Saturday, 7 February 2009

[140] Frank West: Photojournalist?

One of the many good things about finally purchasing an Xbox 360 is the chance to catch up with games and franchises that I have missed over the last 3 years.

When the Xbox 360 first came out, the only game that piqued my interest was Dead Rising. Its interesting mix of sandbox action and survival horror genres was unique, and the zombies-in-a-shopping-mall setting, featuring heavy inspiration taken from George Romero's seminal movie Dawn of the Dead, was refreshingly different. It also had a quirky sense of humour and varied, often brightly satirical design that few games have.

Another aspect that drew me in was the incorporation of photography into the gameplay. Frank West, Dead Rising's protagonist, is a photojournalist who infiltrates Willamette, Colorado in order to cover a national security incident. He is dropped off at the town's shopping mall, and proceeds to look for 'scoops' about the mysterious goings-on. The story develops along quite normal lines, with the player engaging in 'story missions', engaging with non-player characters and uncovering different levels and elements of the story as the game progresses.

However, Frank has his trusty camera at his side at all times, and the player can with a pull of the left trigger bring up the viewfinder, and snap away. The camera mechanic is used as part of the Prestige Points (PP) system, where the player can score more points with pictures that are more dramatic, gory, action-filled or well-composed. These points go towards a rudimentary levelling-up system, which in turn improves Frank's health, and unlocks new abilities like body charges and dodge maneuvers.

The addition of the camera brings an interesting widening of focus to the game, as a group of zombies are not merely enemies, but a photo opportunity. The player is encouraged to take risks, and to be inventive in order to score higher points with more extreme photographs. It reworks the usual genre boundaries by opening up different gameplay avenues, as opposed to merely all-out action. Michael Abbott, at the Brainy Gamer, discussed a similar case in a recent podcast and series of articles about the game Beyond Good And Evil, and how taking photographs is more difficult than fighting. He also goes on to describe how the photographic element of the game strengthens the depiction of the main character, Jade, and her contemplative, spiritual personality, and how such distinctive markers define her against more common female stereotypes in gaming.

What interests me most is that Frank West, despite the addition of camera gameplay, is still an example of a boringly cliched male video game character, even if the tone and setting of the game go against the current paradigm of 'hardcore' action gaming. A recent podcast done by the guys over at Idle Thumbs describes this staid style as 'Bros in a War', referring to Halo, Gears of War and Killzone among others. This relatively specific example can be extrapolated out into the plethora of gritty, grizzled, 'kickass' dudes that populate the majority of big titles available today.

Frank West may be a photojournalist, but he is a wise-cracking, sarcastic beefcake of a photojournalist. Photography and journalism are skillful, observational and cerebral roles, especially in relation to more traditional cop-criminal-solder-mercenary types. Nevertheless, Frank looks like a cross between Max Payne and a Rugby player.

Crucially, he handles like a rugby player. His moves are slow, sluggish and, when handling weaponry, pretty strong. This is perhaps more a gameplay flaw than a conscious character decision, but it certainly puts more weight on the action side of things than the dexterous. This focus on the physical than the observational fits in with the game's necessity for action-oriented progression (featuring bosses, etc), as opposed to the observational photographic aspect, which is firmly pushed into the periphery. Frank is built and characterised as perfect for killing zombies and bad guys, not so much for stealthy camerawork.

Separate from these mechanical quirks, the portrayal of Frank in the narrative cut scenes also chimes with action-game cliches. Almost immediately, he is depicted in the dialogue as brash, arrogant and sarcastic. Some of his first lines, in an otherwise great introductory sequence as Frank choppers in over Willamette, using his zoom lens to survey the area, is as follows:

'Yeah, well I'm freelance pal. I don't make my living waitin' for the TV to tell me what to cover... It's Frank... Frank West. Remember that name cause the whole world's gonna know it in three days when I get the scoop.'

Frank is quickly presented as a hard-nosed, self-interested reporter, a Han Solo with a camera, who searches for scoops and foists his personality all over the place. His position as a freelance photographer is even equated with a kind of soldier-of-fortune lifestyle, as he says 'I'm freelance. You know... Go into the battlefield alone... No crew'. When he is given a gun by Homeland Security Agent Jessica, she asks 'do you know how to use this?'. His reply is laced with smarminess, as he spits out 'Kinda... I've covered wars, you know!'. Then the player is launched into the main plaza of the mall, and must dispose of the zombies they find in various gruesome ways.

It is a shame that a game with so much potential as Dead Rising so quickly shuts down some of its more intriguing aspects. The photography becomes a sideline and Frank West's character develops along generic lines. To make matters worse, in an early side mission, the player is confronted by a character called Kent, who is another photographer that is let loose in the mall. His stature is more weaselly, anemic and his movements are more agile; he is a wily paparazzo foil to Frank's beefy snapper. Admittedly, his characterisation is perverted, deranged and wholly unsuitable for a commercial game's protagonist, but he is far more interesting.

This is a minor issue, I'll grant that, and I do not usually form opinions on the characters in games, but Frank's personality is so strong and unavoidable that it is hard not to form an aversion very quickly. It is by no means the most glaring issue with Dead Rising, but it has been the first to affect my experience of the game. I'll keep playing, hopefully I will have something more positive to write about in the future.

No comments: