The Backwards Looking Future of ‘Resident Evil’

In my review of Resident Evil HD Remaster, I made a point about how the game feels like the next evolution of the series. Part of that, which I wrote about in the review, is based on a comparison to Resident Evil 6 and a consideration of how that game was received by critics and fans and what Capcom might do as a response. But as I played Remaster (and can we give Capcom credit for not calling it REmaster?) I was also thinking of another game: Dark Souls.

In many ways, Remaster feels like Resident Evil by way of Dark Souls. It’s not, of course. Resident Evil came out long before Demon’s Souls, but I still couldn’t shake the comparison. It’s a simple misguided comparison that speaks a lot about nostalgia, perception, how we talk about games, the cyclical business of games, and how all those things interact.

To be specific, Remaster feels a lot like Dark Souls in terms of its pacing. On a micro-scale, the Souls games are third person action RPGs, a genre that is typically fast-paced, but the Souls games defy that convention by forcing you to play slowly. The level design, combat design, and controls all encourage a steady and careful pace. Going from Resident Evil 6 to Remaster feels similar. A game about moving forward quickly has morphed into a game about moving forward slowly. Even though there aren’t a lot of enemies in Remaster, what few there are present real danger, so we tend to approach each new room with a paranoid caution.

On a macro-scale, both games have similar gameplay loops. As we explore an environment and learn its layout and shortcuts, our caution turns into confidence. We know this place and that familiarity makes it feel safe. However, eventually we must progress someplace new, someplace unknown, and our confidence turns into caution once again.

It feels natural for Capcom to crib some of the design from Dark Souls for Resident Evil. After all, that’s how the creative business works, right? Take elements from a critically successful game and incorporate them into your commercially successfully game to make something that succeeds in both areas. Dark Souls already feels so much like a horror game, it’s design philosophy can be easily translated.

However, none of this is true. I say what this feels like because what it feels like is not actually what it is. Resident Evil is not actually a variation of the action-shooter formula inspired by Dark Souls. If anything, it’s the other way around. Long ago I wrote about how Demon’s Souls feels like a survival-horror game and that still holds true for all of its spiritual sequels. Demon’s Souls was a variation of the hack-and-slash formula inspired by survival-horror. Essentially, Resident Evil is the proto-inspiration for Dark Souls.

This speaks to an inherent limitation in how we approach games. Our frame of reference for talking about games often lags behind the reality of their development.

It’s easy for me to talk about things as they relates to Dark Souls because I played Dark Souls 2 earlier in 2014, so its systems are still fresh in my mind. For example, I also felt that the combat in Assassin’s Creed: Unity was inspired by Dark Souls, what with its emphasis on slower and deadlier combat compared to Black Flag.

But the truth is more complicated. Unity started production in 2010, after Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. In that game, and in the many since then, the protagonist of the games had become so overpowered that combat wasn’t an issue for the player anymore. Stealth was rarely necessary because we could so easily kill every enemy we met. Unity probably set out to rectify that. Its new combat was likely a purposeful response to the series’s own growing bombast.

The philosophy of Dark Souls is nothing new, it’s just the most recent mainstream game to exemplify that philosophy, so naturally everything that comes after it is automatically labeled as being “inspired by it” even if it’s not true (however, this is not counting the games that are actually inspired by it, like Lords of the Fallen or Salt and Sanctuary). This is just how we talk about games. We’re always limited by our individual frame of reference.

Which is why Remaster feels like such a revelation. Historically, the design of Resident Evil precedes Dark Souls, but now the tables have turned. On one hand, it shows how much Resident Evil has changed since its inception, that now the original feels like a major evolution, but on the other hard, it also shows that now might be a perfect time for a return to that original form. Resident Evil 4 changed the survival-horror formula because that formula had grown old and stale. Now, the action of 4, 5, and 6 (and similar games like the Dead Space trilogy, Gears of War trilogy, Evil Within, Alan Wake, and other “over-the-shoulder-third-person-shooters”) feels stale and like pandering to fans, such that this remake feels like a new evolutionary leap piggybacking off a modern popular design trend. Again, this is not actually true, but truth is beside the point. This is about perception. And right now, Resident Evil 6 feels like a game without an identity, while Remaster feels like a game that knows exactly what it wants.

The upcoming Resident Evil: Revelations 2 seems to continue this trend of prioritizing horror over action, which (to me) makes the backwards looking future of Resident Evil seem brighter and more creative than ever before.