Tuesday, June 27, 2017

On The Legacy Of Resident Evil: The Evil Within and Resident Evil VII

Mostly I like to write about horror films, occasionally horror on television (for as rarely and briefly as it remains good), but more and more I’m thinking about games as visual media as ripe for examination as more passive forms of viewing. As I’ve said before, I’m a coward when it comes to playing scary video games, but the existence of broadcast playthroughs of games mean I can watch them like I would any other film or television story, and somehow that remove, the subtraction of agency, takes a lot of the sting out for me. The first indication that this might be worth looking into was the game SOMA, which was simultaneously as scary and thematically rich as some of my favorite horror films of the last few years, enough that I said to myself “holy shit, I have to write about this.” If it had been a movie, it would have been amazing, but the degree it used player agency as part of the story added a certain something that really you can’t get outside of active interaction with a narrative.

I don’t really find either The Evil Within or Resident Evil VII up to that standard, necessarily, but as relatively recent iterations on a long-running series of horror games, I think they’re worth examining in comparison. They’re both reasonably scary, though I’m not sure I’d really call either one of them thematically rich. But as artifacts, as different takes on what gets carried forward in a medium where sequels and remakes are pretty much as common as horror film, I’ve been thinking a lot about both of them lately. And the Resident Evil series is extensive and long-running enough to essentially have created its own aesthetic, so it’s worth seeing how that aesthetic changes and gets remixed over time.

Resident Evil

So first, some background. The Resident Evil series began with its titular namesake back in 1996, as a story about a group of police officers sent to a mysterious mansion in the middle of a forest, to investigate what happened to a previous group of police officers who had been sent there to investigate suspicious goings-on of some sort. There’s a helicopter crash, an attack by a pack of mysterious dog-like beasts, and so the survivors of the follow-up team are scattered and cut off from each other. The game follows you as one of the surviving officers as you investigate the spooky, Gothic mansion. As it turns out, the mansion has a serious flesh-eating zombie problem.

Much of the horror associated with the original game lies in both its core gameplay mechanics and its narrative. Mechanically, there’s a strong emphasis on helplessness and disempowerment. You’re a cop, and you have weaponry, but ammunition is scarce relative to the number and durability of zombies you encounter, so every situation becomes a choice between using what few resources you have and running away. Inventory space is very limited, so you routinely have to make difficult choices about what kinds of equipment you’re going to keep on you at any given point, and you’re more likely than not going to miss what you leave behind. Running away is made more difficult by the slow, clumsy movement mechanic, which is probably more a limitation of the technology than a deliberate design choice. Nevertheless, it adds tension because running becomes no guarantee of survival against enemies who, in fine zombie tradition, are slow but never, ever stop. You try to run, but they’re always there. It recalls the common nightmare feeling of being pursued by a monster but feeling yourself robbed of all energy and forward momentum.

In games we’re used to being the hero of the story and dispatching enemies of whatever stripe with relative ease and aplomb as we master the mechanics associated with the game. Here, the mechanics are simple and actually sort of work against you. In any genre other than horror, this would feel a bit crap, but here it adds to a sense of tension. You move slowly, without agility, your ability to deal damage and recover from damage is limited, and to make progress you have to solve puzzles that require you to fetch keys of one sort or another to unlock new areas, and the keys themselves range from the prosaic (actual keys) to the bizarre (why the fuck is this door locked with a medallion? And why is that medallion embedded in a statue somewhere on the other side of the mansion?). So you’re slow, limited in your ability to defend yourself, and you’re constantly backtracking through areas that may very well be filled with zombies, dodging harm to basically run errands. The act of getting a door open can be, at times, downright heroic.

And that’s just the mechanics. This is all in service of a story that starts as pretty straightforward by horror standards (spooky mansion, flesh-eating zombies and zombified dogs) and just gets weirder the deeper in you go. You aren’t just dealing with zombies, as it turns out. You’re also dealing with giant snakes, giant spiders, giant carnivorous plants, flesh-eating crows, and poisonous moths among other stuff. And the mansion - a warren of hidden passages and trapped rooms for reasons never adequately explained - gives way to vast secret underground lab facilities, complexes of concrete and steel and bizarre experiments involving mutagenic viruses responsible for all the monsters on the surface. As the environment changes, so do the threats. The labs introduce examples of the mutagen run rampant - riots of superfluous eyes and limbs erupting from vaguely humanoid forms, reminiscent of the sort of biology-run-amok that makes John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing so unsettling. And as environment and antagonist shift, so do our allegiances, as members of your team are revealed to be double agents working for the sinister corporation behind all of this experimentation - a pharmaceutical company called Umbrella.

So...yes. To recap: You are a member of the small-town equivalent of a SWAT team sent to a mansion in the middle of the woods, where you find monsters created by a pharmaceutical company in a bid for world domination.

It’s all a little silly.

It’s all a little silly, but when you’re in the middle of it, it’s actually pretty tense and engaging because you’re struggling to stay alive (for the most part - resources are far less strained in the endgame than at the start) as things around you keep getting more and more batshit. You’re a in a mansion, then you’re in a secret lab, then you’re taking a submarine (accessed, if I remember correctly - it’s been about 18 years since I played the first game - by unlocking access to it with a marble plaque of a ship’s steering wheel because of course) to yet another underwater secret lab which leads to another even larger lab complex, and you go from zombies to giant plants and lizards and arachnids to things that aren’t even really life as we recognize it anymore and oh yeah, this is all part of a vast conspiracy engineered by a company that makes cold medicine. The what-the-fuck factor is off the charts, and this is important to note because it’s going to come up later.

This, mind you, is just the first game. A quick Wikipedia check tells me that counting sequels and offshoots and remakes, we are currently looking at twenty-seven games either complete or in development between 1996 and 2017. I am not going to discuss every one of these games, but I do want to quickly hit the highlights because it’s going to be important to set up the recurring elements in the series and how they play out in the newest iteration of the series proper (Resident Evil VII) and what I’m arguing is a spiritual sequel (The Evil Within) and how the two are both similar and different. So the first game really establishes a lot of things that persist throughout subsequent entries to the series, most notably the following six elements:

1. A Fixed Cast of Characters

The first Resident Evil game introduces us to a basic cast of characters, who persist throughout the series. New faces get added along the way, but in general we end up with the sort of consistent rotating cast you’d expect to find in any soap opera or, say, the Saw franchise. Nobody exists in this narrative world who doesn’t have some tie to the protagonists or antagonists, and they tend to keep popping up, with plenty of shifting allegiances, double agents, triple agents, antiheroes, the whole lot. We will see the same names and faces again and again, even if their roles do change.

2. Scarcity and Safety

Like the cast, specific resource mechanics persist from game to game. Certain weapons show up over and over again (handguns, shotguns, grenade launchers), herbs of different colors show up as healing items, and can be combined to create more powerful healing items, game saves are accomplished through some kind of technology in the environment (traditionally typewriters), and there are designated “safe” rooms in the game space where save points can be found alongside item crates where you can store items for which you have no room in your inventory. Like the cast, specifics vary from game to game, but these are pretty constant. Scarcity - of resources, and inventory slots to carry those resources - are pretty constant as well, at least early on. Around Resident Evil 4 that becomes less of a thing (culminating in the pants-on-head action-movie ridiculousness of Resident Evil 6).

3. Puzzle-Solving For Progression

Movement through the game’s world (and thus, through the story) is regulated by the need to solve convoluted puzzles, whether the environment makes them appropriate or not. You could possibly make the argument that fitting themed plaques into slots on a door to open it makes a kind of sense in an eccentrically-designed mansion. Rich people can be fucking weird. But this same mechanic pops up again in Resident Evil 2, which takes place in the nearby town of Raccoon City, and there’s no sensible reason why the Raccoon City Police Department would use the same themed-plaque system for securing its own damn headquarters. And yet, if you want to get into the squad room, you need to pry the medallion from the base of the statue in the lobby. In all fairness, sometimes it’s something that makes sense contextually, like a fuse to insert into a box to provide electricity to a shorted-out security door, or someone’s keycard. But sometimes it’s a plaque with an eagle on it, which needs to go into the door with an eagle on it (and not, you know, the wolf door). Why? Who knows?

4. Weirdness, Science, and Weird Science

The use of odd puzzles in mundane places is echoed by a similar juxtaposition of technology with the baroquely Gothic in character and environment. Often you’ll have traditionally Gothic elements coexisting alongside the more technological elements (like the way the games begin in spaces like mansions and move to laboratories), but sometimes they’ll be commingled and embodied in the antagonists as well. In Resident Evil: Code Veronica, for example, the primary antagonist is a wealthy member of a noble family who is obsessed with his twin sister, to the point that he dresses like her and assumes her voice and acts her out. The main antagonist in Resident Evil 4 has this whole sort of Napoleon-meets-Little Lord Fauntleroy aesthetic going on for reasons never explained. It even happens in smaller moments, like Resident Evil 2 (or maybe 3, again, it’s been awhile), where you encounter Raccoon City’s mayor in his office, with his daughter’s body laid out on his desk in front of him, and he gives a speech about her beauty and how he couldn’t save her that, in his operatically melodramatic insanity and grief, could have shown up in a Bram Stoker story. It’s worth noting that the abovementioned dude with sister issues is also a scientist for the Umbrella Corporation, and that his family mansion hides yet another massive lab complex, because...

5. Insanely Powerful Evil Corporations

The Umbrella Corporation is the consistent antagonist behind the scenes across all the games, and their scope and reach just scale up and up and up as the series goes on. Pretty much every villain in each individual game is somehow employed by Umbrella, which, although ostensibly just a very profitable pharmaceutical company on the surface, moves over the course of the series from “pharmaceutical company doing some iffy research on the side” to “pharmaceutical company with improbable resources bent on world domination” to “massive multinational with endless resources, vast armies of mercenaries, technology so fantastic as to border on actual magic, and secret control of pretty much the whole planet and now they’re just fucking with people because evil.” Umbrella is behind basically every conspiracy and bad thing in the world of Resident Evil, and the idea of conspiracy, secret organizations, and secret organizations within secret organizations just proliferates exponentially as the series continues. And it’s always Umbrella pulling the strings.

6. The Further You Go, The Less Human Everything Gets

Finally, each game features a consistent progression in the type of ground-level antagonists you face from more to less recognizably human. You typically start with flesh-eating zombies (or mindlessly aggressive enemies in the tradition of 28 Days Later’s “rage” zombies), then face monstrous animals or lizards or insects, then either human or non-human adversaries whose biology has become corrupted and distorted, until the final encounter is typically with a creature who is less recognizable as any kind of living creature than just an amorphous mass of tentacles, claws, eyeballs (always eyeballs, lots of eyeballs), and bony protrusions. Basically, the further in you get and the weirder the circumstances get, the weirder the enemies you face as well.

These don’t always appear to the same degree in any given individual installment (the final antagonist in Resident Evil is mostly recognizable as human, for example, and the Gothic elements are pretty much entirely stripped out of Resident Evil 6), but they’re consistent enough to make up what I see as the core of the Resident Evil aesthetic. So, all of that ground laid, I want to take a look at the two most recent expressions of that aesthetic. And yeah, there are going to be spoilers for both Resident Evil VII and The Evil Within, so forewarned, forearmed, etc.