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.
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”).
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.” uk.ign.com/articles/2009/07/07/resident-evil-archives-review 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” uk.ign.com/articles/2015/01/19/resident-evil-review 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).
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.
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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.