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.

The Evil Within

This is not, strictly speaking, a Resident Evil game. It isn’t made by Capcom, the studio responsible for the series, nor does it feature any of the series’ recurring characters or the Umbrella Corporation as an antagonist. But its creator, Shinji Mikami, was one of the guiding minds behind the early Resident Evil games, and their stylistic DNA is all over The Evil Within, albeit with a design direction that replaces many of the more traditionally Gothic elements of the Resident Evil series with a sensibility more reminiscent of a particular strain of modern horror film.

The premise is relatively straightforward. Detective Sebastian Castellanos, his partner Joseph Oda, and junior detective Juli Kidman are called to investigate a violent incident at Beacon Mental Hospital. To call it a “violent incident” is drastic understatement, as the trio arrive to find a bunch of squad cars already parked and deserted out front. Lots of cop cars is bad, lots of cop cars and no cops is worse. Sure enough, they enter the hospital to find the lobby completely wrecked, strewn with corpses and covered in blood. Something amazingly bad happened here in a really short amount of time, and after finding some surveillance footage in which a mysterious scarred man teleports around a lot and wrecks the shit of a SWAT team in the blink of an eye, the trio gets separated. The player follows Castellanos, who awakes in what is essentially the hospital reimagined as a charnel house. There are supply cabinets and tile walls and floors, and a hulking monstrosity butchering a body on a gurney, Castellanos hung up by his ankles alongside other corpses, next for the knife.

And here is where we first get a sense of The Evil Within’s similarities to Resident Evil - like the early Resident Evil games, it is about survival with scarce resources. Castellanos has to escape the room without the gigantic figure noticing, and he’s been deprived of his weapon, or really any resources at all. In the older Resident Evil games, it would be all about outrunning the enemy, but newer games have a broader palette of play options, so Castellanos has to sneak out instead, making sure to break line of sight at all times. The need to solve puzzles (some prosaic, some completely bizarre) is part of this carryover from the Resident Evil series as well, so you’re both at a disadvantage and hampered by the need to accomplish tasks to escape throughout. This slow, supremely tense crawl through what basically looks like the rusty, decaying, blood-smeared set of Saw eventually points him to freedom and a reunion with Oda and Kidman, making their escape along with a police officer, a doctor, and an oddly uncommunicative patient from the mental hospital in a commandeered ambulance. That is, until the very landscape shifts and an entire skyscraper slides in front of them like something out of Inception, closing off their route. There’s a crash, and Castellanos wakes up somewhere else entirely.

And here is where we first get a sense of two of the three major ways The Evil Within differs from Resident Evil. First, the early Resident Evil games built mood and tension slowly. You arrive at the mansion and it’s totally quiet, and you have the time to actually explore a few rooms before you discover a single zombie, hunched over a corpse, and this is your first indication that Bad Shit is going on. And then the magnitude of the threat ramps up gradually. By contrast, The Evil Within pitches you headfirst into complete gonzo batshit territory within the first five minutes. It is zero-to-neck-deep-in-bloody-corpses in no time flat.

Second, The Evil Within, unlike Resident Evil, draws a lot less on traditionally Gothic elements (for the most part - I’ll get to some exceptions in a bit) and more on the aesthetic associated with modern horror films like Saw. Everything’s grimy and decaying and rusted and a little antiquated, with a heavy emphasis on barbed wire. It’s much grittier than even the later Resident Evil games, and much more explicit in the amount of gore thrown around. Again, some of this may be down to technological improvements (blood in games from the mid-90s couldn’t help but look cartoonish), but part of it is also in the detail afforded to dead and mutilated bodies, the overall sense of filthiness and decay, and the way it’s all played with a completely straight face. It feels like just watching someone play this should require a tetanus booster, and that’s a much newer development in horror aesthetics. There’s a definite campiness to the first two or three Resident Evil games that is utterly absent here.

This opening essentially introduces the characters and situation of the game as a whole, and then spends the rest of its time putting Castellanos through his paces in a variety of different settings as he chases after some combination of his partners, the doctor, and the patient, trying to figure out just what the fuck is going on. Castellanos is never again as utterly helpless as he is in the introductory sequence - you’re almost immediately given access to weapons, but in fine Resident Evil tradition, ammunition and healing items are fairly scarce (as is the room to store them), meaning you aren’t able to take on each enemy encounter with force. You’re going to run out of bullets, so you should probably hide and sneak when you can, and only fight when the odds are in your favor (which they rarely are) or when you can isolate single enemies and dispatch them quickly. You’re much more agile than in Resident Evil, and so the pace is faster, but there’s still the sense that you’re doing good just to get from point A to point B without getting mulched. Like Resident Evil, this ameliorates somewhat as the game progresses, moving from an emphasis on evasion and survival in the early game to more straightforward combat in the endgame, but it rarely, if ever, feels like a cakewalk.

And when I say “put through his paces,” I mean Castellanos really is sort of yanked from setpiece to setpiece in abrupt, jarring fashion. Beside the requisite abandoned hospital, there’s a rural village full of murderous townsfolk, a mysterious cathedral, some equally mysterious laboratories, a suitably Gothic mansion, a Saw-style death maze, an extensive underground tomb, a city in post-apocalyptic ruin, and some straight-up Lovecraftian body-horror environments where everything is covered with undifferentiated flesh which is, itself, bristling with eyeballs. Most of these locales are the sort of things that have been used in Resident Evil games, but in that series, there was some thread of rationale for the progression - the mansion is a cover for a laboratory, the rural village is being used as a testing ground by Umbrella, etc. - but here it feels deeply disconnected and arbitrary, to the point that Castellanos’ main motivation is really just to try and figure out what the fuck is even happening at any given moment. Initially it feels a little lazy, like a tour of common settings for horror films (or games) slapped together without any consideration for narrative cohesion, but as I’ll discuss in a little bit, there is a rationale for it, albeit one that I think serves more as ass-covering than a strong narrative choice.

That said, the environments are made dangerous in a way that expands on Resident Evil’s vocabulary - a bizarre, murderous merry-go-round affixed with decapitating blades, situated in the middle of a maze of waist-high walls, lethal tripwire traps littered throughout the environments, valves that regulate belches of fire or poison gas, and in one particularly inspired moment, a hallway that you’re traversing suddenly cants downward toward a doorway filled with whirling sawblades. Even once combat becomes something close to manageable, the environmental hazards keep the tension level incredibly high throughout. At no point in the game is there much margin for error, so there is little to no room to breathe, and the utterly bizarre shifts in environment only sharpen that.

The relentless, bizarre environments are, likewise, populated by equally relentless, bizarre antagonists. The enemies you have to avoid or confront aren’t as diverse as in the Resident Evil games - with a few Lovecraftian exceptions later in the game, they’re human or humanoid.  But, where the zombies of the Resident Evil games shambled slowly and inexorably, the closest analogues in The Evil Within either spring at you like the feral “fast zombies” of modern horror or employ weapons against you, ranging from crossbows to sniper rifles. They don’t even need to be close to you to be a threat, and larger enemies exacerbate this denial of safe distance, in the form of twin giants who smash through the walls keeping you safe from them, or the game’s most bizarre creation, The Keeper - an imposing butcher figure with a safe for a head. He pursues you through a maze filled with deathtraps, and even if you stop him, he will spring, fully regenerated, from any of the number of other safes dotting the level. They’re all hard to outrun, and the ones that aren’t can get you at a distance, so here again there’s no relief.

So that’s the third way The Evil Within differs from Resident Evil games - its pacing. Resident Evil games typically have an ebb and flow to them, as you navigate between safe rooms (where you can save your game and manage your inventory), there’s danger and tension, followed by a moment or two of relief before you proceed forward. In The Evil Within, resource management is done on the fly, without even the opportunity to pause the game, so you have to find a safe spot in the environment to fiddle with stuff, and you can’t really store anything. Saving (and opportunities to improve Castellanos’ abilities and acquire additional resources) occur in a single location - a mental hospital to which you return periodically using cracked mirrors as some sort of portal. There are no enemies there, but it doesn’t feel especially safe. Voices bark and mutter from the other cells, there’s an enigmatic nurse, newspapers and wanted posters relate crimes specific to your most recently visited location in the game, the environment itself periodically distorts and reconfigures itself, and you do all of your leveling up by sitting down in what looks like an electric chair designed by Jigsaw. Every improvement delivers a painful-looking jolt. There is no real feeling of safety or relief even in the one safe space you’re given. Essentially, the whole thing feels less like a horror movie than an extended nightmare - emotionally fraught, borderline-nonsensical, and full of inescapable dread.

As it turns out, there’s a reason for all of that - the bizarre environments (and equally bizarre antagonists) are not just an arbitrary assemblage of horror signifiers. In fact, the explanation for the events of the game and its aesthetic, in contrast to the many departures from the Resident Evil formula detailed above, provides the strongest connection to elements of the original Resident Evil games. The whole thing feels like a nightmare because that is, in essence, exactly what it is. The strangely scarred young man glimpsed in the security camera at the beginning (and as a highly lethal ghost at other intervals during the game) is named Ruvik, and he is two things: First, he is the captive of the mysterious Mobius Corporation, who are experimenting with some kind of consciousness-linking technology. Castellanos, Oda, Kidman, the doctor and his patient are all, along with Ruvik, actually being kept comatose in some kind of Matrix-like setup that allows everyone to essentially travel through the landscape of Ruvik’s psyche.

This is bad, because the second thing is that Ruvik is a homicidal maniac, and has been one all his life. We discover this during a sequence in a mysteriously empty mansion, moving through rooms and basements and sub-basements filled with little Ruvik’s early experiments in taking apart animals, then taking apart humans. It is here that a game not otherwise concerned with the Gothic camp of the Resident Evil games picks up the slack with interest. The only thing differentiating it from the more purple moments of, say, Resident Evil Code Veronica or Resident Evil 4, is how graphically gory it is by comparison. You unlock one door in the mansion by starting mechanisms that pump blood into three tubes, and you do this by pithing areas in the exposed brains of three severed heads sitting on tables scattered around the level, kept alive by strange machinery. The heads blink and grimace at you, and it’s incredibly uncomfortable.

As it transpires, Ruvik was a creepy little kid with an unhealthy attachment to his sister (oh hey where have we heard that one before) who died in a fire that left Ruvik horribly scarred. So now he’s a creepy deformed kid, kept by his parents in the basement, where he started to experiment on animals to try and figure out a way to hack into consciousness so he could in essence keep his sister alive forever by living...in...his own memories? Science has never been the strong suit of these games. The creepy little kid turned into an even creepier adult, and the Mobius Corporation basically ganked his research, killed him, and made his brain the engine running the whole consciousness-linking thing, called STEM. And now Ruvik has figured out how to essentially transfer his consciousness from his own brain into other people’s brains via the STEM link, and he’s trying to hijack someone else’s body to return to the real world. But it does not stop there, because this does leave open the question of how and why Castellanos, Oda and Kidman were hooked up to the damn thing in the first place. As it turns out, Kidman was a double agent working for the Mobius Corporation and roped them all in for...reasons. It gets more complicated, but I think you’ve got the gist.

So yes, what we’ve got here is basically The Cell meets The Matrix, filtered through the traditional high weirdness of a Resident Evil game - mad scientists, monsters that range from the human to the utterly inhuman, shadowy corporations gunning for world domination, double agents, double and triple-crosses galore - with a thick sheen of Saw’s rust, grime, blood and viscera smeared all over it. It is its own mythology, with a new antagonist and cast of characters, but the form that mythology takes is classic Resident Evil. It is overly-complicated and Gothic in intent if not always in aesthetic. It abandons some of the mechanical considerations of the Resident Evil games, like the slower pacing and safe areas while sharpening others, like resource scarcity and the need to navigate through complex obstacles to progress. In that sense, although the trappings are more modern and far less campy, it is probably the closer of the two to a “traditional” Resident Evil game.

I’m not, however, sure this is necessarily a good thing on balance. The Evil Within benefits from advancements in game technology - the quality of its graphics and the fluidity of movement, primarily - but in terms of how the player experiences the world and the story it tells, it’s not really doing anything the other Resident Evil games haven’t already done. It’s gorier and it’s weirder, but that’s not a new song, it’s just the old song played louder, through more distortion.

Resident Evil VII

By comparison, if The Evil Within is basically a Resident Evil game with a modern-horror paint job, Resident Evil VII is a modern horror game with some very specifically curated nods to the original series, and I think it’s the stronger effort for it.

The premise essentially hits a reset button on the series’ extended (read: hilariously convoluted) mythology, beginning with just two people - Ethan Winters and his wife, Mia. Mia went missing three years ago, while working as a nanny. And now, out of the blue, Ethan’s received an email from Mia, asking him to please come to a small town in Louisiana to get her. So instead of square-jawed law enforcement types, we’ve got one guy, making the long drive into terra incognita to find his missing wife. It’s a much more personal, grounded story than the original games, at least to start. This more personal approach extends to your perspective - unlike the other games in the series, Resident Evil VII is played from a first-person perspective. This is a more common tack for horror and horror-adjacent games to take now then it was when the Resident Evil series got started, similar to the emergence of found-footage narrative (nods to which in this game I’ll discuss further down) in horror film. Games like Amnesia, SOMA, Alien: Isolation, and Outlast put us directly in the heads of the protagonists, and the constraining of our perspective works there like it does in found-footage films (Outlast and its sequel make this connection explicit by making a video camera a necessary tool for navigating the environment). It’s harder to distance ourselves from what’s happening in the game, just as a found-footage narrative approach makes it harder for us to distance ourselves from a horror film. We’re not an audience anymore, we’re witnesses. When either’s done well, it ratchets up the tension considerably.

Here it works quite well, as the opening finds Ethan exploring an apparently abandoned plantation. It’s very slow and quiet to start (in contrast to The Evil Within), with disquieting details revealed slowly - abandoned vehicles, odd sculptures made from animal bones, Mia’s handbag, a mysterious figure walking through the swamp - bringing Ethan to the plantation house itself, which is empty and dilapidated, full of spoiled food and garbage. It’s also big and labyrinthine like the mansion from the original game, but neatly inverted - instead of being a stately home with mysterious hidden passages, it’s a rambling compound in massive disrepair. Like The Evil Within, you get the feeling that the real antagonist here isn’t whatever monsters are lurking as much as whatever horrible infections you’d get from having untreated wounds in such a filthy environment. The feeling here is less Saw-industrial, however, than the heightened squalor of the Firefly family compound from The Devil’s Rejects.

It’s a long crawl through this creepy, silent environment before Ethan finds Mia, imprisoned in a cell somewhere underneath the house, and though she’s very much alive she swears she sent Ethan no message and thinks he should flee without her. And then things go completely batshit as Mia’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic and violent as they try to make their escape, culminating in Mia turning on Ethan, her face distorting grotesquely. Mia saws Ethan’s hand off, Ethan kills Mia in self-defense, and is subsequently knocked unconscious.

When Ethan wakes, his amputation crudely bandaged, he is bound as the captive of the house’s inhabitants - the crazed, cannibalistic Baker family, in a sequence echoing the infamous “family dinner” scene in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There’s patriarch Jack, his wife Marguerite, son Lucas, and an apparently comatose elderly woman propped up in a wheelchair. There’s a daughter as well, but she’s absent for the moment. It’s chaotic and histrionic, and the Bakers don’t really seem like they have their shit together. Ethan appears to be a disruption and the family is arguing about what to do with him. Ethan makes his escape in the confusion, and the game transitions into a hide-and-seek variant similar to games like Amnesia and Outlast. Ethan at this point is unarmed and must outwit and elude a very angry Jack as he tries to escape the house.

In this way, the opening sequence of the game sets much of the tone for the rest, and provides the first connection to previous Resident Evil games - its pacing. Where The Evil Within went balls-out with the gore and the monsters within minutes of its opening, starting its pitch at a scream and maintaining that, Resident Evil VII starts very quietly, building the unease gradually and steadily, continuing to twist the screws to the point of shocking violence, before cutting it off dead, then opening again at an even more lunatic pitch. There’s an ebb and flow to the tension in this game that I think serves it much better than the constant pummeling of The Evil Within. There seems to be much more of an emphasis on careful movement through a relatively constrained space as well. As in previous games and The Evil Within, progress is generally still a matter of “do thing that will open the locked door,” but setting the majority of Resident Evil VII in a series of residential interiors against mobile antagonists makes for a more claustrophobic experience than the more conventional approach of The Evil Within, where progress is (with some notable exceptions) largely a matter of figuring out routes around more static enemies. There is very little open space in Resident Evil VII, and for the first half or so of the game at least, your resources are scarce enough that hiding and avoiding is generally better than tackling enemies head-on, and you have very little room in which to do so.

As Ethan navigates the sprawling compound (there’s the main house, a guest house, basements, and so on), gameplay alternates between avoidance of various members of the Baker family (until forced into confrontation in boss-fight sequences), puzzle-solving to progress, and either avoidance or confrontation of this game’s zombie analogue, shambling fungus-covered creatures who detach themselves from increasingly pervasive mold colonies covering walls and floors. Here the game most closely resembles the original games, as you have weapons at your disposal, though resources are scarce and the space to store them even scarcer. Another nod to the original games is the presence of safe rooms, where you can save your progress and swap items in and out of inventory and storage. Like the original games, these safe rooms serve as a small oasis of calm in a persistently hostile environment, which makes returning to that environment that much more tense. You have to make careful decisions about what to take and what to leave behind, using an inventory mechanic barely changed from the original game.

Broadly speaking, then, the mechanics provide the second connection between Resident Evil VII and the original Resident Evil games (as opposed to the action-game model typifying the series from Resident Evil 4 onward) - emphasis is on movement through space, gated by obstacles, and either avoiding or confronting enemies until you can reach the next safe point. Combat is less clumsy now than in the originals, thanks to improvements in movement and control, but although the game loses the nightmare-feeling sluggishness, it compensates by making the enemies more resistant to damage. Oh sure, now you have a gun, and it’s much faster to aim and shoot, but the bullets do not do much damage, and the monsters just keep coming. They aren’t slow anymore either. The boss-fight sequences, where you take on a member of the Baker family, are typically staged in very confined spaces like a garage or one floor of a small house, which heightens the tension since you can’t really get any space between yourself and the antagonist. The mechanics are largely unchanged, but they have been sharpened and compressed. The obstacles are as baroque as ever - there are animal-themed doors that require the matching key, statues that require objects to be placed in their hands, and sculptures that must be rotated for their shadows to match pictures on the wall - but they’ve been retrofitted into this grittier aesthetic. The animal doors are such because they have the bodies of their namesake animals nailed to them. Gross, but still an animal door. Classic Resident Evil.

Where Resident Evil VII departs most from the original games, then, is in its story. Not so much in what kind of story it tells as how it tells it. There’s the first-person perspective, which heightens the immediacy, and then this subjectivity is extended through the use of videotapes scattered throughout the game, in a nod to found-footage horror like The Blair Witch Project and V/H/S. You discover these tapes, then find the nearest VCR to play it (even though the game takes place in the current day, the Baker family has multiple VCRs for some reason, but then again, hey, animal doors), and doing so puts you in the shoes of the person holding the camera in the footage you’re watching - you essentially stop playing as Ethan in the present day and start playing as the person on the videotape. Doing so then provides insight into an upcoming encounter or obstacle that you can use in the present day.

For example, the first tape, which you discover while trying to avoid Jack just after escaping the family’s clutches at the beginning, is footage shot by a doomed trio of people there to scout the house for a ghost-hunter show. They all end badly, but in the process of playing through as the cameraman, you discover a lever in the fireplace that leads to a hidden passage. You return to the present day and seek out the lever. Another, shot from the perspective of some poor, nameless sap stuck in a very Saw-esque room-escape puzzle by the sadistic Lucas, gives you an opportunity to work through the puzzles (and figure out from this person’s failures how to make it out alive) before Ethan has to do it in the present day. It reinforces the subjective immediacy of the first-person perspective, nods to modern horror aesthetics like the setting does, and later in the game gives you a glimpse at events before your arrival, telling you the story by letting you walk through it instead of watching it passively. There are still any number of diary entries or notes as in previous games (including a nicely self-aware receipt for the installation of all the puzzle doors), but they do much less of the narrative heavy lifting than they would in previous installments. The Evil Within put a modern aesthetic over an old narrative, but Resident Evil VII modernizes the means by which the narrative is conveyed as well, while preserving specific mechanic elements from the old games. It is more thoroughly a new beast.

Well, for the most part. Resident Evil VII assiduously avoids the high Gothic camp of the earlier games and The Evil Within - it’s not even Southern Gothic, despite taking place in a plantation in a Louisiana swamp, it’s just fucking grimy, gritty, and gross - for the majority of the game. As near as we can tell, this is the story of a guy who went to find his missing wife and got captured by a group of cannibals. Then weird, shambling mold zombies enter the picture. And what is up with the grandmother, who just appears, silent, immobile and watching you, in random locations throughout the house, without warning? (Including one of the safe rooms, which gives kind of a nasty jolt given their function as a place of safety.) Things start off weird, but grounded in sort of a gritty quasi-realism in the style of The Hills Have Eyes. Then comes the monsters. Then the weird science starts creeping in - apparently the Baker family are the way they are because they’ve been infected by the same mold as creates the zombies. This mold makes you homicidal, cannibalistic, and impervious to lasting harm (for the most part -Marguerite appears to go down for the count at the end of some of the most unsettling body horror in the entire series). This means you have to create a mold-killing toxin...from mummified babies...who are apparently early test subjects for the mold? Ooooookay?

So yes, about two-thirds of the way in, the old Resident Evil weirdness starts creeping back in with a vengeance. As it transpires, the mold is the byproduct of an engineered bioweapon. This bioweapon takes the form of a young girl, named Eveline, who was being transported by ship, chaperoned by your wife, Mia. This was her nanny job - to watch over this child, essentially cargo, being transported to a research facility when the ship ran aground on the Louisiana coast during a storm. Eveline can infect people with mind-controlling mold spores. So, no guesses as to what happened to the poor Baker family. Yep, they take Mia and Eveline in, and Eveline does a number on all of them, and the mold starts reproducing on its own, hence the zombies - animate corpses of all the people the Baker family captured in an attempt to...cure themselves? Because Eveline wanted a family of her own? It’s not really clear here.  Also, Lucas isn’t really mind-controlled and he’s spying on Eveline for the nameless company who made her, from a laboratory hidden in a nearby salt mine for reasons. Why this necessitates his Saw-style murder room is never made clear, but Lucas apparently also thought it’d be funny as a child to lock a friend in the attic and let him starve to death, so Lucas was never wrapped too tightly to start. So yes, we go from “crazed cannibal backwoods family” to “mysterious corporation creating bioweapons that turn people into zombies” over the course of the game. We start as far away from old-school Resident Evil only to end up right back there at the end, complete with one last weird reveal - the grandmother was really Eveline the whole time, prematurely aged by the bioweapon in her system, and the climactic boss fight has her exploded into a massive mold-creature, spiraling tentacles with a gigantic face at its center.

(There’s actually a nice bit of foreshadowing of this very early in - when you find Mia at the beginning, you can also find a photograph of the “grandmother” with Eveline’s bioweapon designation written on the back. That early in there’s no way to know what it means, but I like that they gave you that information right up front knowing that you wouldn’t know its relevance.)

So, gigantic traditional Resident Evil boss fight, with a giant monster utterly untethered to human biology, finished only by the timely delivery of a rocket launcher (itself a nod to the first game). What starts small and personal and human-scale ends as big and monstrous and weird as any Resident Evil game, but it really, really buries that lede for most of the game. And then, once the monster is defeated, some spec-ops types fast-rope down from their helicopter to help you. The lead military dude is named “Redfield,” which happens to be the last name of the male hero of Resident Evil, and their helicopter, as you fly into the sunset, bears a logo for...the Umbrella Corporation. Ohhhhhhh shiiiiiiiiiiiit. Everything old is new again, but recombined and recontextualized. It’s still all the pieces of Resident Evil, but arranged into a new shape.

I have to say, I’m a little disappointed that Resident Evil VII goes right back to “mysterious corporation creating bioweapons and some people are not who they seem” right away, because it’s exactly that sort of overheated nonsense that painted the series into a deeply silly corner the first go-round. Why hit the reset button when you’re just going to make all the same mistakes? All the other holdovers - the resource management, the puzzle-based obstacles, the form the resources themselves took - all worked as links to the past in a new context, nods to people familiar with the series. And the little self-aware asides at the ridiculousness of some of the mechanics made me think they knew where they were going. They even figured out new and interesting ways to tell the story. So why fall into that same trap?

Regardless, it’s interesting to see what each camp has done with the source material. The Evil Within feels like an effort to take the original games and just turn up the volume on all of the original elements - gorier, weirder, less sense of safety. It’s just Resident Evil, but more. Resident Evil VII preserves elements of the original, but it feels like it does so selectively, or finds new ways to express them, or contrasts very traditional elements against a more modern context. It doesn’t stick the landing. but I appreciated the balance of new and old it attempted, and felt it more thoughtful that what The Evil Within brought to the table. A sequel for The Evil Within has been announced (Castellanos has to go back into STEM! But it’s into his long-lost daughter’s mind and not Ruvik’s! Why? Who knows?) and I’d be very surprised if we didn’t see Resident Evil VIII in another year or so. At this point, Resident Evil has firmly established itself as a very particular type of horror game, almost a genre unto itself, and it’ll be interesting to see where it goes from here.

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