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

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

From crawling to walking to running to the White House: dissecting 20 years of zombie evolution.

Following an arc from the haunted house terror of the original release in 1996 through to an explosive apex of Hollywood violence and back towards more formally restricted experiments, the Resident Evil videogame franchise has always negotiated its own position within the survival horror genre it's credited with helping to create.

Through capitalising on evolving hardware capabilities, novel video game mechanics, and with a persistent interest in scientifically created B.O.W.s (Bio Organic Weapons), Resident Evil has always put its creepy monsters at the forefront of its horror mechanisms, "survival" or otherwise. These creatures have been birthed and engineered in line with shifting cultural expectations spanning over 20 years, potentially showing us not only how they reflect upon the industrial and technological conditions of their creation, but also how they are positioned within wider generic boundaries and concerns.

As fantastically convoluted an experience as it is, while the thread of the Resident Evil plot line, can be just about understood from playing through the games, giving a gossamer-thin justification as to why unholy creatures enjoy holidaying in Racoon City or the sunnier climes of more exotic locations, an accompanying "tasty" itch in need of scratching lies deeper still: how do these monster interactions work under the surface?

Using Resident Evil in his study, 'Survival Horror, Metaculture and the Fluidity of Video Game Genres', Broc Holmquest calls attention to the lack of analysis surrounding videogame interaction, stating that "the answer to how players are interacting with and in virtual spaces is just as important as why they are doing it from a narrative standpoint" (Unraveling ‘Resident Evil’, Farghaly, 2014: 63). In another useful study on Resident Evil, 'Opening Doors: Art-Horror and Agency', Stephen Cadwell also considers the intertwined relationship between the "'narrative' elements, i.e., the cut-scenes, load screens, in-game maps, in-game texts, etc.", and the "ergodic", which in in this context means "non-trivial effort, i.e., pressing buttons, manoeuvring an avatar around a virtual space, and solving problems" (Unraveling ‘Resident Evil’, Farghaly, 2014: 54).

Holmquest and Cadwell both emphasise how ergodic interaction plays a key part in the Resident Evil experience, seeing it as a neglected yet critical component of the medium. With these two studies in mind then, let’s vivisect the "how" of monster interaction in Resident Evil, looking initially at the contexts through which players and their avatars come into contact with their polygonal antagonists, seeing how through these tensions they shape the unfolding and increasingly dramatic narratives, and in doing so, give rise to the possibility that there are far more interesting things to focus on and fear than a shuffling, shambling, husk of a zombie.

Not including the live action movies, animated films, novels, comics, musical stage plays, escape-the-room experiences, and multiple Resident Evil spin-offs for mobile phones and pachinko machines, there are several light-gun and combat based videogame variations, in addition to the unfinished and unreleased main projects such as Resident Evil 1.5 and Biohazard 4 (Hallucination Version). According to Capcom, there are 116 released titles in the game series (inclusive of cross-platform adaptations), but the focus here will be on the major productions, namely the numbered games with a couple of other substantial contributions, as these titles form both the origin and the core of the Resident Evil franchise. For the sake of quality control, I’m going to pretend that the movies are a terrible fever dream, and as such, don’t exist.

Uneasy Feelings and the Allure of Incongruity

Let’s start with patient zero: not with Resident Evil Zero (RE Zero) from 2002, but with the original 1996 release of Resident Evil (RE ‘96), where, as lead programmer Yashuhiro Ampo explains, "The concept for Resident Evil came about at the dawn of the PlayStation era, where games were moving from 2D to 3D visuals," and as such, "The director's priority was making sure the zombies' visuals conveyed a sense of fear, so the decision was made to use polygons for them. The backgrounds were then swapped out to pre-rendered visuals, and this was when we decided to use the static camera as well." The angular camera placement heavily borrows from the early ‘90s Lovecraftian PC series, Alone in the Dark, but this technological balancing between the visual elements in RE ‘96 had an immediate and distinctive aesthetic effect on the game that not only became the hallmark of earlier entries in the franchise leading up to Resident Evil 4 (RE 4) in 2005 (although, it should be noted that 2000’s Resident Evil: Codename Veronica (RE CV) was the first Resident Evil game to feature a dynamic camera that followed, panned and zoomed around the protagonist), but it also had a further consequence: while the player could see some on-screen items with incomparable, world-building detail, their limited world-view was heavily exploitable by the prowling denizens of a viral outbreak.

Pragmatic, yet novel in execution, Shinji Mikami, creator and director of RE ‘96, has described one of the positive effects to come from not being able to move the camera: it made off camera monsters all the more intimidating. As Mikami explains it:

We used features such as the zombies’ moans and their footsteps as omens throughout the flow of the game. Even if you knew before looking ‘round a corner that a zombie was going to be there, we set up blind spots so that players wouldn’t be able to see the zombies [immediately] and that in turn produced an uneasy feeling that caused players to feel afraid.

While the shadows are populated by the unseen undead, on-screen monsters take advantage of technical limitations to develop their collective mythos in comparable ways. There’s the concept of a zombie "Fainting mode", which although pervasive and naturalised throughout the canon, is elucidated within an official strategy guide for main-series offshoot Resident Evil Outbreak - File 2 (REO 2). During combat with a zombie, there’s a chance that "the zombie falls to the ground and becomes inactive for a short to medium duration of time" (‘Resident Evil Outbreak - File 2’: Official Strategy Guide, Birlew, 2005: 35). In REO 2, this action is for the zombie to regain a modicum of energy, ready for a further attack; for the rest of the series, however, the explanation for the brief respite from a blood-thirsty, single-minded proposition is less apparent yet still taken as a given standard in character design.

In many ways then, the fainting zombie is really a variation on the non-fainting, standard zombie who will stand in AI limbo until provoked by the presence of the player protagonist. In ‘96, the PlayStation One strained to render multiple complex actions simultaneously and perpetually on a scale that was required even at the outset of the series. AI and animation cycles in RE ‘96, for example, can only be initiated once a character enters the new on-screen space shared with the enemy (usually prefaced by the ubiquitous door/stairs animation loading screen), meaning that the slower and more hesitant the enemy appears to be from the moment at which it is loaded into the game-space, or is made to remain motionless through various contrivances, the better the game can run.

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With the common enemy being a jittery, intellectually challenged zombie, there is also no need for them to have especially intricate and varying animations or be programmed with supreme path-finding skills; you can "kite" a dumb enemy around kitchen tables for as long as your nerve holds, and it all feels authentic for the broader zombie mythotype. When placed next to zombies that don’t move as they are "dead" within the game design, and zombies that are merely "playing dead" in the first instance (a common species I have a powerful urge to call "siesta zombies"), the differentiation between passive environmental design and an immediate present threat is closely tightened.

An official strategy guide for RE Zero takes the interplay between the limited AI and diegetic biological motivation even further in its description of the Hunters, a creature that seems destined for stealthy, sinuous aquatic murder, but somewhat incongruously, they prefer to "take up positions throughout an area. They will stand in place, immobile, patiently waiting for their target" (’Resident Evil Zero’: Official Strategy Guide, Birlew, 2002: 33). The "Mammalia" of RE Zero (and from the wider series as a whole) are generally plagued by curious genetic deficiencies affecting their sensorial capacities: "As a side effect [of the Progenitor virus], visual power was lost, but this was offset by an improvement in hearing ability" (ibid: 146). Not limited to one enemy type, this disability also affects the amphibian Lurker, whose "eyes have deteriorated" (ibid: 34), and the arthropod Plague Crawler that has "extremely limited" eyesight, "so they must crawl directly up to their target in order to attack" (ibid: 31).

The Crawler represents something of an evolutionary side-step from the sorry, skinless, patchwork Chimera of the original RE ‘96, an "horrific mishmash of decomposing human, arachnid, and insect" (’Resident Evil’: Prima’s Official Strategy Guide Hodgson, 2002: 25) that builds toward the muscular, blind Lickers of Resident Evil 2 (RE 2), with them both possessing deadly appendages, an ability to crawl along ceiling spaces, and most significantly: "respond to sound more than sight" (‘Resident Evil Outbreak - File 2’: Official Strategy Guide, Birlew, 2005: 34). Despite the immense and subsequently iconic introduction of these creatures early in the series, and the terrifying threat they represent to the less cautious, seasoned players can walk past the Lickers if they keep quiet (or run, if they’re quick about beating the aforementioned AI and animation cycles). In RE 4 the Garrador – an eyeless medieval Wolverine figure – blindly charges around as a terrifying combat challenge isolated from the rest of the game; at this point in the series, his armour is almost as antiquated as the legacy he represents. By Resident Evil 5 (RE 5), a Licker variant is "nerfed" even further as they possess a "fairly unremarkable sense of hearing" (‘Resident Evil 5’: The Complete Official Guide, Price & Nicholson, 2009: 83). This genetic tampering removes one of their few inherited advantages, thereby rendering the Lickers little more than tricky cannon fodder to the trigger-happy gamer, demonstrating that the series by this point has certainly changed its focus in the type of challenge presented by its enemies, and the effect that they have on the "flow" of the game.

It must be something of a disappointment for the mad scientists in Resident Evil to constantly find their creatures limited by an Obvious Videogame Weak Spot, turning them into abstract puzzles to be negotiated and overcome. Yet, the limited zones of perception in early Resident Evil titles are clearly a great boon, designed and exploited by game designers working within the confines of the genre and the medium, for as a part of the horror effect these naturalised pauses and stutters by the creatures of the diegesis can, in turn, cause the player themselves to pause or stutter while controlling the protagonist, adding strain to the tension while saving strain on the game engine.

It’s a further convenience for all involved then, that when a zombie – an undead creature – is finally extinguished in the earlier games of the series, they strangely "voice a loud death sound when they’re eliminated, and a pool of blood spreads around them" (’Resident Evil Zero’: Official Strategy Guide, Birlew, 2002: 28). Later games feature immediate bubbling decomposition, thereby removing trip-hazards and the threat of a stained carpet in one fell-swoop. Adam M. Crowley has written about Resident Evil’s "Allure of Incongruity", where for example, when a player returns to a site where horrors have been successfully dispatched "any bodies that she may have left at the location previously have been removed from the game" (Unraveling ‘Resident Evil’, Farghaly, 2014: 39), but it’s equally fascinating how quickly "death" moans, "fainting", effervescing corpses, and sensorial impairments – all key aspects of character design also born largely from limitations imposed by the technology of the medium -- are naturalised and developed within the horror game-world of Resident Evil.

The pacing and scale of the enemy encounters are equally dictated largely by these same processes and pressures. In RE ‘96 for example, the player’s first contact is usually through stumbling upon one isolated zombie in a claustrophobically small room, and in RE 2, players are unavoidably funnelled past a dozen mauling zombies in the street before they can take a breather. It’s significant that as some of the monster types appear to get "smarter" AI, which is almost inversely proportional to their actual ability to kill, they also increase in number. When later games start to feature cunning, running, and gunning zombies -- and in far greater mobs and masses (compare the opening encounters of Leon’s chapter in Resident Evil 6 (RE 6) with his RE 2 introduction, or Chris’ early experiences against the RE 5 village blood-bath) -- it’s not only reflective of an escalation in narration dictated by an evolving zombie discourse (the "why"), it’s equally representative of the evolving hardware on which the games are played (the "how").

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