The Horror of the Ticking Clock in ‘Dead Rising’

Time Pressure is defined as a form of psychological stress that occurs when an individual has less time available than they would need (or deem necessary) to complete a task, job, or some sort of process that involves results. This lack of time can be either real or perceived, and when confronted with this lack of time, an individual gains a certain sense of tunnel vision—complete the task at hand while other things can fall by the wayside. Frank West from Dead Rising knows a thing or two about time pressure. 

The core conceit in Dead Rising—beyond beating zombies to death with the literal manifestations of consumerism—is a running clock. Frank West, the game’s core character (and an absolute granite slab of a man), has 72 hours before an escape helicopter arrives to solve a mystery about a zombie outbreak in a mall. This mystery snakes and shifts in ways that always keep Frank, and the player by extension, ever on the move. The clock is always ticking, literally. Frank has a watch that the player has to frequently check to make sure they are on track to get everything done in time. With thousands of zombies lurking through the mall—and some evil humans to boot—the scariest thing in Dead Rising turns out to be time itself. You can’t bludgeon time with a golf club or beat it with your fists. It never stops, it is always moving, and it always feels just out of reach. 

Video games often let players control every aspect of time—fast-forwarding through it as they see fit with the ticking clock only ever making a rare visit in certain missions or crucial moments. But Dead Rising is built on that ticking clock. Every aspect of the game is inherently tied to and affected by time. Every step is played in tandem to the tick of the clock. The watch on Frank’s wrist is less a watch and more of a shackle that binds him to the heavy and inescapable thing that is time itself. He has 72 hours to solve the mystery of a zombie outbreak, save the survivors in the mall, and then escape via rescue chopper. But things go wrong like they often do in horror games, and horror in general. Timelines go fraught and things come down to the wire. Survivors die, Frank gets set back, he doesn’t make it to some sidequests in time—they expire—and he has but little time to finish certain main missions. This tension is built into the game but it is also up to the player to some extent. I probably spent way too much time messing around, exploring the mall, and just killing zombies with lots of random items in the mall. Through doing so, I missed core side missions and found myself with hardly enough time to make it to some core missions. 

That feeling of time rapidly expiring between points A and B is deeply stressful. That stress is built out of the horror trappings of the game, but also out of the baggage we bring to the game in regards to time. Ever just barely made it to a job interview? You know that feeling, Dead Rising knows that you know that feeling, and it ratchets that tension up to 11. Through doing so, every action is both deliberate and tinged with that feeling we all know from horror films where something is right on the main character’s trail—just nipping at their heels and barely out of reach. 

Frank West is a broad man who can hold his own against hundreds of zombies and humans turned evil, but Frank’s hands cannot pummel what turns out to be his cruelest enemy in the game—time. It is always at his heels and it hangs over him and the player like a shroud. When time becomes a game mechanic that cannot be fundamentally changed, then the player can either embrace the flow of it or constantly try and exploit it. And that is the core tension in Dead Rising. The zombies are merely circumstantial, and the true horror born out of this wrestling with time is more existential than any sort of “in the moment” terror. There are no true jump scares or stomach-drop moments unless one forgets about the time mechanic completely and then realizes too little too late that they’ve thoroughly screwed themselves over. Thus this existential fear burrows rather than occurs again and again and again. It is not stop-and-go. The existential threat of time itself is always there, no matter where Frank West is. Even the safe rooms cannot save him from time; it is that invisible following beast that one can never outrun yet is rarely caught by. Time becomes a vengeful parasite, an enemy even, that Frank (and the player) simply have to make peace with. 

When we make peace with the fact that we cannot control time, a certain serenity might begin to rear its head. But that peace is often shattered when external forces render time an enemy yet again. Things might be going well and then Frank gets stuck fighting a boss. Time continues to pass. That old familiar stress sets back in. The boss zombie bleeds and dies and the area becomes awash in its viscera, but time is right there just above it all and out of reach. The clock ticks a doomful tick and it will do so forever. 

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