Navigating the Hollywood Monsters of the 'Resident Evil' Videogame Franchise

by Carl Wilson

26 June 2017

Image: cover of Resident Evil: Revelations 2 - PlayStation 4 Capcom 

Font of Horror

For an example of how this enemy development spreads across the series in line with the changing mechanics of ergodic control, a head shot (calculated randomly from a shot in the direction of an enemy’s upper torso) in an early Resident Evil game may result in an instant kill; from RE 4 onwards, a head shot (now possible with laser-precise execution) is equally likely to cause a parasitic appendage to pop out of an enemy host’s neck cavity as they become even more deadly and horrifying in their unpredictability. RE 5 and RE 6 took this expectation to the next level by making multiple limbs a potential flashpoint for mutation. By RE 7, the Molded are a terrifying swirl of grotesque bio matter.

If the zombies of the earlier games represent a classic, yet largely exhausted, font of horror, then the Grey Leeches (as I’ve termed them) of the later games represent a regenerative and progressive success of sorts, as they mimic and mock the form of the human body they may have once inhabited, but unlike the decaying mono-minded zombie, they move and behave in ways that are far more unnatural and disconcerting, asking the player to think in different ways. RE 4 features the Regenerators, “the product of experiments to integrate multiple parasites into a single human host” (…) and their dribbling, liquescent contortions are seen repeated in the Ooze of Resident Evil Revelations (RE R), the Uroboros Majini of RE 5, the Rasklapanje of RE 6, and the Molded of RE 7. Promoted into the limelight of RE 7 by advancing technological capabilities, these creatures are the true successors to zombies in an exploration of the grotesque and the human form within the world of Resident Evil, but let’s be honest: they don’t look quite as good on a T-shirt or lunchbox, with them not yet being fully incorporated into our collective cultural consciousness.

With the increased manoeuvrability and the improved AI of the enemy, the player is also given extra options and abilities with which to detain and decapitate the hordes. Melee is one of these critical areas of expansion. In earlier games, the player ineffectually swung a combat knife and effectively stomped on skulls on the floor. In RE 4 and RE 5, they could now perform roundhouse kicks on zombies and supplex them to death. In RE 6 one can ignore all the logic of a viral outbreak and engage in bareknuckle fisticuffs. This incremental physical intimacy across the games also opens up the opportunity for timed melee attacks and fatal counterattacks, as the guide for RE 5 explains: “How and where the enemy was hurt—leg, torso, etc.—will determine how they are stunned and what kind of move you can perform on them, and the name of the move will flash briefly as a screen prompt” (‘Resident Evil 5’: The Complete Official Guide, Price & Nicholson, 2009: 10).

A controversial choice was the inclusion of a two-player co-op mode in the main campaign for RE 5 and RE 6, potentially signalling that the tensions of single player terror were to be forever banished from the franchise as players could stand back-to-back and unload their combined firepower on the hoards. Yet aside from the fact that RE ‘96 was at one point touted for a two-player mode, and that the franchise has always had a history of having comparatively spectacular extra modes (such as ‘The Fourth Survivor’ for RE 2 and ‘The Mercenaries’ for RE 4, or even the rocket launchers and infinite ammunition unlocks that span the series), Resident Evil has always featured some sort of side-kick system, whether it be Barry, the master of cut-scene dialogue, from RE ‘96; the damsels in distress, such as Sherry Birkin from RE 2 and Ashley Graham from RE 4; or actual interchangeable characters, brought in by the “zapping” system of RE 0; suggesting that while the function and usefulness of the partner may vary significantly (“Leon, Help!”), escalating in ergodic control as the series progresses (up until single-player RE 7 that is), the camaraderie inherent within Resident Evil games is absolutely essential for both negotiating and driving the narrative. 

The Hollywood Atmosphere

RE 3 introduced a gameplay mechanic called “Live Selection”, which compelled players to make a quick choice within a cut scene, causing future events to unfold based on the narrative outcome of their decision (failing to respond results in damage being taken by the protagonist). This forcing of plot pace from earlier games was subsequently dropped in favour of the more immediately consequential Quick Time Event (QTE), or the Action Event as they are known within the franchise. QTEs have proved contentious among reviewers and fans, with them wrestling autonomy and choice from the player, shifting into a terrain more representative of action horror than survival horror. Survival implies scraping through by the skin of the player’s teeth, using the mechanics of the game to drive their own agency-derived narrative; a QTE is like trying to survive an impossibly choreographed monster attack when the avatar’s life depends on the player’s sole ability to quickly call for a lift. Press a, press a, press a, press a, press a, and so on; pretty much the opposite control ethos to the preceding games with their clunky tank controls, yet still somehow rendering the player unable to move exactly how they want.

This dramatic urgency (and narrowing of player choice), matched by the increasing potential of the hardware, continues to escalate throughout the series, as demonstrated by this quote from RE 5 producers Jun Takeuchi and Masachika Kawata: “The objective we set was simply unachievable with the technology available in 2005. This meant that our team had to come up with its own groundbreaking solutions, which only started to bear fruit in 2008 when development reached the point where we could almost play the game from start to finish” (ibid: 4). Furthermore, as a part of this process of pushing their capabilities into new realms, the producers then go on to state: “We would however like to stress that Resident Evil 5 was not created solely through the efforts of the Capcom staff. We invited movie specialists from Hollywood to help us improve the quality of our cinematics [….] As for the music score, full orchestra recordings were made at the 20th Century Fox Hollywood studio” (ibid: 4).

The same official document from Capcom that explains how tank controls were a good idea, also explains how the search for movie-like qualities originated with RE ‘96

Incidentally, even though “Resident Evil” is a Japanese-made game, the characters speak English, and the Japanese is shown in subtitles like it is at the movies. This Hollywood movie atmosphere also produces a sense of tension as a horror game. We did actually record Japanese voices as well, but they were shelved because they did not fit with the “horror set in a Western-style building”.

The makers missed their target slightly with the original CGI introduction and subsequent cut-scenes exuding a camp B-movie vibe. Although Mikmai has stated that he didn’t want to make “splatter” films and that as the series progressed “It becomes more of a sense of surprise, rather than a feeling of fear”, one might argue that the producers and directors behind the Resident Evil franchise have never been quite sure what kind of atmosphere they were aiming for. This bi-polarity might be best exemplified in RE 4 when local cult leader, Osmund Saddler—dressed like a purple robed warlock, wielding a “magic” sentient staff, and living in a gothic castle—informs the player’s character: “The American prevailing is a cliché that only happens in your Hollywood movies! Oh, Mr. Kennedy, you entertain me! To show my appreciation, I will help you awaken from your world of clichés!” Naturally, this is before Saddler dies at the end of the game after an epic and explosive, rain-soaked battle, with the player prevailing, rocket launcher in hand.

Throughout the series other influences can be readily observed. The B.O.W.s grotesquely imitate their forbearers as though they were from John Carpenter’s body-horror classic, The Thing (1982), in the same way that Tyrants and Hunters mimic sci-fi action Terminators and B-movie creatures from The Black Lagoon, the spindly Plaga parasites borrow from Alien (1979) facehuggers, and the Baker family “takes a lot of inspiration from Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974). The virus infected zombie sharks, alligators, spiders, moths, and snakes of early games in the series are little more than larger, aggressive versions of their biologically normal counterparts; like those seen in the mega-creature features from the ‘50s, but with the Cold War nuclear overtones being replaced by a contemporary focus on Big Business genetic tampering for self-gain. In terms of Resident Evil’s origin story, in updating Tokuro Fujiwara’s 1989 NES game, Sweet Home (which in itself is a tie-in adaptation of a same-titled Japanese horror movie), Mikami settled on zombies for RE ‘96, as he was influenced by George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), but believed that unlike the characters of that film, “with a game, the players could use their own techniques and thinking in order to survive the experience” against monsters as “close as possible to humans in form”.

Demonstrative of a change point in tone, however, is RE CV’s opening cinematic, which does not appear to be inspired by Romero or any of his horror cohorts, but by the dual-wielding heroes found in John Woo action films such as Hard Boiled (1992). By RE 6, the interactive cinematics—which were at first spectacular fun designed to fully show off the capabilities of the modern in-game engine and progress the narrative—came at the cost of maintaining a meaningful connection between the player and their foe. RE 5, for example, culminates in a widely-mocked series of QTEs through which the lead protagonist has to punch a boulder into an active volcano in the midst of a multi-staged fight against a super-mutated enemy.

Among this continuing brinkmanship with the ridiculously sublime, RE 6 producer, Hiroyuki Kobayashi, rationally claimed “We brought zombies back because they’re popular. Based on feedback from Resident Evil 4 and Resident Evil 5, the fact that there weren’t classic zombies in those games and people really wanted them. We tried to respond to the requests and put them in this game.” However, instead of signalling a de-escalation of the fantastical, RE 6 opens its account with your character having to kill a zombie: his best friend, The President of the United States of America, and while it imitates the first zombie encounter from the first game—and the presentation of a monstrous US leader seems somewhat prescient—you still can’t control any of the action; it’s one long and silly cut scene that you must passively watch as the narrative elements remove all ergodic control and a significant part of the potential tension making process along with it.

Nevertheless, there is a part in RE ‘02 that exemplifies one of the best ways in which the series still tries to challenge the clichéd character types it presents within the game-space. There is a lurking beast under the mansion that attempts to kill the player. Within the mechanics of the game, the monster is part of a puzzle to be resolved before a gate opens and the action progresses to the next room. However, several in-game notes that can be found lying around the game world tell the player the monster is, or was. Her name was Lisa Trevor and at the age of 14 she was kidnapped, experimented on for decades, went crazy (the standard stealing people’s faces and wearing them type of thing) and left to wander the catacombs looking for her dead mother, who the player has just unwittingly stumbled across. So, while they may seem to be disposable ephemera at first, these re-orientating flavour-texts, found in the form of scattered sad scraps of notes, hidden diaries, and the scrawled utterances of dissembled minds, are demonstrative of how the games makers are butting up against the limitations of the medium, and are using the technological barriers as positives.

Text notes are cheaper and quicker to produce than complex cut scenes, which along with large sound files may not have even fitted on the limited capacity of a PlayStation One game disc: a common compromise for the era. Crucially, they are also far less intrusive on the minds of a target demographic that might just want to shoot gross monsters. Here then, the optional narrative context for the enemies is directly tied in with the ergodic navigation of the game world as the extra textual materials are only available to those that have the invested competency to explore their environment, with it being implied that the sophistication of the hidden narrative is analogous to the player’s explorative skills within the game. 

The Resident Evil games have to balance the boundaries of horror against the considerations of what is considered permissible in a videogame product made for a mass audience expected to shift several million units. Resident Evil has courted controversy over the past 20 years, from the banned “blood bath” poster that was briefly seen in the UK to the banned French commercial for RE 4.  In fact, the franchise also has quite a long history of being cut and censored in different regions of the world – from the opening FMV scenes of the original, through to the still censored ‘grotesque’ version of Resident Evil 7 you can buy in Japan.

Yet, in also striving to force the boundaries of cinematics and the narrative of dramatic horror, Resident Evil can also introduce unexpected contexts intended for the series.  RE 5, for example, has been accused of perpetuating colonialism as a white man almost single-handedly destroys an African culture to save the Western world, while for player and character motivation, one of the game trailers and in-game cut scenes shows a black man dragging a screaming white woman off screen to receive some terrible, unknown fate. As with the slightly off-kilter notions of Hollywood movie-making, it’s hard to be sure if something has been lost in the translation from a Japanese sensibility to a Western one, or whether these cultural differences reflect more upon our own ideological preoccupations. On the game’s release, for instance, there was a significant focus by the media on the racial presentation of an African village, yet far less was made of the white male led Big Businesses and their systematic exploitation, dehumanising, and demonising of an African people (with further parallels to real-life companies and court-cases concerning Pfizer, Proctor & Gamble, Nestlé, and so on).

Hollywood helped in adding to the “movie atmosphere”, but at what cost? It speaks volumes about the change in direction and pace when RE 7 was announced, Kawata also declared: “There will be no Quick Time Events in Resident Evil 7, I know there are a lot of people who will be relieved to hear that”.  This was picked up by journalists as one way in which the franchise was returning to its authentic survival horror roots after a very long series of ratcheted encounters over 20 years, which have reached and arguably bypassed its pinnacle. But of course, this is also done while embracing and stretching the limits of contemporary technology, with monsters that can now be experienced and encountered by a player on their own in a photorealistic, claustrophobic world with a virtual reality headset driven by the RE Engine: new benchmarks for interaction and technology in the series; returning back with a renewed focus on Mikami’s “uneasy feeling” in videogame horror.

* * *

Special thanks must be given to Craig Ian Mann, Rose Butler, and Shelley O’Brien of Sheffield Hallam University for permitting me to turn them all into siesta zombies at the Fear 2000 Conference, 2017. 

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