessly, and for the country’s people to purchase pointlessly. Ironically, though, the series’ protagonists are forced to use said excess items in order to survive; the useless becomes the useful only when the impossible happens, and the world essentially ends.
The settings of the games are also a frequent lens through which the series criticizes the U.S.’s obsession with consumerism. Three out of four games in the series take place in a mall — the physical epitome of the capitalist, consumerist system. The fourth game even takes place in a mall that was constructed to honor the victims of the first game’s zombie outbreak. Obviously, the mall-settings are important because they provide a narrative explanation for why there are so many items lying around the game world, but the narrative purpose is clear too. Other narrative elements support this, like how the fourth game’s plot revolves around Christmas and Black Friday, two days that are based around the U.S.’s habit of buying copious amounts of stuff.
Dead Rising isn’t only about consumerism, though. The games may have started out by focusing on our love of purchasing, but attempted to expand thematically by looking into other facets of the American experience. In Dead Rising 2, a drug named Zombrex is introduced that basically staves off infected persons from turning into zombies. However, it must be taken in 24-hour intervals; otherwise, the infected person will succumb to the virus. The immediate comparison to be made is to the AIDs epidemic, since people infected with HIV are required to take regular drugs in order to stave off that virus. The games’ real criticism, though, is of Phenotrans, the multimillion-dollar pharmaceutical company that created Zombrex and profits off of the various outbreaks that occur throughout the world (though the series only portrays American outbreaks). Though they produce the drug, Phenotrans is frequently shown to commit crimes and cause outbreaks in order to increase demand for the drug, making them the primary antagonistic force of the series. Obviously, the player is meant to draw a connection between Phenotrans and major real-world pharmaceutical companies that take advantage of their customers by doing things like hiking up the prices of life-saving drugs. It’s a tad on the nose, but the series isn’t designed to be subtle about pretty much any facet of its narrative or mechanics.
After taking aim at the nature of American consumerism and big business, Dead Rising decided that the next logical target of its criticism would be the American government. In the first game, it’s revealed that it was, in fact, government scientists that created and accidentally released the zombie plague, infecting a town in Central America that led to most of its population being killed. The first game’s antagonist, whose hometown was the one that was destroyed, infects the setting of the first game as an act of revenge.
Things get kicked up a notch, though, in Dead Rising 3, where it’s explained that people who have been infected are required by law to be microchipped by the government. The microchip tracks these individuals and allows the government to provide them with Zombrex to prevent them from turning. However, many infected individuals choose not to get the microchip over privacy concerns and are called ‘illegals,’ referring to the fact that they’re breaking the law. ‘Illegals’ are forced to stay off the grid and forage for limited supplies of Zombrex for themselves, often staying together in groups as a form of protection. The game explains that the government frequently mistreats ‘illegals’ and likely experiments on them to better understand the virus. Again, the series isn’t meant to be subtle, but it’s worth noting that this is an example where Dead Rising’s themes are a tad… confused. ‘Illegals’ are a blatant allegory for undocumented immigrants, but it’s a weird allegory because they’re discriminated against for being infected and not because people are horrible and racist. Furthering the message, the game mentions experiments performed on Latinx children, but these experiments are performed by civilian antagonists (the one from the first game) as opposed to the American government. The point of an allegory is to deliver a message subtly but there are weird implications to comparing the depiction of ‘illegals’ in Dead Rising (who are mostly white) to undocumented Latinx immigrants in the USA.
There’s a lot to Dead Rising that is, at best, problematic with respect to how it treats certain issues, but the primary one that exists in every entry in the franchise is its depiction of mental illness. In the games, pretty much every mini-boss character is referred to as a ‘psychopath,’ cartoonishly exaggerated archetypes of various types of Americans that are often used to comment on some facet of American life (gun ownership, Vietnam (for some reason?), obesity (that one is particularly bad), and more). These characters are never portrayed as particularly sympathetic, just ‘crazy’ villains whose mental illness just kind of ‘turns on’ after some traumatic event. The most recent entry in the franchise, Dead Rising 4, attempts to rectify this slightly by toning down the mental illness angle, using them a lot less for commentary (because the commentary, to be clear, kind of sucked) and rebranding them as ‘maniacs.’ Still, it’s a pretty significant black mark on the series that is hard to ignore because it’s also a defining characteristic of the game design and narrative.
Dead Rising is surprisingly complex for a series about killing zombies with laser guns and chainsaw pikes. There’s a lot to unpack that, while not necessarily deep, is at least interesting enough to examine because of its displaying of a U.S. that is evil from head to toe, from the government and military to the corporations that exude their control over the populace. It’s a problematic series at times, and that makes its themes and messages often mixed or confused, but it’s also a series that is willing to discuss concepts and issues that a lot of other games and media tend to shy away from. Call of Duty and Spec Ops touch on very important issues — one in a socially negative way and one in a socially positive way, but the issues they deal with are specific. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it means that they aren’t necessarily as widely impactful as they could be. That’s part of what makes Dead Rising special, that it touches on such widely-dealt-with issues. In addition, the series is, above all else, pop art made to entertain, and it’s rare to see a piece of entertainment like that cover serious issues (even if it does it poorly). Good intentions do mean something though, and I think that those shine through even when the series is at its worst.
Featured Photo Courtesy of Microsoft