25 Years On Resident Evil Remains Radical
I came to horror late in my teenage years. I had brushed against it regularly enough with comedy-horrors like the Scary Movie series or The Cabin in the Woods. I devoured Stephen King’s novels by the ton but these things never truly scared me. The movies cut their horror with humour and Stephen King’s novels rarely made me feel the dread that Peter Straub’s Ghost Story or Max Brooks’ Devolution would in later years. Then one cold October evening I saw The Babadook and a door opened. Suddenly I couldn’t get enough of a genre where in the past even the blurbs on books, DVDs and games had scared the shit out of me.
Which is a very roundabout way of saying how The Babadook and a well-timed PS4 store sale got me into Resident Evil. I’d dipped my toe into the later games like the transitional, more action-oriented Resident Evil 4 and the gorier, goofier Resident Evil 5 but going back to the start (or at least the HD Remake of the start) left me hungry for more. Some people like the puzzles and story of Resident Evil, some like the restrictive combat and camera angles, others like the exploration and the aesthetics and some like the combination of all of these. I suppose I fall into the last category but what struck me about playing Resident Evil back then and still does now is how radical the game felt in its design, its politics and, to me and I suspect a whole bunch of others, its vibe.
To say the Resident Evil games feel old would be wrong. Certainly the tank controls and fixed camera angles are relics of a different era of gaming but I think what a lot of people mean when they say the Resident Evil games are “old” is that they’re slow. Of course they sped up as time and consoles passed with games like Resident Evil 5 and Resident Evil 6 throwing survival horror to the wayside in favour of boulder-punching, zombie-suplexing action. The slowness of Resident Evil increases the tension and dread. One zombie is bad enough but what about two or three? What about when the enemies – like the dogs and hunters – are faster than you are? What often appear as outdated facets of game design are really the building blocks of a system designed to wring every drop of sweat from the player.
The story is a familiar one at this stage. On the forested slopes of the Arklay Mountains and the suburban outskirts of nearby Raccoon City a virus is spreading. The epicenter of this virus that turns ordinary folks into flesh-eating zombies is the Spencer Mansion deep in the Arklay forest. The Raccoon City Police Department send in their Special Tactics and Rescue Service (S.T.A.R.S) Alpha and Bravo teams. After contact with Bravo team is lost Alpha, led by Captain Albert Wesker, is sent in. An attack by zombified dogs sends Wesker, Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine fleeing into the Spencer Mansion which is where the nightmare begins.
Horror works best when it’s limiting the player. The Amnesia series strips you of weapons. An accurate headshot only makes most situations worse in Dead Space. The camera and characters of Resident Evil are stationary and slow-moving respectively. Before Resident Evil I was used to slamming through doors and shooting everything in a room with wild abandon. With Resident Evil everything became a puzzle, even the combat. It’s all well and good having the time to figure out the taxidermy puzzle but when you’ve only six bullets, and a Crimson Head zombie bearing down on you in three seconds the puzzle of what to do suddenly becomes a whole lot more stressful. Do you say “Fuck it” and start blasting away or turn and run hoping those handgun bullets are where you half-remember they were?
While Resident Evil’s combat is by turns tense, scary and strategic it was always the thing that appealed to me the least. Not that I didn’t like it but the game always meant a lot more to me in its quieter stretches. The hallways, save rooms and chambers of the Spencer Mansion are a liminal space to me. Places where time isn’t real and the echoing silence stretches into infinity. For a moment it feels like the nightmare has given you space to breathe. This is what I mean, at least in part, about the vibe of Resident Evil. It’s exploration and puzzles have a quiet satisfaction to them. A key found, a box opened, a puzzle solved. It’s a world away from popping a zombies head like a balloon and yet almost exactly the same. But these are just two examples of the survival horror’s shifting tones.
A lot of people tend to see Resident Evil as a kind of homage to cheesy B-movies. While it does have a lot of the tropes we associate with these kinds of so-bad-they’re-good horror movies I think it’s better appreciated as a really good, really scary game with a bad dub. Director Shinji Mikami worked on the game on his own for the first six months of development mostly writing the script and designing characters. As the main cast of Albert, Chris, Jill, Rebecca Chambers and Barry Burton began to take shape Mikami was more concerned with how these characters would look and play rather than what they would say.
Mikami had the voices of the characters performed in English rather than Japanese to enhance the realism of the game’s “American Heartland” setting. Of course, when English isn’t your first language it’s harder to register what counts as bad voice acting or that a line like “That was close… You were almost a Jill sandwich” doesn’t quite have the same impact as it’s more basic translation. But it’s moments like these as well as “Itchy, tasty” or “I have… THIS!” that give Resident Evil it’s personality beyond the creeping dread, unsettling silence and nightmarishly tense combat. Horror has space for comedy which is something a lot of modern games seem to forget and although it didn’t entirely take it’s tongue out of it’s cheek in the 2002 HD remake Resident Evil lost a little of that special something in the update.
But that remake kept basically everything else intact including the game’s fairly radical politics. Even in the game’s best ending has an inevitability to it. The Spencer Mansion was where everything merely began for the Umbrella Corporation’s nefarious plan. They’ve been at this a long time and it’s all Chris, Jill and others down the line can do to try and stop them. Blaming Big Pharma for the release of a deadly, mutating virus isn’t new now and it wasn’t new in 1996 but the Resident Evil series really doubled down on Umbrella’s nastiness. The relatively small outbreak in the Arklay Mountains eventually lead to Raccoon City being washed away in nuclear fire. The T-Virus gave way to the G-Virus gave way to Las Plagas. A crashed tanker releases a deadly new virus in the form of a little girl named Eveline in the Louisiana bayou. It’s not that Umbrella are evil it’s that they are so impossibly, ludicrously avaricious they won’t stop until their pockets are full and the last of humanity drowns in a tide of the living dead.
With Resident Evil VIII due out in early May this year we’ll see Chris Redfield again in a numbered Resident Evil entry, his fifth overall. Of course Chris has changed in the time since his traumatic experience in the Spencer Mansion going from scrawny wimp to a man that punches boulders and pulls insane John Wick maneuvers but that’s not really what the Resident Evil series is about. As much as it submerged itself into action with Resident Evil 4, 5 and 6 it never really forgot its survival horror roots which is where Ethan Winters comes in. The protagonist of both Resident Evil VII and VIII Ethan is an everyman with just enough know-how to fire a gun and solve a puzzle. Chris on the other hand is by now a Man Mountain clad entirely in black with an apparent chip on his shoulder seeing as how he kidnaps Ethan and leaves him in an Eastern European village. With anti-bio-terrorist agents like these who needs Albert Wesker?
Resident Evil VII recognised what made the original so popular: an isolated location full of enemies, a weakened protagonist and severely limited means of survival. Resident Evil VIII seems to want to double down on this with its setting and the return of Ethan. Also eight-foot-tall vampire ladies. If that’s not honouring the past while looking towards the future I don’t know what it. Prepare to once again enter the Simp Survival Horror!