Resident Evil Retrospective: From Survival Horror to Splatter Thriller

It’s that time again! Today’s reference letter for interesting articles come to us from my love for the Crysis series. I’m pretty in love with its design, and the first article of the day shows a ten minute clip of Crysis 3’s beta. Sweet Jesus, listen to those gun sound-effects! I know it’s a weird thing to mention with all the pretty bloom kicking around, but I really appreciate guns that sound like… well… guns. Halo 4 sort of kicked it for me there. http://whatsyourtagblog.com/2013/01/31/i-suck-at-crysis-3/
Next on the chopping block (?) is an article about the Top Ten Comic Book Movies (Without Superheroes). It seems pretty self-explanatory, but many of these movies are amazing, so I think the list deserves some (more) attention. http://houseofgeekery.com/2013/02/01/10-comic-book-movies-without-superheroes/ Oh, also, listen to Caravan Palace! It’s electro-swing, and it’s terribly addictive. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1RaKSRU60bw&list=PLZh2pDMvoNNMFkxu5cOqJXq3F5M3ug0JL

With the introduction-introduction out of the way, let’s get down to why we’re all here: video games and video game accessories, Specifically, horror. I’m still playing Resident Evil 6, because it’s been a busy month, but, honestly, I could do the review now. The reason I’m not is because I want to address another topic first. I’ve been bashing Dead Space a bit for… well… go read the article “No Time for Horror, Doctor Jones” It’s the one immediately before this one. If you want to save some time, then I’ll sum it up thusly: the timing of a game affects how it engages the audience. Without time to appreciate danger, or any reason to fear it, then the game loses some weight. Putting your character in a scary situation will not chill the player down to their core. You need to think about how they’re reacting and being engaged. A big part of this is how fast they must react and what kind of commands they can issue. As well as the player’s level of kinaesthetic projection (I’d like to do a study on improving the rate at which this occurs someday, but…). It also helps to make them dread dying without being annoyed by the death. Silent Hill and Resident Evil were both games that could involve a lot of combat (you would also run away… a lot), but were able to use clever, albeit clunky, designs to engage the player in a way that demanded attention, but didn’t give them enough power to feel like they were cutting swaths through the enemy ranks. It was an uneasy balance that was bound to topple. I’m going to blow your mind here, because I really think Dead Space is going in the right direction. Despite my constant ragging on them, I think I see the problems they are trying to address. At the same time, I don’t think they’ve quite gotten the hang of it. It all feels a bit… obvious. Subtlety, though, comes from refinement and sophistication, and we’re just stepping up to this problem.

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I do a lot of speculation on this blog. However, today, we’re jumping on the speculation-train, destination: Nannerville. So, hold onto your shoes, or they’ll fly right off. Originally, I was going to do a side-by-side of Silent Hill with Resident Evil. I’m sure I’ll make mention of it, but I think, for the sake of brevity and not beating an undead horse, we’ll just address Resident Evil. Let’s go for a retrospective ride on the Resident Evil death-train! Chew-chew!!
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Let’s start with Resident 1, because it kicked the series off. If you were playing survival horror games around this time, then you’ll probably have a couple points of reference. There was the Clock Tower series, Dino Crisis, Resident Evil, Silent Hill and a list of other one-off titles that didn’t get picked up with quite the same verve. You’ll probably notice similar movement systems. Not exactly the same, mind you, but they’re related through the time-frames they create. Of course, Dino Crisis introduced a proto-quick-time event, and had jump-scares closer to Dead Space than Silent Hill. Clock Tower was more like a point-and-click, at the time of RE1, than a third-person shooter, but the time-frames they created were similar in their most basic elements. Between an encounter and making a decision, the ratios are remarkably similar. Remember that, because we’re coming back to it later. This is why the remarkably agile dogs, Hunters and Lickers always faffed around for a while before attacking you. They were coded so you’d have enough time to panic slightly, take aim and fire. Then, you’d either have to take clunky evasive action, or keep pumping out bullets. Of course, they could still jump at you from off-screen, but that’s more of a camera-angle/jump-scare issue. (Oh man, I just opened the RE Wiki… I’m in trouble… forty minutes of thoughtful clicking later…)

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Alright, let’s get off just movement for a bit and get down to game-play. RE1 used zombies as their primary enemy, because they were slow, menacing, and easy to defeat. It also opened up many other possible designs through their use of the game’s Phlebotinum, the T-Virus. Like the Pyramid Head fight I mentioned last week, many of the enemies in this game attack along certain vectors, so you’ve got a fighting chance to avoid them. Upon release, RE1 was particularly memorable for its voice-acting and elaborate mansion: The Spencer Estate. Many of the puzzles were so unusual that they gave the game a surreal quality in the midst of a seemingly normal mansion with a standard under-ground laboratory. Zombies created by viruses are one thing, but what kind of twisted forces created the mansion and the abominations within it? Yeah, it’s Umbrella, but ssshhhh -Spoilers!- it was just off enough to unnerve, while retaining enough atmosphere and originality to spook players. Zombie foot-steps echoed through the halls. People kept disappearing. There was a giant fucking shark in the water-filled area. Despite its many flaws, it was still memorable enough to fuel the creation of an entire series.
ImageEventually, the game would be re-mastered. They actually made significant changes to the game-play through the introduction of super-zombies. Thanks to the regenerative power of the T-virus, a zombie that wasn’t burned after it was killed would come back to life stronger and deadlier than before. I should also mention the save-ribbon. Saving was done at typewriters and was limited, on Normal difficulty and up, by the number of ink ribbons you had on you. Both of these elements, the burning and the saving, respectively, were limited by the amount of gas and the number of ribbons you could find. This created a kind of Sophie’s choice tension for gamers that didn’t want to fill up their limited item slots or waste those precious resources. You had a storage chest, but those items weren’t very helpful in the heat of battle. Saying no more about that, let’s move on to RE2!

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RE2 didn’t change much in the way of game-play. It had a graphical up-grade, but most of the controls and game-play elements from the original game were moved over. It had some different enemies, like a crocodile that was one of the few creatures alive that could relate to the shark from Jaws. The big thing it did was introduce the city. RE1 took place in a mansion and its underground laboratory, so it was a pretty tight experience. RE2 was still just as tight, but it took place in Raccoon City. Now, the entire fabric of society was breaking down. Zombie howls echoed through burning streets instead of wooden doors. It also introduced Claire and Leon to the series. These two, along with Jill and Chris from RE1, would go on to be forever hunted by horrible monstrosities from beyond the budget of most pharmaceutical companies. Now, the surreal horror of the mansion comes into its own as we see exactly what Umbrella can, and will, do. The true monster… IS MAN!
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You can’t say you didn’t see that one coming. There’s something to be said about the break-down of society. You’re very purposefully led to locations one would normally associate with safety, like the police station or city hall. This is intended to bring the full reality of the break-down of the city to the player and get all confrontational about the future of the rest of the world. Moving right along…

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RE3 introduced another element of horror that I adore: a recurring, unkillable bad-guy that’s out for your, and mostly your, blood. Okay, not unkillable, but that machine gun isn’t going to do much. Other games had recurring monsters, but Nemesis made a habit of popping out of everywhere, and disappearing just as fast. It gave you the feeling of being pursued by a mechanical, intelligent monstrosity of science and English dentistry. I think my favorite set-piece for this game was the hospital, because… hospital… patient 0’s. That sort of thing. Then, there was the giant worm in the park. The game also included a few puzzles in the general city area that were just as insane as the ones in the mansion. Which makes the player wonder if Umbrella controlled more than we thought, or if the RE designers were just crazy. Either thought was unsettling 2 hours into the game. The game itself ends with a bang, but, in my mind, the most effective explosion is the one near the middle. Having managed to signal an Umbrella helicopter for a ride (think of an umbrella helicopter and capitalization seems far more important), you’re waiting on the rooftop for pick up. In the distance, you see the helicopter approaching, and everything seems hunky-dory. “I guess we’re switching to another charac…” BAM! That’s when Nemesis, with his magical disappearing rocket-launcher, shoots down the rescue bird. After all that effort, you’re sitting on the roof of an infested building, surrounded by death, with imminent destruction at hand, and the seemingly unstoppable killing machine just gave you a huge middle finger. Not only that, but HE HAS A ROCKET LAUNCHER NOW?! HE CAN USE WEAPONS?!?!?!? With that thought in hand, let’s move right along…

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Resident Evil: Code Veronica was most memorable for its look into the curious, insect-obsessed lives of the owners of the Umbrella Corporation. It also gives you some background on the virus, left you trapped on an infested island, and brings back Albert Wesker… but with powerful up-grades. I can’t remember why there aren’t more over-powered monsters like Wesker, but whatever. It’s Resident Evil. If we worried too much about plot holes and retcons, then we’d have exploded by now. The game didn’t add much besides those things, and felt a bit… like a formula game. Instead of a mansion, it’s an island. Claire and Chris make another appearance, though, so it’s alright. Moving along to RE0!

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Resident Evil 0 took a chance, and added dual-character game-play, along with a serious graphical up-grade. Now, you could switch between different characters to solve puzzles. It was an interesting mechanic. However, it somewhat limited the sense of isolation that the series was, at least partially, shooting for. Most of the time, you only met people tangentially and then passed like ships in the night. Also, there were leeches. Again, there wasn’t much of a change in the game-play’s combat department. Although, now you had to manage two inventories and constantly juggle an AI ally. Thankfully, they didn’t do too much besides follow you.

It was around this time that most people were grumbling about the combat. “Why can’t you aim for the head?! It would be easy to survive the zombie apocalypse, or at least stop Umbrella, if we could just shoot slightly up!” Until that point, you could only aim at three different angles that, roughly, corresponded to Up, Forward, and Down. From there, your character had to be relied upon to auto-aim. So, most bullets just went into your enemy’s chest. As we all know, that’s just silly. Along came Resident Evil: Dead Aim (Biohazard: Gun Survivor 4 in Japan)

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As we can all tell, there’s a 4 on the end of that! So, this wasn’t the first FPS, light-gun, Resident Evil game. Clearly, Capcom had been working with their silly systems for a while. Before we get on to how the two systems were pronounced lawfully wedded, let’s look at Dead Aim.

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You could switch between third-person running and first-person shooting with the light-gun. I should also mention that the light-gun worked extremely well for this game. So, if you’re going to play it, then I recommend finding one. It was most memorable for its androgynous, electric-powered villain. Oh, there was a cute Chinese lady, too. The male lead was basically Jeff Foxworthy. I’m not going to bring up every game, but the damage ratios in this game were well balanced enough to show us that being able to aim for the head wouldn’t destroy the balance of play, if it was handled correctly. Again, this is speculation.

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The story wasn’t particularly memorable, but it introduced the t+G virus, and it took place… wait for it… here it comes… on a boat. The slight rocking motions, interesting monster designs, and use of sound effects makes this one of the most atmospheric light-gun games I’ve ever played, and I drained my bank account in the arcade more often than I’d like to admit. It did have the small problem of being beatable with the starting pistol, but it still required fast reflexes and too much caffeine, so I’m going to call it a success. Now, the moment we all knew was coming…

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This was Capcom’s magnum opus. It’s still one of my favorite games, and for good reason. It married the FPS design with the third-person camera, allowing for situational awareness with full-bodied actions and accurate aiming. It include an intuitive inventory system and one of the most memorable merchants in gaming history. It also had one of the most endurable escort components since ICO. Every piece of this game dripped with atmosphere and was so very camp that is was hard to be scared by it. Although…

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Now, we’re getting back to the timing problem. With the introduction of the free-aiming system, it was obvious that you couldn’t have zombies shamble slowly up to you. Even the massive hordes of Dead Aim wouldn’t prove much of a challenge for a character that could easily strafe in circles and run freely… as well as kick down ladders, jump out of windows, close doors, move furniture… In terms of a video game that can be beat, it wouldn’t do to plunk you in the middle of a city and make you fight the 200 zombie hordes it would take to challenge/horrify you at this point. I’m sure it could, because an unstoppable, encroaching mass of mindless flesh is still frightening (see: the mall on Christmas), but it wouldn’t make for a very varied or fun game. So, they introduced the Las Plagas. It was a parasite that was the game’s replacement for the T-virus. Now, the zombies were smart. Well, they were more like villagers, really.

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You may have noticed a bag-headed fellow featured prominently in the two pictures I posted. He’s the first true threat you face in RE4. They introduce him with a few other villagers in a brief cut-scene. They then proceed to chase you around their homes with scythes and blood-thirst. Oh, there’s a chain-saw, too. You may be thinking… “Wait, isn’t that what Dead Space did? Didn’t you complain about that?” Yes, but there are two key points to recognize here.

First off, RE4 represented a real shift in tone for the series. It started tackling the problem that Dead Space would later run into. In a game with an action-heavy protagonist and freedom of movement, as well as mounds of heavy, upgradeable ordinance, how do you design creatures that are challenging, fair, and frightening? I didn’t mention this earlier, but while the timing is different, the time ratios between Dead Space, RE3, and RE4 are similar. The difference is that you don’t have the extra seconds that the clunky combat of RE3 provides to worry about being attacked or scared. It’s either do or die. Much the same way that ripping off a band-aid, or taking a test, is more painful to think about than actually do, preparing for action is more frightening than actually shooting a gun. In a game. I bashed Dead Space for how it handled the situation because it introduced soldiers and monsters by having them murder people in front of you. This, effectively, eliminated most of the mystery or suspense. This brings us to some of the creature designs in RE4, and how they handled the problem.

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I wasn’t in the planning room, but much of the horror of monster designs in RE4 came from everything but the combat. This particular baddy would have to be kited around, in relative silence, because it hunted by sound. Then, it would dash towards you like a demon out of hell and strike. His weak point was on his back, of course. El Gigante was a huge giant that had to be brought down with lots of bullets before it could be directly injured. The Regenerators were really creepy sounding monsters that could only be killed by shooting the parasites in their bodies with a sniper-rifle equipped with a heat-sensing scope. Notice anything odd? All of these creatures have to be moved around, kited, or dealt with in a specific way before you can begin chipping away at their invisible health bars. The horror came from the anticipation of the fight, and from the relative permanence of your obstacle. It created the same kind of time to consider the situation that the original clunky combat did. Only now, the creatures are faster, so you have to be, too. This sort of unites the constant tension and dread of the Dead Space and Silent Hill systems.

Lastly, let’s look at the guy with the bag on his head, because he’s pretty much the quintessential version of what I’ve just outlined. He’s shown with a chain-saw, so we know he’s menacing. He has the added bonus of an obscured face and an almost direct resemblance to Leather-face. He’s introduced in the first area, so you’ve only got a pistol, and very little combat experience. There’s a shot-gun in the village, but if you don’t know where it is, then he seems incredibly powerful. Even shooting at his head and moving gracefully around, two advantages that, until that point, have been your aces in the hole, are meaningless with only a pistol at your command. It’s a real rat-in-a-maze feel. With a cat. Also, the cat has gas-powered teeth. You don’t see him cutting anyone up, so you’re left to imagine the result of his weapon meeting your soft, squishy bits. This makes it extra effective the first time he tears into your flesh with it. I was sort of stunned the first time. I wasn’t ready to believe that the game would just kill me like that. I actually looked away, because I didn’t want to witness the brutal, graphic death I had experienced at his hands. It was a truly stirring moment. RE4 wasn’t fucking around. Let’s recap. He’s effective because, while obviously menacing, he’s left to wreak havoc on you first, leaving everything before that up to your imagination. Plus, he delivers on the threat by destroying you absolutely. For all your new-found movement and fire-power, you’re nothing before a whirring chain-saw. That is, until you get a shot-gun, or learn how to kite him. Then, it’s pretty much over.

I could go on about the one-hit-kill head-parasites that caught me off guard. The occasional trapped wires that make you extra aware of your surroundings, and reinforce the hostility of the entire environment. The unbelievably corny dialogue, and standard Resident Evil plot, but I won’t. I want you to try the game. It’s worth your time, even now. Next stooop!

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Resident Evil 5! Like Dead Space, this game was sort of pre-empted by RE4. Space-zombies are a cool concept, and really well animated, but, eventually, the idea-bucket runs a little dry. RE4 had so much packed into it that RE5 didn’t have much left to work with without blatantly ripping the whole thing off. Then again, they sort of did that anyways. The game got a graphical up-grade, thanks to the next generation of consoles, and a more refined environment. However, it also added an AI partner that was denser than lead shielding. I don’t know anyone that didn’t hate Sheva because of how her AI played. If you’re going to play this game, then grab a partner. It’s not worth the agony otherwise. The inventory system was cut down from the intuitive briefcase system to a standard slot-system to accommodate the introduction of a partner that you could trade back and forth with, a’la RE0. Only, you couldn’t take control of Sheva directly, and you couldn’t trust her, either. If you gave her health items, then she squandered them. If you gave her bullets, then she’d waste them. Don’t get me started on rocket launchers and grenades. She tended to walk in front of your line of fire and just generally derped around. It was like she didn’t know she was in a survival horror game or something. The rest of the game played almost exactly like RE4, but the tone was absolutely destroyed.

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As this picture might illustrate, there were some allegations of racism in RE5. RE4 got some flack for having a village full of Spanish-speaking peasant-zombies, but they didn’t feel blatantly exploitative. As I mentioned earlier, the whole thing had this ironic sense of camp about it. RE5 did that adorable thing that Resident Evil games do and took itself seriously. The opening was an infected village that looked like it might have, believably, been from a poverty-stricken portion of Africa. I’m not sure. Mud huts belonging to grass-dress wearing, spear-wielding Africans are a little more questionable, though. Capcom aren’t bad people. I would like to think that they’re just a little mis-guided. Although, let’s be honest; my limited exposure to the African continent basically ensures that I can’t empirically prove that there isn’t one village like that somewhere, albeit less fetishized and infected.  Maybe that’s what they were hoping for. Either way, I did feel kind of uncomfortable walking through it snapping off head-shots, so maybe it did its job properly. Again, the true monster IS MAN!!

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As you can probably tell, I wasn’t that big a fan of RE5. Besides this guy, who moves suspiciously like Pyramid Head, and some questionable ethnic representations, the franchise has finished its shift to Splatter Thriller. You’ve got a wise-cracking side-kick, free movement, enough ordinance to blow up the entire mansion from the first game, a portion where you’re in a volcano punching boulders into lava, and a hilarious end-scene where you do an anime-style back-to-back double-rocket launcher finishing move on, you guessed it, Wesker, who has transformed into a mutant monster swimming around inside said volcano. You also fight a giant crab. Some scenes are disturbing, and may legitimately frighten you, but there’s no fear, and hardly any tension.

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I’m doing a full review of Resident Evil 6 pretty soon, so I’m not going to jump into it here. Suffice it to say, I’ve got some good and some bad to say about it. As usual. RE5 mis-stepped pretty hard, but it wasn’t that far removed from RE4. So, you can see how fine an edge horror stands on. Dead Space 1 was like the RE4 of the series. There were still things to be surprised by and a certain amount of pacing. As you can see, it’s not just the combat that can destroy a game’s tone. In my earlier overview of horror combat pacing, I criticised the game for its approach to horror, going so far as to re-categorize it. I stand by that, but I wanted you to realize exactly how difficult it is to create fear in today’s industry. We’ve seen a lot, but not everything. The margin for error is smaller than ever. High definition makes it harder, and less desirable, to obscure our antagonists. There’s a definite feeling of inertia that encourages games to stay within acceptable boundaries and play the same old tricks, especially with the sheer cost of creating current-gen games. That won’t do with horror, though, because there’s nothing less scary than something you’re expecting. Unless, of course, you don’t want it. Then, it’s terrifying. Maybe Dead Space made its combat too viscerally fun. Maybe it was the way it introduces its creatures and has them engage the player. Maybe it’s their vulnerable nature, spindly scab-monsters that they are. Silent Hill made many of the same mistakes in its new releases. With an upgrade in graphical and processing power, there’s a push to make characters more animated. As a result, they’re expected to speed up and move more fluidly. Silent Hill Homecoming’s combat rolling is not the answer, though. Silent Hill Downpour made similar mistakes with its big-bads by making the glowing red ball of light visible and… not at all scary. Oh, there’s the hammer-guy, too, but he’s just Pyramid Head with a hammer.

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So, it’s a challenge, but that doesn’t mean our industry will go quietly into the good night. There are plenty of new approaches being tried. Maybe they’ll even revive the Clock Tower IP, but they better be damn careful with it. There’s A Machine For Pigs coming out, with Amnesia: The Dark Descent as its grande herald. We got where we are today in a very logical manner, and I want to give props to the Dead Space team for their progress on an incredibly difficult task: making my dried-up husk of a child’s heart beat with terror once more. Then, all I have to do is implant it once more and the device will be complete.

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5 Responses to “Resident Evil Retrospective: From Survival Horror to Splatter Thriller”

  1. I would like to read your entries because I honestly think they would be interesting, however the formatting is really, really pushing me away.

    I have two points of contention. First, the slender, single-column format makes every paragraph look like an absolute wall and the pictures, while certainly nice, seem to me to get in the way of what I want to read: your thoughts. Second, the hyperlinks themselves really shouldn’t be seen because they are often quite lengthy and disrupt the flow of whatever sentence and paragraph they are in. In the future, please consider using the link feature in the Rich Text editor. If it isn’t readily visible, click the ‘Show Kitchen Sink’ button for that and more formatting options.

    I am honestly interested in your thoughts. Please consider what I’ve brought to your attention and, if it makes sense to you, change these two things.

    • I appreciate the critique. I’ll get around to changing the hyper-links sooner than later, because they’re definitely in the way, which is why I give them their own ugly paragraphs. Part of me likes having the full address visible, but they are a mess. I was thinking of changing the format of my posts, because they are pretty wall-of-text rampant. The pictures are experimental, and I’ve included them for a couple reasons. First, they break up the text a little bit. My earlier entries didn’t have any pictures and I found them a bit intimidating to look at, so I can’t imagine they’d be fun to stumble upon. They help orient people to the subject matter and illustrate the occasional point that would be awkward to explain using text. Also, they do look pretty, especially in the link-blurb. I could absolutely be more judicious with them, though. It’s all a work in progress. Thanks for stopping by

      • You’re very welcome and I’m glad that my comments were well-received. I honestly look forward to reading your entries after the formatting changes take place.

  2. I am an incredible wimp when it comes to the horror genre of gaming. Resident Evil has proven, so far, impossible for me to play. I could not beat the demo for RE5. Ahg. Reading this makes me want to try to suck it up and give it a go again though.

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