Dead Rising and Internalizing the Open World

[Originally published August 19, 2016]

Lots of modern open world games follow a ‘zone’ formula, where each area possesses a different environmental/architectural theme. They might exist as separate entities – á la Batman: Arkham Knight’s islands or Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst’s boroughs – or blend in and out of one another, creating a space of opaque boundaries. Dead Rising 3 belongs to the former category, with four separate neighborhoods connected by stretches of highway. Looking from above, the Overhead Design bears the marks of competency. The player can understand where they need to go and how to get there. In any other franchise, this wouldn’t be a problem, but the strength of Dead Rising’s locales is just as much about Items as it is Waypoints.

I’m willing to concede that ‘City’ is inherently less distinctive than ‘Shopping Mall’ or ‘Casino,’ but I think the problem with Dead Rising 3’s map is actually much more serious than a broadened geographical theme. Gun to my head, I couldn’t tell you where anything is. I don’t just mean ‘Buildings’ – I’m talking ‘THINGS.’ ‘WEAPONS.’ ‘ITEMS.’ If one of the core design tenants of a game is ‘anything and everything is a weapon,’ I should be able to know where to find those Things.

I should clarify: I’m not talking about ‘secret weapons.’ True, hidden high-level weapons have always been a part of the franchise, but I’m approaching this son of a gun from the ground up – I’m literally talking about basic weapons like food, knives, and guns.

Dead Risings One and Two have a bit of a leg up on Three, in that Malls and Casinos are designed around areas of Themed Consumption. Food courts. Maintenance areas. Administrative offices. We understand the basic layout of these spaces because they’re designed to make consumption easy and organized.

Cities are a bit of a different beast. Outlets of consumption rise in inconsistent patterns. Even Restaurant Strips are speckled with bookshops, banks, or boutiques. These spaces often have wishy-washy boundaries, beginning and ending in strange places.

Our brains like boundaries. They like to organize associations (Food Court = Food Zone). It makes things simple – easy to keep track of. Our brains like to simplify. This is why maps – literal print maps, not ‘Video Game Maps: The Concept’ – consist of overhead, 2D shapes and minimal color palettes – there’s not a lot of information for our brains to process. Maps – in the most functional of terms – are about making it easy to visualize point A to point B.

Dead Rising 3 has a simple overhead view (even if its palette consists of ugly greys and blacks), but we still don’t internalize the locations like we do with Dead Risings One and Two. I can tell you the names and locations of a good portion of the stores in those first two entries. Many of those outlets make a return in DR3, so it’s not an issue of names. It’s an issue of map functionality. In a game, we don’t have the time to process and internalize a layout that we would in the real world. This is part of the reason so many game locations are smaller than their real world counterparts. The above Dora the Explorer image is a cute joke, but it’s also a pretty good point of reference for what I’m talking about. A child has ~20 minutes to understand the progression of a journey, so the world only ever exists in three parts – a beginning, a halfway point, and a destination. The real world isn’t organized like this, but we accept it and internalize the locales because that’s our threshold for 20-minute geographical internalization.

ALSO IMPORTANT TO NOTE: Dora’s ghoulish, sentient map spends time NAMING EACH LOCATION SEVERAL TIMES SO AS TO CREATE A VISUAL/NAME ASSOCIATION.

The first two Dead Rising maps actually have a function that’s meant to procure a similar result. When you hover the cursor over a store, it tells you its name and category. Sportrance: Sporting Goods Store. If I want a skateboard, I immediately have a destination that I can internalize – especially if I’m making repeat trips for a favorite item. This is a really really really really important part of a Dead Rising game. Since ‘everything is a weapon,’ your experience with the game ultimately boils down to the player dancing a sweet video game waltz of Optimization; they find an item set they like – one they think allows them to play the game most efficiently – and they stick with it. Item degradation requires repeat visits to certain locales in order to procure more of said item set, and the player internalizes the map as a result.

This is part of what sets Dead Rising apart from other open-world titles, in that most other games choose to fill their worlds with ostensibly identical collectibles. A Crackdown orb is a Crackdown orb, no matter what district it’s in. A Dead Rising chainsaw, however, can only be found at a hardware store. It’s an important distinction that makes Dead Rising a game of map reading as much as a game of play.

Dead Rising 3, unfortunately, lacks the ‘show shop’ map function. It’s completely absent. This turns the experience into a game of Waypointsrather than Items. The player doesn’t want to waste time searching for Things when they have no idea where said Things are. So they travel from waypoint to waypoint, scrounging up whatever parts come their way. I couldn’t tell you what zone has the gun store – let alone what street it’d be on. In fact, I don’t know where to find anything. With Dead Rising 4 on the horizon, it’s important to think about the features that make the experience of Dead Rising maps distinct. Hopefully, with the return to Willamette, Capcom Vancouver can recapture some of that glory.

 

When he’s not biting his fingernails in anxiety over the return of his favorite franchise of all time, chaboi – Tom Loughney – writes about games, LPs Sonic ’06 with a man named Tuskamahaya, and podcasts about interesting moments in Video Game History. Follow him on twitter@tloughnessmnstr

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