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.

A Crepuscular Crepidoma of Zombie Corpses

According to Masachika Kawata, the producer of RE 7: "You need both lows and highs because horror has a lot to do with not knowing what to expect," explaining further, "If a player becomes too used to a slow pace or too used to action, they can become desensitized and there’s less impact from what’s happening". Kawata is referring here to the internal tempo of the games themselves, but the same could be said about broader developments within the franchise. While reviews of RE6 tend to be glowing from Japanese magazines such as Famitsu (who gave the game 39/40), Western opinions are notably more muted (Edge gave the game 6/10, while IGN scored it 7.9/10 calling it "Bigger than ever, but not better").

One might argue then, that the distinct change of pace in RE 7 represents an attempt to reach some kind of tonal return to the earlier games of the series while progressively jumping on the technological and cultural trends set by contemporary first-person modern iterations of the survival horror genre, such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent in 2010, Outlast in 2013, and the Silent Hills P.T. demo from 2014. Tentatively, this might also be seen as a return of sorts, given that RE '96 was at one point prototyped as a first-person game. As Shellie McMurdo has noted, first-person "Survival horror games, such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010), SCP -- Containment Breach (2012) and Five Nights at Freddy’s (2012) are characterised as having a focus on evasion and survival rather than fighting enemies, and are notable for their de-emphasis on combat". Once more, the emphasis in Resident Evil appears to be back on the quality of the enemy and surviving the overwhelming encounter -- not their overwhelming number.

"unable to move how you want"

Even for a series resting on a crepuscular crepidoma of zombie corpses, perceived intelligence plays a large part when considering the monstrous enemy and how the player protagonist interacts with them. For example, with the 2002 remake of RE ‘96 (RE ‘02) came new changes to the original monster dynamics brought about by technological developments. Building on the innovations of RE 3, an official strategy guide for RE ‘02 offers that, "they’ve learned how to climb stairs. Foes can follow you in multilevel rooms" (’Resident Evil’: Prima’s Official Strategy Guide, Hodgson, 2002: 4)! A more considerable change in the remake is the inclusion of Crimson Head zombies. This particular piece of novel and seemingly arbitrary monster mythmaking appears to stem from the fact that six years after the original release, contemporary audiences raised on the next generation of consoles seemingly required a feistier challenge than the dormant, desiccated zombie of old, and the advanced possibilities now afforded by technology and AI programming allowed for monsters to move from room to room. So, courtesy of a pallet swap and a few design pieces borrowed from other enemies in the game, a new, more aggressive order of zombie was created.

Borne out of an attempt to inject pace with the least amount of intrusion into the pre-existent game-world, this interactive design choice has also been fully legitimised within the narrative as "Improperly disposed of zombies turn crimson as the T-virus mutates inside their dormant bodies [….] spitting out clouds of green mist [and] their hands have grown infected talons" (ibid: 26), something that the zombies certainly didn’t do until 2002, and now require disposal by incineration, introducing another novel mechanism that the player also couldn’t do in 1996.

The same advances in navigating protagonists through a 3D horror space are also a significant part of this player/monster dynamic, being famously exemplified by the control interface of Resident Evil games. A 2013 Capcom special feature on the history of the franchise retroactively explains the "tank" control scheme:

Additionally, a different operating technique was adopted for Resident Evil to increase the sense of horror. With ordinary games, the character moves right when you press the right button of the directional pad and left when you press the left button. However, with Resident Evil the character turns clockwise when you press the right button and anti-clockwise when you press the left button. This radio-control type of operating technique creates the shakiness of proceeding in fear, unable to move how you want.

It’s worth noting that Tomb Raider, an action-adventure game released in the same year, also had the same control scheme (crucially, with the added ability to control and centre the camera behind Lara Croft), as did the puzzle-adventure game Grim Fandango (1998), which despite equally positive reviews was taken to task for its poorly implemented keyboard controls. Nevertheless, the effect in RE ‘96 is immediately apparent to players, as Cadwell explains in his own personal reflections on first meeting an in-game enemy: "The zombie glared at me, the background music swelled and just as it reached its crescendo, the control of Chris was returned back to me [….] I could not remember how the controls functioned [….] I was unable to flee the scene quickly enough and the zombie killed me on its third bite" (Unraveling ‘Resident Evil’, Farghaly, 2014: 56).

By RE ‘02, the controls were criticised for being increasingly irrelevant to modern gamers. IGN’s review asked "One wonders why, when Capcom could overcome so many technical feats visually, it couldn't address some of the control problems inherent to the series itself." By the time of the HD rerelease of the remake in 2015 (RE HD), an optional modern control scheme had been introduced, giving players the option of running in the direction that they pointed the analogue stick. Yet, the IGN review of RE HD, then found itself somewhat dismissively claiming "Purists can have it the way the designers originally intended. Newbies can jump in and not completely break the game" by, it is implied, making the monster conflicts far easier to navigate, removing the aforementioned "shakiness of proceeding in fear" from the equation.

For another example of this change of pace and expectations over the course of the series, in an iconic scene from the original RE ‘96, zombie dogs crash through a window into the same corridor as the protagonist, potentially prompting a jump scare and immediate terror in those with the same weak constitution as myself. Adding an extra twist for veteran players, in the 2002 remake the Dobermans only attack when the player is on their way back through the same corridor at a later point in the narrative. Taking this further, in a later replaying of the same narrative events within the action-genre, light-gun side-step of Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles (RE UC) from 2007, one can "Pay the Cerberus back for years of bad dreams by executing the action move on time" (’Resident Evil Umbrella Chronicles’: Prima’s Official Game Guide, Waples, 2007: 51). Clearly then, in changing the conditions of the classic set-piece there are tensions at play between enemy types, the control method through which they are engaged by the player, the associated cultural competency of the player, and the effectiveness that all of this swirling morass has when the player encounters a single corridor in a videogame.

We’ll return to the infamous Quick Time Events (QTEs) later, but for now it’s worth considering some other control quirks surrounding monster combat in the Resident Evil universe. In the main series, up to and including RE 5, it is impossible to both run and shoot at the same time as the protagonists plant their feet to take aim. The design decision is to escalate and exacerbate the "fight or flight" tension inherent when confronted by the evils of horror, even if in real life one might do both. Evolving this formula, 180 degree quick-turning and enemy attack dodging was introduced in RE 3 as a way of empowering the player, although one might argue this demonstrates an intent to diminish the immediate survival horror experience of enemy encounters in favour of larger, action-genre safety nets.

Implicitly connected to movement in the early games are other aiming mechanics. Resident Evil: Director’s Cut (RE DC) introduced an auto-aim mechanic to the series, the benefits of which are best described as such: "This feature allows you to run straight past an enemy, turn quickly, and have them dead-bang at close range just by pressing the right trigger" (’Resident Evil Zero’: Official Strategy Guide, Birlew, 2002: 58). While this concession toward accessible movement offsets some of the inadequacies surrounding tank controls in tight corridors and those pesky zombies hidden off screen (which alters the tension and dynamic of their presence as you either blind-fire accurately in their direction or shoot off-camera toward an empty room), a further naturalised incongruity is thrown up: "monsters that fly or creep along the ground are your bane" because auto-aim is set to shoulder height (’Resident Evil’: Prima’s Official Strategy Guide, Hodgson, 2002: 6), and as such, while head-shots are possible against the walking dead with comparatively minimal effort, it takes more exertion on the part of the player who has to literally press more buttons on their controller to shoot the crawling dead, with the ergodic function mirroring those countless times in horror films when a distracted protagonist fails to observe an encroaching "weaker" enemy and suffers the consequence of their misguided prioritising and fumbling.

Welcome to the World of Dramatic Horror

Resident Evil franchise development hasn’t just followed a straight trajectory with occasional returns to the past for Star Wars style retcons. RE 4 is something of a turning point in the series, not only in terms of the mechanics supporting the game, but in the way through which they are deployed when encountering the evil hoards. As Heather Alexandra points out:

Some of this might be handwaved off as simple escalation. Resident Evil 3: Nemesis added more zombies than the first two games but Resident Evil 4 leveraged new technology to fill the screen with enemies. Dead Rising [a zombie series also by Capcom, the publishers of Resident Evil] would try to push this to higher levels the year after RE4's release. But there is more to the experience here than lots of baddies; the key detail is that the enemies in RE4 are truly deadly and the encounters are built to burn slowly before exploding into broader and more complicated action.

Moving away from "Survival Horror", RE 4 and onwards represents a deeper investment in what Yoshiaki Hirabayashi, a producer for RE 6, has termed "Dramatic horror", RE 4 differs from previous entries in a number of ways: the most immediate visual difference is in the change of camera perspective from a fixed position to a controllable one that hovers over the shoulder of the protagonist. While earlier games hide enemies off-screen, the pace for RE 4, RE 5, and RE 6 tends to throws hoards directly at the player from within their field of view with an emphasis on physical action and reaction derived from set-piece cut-scenes and scenarios, over cerebral puzzle-game stealth, and a genuine emphasis on exploration of the unknown.

Although this represents something of a downturn for the survival horror genre, it also shouldn’t be underestimated how influential this change of pace was on the action horror genre, with Gears of War, Dead Space, and The Last of Us all stemming from this shift in style and pace. It’s also worth noting that in addition to Capcom delivering Dead Rising as a comical and more zombie driven counterpart to a series that was beginning to look elsewhere for its scares, the fantasy hack and slash game, Devil May Cry was created directly out of an earlier attempt to make RE 4, as that version was deemed too far removed from the Resident Evil core brand.

Even though RE 6 features a variety of scenarios that have an ambience more in keeping with the original trilogy of games (I’m thinking here of Leon’s campaign), the narrative still ends up being driven away from spooky campuses, crypts, and cathedrals, towards dramatic high-speed train shoot-outs, plane crashes, and civil war conflicts, all designed to assault the player’s senses with an impeding sense of urgency. Because of this new change in tempo and style of challenge, the enemies are also "upgraded" accordingly. The classic zombies of earlier games are side-lined in Resident Evil 4 and RE 5, as whole communities instead fall under the Cordyceps-esque mind-controlling power of the parasitic Las Plagas, becoming the weapon wielding and partly sentient Ganado and Majini respectively (think of them as precursors to the Infected of The Last of Us).

Video-game cannon-fodder are designed to establish, test, then disrupt patterns of play, escalating as the narrative progresses, and improving the skills of the player. This is why the zombies recede into the background in Re ‘96 to then be largely usurped by their superior counterparts, the Hunters, as the game gets trickier. In later titles, this shift of enemy types is just as apparent. Using RE 5, for example, the official guide offers advice such as: "Like the Wetlands Majini encountered earlier, [the third Majini variant’s] new weapons and attack strategies will force you to adapt the way in which you approach battles in both single-player and co-op. Running forward to engage enemies with a shotgun is no longer a consistently valid tactic and nor, for that matter, is standing in plain view with a sniper rifle" (‘Resident Evil 5’: The Complete Official Guide, Price & Nicholson, 2009: 87).

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