Fear. It drives us. Consumes us. Makes us act irrationally, and often, awakens parts of us we didn’t even know existed. Fear is something we all experience in a totally unique way. What scares some, doesn’t others. It’s the personal nature of fear that truly makes it one of the most difficult feelings to ignite in a piece of entertainment. With this in mind, I have to confess, in terms of setting off my own panic buttons, Dead Rising (1) is the scariest video game I have ever played.
So, just what it is about Dead Rising that unnerves me to my very core? Well, you’ll be surprised to know, it is not the zombies. It’s the time. Time you say? How is that scary? Well, when the concept of time (and a lack of it) is used well, I find it to be one of the most potent weapons in the horror arsenal.
Dead Rising’s time dynamic is a unique beast indeed. By forcing me to confront a zombie threat against the clock, the fear I experience as a result of the hordes bearing down on me is elevated dramatically. Time’s unwelcome presence in these circumstances allows the undead to evolve from minor nuisances into obstacles of chilling power. The unstoppable noose of time regularly tightens around my neck thanks to the cannibalistic bastards blocking my path. This makes me immeasurably uncomfortable and due to the nature of it, it’s impossible to avoid or fight. Whether in a safe zone or in the midst of a famished undead party, time continues to tick on by.
Rude… but fair
The reality is, Dead Rising doesn’t respect me. It demands I follow its rules to the letter and forces me to face my fear time and time again, entirely on its own terms. It strips me of my free will and forces me to take actions I would not dare take, if not for the damn clock. This lack of freedom unsettles me more than any physical threat or jump scare ever could.
Unlike the threats posed in Resident Evil, Silent Hill or Doom (3), Dead Rising’s greatest enemy has no physical form, yet it lingers from start to finish. In fact, there are very few instances in the game where the noose of time actually loosens. It is relentless, and this is part of the problem. I cannot compose myself, I am forced to think on my feet and use every minute wisely.
This is made all the more challenging by the utterly insane powerhouses that are the bosses of Dead Rising. Sprinkled around the mall like a wing of Arkham Asylum, these lunatics only add to my fear and apprehension. What makes these bosses all the more threatening is their complete unpredictability. As time progresses, the bosses change. One minute, I’m arming up from the hardware store, the next I’m being chased around the DIY department by an ex-military nutter with a machete. As the game treats each area of its map as a world of its own, it becomes very difficult to 2nd guess the challenges that await after each loading screen. This just makes the task of fighting off the clock that much worse! While most of these bosses are optional to fight, they are impossible to avoid, and when i’m already escorting survivors with the IQ of a lemon meringue and frantically clock-watching, 3 yobbish dicks in an army jeep is the last thing I want to see.
Convenience is not a right
Dead Rising does what few games are prepared to do in the modern era and sacrifices my convenience for the sake of driving my fear. Much like Resident Evil’s iconic ink ribbon, the game uses its save system to restrict my ability to protect myself. It’s through these limitations that the true tension is born. There is nothing more terrifying than being reduced to a single block of health and tasked with the challenge of making the trek to the nearest bathroom, just to avoid a loss of progress. If, as some critics would have preferred, I was given the ability to save in any location, there’s no doubt Dead Rising would have become a limp, helpless puppy. It would have lost its ability to scare and with it, everything that makes the game such a masterpiece.
Time to panic
I’ll admit, it’s not the most traditional fear in the world, but Dead Rising’s manipulation and presentation of time as a foe to be challenged, but never conquered, is masterful in its simplicity and its potency. The game has been wonderfully built to play on a dynamic few ever touch, and by sacrificing commonly accepted tropes and expectations, has created an experience like no other.
Who knew hiding behind all of those Lego heads, water guns and plastic lightsabers was the very definition of fear itself?