Can a video game ever truly be art? Don’t be ridiculous – art is old and dusty and inherently slightly boring. A painting of a really old ship is art. A sculpture of a naked Greek is art. A black-and-white photograph of a bird’s nest made of Fanta cans is definitely art. If you can’t look at something while swirling a glass of brandy and discussing chiaroscuro, it isn’t art. Video games then are automatically disqualified.
But perhaps a video game can allow a sensitive soul like me to make art, and with that lofty goal in mind I fire up Dead Rising 4 and step into the sensible shoes of potato-faced protagonist Frank West. Because, while ol’ Frank might be a dab hand at slicing and dicing the undead, he’s also a seasoned photojournalist, and West’s never happier than when he has that spud of a mug pressed up against the optical viewfinder of a high-end SLR.
So, my challenge this month is to become a great photographer – to capture a single image that speaks in some profound way to the ecstasy and isolation of the human experience. My challenge is to wield West’s camera in the same way that Picasso wielded the brush or Michelangelo moulded clay.
Unfortunately, the game’s metrics for judging photographic excellence rarely align with my own artistic sensibilities. I carefully compose my first shot, arranging every element within the frame to create a perfectly balanced image of striking power. My subject is an unassuming patch of floor within the Willamette mall complex. To the right, a pool of crimson blood stains the utilitarian tiles of this shambolic shopping centre. To the left, a discarded floor sign lies upended – a poignant juxtaposition of the apocalyptic and the everyday.
As I depress the virtual shutter, Dead Rising 4’s judgemental algorithms spring into life, analysing every pixel of my picture for signs of artistic refinement, aesthetic excellence and even soul. Then it spits out an F grade and categorises my creation as ‘miscellaneous’. Many great artists were misunderstood in their own time, but few had to put up with impertinence from a jumped-up equation.
My second composition fares little better and I quickly come to the conclusion that Dead Rising 4’s picture mode was designed by some kind of dim-witted vulgarian – the kind of person who wouldn’t know artistic genius if it knocked the brandy glass clean out of their degenerate hands.
Now that I have the measure of this soulless plebeian, I decide to direct my lens towards something a bit more flashy and action-packed. Following the sound of screams and gunfire, I discover a gaggle of masked human survivors gunning down zombies and train my lens on the sorry scene. But the undead are uncooperative subjects – impatient, bitey and often downright rude – and I’m swiftly forced to relocate.
From the safety of a high ledge I chug restorative sodas and coffee while ruefully reflecting that Annie Leibovitz was probably never bitten in the line of duty. I watch as the zombie horde shambles between a boutique satchel stall and a purveyor of ‘Plunge Swimwear’. Freshly energised, I try to frame a shot of a zombie manning a cash register, but I inadvertently pick up the till and decide to clobber the cadaver instead. Call it an overflow of artistic passion.
Eventually, I realise that Dead Rising 4 prefers quantity over quality and set about trying to cram as many rotting faces as possible into a single shot, pushing aside everything I’ve ever learnt about compositional balance or artistic integrity. For good measure, I grimly turn the camera 180 degrees to make it a selfie. The algorithm springs into life once more, analysing my creation for the crass signifiers of quality it’s been trained to adore before awarding me the coveted S-rank. But the victory is bitter. Success has demanded the sacrifice of my bold vision, and I feel sullied. My challenge is complete, but at what cost?
This article originally appeared in Xbox: The Official Magazine. For more great Xbox coverage, you can subscribe here (opens in new tab).