Dead Rising 2 and plagiarism’s specter

Greene's Hardware

I’ve become something of an expert on Dead Rising 2, the upcoming massive zombie sequel from Capcom. I’ll be walking through the game next week (it really is huge, so it’ll take a while), and I did the walkthrough and the review for the piece of prequel downloadable content that launched a few weeks ago, Dead Rising 2: Case Zero.

Most interestingly, I attended the Greene’s Hardware Store promo event in Silverlake, down the street from my apartment, a couple of weeks ago. Yes, I am 8-Bit put on the event. Yes, I am friends with everyone in that company. Yes, it was purely coincidental, and totally professional, that I attended in the capacity that I did.

I actually got to cover Greene’s Hardware as a working journalist for FileFront. During the course of the event, I played the game (check out the hands-on preview I did for FileFront here) and spoke with Josh Bridge, an executive producer at developer Blue Castle.

Questioning a game producer is a tough thing. For one, all the information he wants to give you is already available. It’s on the Internet and other people have picked it up, and if it’s not on the Internet, he refuses to give it up because he’s not authorized. Consider the fact that I asked Bridge about additional DLC for DR2, given the ludicrous sales Case Zero racked up. Bridge wouldn’t tell me on Friday, and by Tuesday, another DLC episode (but for the previous game) had been announced.

Dead Rising, an overrun mall.

But Bridge and I had a good conversation about the game and what went into making it, and one particularly interesting point came up when I asked him about the inspiration for the DR2. “Clearly, Romero’s Dawn of the Dead had a big influence on the first game,” I said as means of segue into my question.

“Yeah. So much so that he sued us,” Bridge returned, quickly.

Which I feel like I must have known. But if I didn’t know it – I should have.

Some background at this point: it wasn’t George Romero who sued Capcom over the original Dead Rising, which centered on survivors fighting zombies in an enormous shopping mall (and there the similarities between it and Romero’s film end). It was actually the company that owned the copyright on the film, The MKR Group, that initiated the lawsuit and stated that Dead Rising infringed on the intellectual property that was Dawn of the Dead. (Articles have suggested Romero wasn’t even aware of the lawsuit, but based on what I’ve seen of the man, he’d probably be a little flattered – mostly he wouldn’t care.)

A U.S. magistrate eventually sided with Capcom and threw the case out. You can read a pretty great rundown of the judgment here, but the crux of Judge Richard Seeborg’s ruling was this: the film is about surviving zombies in a mall. So is the game. But the movie is also about consumerism, barbarism and race relations. The game is about smashing zombie skulls.

And note that my comments here are not to say that Dead Rising is especially deep. It’s not. Its story is decidedly Japanese – Japanese-written video game stories, and especially Capcom’s, tend to be convoluted and science fictiony, but with emphasis on the fiction rather than the science. Dead Rising is a little weird.

Theme: zombie-killing. But the judge’s ruling also seems to undermine the very possibility that Dead Rising could be making a real comment. I agree that the two stories are diverse enough that one is not a product of the other (the judge notes that one cannot own the concept of zombies in a mall), but DR makes comments of its own – not the least of which have to do with voyeurism (the protagonist is a photojournalist) and the vulture-like nature of photography. The player is rewarded for catching dangerous and sometimes awful scenes of zombies through their lens. Among those reward-doling moments are scenes in which someone is getting mangled by said zombies.

Is Dead Rising an incredible achievement of satire (or even comparable to Romero’s film)? No. Should it be totally written off as being nothing but zombie-squashing mayhem? I really don’t think so.

Hell, we’ve already talked about art in video games. I won’t rehash. Suffice to say, the patent dismissal of the case, even though I agree with the outcome, is irritating.

Back to Dead Rising 2. Having spent some time with the game, I can tell you that you can feel some influence on it. If you wanted to go Romero, I can point out aspects that feel a lot like Land of the Dead. But a major interaction in the game – driven by the addition of having to make money to buy zombification-staving drugs – is a gladiator-like game show the likes of which has popped up in several films. I got a distinct feel of The Running Man from the game.

Terror is Reality - kinda like American Gladiators.

Say what you will about influence and expression. The Schwarzenegger Running Man is not exactly high-concept (though I love the Richard Bachman/Stephen King novel on which it is based). And maybe the intention of Dead Rising 2 was to snag a cool concept and work it into a video game. It certainly wouldn’t be the first or last time that has happened.

But when I talked with Bridge, he mentioned all the zombie movies he and his fellow developers had consumed. And you simply cannot be a zombie fan without being aware of the inherent comment involved in the medium (thank you, George Romero). So I would really, really hope Blue Castle and Capcom had more on their minds than splattered blood in designing their game show, Terror is Reality. It has lots to say about TV and the way people treat one another and the way disaster and circumstances change morality.

Yes, all of that has been said before in a similar way. That’s not the point. The experience is inherently different when you’re a participant, even a virtual one.

But even if Blue Castle and Capcom really were pandering to the lowest common denominator, don’t they get spill-over art points from “influence,” because their work reminds me of someone else’s, and the point that that work made about our world? Doesn’t the item become art if art is my takeaway from it?

The way I see it, Judge Seeborg was wrong, and killing zombies can be satirical and poignant even without ripping off Romero or King. I’ll let you know how I feel about it after I’ve played Dead Rising 2 for realsies.

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