Narramblings #3: What’s the urgency?

Wojtek Borowicz
Narramblings
Published in
5 min readJul 21, 2023

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When I first heard about Dead Rising, I hated the idea. An open world game with a time limit? What’s the point? Alas, I was also a broke teenager and it was literally the cheapest used game I found in the store. Beggars, choosers, etc. I gave it a chance and discovered an exceptional piece of open world storytelling.

Spoilers ahead! For: Dead Rising

The cover art is a pretty accurate depiction of Dead Rising’s vibe.

I’m sure you noticed a common dissonance in open world games. You’re given an urgent quest with high stakes. Save someone’s life, maybe the entire world, the works. Except nothing in the game mechanics backs up this urgency. In Witcher 3, you’re Geralt, looking for your sort of adopted daughter who also happens to be the target of an interdimensional army of baddies. Sounds like a big deal but no one will bother you if, instead, you focus on picking up odd jobs, looking for treasure, and travelling the world. Or in Mass Effect you are tipped off about an intergalactic army of baddies (funny how RPG villains are basically interchangeable) coming to slay every intelligent species in the Milky Way. No hassle, though: you can always take a break from investigating that threat and hop around planets to do space cop things.

Take almost any story-driven, open world game, be it Grand Theft Auto or the God of War reboot, and you’ll see plot and exploration at odds. The plot needs urgency. Geralt’s search for Ciri wouldn’t be nearly as gripping if the Wild Hunt wasn’t chasing after her, would it? But the player’s fantasy isn’t about saving Ciri: it’s about being a witcher. A badass monster hunter in a grim and dangerous world. All the side quests and exploration are there to fulfill that fantasy and that requires letting the player slow down the pace of the plot.

In an open world game, the narrative tries to balance maintaining the urgency of the story and giving the player freedom to explore. An impossible job.

Enter Dead Rising.

You’re Frank West, a journalist trying to get a scoop on the zombie outbreak in the town of Willamette. Frank manages to get into the local mall and you get free reign from there. The main plot is a delightfully absurd rabbit hole of conspiracies about the food industry and the US army, but there’s loads of other things to do beyond investigative journalism. You can look for survivors and save them from being eaten by zombies. Or you can kill psychopaths, like the mall clown Adam who got so upset about the apocalypse that he’s now wielding double chainsaws and trying to murder you. You can also just hang out and snap pictures of the carnage (the juicier the better!) or find ever more creative ways to mow down the horde. Impale zombies on an excavator and spin them around, dress up as Mega-Man and bash their skulls with a bowling ball, whatever. Yes, the aesthetic of Dead Rising is very 2006.

No, I mean literally ‘mow down the horde’.

Here’s the kicker. Every single mission in Dead Rising comes with a timer. Frank has 72 hours before rescue arrives to get him out of Willamette, which translates to about 6 hours in-game with a playable epilogue on top. In the main storyline, running out of time means game over. Side quests, however, are ephemeral. They appear at specific moments and if you don’t complete them on time, they are gone, along with the survivors you could have saved or cool weapons you could have picked up from psychopaths.

What? You’re saying that sounds terrible? I used to think so, too, before I played.

Turns out the time limit in an open world was a narrative jackpot. Unlike most open world games, Dead Rising never accepted the dissonance between the plot’s urgency and the player’s desire for exploration. By introducing tension between these elements, it hits the sweet spot of storytelling in games. It gives the character and the player the same drive. In this case, to hurry the hell up.

There are three main reasons it works.

First, the exploration is worthwhile. The game area is confined to a shopping mall. It’s compact for an open world, which means Capcom didn’t have a pixel to waste and every location needed something interesting. So you go around from one wild quest to another, always meeting weird characters or finding new items to use as weapons, from traffic cones to a ceremonial sword. And it pays off. Quests let you level up, stock up on gear, and understand the layout of the mall, which is crucial when time is of the essence. Basically, exploration is a gamble. You spend the game’s most valuable resource — time — on missions, hoping to benefit from it down the line.

Second, the time limits are reasonably generous.I can only imagine how much testing it took to get them right. If you were in a rush all the time, Dead Rising would be frustrating. Conversely, if you were never in a hurry, the whole mechanic would be pointless. Sure, sometimes you will find yourself sweating over the seconds ticking away and it keeps you on your toes, but you always eventually find a moment to breathe.

And finally, Dead Rising is short for an open world game. The story is literally capped at 8 hours. Even accounting for dying and failing missions it’s unlikely to take you longer than double that amount, which works out to maybe half a playthrough of its contemporary open world games like Mass Effect and GTA IV and one third of modern behemoths like Red Dead Redemption 2 or Death Stranding. Going against the convention worked wonders for Dead Rising. It reinforces the story’s urgency and adds to replayability. If you get a bad ending or miss a couple of quests because you were in a hurry, you can just go again.

Dead Rising was unique in its approach to open world storytelling. So unique, in fact, that even the sequels eventually dropped the time limit. And guess what? The series died. The tension between the story and exploration turned out to have been what made the original successful. I wish more games took that approach today. Disco Elysium and Outer Wilds tried it to an extent and it’s no surprise they both deserve a spot in the narrative design hall of fame.

Sure, sprawling worlds that you can spend 100 hours in are cool, but I want to see compact ones that make it risky and worthwhile to explore.

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