Ah, Resident Evil. One of the Tower22 motivators, and my first wet-pants gaming experience probably. Games, books or movies rarely scare me. Then again I'm not really a horror-movie expert, nor did I play a whole lot of horror games. Of course there was Doom and such, but that was more shooting and laughing than actually getting terrified. So, the concept "horror-survival" was new to me, when I finally rented the Resident Evil 1 Remake for the Nintendo Gamecube, on a dark Winter sunday in 2003. Huh, rented? Yes children, kids back then didn't have parents with gaming hobbies, so we had to buy everything ourselves. So it was still somewhat common to visit a video store and rent a game, before spending your hard-earned money on it. And Resident Evil certainly wasn't a game I would have blindly put my money on.
Of course I heard about it, and remembered the (ugly) screenshots from the original PSX (Playstation 1) release in 1996. Never owned a PSX though, so this title passed. Something with zombies and giant snakes. Oh, and a female character, which wasn't new after Lara Croft, but still a bit uncomfortable for hillbillies like me. The screenshots reminded me a bit of Alone in the Dark, which was pretty cool, so you know what, let's give Resident Evil a try and rent it.
You are dead!
Well, quite an experience. Especially the "You died" screen that appeared after 2 minutes playing already. This was hardcore shit, and I wasn't even sure if I should continue playing. My brothers attic-bedroom was pitch dark, stormy wind and rain were smashing against the window, and my heart was pounding as I got caught by the very first zombie. Yep, I stopped playing. Had to drink beer with friends, a good moment to flee, phew.
My first minutes of Resident Evil kept haunting me that night. First of all, it looked really,
REALLY good. Way better than the original Resident Evil, and also surprisingly realistic on this Nintendo platform, where the majority of games had a cartoonish touch. The music and sound effects of the thunders and ticking clock in the dining-room were terrifying (realistically). The eating zombie, turning his head and stiffly standing up in a somewhat stop-motion way was disturbing. And moreover, this game was going to be really freaking hard. I've killed so many demons, tentacles, mummies, skeletons on motorcycles and organic goop. Yet I wasn't able to shoot down a slow, dead-walking zombie. I've dropped Mario in a cliff so many times, had Duke murdered by pig-cops, and threw snes joysticks through the room on a "Game over!" screen. Yet, for the first time in a game, I was really afraid to die, and therefore afraid to pick up the controller again.
Resident Evil felt very uncomfortable, and that is usually a good reason to quit and do something else. Bake a cake, catch butterflies, surprise your mother, play Twister. The key of a good horror creation, is to chase you away with a leash on. You don't want to watch, but you look through your sneaky fingers anyway. You don't want to continue, yet you just have to know what the hell happened. Resident Evil chased me away that night, but its excellent appearance and my curiosity for this horror-mansion called me back the next day. With a light switched on this time.
By now, there are about seven-billion titles in the Resident Evil franchise. Besides 1,2,3,4,5 and recently 6, we also have a 0, Revelations, Outbreak, Chronicles, Veronica and so on. There are comics, chainsaw-shaped joysticks, remakes of remakes. Heck we even have a Resident Evil movie. A bad one of course, as most game-inspired movies. Twenty game titles in total, and counting. Good job CAPCOM!?... Well...
The original Resident Evil brings you to a gigantic mansion in the middle of nowhere. People went missing, and S.T.A.R.S -a special police unit of Raccoon City- was sent to investigate. Hell breaks loose quickly when Bravo teams’ helicopter crashes in the forest, and its survivors got chased by wild dogs into this mansion. The team is split up / missing, thus your first priority is to rendezvous with the others. You either play the game as Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine, members of S.T.A.R.S. You will learn quickly that this is no ordinary mansion. The place is a mess, and the only “living” residents seem to be zombies. Evil residents.
All right, what happened here? This is where Resident Evil really started to excite me: finding clues, fantasizing of the people that lived/worked in that mansion, trying to figure it all out. Nowadays every game has a dramatic story (or at least tries to), mostly copied from other games, so the plot I’m about to spoil won't be a shocking surprise. But back then most games didn't have a proper story at all. Just give a gun, and we have fun. So my impression was that Resident Evil was merely about shooting monsters in a spooky mansion. Didn't expect an interesting plot to be revealed, as you find notes and other clues. Resident Evil isn't a real action/combat game. There are guns and goodies, and blood will flow. But you beat this game with your brains, not with your trigger-finger.
Smart girl. Got to admit... as someone who never understood the fuzz about Lara Croft made out of 6 triangles and 2 unnatural big hooters, I didn't mind looking at Jill. See, graphics matter.
The mansion is a maze of corridors, rooms and yards. And of course the architect decided to give each door a different key or hidden entrance. If you just count the amount of rooms or square meters, Resident Evil isn't a big game, square-meter-wise. But since you'll be puzzling and running around the building over and over again in order to unlock a new room, it will be lengthy game nevertheless (at least when playing it for the first time). The first rooms will be pretty much what you would expect from a ghastly mansion. Dusty furniture, old Victorian styling, broken luxury, spooky oil paintings, creaky wooden floors. But after a while more bizarre locations will be thrown in the mixture. Crypts, graveyards, caves, and even a large shark tank. On top, you will learn this mansion wasn't owned by a single family. A whole team of people seemed to have worked here on something, giving the many bedrooms, and letters you'll find. And all of them turned into zombies or committed suicide.
Yes, you know where this is going. Failed experiments. Evil plans that turned against them. But since that concept wasn't used a billion times before in 2003 (let alone in 1996, the original RE release year), I found it a shocking surprise to discover a hidden laboratory below the mansion near the end of the game. So this is what they were doing! This game wasn't just about shooting and surviving, but actually had an intelligent plot hidden in it. All the little pieces puzzle started to make sense. Scientists developed a secret "T-Virus" to turn humans into B.O.W.'s, Bio Organic Weapons. However, most "test-cases" turned into weak-ass dumb zombies instead, and unfortunately for them, an accident in the lab caused the virus to spread and affect pretty much anyone in and around the mansion.
Make your own sandwich asshole
The cool thing about this story, is that it is kinda plausible. God knows what people are doing in laboratories all around the world, and replace T-Virus with Ebola, and you're pretty close to the zombie thing. Less plausible is all the nonsense the Resident Evil series came with afterwards unfortunately. CAPCOM milked the shit out of the RE franchise cow. Milk that went from rich and fat into scrawny powder. Of course, the T-Virus spread further to the nearby Raccoon city, suitable
material for a next Resident Evil (or two, or three, or ...) game. But with each instalment, the credibility of this once original story, was downgraded further and further. Old foes such as Wesker that keep coming back again and again, ridiculous super-conspiracy theories, zombies with mini-guns, Chris and Jill that have to safe the entire world at least three times a month from latex babes making summersaults, and so on.
Don't get me wrong. Most of the Resident Evil games are still fun. Especially RE 4, that introduced
dramatic changes to the aged puzzle, control, camera and action mechanics from the previous titles, was a very fun game. Yes, a FUN game. Not a scary game (although getting chased by hordes of angry farmers and chainsaw maniacs had its thrilling charms). In fact RE4 was so much fun that I replayed it at least six or seven times. RE 5 was even less scarier and felt a bit stiff, but it still did the trick for me. Part six on the other hand... I don't know what they were thinking there. As if Adam Sandler had to write a next Schindler's List. Removed / reduced some of the elements that made RE 4/5 great, less action, and even more bullshit stories with new characters I couldn't care less about.
Well, at least CAPCOM isn't afraid to stir the soup, add ingredients, or to throw away the whole kettle and try something else... except that for the sake of having a somewhat believable story again, they maybe should just drop the name "Resident Evil" and all of its characters and virus mutations, and start over with a whole new, fresh franchise. Just an idea. RE has become a joke of itself, and its beyond repairs I’m afraid. The experiment blew up, and all new RE titles are just zombies now.
RE4 is a super game. But hopefully this picture explains RE can't be taken too seriously anymore.
The uncomfort zone
Anyhow, that doesn't change the fact that the original RE (and the Remake) was awesome. Their goal was to make a terrifying horror game, and they did an excellent job as all elements were complementary. This is extremely important for an horror game, as its all too easy to break the tension with misplaced elements. For example, the later RE titles are all visually appealing and have gruesome monsters, but have such ridiculous stories and over-the-top characters that it’s hard to take it serious. Many other games have the focus too much on action and shooting. No matter how scary and bloody your monster design is, they won't make you shit bricks anymore after killing it a couple of times. Repeating a certain pattern too often makes the player feel comfortable, and that is exactly not what a horror-game should do.
Yet other games just look or sound too bad to raise your neck hairs. The saying "make games, not graphics!" isn't quite true for the horror-genre. If stuff looks fake, it will break the tension. More than in most other game genres, any little sound or detail that feels awkward, can shatter the experience. Just take a look at a random Youtube horror gameplay-run, and you'll notice that people are making jokes and talk to themselves all the time in order to suppress fear. If a horror-game gives too much to joke about, it will drag you out of that "uncomfort-zone".
Resident Evil (Remake) scored good on every front. The audio to begin with, is excellent. I kinda miss the "catchy" tunes in modern games. It's either way too bombastic, or reduced to monotone background mumble. RE had a different music for almost every room/corridor, giving a different vibe. Some rooms sounded weird, some very threatening, yet others too silent for comfort.
In a few rare situations, there were "safe rooms" (often where you could literally save the game). Lights on, and calming music. Finally, a moment to breath and not having to worry about zombies coming around the corner... right? Of course the different types of music allowed the makers to play tricks. Usually threatening music means troubles, but sometimes nothing would happen there, while other rooms that felt safe before, suddenly became a trap. All in all, very well done. I wish we can achieve the same on the Tower22 music.
Patience (door-opening scene playing)
Also the visuals are appealing. The realistic characters made it easier to create a bond and feel their troubles. Every location is worked out in great detail, and breaths an old and filthy atmosphere of dust, rust, mouldy wallpaper, spider-webs, and dried jerky zombie blood. The design and building architecture uses a lot of classic "ghost mansion" elements which may sound cliché, but works out nevertheless. Not everyone was charmed by the camera-system though. One unmistakable feature of the first RE titles (and also other somewhat similar puzzle/action games such as Alone in the Dark, Bioforge or Metal Gear Solid) were the fixed camera angles. The camera didn't follow the player over the shoulder, as in most later RE titles. Instead each room had one or more pre-defined camera positions. Sometimes placed on the floor or ceiling, which sounds artistically but made it hard to navigate your character smoothly through the mansion as the view would suddenly change to a complete different pose while moving. RE 4 finally renewed the camera-system with a dynamic shoulder-cam, and the whole world was happy about it. Yet I dare to defend the fixed angles.
As explained in this post fixed views are much cheaper to render. Older hardware, certainly the PSX, just weren't capable of rendering lots of polygons, beautiful lighting, soft shadows, reflections and other gimmicks. So they projected a pre-rendered high quality image instead. Cheap? Maybe, but look at it this way: Resident Evil would have looked far less impressive/atmospheric if they had chosen a 3rd or 1st person camera system. Which would have reduced the overall horror impact as well. You could add question-marks, as RE 4 still looked beautiful on the same Nintendo Gamecube hardware, but don't forget that RE 4 is a much faster paced game. Texture quality and the amount of tiny details is lower in RE 4, but you won't really notice it because you are running around all the time. In other words, you can't compare apples with coconuts.
RE is a slow game. Most of the time you will be searching items or going from A to B, instead of shooting. As said, part of the challenge is to remember locations where you could use your new found items, and to solve relative complicated puzzles. Whereas newer RE titles are all about action, and have "puzzles" that are so easy that they are an insult to the player. Another infamous thingie were the "door-scenes". Each time when moving into a new room, you would get a black screen with just a door opening slowly.
Obviously, when strolling clueless around the building, going from one room to another, the short door-scenes can become annoying. They said it was to mask the loading times (entering a new room means the computer has to load another music track, level geometry and pre-rendered images from disc), but I doubt if that is the one and only reason. The Gamecube (and previous Nintendo systems) always loaded everything extremely fast compared to other platforms. Hence there were no loading-screens in general. I think the makers also used it to make players nervous. What would be behind the door (especially if it’s a very dirty, rusty, large door)? As one google pic told me “You know a game is scary when even the fucking doors scare you!”.
The low-pace is one of the things that makes Resident Evil bone chilling. If you have to throw grenades and defend yourself all the time, it becomes a mechanism, a pattern you get comfortable with. And once comfortable, you are prepared and self-assured. Let them zombies come! If you don't have to fight all the time on the other hand, confrontations keep coming as a nasty surprise, something you'd rather try to avoid. The slowly opening door-scenes are a way to stir up your nerves. Of course this makes less sense when entering the same room for the sixth time, but the Remake also smartly added "Crimson heads" for that. Zombies would come back alive after an hour or so, stronger and much faster. The only way to prevent this scum, was by blowing of the head (lucky shot), or by burning the corpse after killing it. But since you would lack fuel all the time, you could still get the unpleasant surprise of a charging Crimson Head when opening the door to a room you have been many times before. Trying to remember where the unburned corpses is one of those little gimmicks that made the game extra scary. Knowing they are there is often more scary than actually fighting them.
Somebody woke up on the wrong side of the bed?
Where the hell did I leave my Ink ribbon?!
Last but not least, RE is a scary game because it is a hard game. Hard because you can't take too many blows, and because the narrow environments and fixed-camera-angles don't exactly help you keeping a safe distance. That is yet another reason why to defend fixed views. With a 3rd or 1st person view, it would be way too easy to spot and smell rotting guys from a distance and carefully aim for the head or turn around. RE 4 (and 5, and 6, and many other zombie games such as Left 4 Dead) fixed this by placing large quantities of zombies, and by making them much faster and agile. Zombies could run, jump, climb ladders, et cetera. But but... would the original RE still be scary if
swarms of zombies stormed you like stinger bees? The game would be thrilling and exciting, but not scary. Trust me. So it seems the whole type of gameplay forced RE to use clumsy controls, door-scenes, and fixed-camera angles. And you know what, I'm still thinking about having them in Tower22 as well (the fixed views I mean). Not saying it will likely happen -first we need a bigger play-yard to experiment with- but I'm saying fixed views are still an option.
Drunk controls and non-helping camera's made it harder to flee from zombies. But the biggest challenge was the lack of ammunition, health-packs, fuel to burn zombies, and ink-ribbons. Huh? Yeah, you know, you have to find a type-writer, insert a ribbon, and save your game dummy. With a limited number of saves (and type-writer locations), you couldn't just save the game after each and every achievement. Very unnatural for modern gamers that are used to see "auto-saving..." every 30 seconds, but a good thing for the fear-factor. Dying in RE would suck even more, as you may lose quite some progress in case you didn't save the game recently. But since you can't save every time, you'll have to make decisions. Entering a new room (with the slowly opening door) would become even more exciting. It could be an empty room with some puzzle items. Or there could be a huge Tarantula boss behind that door, killing you and having to redo the whole fucking journey towards your current point. It sounds frustrating, but it sure helps you caring about your character/life a lot. If dying in a game isn't a big deal, then why be afraid of scary monsters or traps anyway? Got to note that redoing the same path goes a whole lot quicker though, as you know the puzzle solutions and locations where to go. That compensates the frustration a little bit.
We used to laugh about the zombie walking on the balcony above this room. Passed him a hundred times, and the poor thing was always too slow to catch us. Until the sneaky asshole came from a different corner and caught us one day after getting reckless.
Besides having to choose when to save or not to save, you also have to decide how to spend your ammunition and what weapons to carry in your limited inventory. Being armed to the teeth means you can't carry other puzzles items anymore, which forces you to walk back and forth to carry stuff over. Not being armed and running into zombies or worse, a boss, isn't smart either. And who to shoot? There isn't enough ammo to kill each and every foe in RE, so sometimes its smarter to just dodge and run around certain zombies. Which ensures traveling through the mansion keeps exciting; you can't clean-sweep the place and then relax and start solving puzzles with a cup of coffee and a cigarette. Having to make all these decisions -when to save, what to take, who to shoot, where to go- is nerve wrecking. But also the key of successfully completing this game.
Buuhhh, I'm a mummy
Last, we should mention the stars of the show in this game; the zombies themselves. Horror games always do their stinking best to show you the biggest, ugliest, smelliest, and worst creatures you can dream of. Yet they often fail to impress, especially if you played and saw a whole package of horror games & movies already. What I liked about the RE Remake is the "modesty" in their creatures. How to explain that... In later RE games (and other series), monsters had to be bigger and gorier. More tentacles. Not two but six heads. Slime, spit and screams all over the place. But often the coolest characters are the simpler, more natural ones. RE 4 and 5 had many gigantic malformed bosses, but the most terrifying ones were still the Executioner, or the farmer with a potato sack on his head. Just hearing his chainsaw motor was enough have your little "oh shit, oh shit" moment.
Don't you agree that this zombified shark is scarier than all those HUGE multi-tentacle mutations recent RE titles had? Scares with modesty.
RE kept its monsters somewhat natural as well. Zombies were just zombies. Slow, dumb, dead. And other foes were basically just animals that grew a bit larger after snooping some T-Virus. Not tentacle-crazy multi-combi-morphing English talking bastards. Just Zombie dogs, zombie crows, big snakes, big sharks, big spiders, big wasps, big plants. "Plausible" stuff. There are a few exceptions, such as the Hunter, Chimera, "Lisa" and Tyrant. But because they are rare and have a background story, they are still cool. Lisa was a young girl used as a test subject. Now turned into an almost immortal "thing" that walks around carrying her mothers’ face. Yeah, your mother. The Tyrant, one of my favourite end-bosses all time, is what the B.O.W. (Bio Organic Weapon the scientists were trying to make) should have been. A piece of ugly perfection. Too bad they blew up the Tyrant with dressed, talking versions carrying rocket launchers in later titles and the movie. But credits to the "failed" prototype Tyrant in RE Zero then.
Encountering a zombie that doesn't fall apart by itself. The Tyrant is what this research-mansion was all about.
RE vs Silent Hill
As you may have noticed, I spend quite some time in analysing Resident Evil, RE Remake in particular. I rented the game for one week, and had to rent it again to finish it. Then bought it to play it again. And after that the story, the mansion and creatures kept living in my fantasies for quite some time. Symptoms of having played an impressive game. Now that I learned the "Horror Survival" genre a bit better, I observed other titles in that genre more carefully. Coming to a conclusion that (for me) the RE Remake is still one of the best horror games ever made. It sure beats the hell out of its later brothers, but how about that other one, c’mon, Silent Hill? I generally don't like such comparisons, but let's do one anyway.
Well, I recently saw the PS4 demo of the upcoming Silent Hill and I was almost crying. For mama. Never-ending corridors, changing interiors, eye-balls rolling in paintings, complete madness. Sounds like T22 ingredients. But since that game doesn't exist yet, we shouldn't draw immediate conclusions. I haven't played the very first Silent Hill games back in their glory days either, so that makes things unfair. Howoever, I think I can safely say that Silent Hill is more disturbing, weird and nightmarish than Resident Evil. Silent Hill feels like a very bad dream that never stops, while RE sketches a far more realistic (at least the first titles) story. In terms of graphical, disturbing, unpleasantness, Silent Hill wins. But in terms of a "good game", I think RE still wins the overall battle. Horrifying or not, Silent Hill isn't much of a fun game. The fights with headless dogs and tottering nurses are bland and dull. Silent Hill isn't a very difficult game either. The puzzles are suitable for short-term memory Korsakoff patients. Silent Hill just drags you through an (extremely hard to understand) nightmare more or less. RE on the other side feels and plays very different. It made me more nervous and afraid to die, yet it also managed to satisfy when getting rid of zombie-dogs and other scum. Fun is certainly not the most important element in a horror game, but in the end you still play a game to relax. Cracking puzzles and shooting down a boss with less shots thanks to the Magnum ammo you saved, feels good. To put it down simple, if I had to choose between playing RE or Silent Hill, I would pick RE.
Well, enough for this comparison. Both are great in their own ways. As I said before, you can't compare bananas with pickles. But since I nominated Resident Evil (Remake) as one of my all-time favourites, I'd better explain why. It was an unforgettable experience, and also opened my eyes for making a horror-game. Yes, Tower22 is an indirect byproduct of playing Resident Evil.