Resident Evil 6 is finally out. However, so far things aren’t looking good for the latest entry in the long running series about Corporate Malpractice. Middling review scores and a general feeling from fans and critics alike that the game lacks direction and has forsaken its Survival horror roots for action have flooded the internet.
This got me thinking? Was the original much different? Although you were apparently entering the world of survival horror, was surviving really that hard? Is Resident Evil 6 such a departure or is it merely the series finally achieving what it set out to do all those years ago now that technology allows. Are we just looking at the original through a pair of blood soaked spectacles?
Horror stories are rooted in the subversion of the mundane. For example ‘Jaws’ is scary. Not only because it’s about a bloody great shark, but more so because it takes something we take for granted; swimming in the sea and expose a danger we never considered. ‘Poltergeist’ and other ghost stories work on the same level because they take a place where we are supposed to feel protected; our homes and invades them with a force we cannot comprehend or control . They turn places of comfort into places of dread.
Resident Evil never does this. Unless you are a millionaire, chances are you don’t live in a mansion. So it becoming the source of a zombie apocalypse doesn’t strike close to home at all. It’s not horrifying because we can’t relate.
However just as powerful is the fear of the unknown, of something not being quite right, of there being something monstrous lurking in the shadows. We can’t relate to the setting but we can relate the characters being lost and uncertain.Our ability to empathise with the characters is vital in helping to create the tension in the game that leads to everyone jumping out of their skin when the dogs make their dramatic entrance.
However most of the monsters within the game lose a lot of their luster after their initial appearences because the characters within the game are more than equipped to deal with them. In order for Zombies to be scary you need to be unarmed and unaware and in resident evil the characters are anything but.
Within the confines of the narrative your character is in pretty much every case more than equipped to deal with the situation. Chris and Jill are part of a highly trained elite force that was officially founded to deal with terrorist attacks but was secretly comprised of people that would be able to effectively provide accurate combat data for the beasts living in the mansion.
Within the game itself it boiled down to how good you were at managing your inventory. Use the right guns on the right bad guys and you had no problem facing off against anything that came up against you. Leave the Bazooka alone until the end game and try your best not to use the Magnum and the Tyrant became a cakewalk. If you were clever you didn’t even need to shoot Yawn the Snake or Neptune the shark. Moreover the fact that these weapons of mass destruction were ever in your hands in the first place makes the game more about the destruction of horrors than surviving them.
The game’s ending in which you have to escape the laboratory before it explodes is not a troupe of a horror movie. It’s something straight out of a Bond Movie. You finally polish off the Tyrant with a Rocket Launcher. When you pull the trigger the act of the rockets flying into the hulking beast repeats from several angles before it explodes. You then Jump in a Helicopter and watch as the entire facility is engulfed in a huge explosion as the remains of your team are taken to safety. That’s not a horrific ending. It’s the opposite. Maybe it’s supposed to illicit the same kind of response that the end of good slasher film does. However it falls down because the bad guy’s eyes don’t open. The helicopter doesn’t crash because the pilot is infected. You are safe. You are badass. You have successfully destroyed the threat.
This is on reflection an action game with horror elements. So, why is it so fondly remembered? Why do we paper over its cracks so readily?
Probably because when it did try and scare us it did it incredibly well. Nobody will ever forget the first encounter with a zombie. It was just so well set up, so perfectly paced. You couldn’t see round the corner. You had your suspicions something was wrong. There was a pool of blood on the floor in the room you’d just come from. You hadn’t equipped your gun yet because everything was quiet and peaceful. Then you turn the corner of that corridor and bam. One of the most iconic moments in modern gaming unfolds before your eyes and all hell breaks loose.
The other obvious example is the dogs smashing through the windows. But after the first time it happens any sense of dread or fear is gone. You know the buggers are coming and if you’re feeling particularly malicious Rover’s about to get hit with two rounds of buckshot.
Now the other standout moment that always fills me full of dread is the first appearance of the Hunters. You see something hopping and leaping its way through the gardens you’ve just successfully conquered and then the unthinkable happens. The bloody thing opens the door you’ve just walked through. The bastard can follow you. The subtle slamming sound and then that screech as it cuts your damn head off in one attack. You can never quite be ready for them the same way you could the zombies or the dogs.
The horror elements of the game were emphasised further in the 2003 remake. With the greater power afforded by the Game Cube new sections were added and others completely redone. The Encounter with Neptune was transformed from a rather bland section that felt like trudging through a flooded basement into one of the tensest and most genuinely nerve wrecking experiences in the entire series.
It also reintroduced a subplot cut from the original that to this day makes me feel slightly sick to my stomach about a researcher experimenting on his daughter.
However the biggest change to the game was the inclusion of the Crimson Head zombies. Now if you failed to decapitate or burn zombies you had slain in the first half of the game they would rise up again on your return from the Gardens. Meaner, faster and just like the hunters the gits would pursue you until you put them down again.
In my mind the remake is the scariest game in the series. It took the elements of the original that resonated with gamers and refined the formula to perfection. Successfully reminding gamers why we fell in love with the series in the first place.
Despite this it didn’t save Resident Evil 0 from taking a critical hammering when it was released. Gamers had grown tired of mansions, block pushing puzzles, the same predictable finale and your character being controlled like a forklift.
The scares had become predictable, the plot a little too convoluted and the formula stale. Sound familiar?
Something new was needed to reinvigorate the series. Check back later for part two when I will be looking at Resident Evil 4.