The first thing you learn is that you should keep moving. You can’t kill them all, and bullying hordes of weaker, dumber enemies is a tempting indulgence that only slows you down. Next you learn to avoid becoming surrounded by upright, alert ones, lest they claw you to the floor in a vicious pigpile. These observations quickly lead to the most recurring conundrum: what to do about the milling crowd blocking your way? Personally, I try to end-run them, giving myself a mobility advantage by smashing through store windows or climbing on to separators. When that fails, I line up the one in front and jump kick him into the group, knocking them down comically. This manoeuvre leaves me in their midst, potentially vulnerable, so I flail around a bit, ideally with a spiked bat, to take the starch out of the most aggressive ones. Often, this sets me up nicely to punch through the back of the mob and into the clear.
That’s Zombie Rustling 101 in an extensive curriculum called Dead Rising (2). My love affair is not with this game, per se, but with the design principle that makes it shine. Nothing above is stated directly by the game rules. There is no ‘end-run’ button. ‘End-run’ is a sequence of related actions and events, never exactly the same twice, which I’ve identified as a recurring phenomenon useful to my play style. The first-order mechanics are much more bland and finite: swinging a weapon, changing movement or orientation, a zombie lurches, a window breaks. These primitives only have implication in the larger game context, where nothing enforces that cool things must occur. The game is agnostic, just simulating whatever happens to transpire. Since you could be smashing windows pointlessly in a corner, it’s that much more awesome when you effect a dramatic escape by pulling off a questionable plan. There was no cutscene. You created the drama. You wrote the story. All the designer did was give you the tools and the stage.
Similarly, I don’t select ‘knock zombies down like bowling pins’ from a menu. It’s another composite tactic I evolved as I became increasingly familiar with the game mechanics, which lend themselves to this kind of thing, a chain reaction where my kick turns one zombie into a projectile which (assuming all goes well) collides with another, and so forth. It’s emergent but not unpredicted; the designers intended for this to happen, or at least approved of it. But to me, it is mine. I was not explicitly trained to do this. I don’t even know if other players have a better technique. In fact, running through the infested mall is such an unconstrained experience I bet every player has a different style and approach. What values do they prioritise? Are they more courageous and less avoidant? Do they indulge in the occasional revenge attack when a zombie irritates them? This is the most effortless and native type of self-expression that games provide.
Let’s zoom in on some systemic depth. Weapons have a number of parameters: speed of attack, area of effect, how vulnerable you are after swinging, how quickly you can attack again. How likely a hit is to push them back, knock them down, dismember or destroy. If you imagine each parameter as an axis, you can map every weapon into a multidimensional space. Near one corner is the sword with fast, focused attacks that do little to stop zombies until it kills them one at a time. Far into some other corner is the park bench with an enormous, slow swing, which upends scores of zombies but leaves you vulnerable. Experimenting with different weapons is like moving around this space. It also involves engaging with a variety of mechanics and scenarios, which can be considered axes too. This thinking is why designers often describe games as conceptual spaces that players explore non-physically. Developing the ‘bowling pin’ technique requires becoming familiar with one area of the simulation space.
There’s tons more to be said about Dead Rising. I love its endlessly witty portrayal of American consumer culture. It does an ‘improvising weapons from the environment’ Bourne Identity thing shamefully better than the eponymous game. Its inconspicuous approach to introducing new features should be studied by every designer. These successes are built on the systemic foundation which, tellingly, the failures struggle against, forcing you to fight poorly simulated humans, confounding your controls, or imposing constraints which reduce open-endedness without encouraging your experimentation.
Among all the zombie games (quick, name ten!) and fighting games (name ∞!), Dead Rising is different. These systems are crafted especially for ‘fighting your way through the zombie hordes’. And, as real game systems, they don’t just depict but actually provide the experience in a way that no other medium can.