If there's one event that can be blamed – or credited – with the zombie craze that's currently sweeping pop culture, it could very well be the Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington D.C. in 2001. While the undead monsters have popped up occasionally for decades, new fears over security and disaster have provided fresh opportunities for the horror sub-genre. At least that's how Josh Bridge, executive producer of the upcoming Dead Rising 3 game at Capcom Vancouver, sees it. And he should know, since zombies are his livelihood.
Terrorists were something of a caricature in entertainment prior to the attack, he says, often portrayed as zany or inept foreigners – sometimes with racist undertones – whose only reason for existence was to be vanquished by the heroic, almost-always American protagonist. Yet, when the World Trade Center towers fell, so too did irony in entertainment – either overtly or subtly – and pop culture changed into something darker.
"Reality struck that there's a group of folks who are capable of overcoming the most advanced and strongest countries in the world. There's a sense of insecurity and dread as a result," Mr. Bridge says. "There's almost a sense that impending doom is going to happen. It starts getting into the fabric of society and it takes a while to wean out."
Recent zombie fiction evolved out of that, he says. Writers have used zombies to express their uncertainties over a variety of subjects, whether it's the wide-scale destruction of the population, man's inhumanity to man, or the possibility of viral outbreaks.
Zombies have thus permeated film, television and comic books over the past decade, and in recent years, video games too. The past two years have seen the phenomenon reach fever pitch, with movies such as World War Z and Warm Bodies raking it in at the box office while games such as The Walking Dead, Zombi U and Dead Island: Riptide have cashed in on consoles as well.
Dead Rising 3, due for release along with the Xbox One on Nov. 22, touches on some of this zeitgeist. While the game doesn't dive too deeply into the social commentary that many of it peers deal in, it does tap into those same feelings of insecurity.
"We go for caricature and stereotypes in a way that creates a situation where you can kind of understand, but then we make fun of it, so it ends up being a comedic outlet," Bridges says. "The sense of dread is always there, though, because we've really pushed the claustrophobia of always being surrounded. There's always that sense that you're never really safe."
Dead Rising 3 puts players in the shoes of mechanic Nick Ramos, a survivor of a zombie outbreak in a fictional California city. Ramos must find fellow survivors and escape the city before a military strike completely destroys it.
As with previous entries in the series, Dead Rising 3 will focus on giving players freedom in deciding how Ramos can go about his mission. He'll be able to turn just about anything he finds into weapons, from golf clubs and hockey sticks to police shotguns or even mannequin legs. Moreover, he'll be able to combine the items he finds into lethal, new weapons, which is where the humour can come in. Got some chainsaws and a motorcycle? No problem – let's see what happens when you mash those babies together.
The series is pure escapist fantasy, Mr. Bridge says, since it allows players to tap into primal parts of themselves. It lets them ask "what if" in an arena stripped of morality – as in, "What if I drive that chainsaw motorcycle into a crowd of zombies?" The answer is simple: pure, unadulterated carnage, which is the point. It's a game, so it's not real, and zombies aren't human – two facts that combine for a capacity to really let oneself go.
"It sparks something in your little inner animal," he says. "That violence outlet is a fantasy. The morality police are out of the way because look, it's obviously just a ridiculous game."
Getting back to the foreboding, it's a real-world feeling the developers at Capcom Vancouver are familiar with. They know they're shouldering the burden of being the Xbox One launch title that everyone is watching. Since its announcement at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles in June, Dead Rising 3 has increasingly been looking like the showcase game for the hardware improvements of Microsoft's next-generation console.
Aside from the expected better graphics, the game is positively lousy with zombies. As Mr. Bridge puts it, they're everywhere – there can be hundreds on screen at any one time, each behaving in his or her own individual manner. That sort of on-screen volume isn't something that was possible on current-generation systems. The developers also wanted to put all those monsters into a large open world that was in a constant state of persistence – no load screens in between sections, just perpetual gameplay.
"None of us wanted to compromise on the amount of stuff you could interact with," Mr. Bridge says. "The sheer amount of stuff we're throwing in can only be done on next-gen."
The Xbox One also allowed the developers to incorporate a dynamic musical score, which shifts in tone and intensity based on whatever situation the player is in. The music tones down to quiet and understated in moments when the player is relatively safe, then ratchets up to loud and frantic during chaotic battles. Two players are also able to co-operatively adventure through the game together, and they don't even have to stick all that close to each other – next-gen processing allows for co-op games that aren't constrained by such limitations.
That's probably a good thing, because there's no better way to counter that pervasive feeling of dread than by having a buddy nearby who you can rely on.