Monday, October 1, 2012

Thirty One Days of Horror: the Resident Evil Games

Starting October 1st and going until I run out of oomph or actually complete my goal: thirty one days of horror reviews in both cinema and game! I’m going to kick off the week with a look at the Resident Evil franchise…

Day 1: Resident Evil – the original games

Sometimes the scariest thing about a horror franchise is what its owner does with it. In this case, Capcom has managed to take what was a 1996 classic adventure/action title that single-handedly put survival horror as a genre on the map*and over the course of the next 15 years has managed to take that title on a whirlwind survival adventure of its own. From game to film to book, Resident Evil is its own entire domain now, with so many spins and takes you’d think it was suffering from vertigo.

Where am I going with this? I plan to review each of the Resident Evil movies, but to talk about them, I first need to discuss the games. The games set the foundation from which all was to come, and reviewing movies which carry the Resident Evil title requires a look at the games and my interpretation of them, first.

The original game was released in 1996, first as Biohazard in Japan and then under the odd but apparently distinct title we know it as in the United States and elsewhere. This game has a special place in my “personal history of gaming.” It was the first title I purchased for the original Playstation and also the game which motivated me to try many, many other games trying to recapture the lighting that Resident Evil embodied in mood, atmosphere, story and (for the time) game play. For myself, like many others, it was the first time anyone had really experienced a truly frightening and engaging game experience and was key, I often feel, to the early success of the Playstation.

Writing in retrospect about the games is hard, because the gameplay that I found so compelling 16 years ago does not hold up well today. This has led to an interesting problem for fans of survival horror, for as you may have noticed the genre has taken a nosedive according to the consensus of most game journalists and fans. Notable exceptions pop up on occasion (such as Amnesia, Penumbra and the recent wave of Slender Man games) but the apparent prevalence of the genre seems to be absent… least, for the franchise which started the genre.

Resident Evil spanned three titles on the original Playstation. I’m not considering spin-off titles here, focusing instead on the core games, the ones which seem to provide the underlying narrative. Resident Evil started the story of a remote mansion in the Aklay Mountains, under investigation by a group of agents belonging to the Special Tactics and Recon Squad (STARS), featuring Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine, the first two heroes of the tale. It progresses to Resident Evil 2, in which the zombie outbreak of the mansion has spread to neighboring Raccoon City and eventually we get to Resident Evil 3 which completes the trilogy, all set in the same region and centered on the same events, portrayed here as happening in 1998. The next proper title in the franchise doesn’t show up until some time later on the next generation of consoles, featuring a new series of tales and foes that take place several years after the Playstation One games.

The original Resident Evil has been revised on more than one occasion, with a Director’s Cut edition followed by a remake on the Gamecube, as well as a “Resident Evil Zero” which served as a Gamecube-exclusive prequel to the original game. To the best of my knowledge none of these titles have been released in a modern HD edition or compilation, though you can get some of them on the Playstation Network for download. I have them, but do not have a PS3 or a PSP on which to play them right now.

If this is a review then the question to be asked is: are they worth your time? The answer is tough, because while the franchise and original games are monumental in what they created, after 16 years they have aged poorly, and may not be suited to everyone’s tastes anymore. The control scheme in particular, as efficient as it was back in the day is potentially nightmarish to someone who has spent too much time with modern day games. Some people mistake the clunky control scheme for being one of the charming traits of survival horror (especially as it was common to see that type of control scheme in other similar titles, such as Silent Hill). Make no mistake: it as a necessary artifact of the era, a crude work-around to the limits of console and PC technology back in the day.
So if you are an old vet, or you have a high tolerance for archaic control schemes, the games might indeed be worth your time to mess with, especially if you can get them on the PSP, where the tiny screen provides the illusion of better graphical fidelity in a land made of very low polygon counts. If you can do this, and you are willing to overlook the graphic limitations of the time, then you have a treat in store. Resident Evil had a lot going for it, and it introduced several key concepts that I feel are extremely important to defining survival horror as a gaming genre, and even have importance in films. Specifically, a countdown on all five defining elements:

Player (Un)controlled Pacing
If you’ve played Resident Evil you’ll remember when you meet the first zombie, or when the dogs show up. In fact, you’ll never forget. Even if you go back and replay it, finding the scene to be mildly amusing now thanks to the quality of the graphics , the memory of that first experience from back when it was all new will always stick with you. I sound snobby dissing the graphics, but I’m not, really…it’s just things have changed so much in terms of graphic quality its impossible to ignore. The fact that these moments in the game are so memorable is a testament to the pacing of the game, and the way it employs slow moments with sudden surprises and unexpected events.
These scenes work because much of the time spent playing Resident Evil is slow paced. You walk all over, you turn slowly, you need to aim carefully when you do fight things and you spend a lot of time looking for exotic and not always obvious clues. You do a lot of adventure game stuff, basically, minus some of the pixel-hunting. And then, suddenly, a giant snake shows up, or dogs, or Wesker or who the hell knows what and the game throws you out of “adventure game” mode and deep into action-holy-crap-what-do-I-do territory. This was a common feature of all the Resident Evil games up through Resident Evil: Code Veronica.

Scenery Porn – Horror Style
I think it goes unrecognized too often, but while the polygonal characters of the original games may not look that exciting now, the static backdrops through which you traversed the game were pretty amazing and still look fairly decent. Resident Evil was one of many games to employ the static backdrop for design, and it did a great job of it. Modern adventure games still employ this technique, and it’s actually a fairly easy way to evoke mood and a sense of disquiet, exploring haunted and evocative locales as you search for clues and answers. This element is what sometimes helped the films along, too. Resident Evil in particular employs a distinct aesthetic, which is tantamount to “baroque research labs gone wrong,” and when the films stick to such environments it does well. More on that later, though.

Sense of Isolation
Resident Evil employed the concept of being alone really well, even when you weren’t (and frankly there were a lot of STARS members running around that mansion in the first game). Limited processing power prevented the first few games from deploying more than a handful of characters in screen at any given time. Younger gamers may find it hard to believe, but there was one a lost age of gaming when people discussed ways of technically rendering more than four creatures on a screen at once. Those days are long gone, but they were a key reason that you never see more than a few zombies in old Resident Evil games at any given time, and it took the later generation of consoles to start to break these limits.

A side effect of such limits was the fact that it forced the writers and designers for these games to build the plot and story around the idea that you met very few people (i.e. remote Mansion near remote mountain town), and when you did they tended to go away conveniently at the end of cut scenes (looking at you, Ada Wong). A downside of this of course meant that ambitious titles like Resident Evil 2 couldn’t often present elaborate sets filled with zombies and survivors. Another downside came later, with the neg-gen wave of titles (Resident Evil 4 and 5 specifically) in which the option to add extra characters changed the story dynamic, and not always for the better. But for the original games, it worked well.

Resource Management
This has been in almost every game, ever. In real life military personnel don’t go off on a mission that may require 4,000 bullets without—you know—taking 4,000 bullets with them. In video games you find ammo lying around. In Resident Evil you find mysterious herbs and mix your own poultices. You find all kinds of stuff lying around, but you try to carry all of it in a fanny pack, apparently, for the scope of your inventory. This is a deliberate game play feature, of course, but it also contributes greatly to the suspense and helps to enhance the horror element, especially when you realize you need to start counting bullets. Later additions to the franchise got away from this a bit, and some wannabe titles ditch it entirely, and often to deleterious effect.

Mystery Unexplained
By this I mean, “Lots of mysteries, and you don’t know if you’ve figured it all out by the end.” Sometimes this is because the writers didn’t bother to explain something, or maybe the localization missed some subtle detail in translating the game to English (ala Jill, master of lockpicks). Sometimes its because this is a game, after all, and for all the story elements needed to string events along it’s occasionally necessary to include something which borders on the nonsensical in any in-universe explanation, until a later sequel figures out a way to use that errant bit of data.
Not all enigmas in Resident Evil are good: chess piece keys and that guy who follows you around selling weapons in Resident Evil 4 are two painful examples of immersion-testing nonsense. However, many things which go unexplained in one game lead directly into the rather more robust canon that emerges in later sequels. Resident Evil Zero and Code: Veronica are both instances where the whispered hints of the Umbrella deviancy in the first game are magnified into full-blown Machiavellian plots for later titles. Wesker, creepy guy on the take in the original game emerges as a godlike test subject for evil by Resident Evil 5 (and apparently has a son in the forthcoming Resident Evil 6).

But the important thing, of course, is that for every mystery you resolve or every Umbrella facility you blow up by the end of the game, the implication should be that there is so much more your protagonists has barely scratched the surface on.


This is mostly an overview of the games (especially the original three), and I may write more about specific Resident Evil titles later in the month, but this overview helps set up the framework for the forthcoming movie reviews. For now, remember the following key features that I feel help define the special subgenre of Resident Evil: horror scenery porn, unexplained mysteries, methodical and slow (player-driven) pacing interrupted by sudden shocks and over-the-top action, resource management, and an overwhelming and tension-inducing sense of isolation. There’s no one to back you up, and if there is, they might be out to get you, too.

Next: Resident Evil (the movie)

*It didn’t create the genre, but it did make it a “thing.” Alone in the Dark was, near as I can tell, the progenitor of this style of game, but RE put the survival into the horror.

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