Opinion article. Thanks to Soma and A10theHero for edits.
So this has next to nothing to do with Nintendo, but it’s Halloween, and I’m in a festive mood. I’d like to look at a spooky game that, while not made by Nintendo, still carries both bona fides with the company and a design philosophy that’s worth discussing. Besides, we’ve talked about this game before.
Starting with its 2005 release – on the GameCube, then the PlayStation 2 and Wii, and later an HD re-release – Resident Evil 4 has been a landmark title for the entire medium. Its influence can be seen in Gears of War to The Last of Us to the entire horror and action genres. It codified how third person shooters would play and pace themselves, though its refusal to let you move while shooting wouldn’t last. While opinions on its quality and historical value vary, I think people responded less to a single element than how all of them worked in conjunction. This is a masterpiece whose parts – many at odds with survival horror and action – led to something that stays with you. It’s not that the shooting is fun and the enemies scary and the bosses appropriately nuts; each element gels. And all these things were organically added due to a very specific creative context: redefining Resident Evil.
The original Resident Evil essentially codified how video games approached horror from an interactive level as opposed to a graphical or stylistic one, as in the awesome Gothic tastes of Castlevania or the blood-drenched Splatterhouse. Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield struggled with fixed aiming, “tank controls” that made precise movement impossible, and a fixed camera more reminiscent of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead movies than any traditional game camera. Over five installments and an exquisite remake of the first, it explored, perfected, and burnt out its ideas while telling the confusing saga of the Umbrella Corporation, an evil pharmaceutical company whose experiments to create super-soldiers (or an equivalent thereof) caused a zombie outbreak. It became a cultural benchmark for the games, inspiring an entire genre and leading to a surprisingly lucrative film series.
Those original Resident Evil games left a massive footprint on how horror and conspiracy stories were done in games, but their frequency eventually hurt them. Tank controls became seen as a crutch for making games scarier, while the story was an incomprehensible mess about secret labs underneath seemingly every building in Middle America, the internal politics of a comically evil fictional company, and a 20-year-old police captain/sunglasses enthusiast who was also a mad scientist. And as the GameCube remake of the first game failed to meet sales expectations (likely due to the console’s low sales and an install base less receptive to horror games), there was a growing discontentment with survival horror tropes. Series creator Shinji Mikami was under orders from Capcom to retool an in-development sequel set in a Gothic castle, but the result suggests a desire on his own to reimagine what the series could be.
It’s 2005. The Umbrella Corporation is finished, the zombie plagues that defined the series finally killed. Resident Evil 2’s Leon Kennedy has gone from rookie police officer to badass secret agent in charge of protecting the president’s family. After the president’s daughter gets abducted by a mysterious cult (no, seriously), Leon jets off to a rural Spanish village, whose denizens are off-putting even before they immediately try to murder him. Los Ganados aren’t zombies – they carry weapons and use rudimentary mob tactics – but their sluggish movement speed and resistance to handgun ammo suggest something not quite human. And as Leon and his charge, Ashley, fight their way from village to castle to beyond, they learn the horrifying truth involving a monstrous parasite, las Plagas.
Before we discuss anything else, I think I need to address the story, because its overbearing campiness is far more a strength than people might realize. Yes, the plot and the writing are ludicrous action movie pablum, complete with zany death traps and glib one-liners. And its characters never rise past stereotypes (well, as much as “child Spanish Napoleon” is a stereotype). But the silliness of the plot works with the brutal violence and high tension, giving it a theatricality and unreality. Gritty seriousness would have only highlighted the lunacy of the plot, and instead of devaluing the horror, the silly sections only make it more striking. The game’s a parade of tonal shifts, keeping players from feeling comfortable. Plus, by ignoring most of the series’ continuity it worked wonderfully as a reboot, surprising new and old players alike.
Most people would likely point to the village fight ten minutes in as the most iconic moment of the game, and it almost plays like evidence of the new direction’s legitimacy. After fighting some surprisingly bullet-resistant villagers, Leon sneaks into their town, and is beset upon by more. You’re quickly overwhelmed and retreat to a house. Then, you hear the revving of a chainsaw. Pushing furniture to keep them from breaking through the window, you find the lone kindness: a shotgun. Before long you’re running over roofs and hiding inside buildings and pushing down ladders, desperate to control a mob that just will not stop and one fellow who kills you in one hit. This sequence is brutal and exciting, and despite likely killing first-time players a few times, the emotional high keeps their interest. When you hit the invisible tripwire that causes the mob to finally leave – you’re so outmatched you don’t even “win,” merely survive – you feel an incredible sense of relief. Of course, you’ve really done far more than survive, as the only way to do so is to learn the mechanics, to understand the basics of shooting, resource management, enemy interaction, and context-sensitive actions.
If the first Resident Evil shattered how developers and players viewed the idea of horror, then Resident Evil 4 shattered how people understood horror and action, and the idea that the two are mutually exclusive. There’s an odd quality to the combat; even when you’re armed to the teeth with a shotgun, rifle, and incendiary grenades, you never feel like you have control over the situation. Part of this is mechanical; you have tank controls but manual aiming, and a limited over the shoulder camera that makes you always feel as though there are threats just out of range. But it’s also due to the enemies, whose recognizable attack patterns hit hard. Even though you use guns and they don’t, level design makes it inevitable that the Ganados will close in on you. One salvation is that a well-placed gunshot to the head or leg can put an enemy in a stun animation that lets you use a context-sensitive attack, which doesn’t eat into your precious ammo supply and may hurt nearby enemies. Oh, and enemies have a chance of triggering a more dangerous, monstrous phase. Combat sequences feel like a series of gambles; staying far back isn’t plausible with enemies’ health being high and environments that discourage it, but getting closer puts you in range of pitchforks and axes. These are compelling and demanding decisions, especially while you’re in immediate danger.
And “danger” is the operative word. Over the course of roughly fifteen hours, enemies change up from bewitched farmers to spooky monks to a disturbing homage to the dog from the Thing, with all sorts of wild bosses in tow. You get trapped in a cage with a blind tough with Wolverine claws, chased by a nigh-unkillable specter in a barely lit sewer, and confronted with one of the most complicated and terrifying enemies I’ve seen in any game. By the time it’s introduced, the enemy and level design is a little less exciting, but that actually works in its favor; it jolts you back into attention. That lack of safety never subsides, which works wonders for it as both a horror and action game. It helps that it’s intensely creepy, with top-notch audio that puts some enemies’ noises at an unrelated distance and makes it sound as though they’re coming from everywhere. Similarly, its visual design is impeccable with its use of grime and elaborate architecture, and some of the best facial animation done at the time.
The solidity of the combat mechanics – a system so good that an optional bonus mode based around it, “Mercenaries,” became a staple of the franchise with its own 3DS spinoff – is only enhanced by excellent pacing and level design. You really have no idea what’s going to come next, with one demented sequence after another. The village fight leads to a battle against a lake monster, a tense standoff in a rickety cabin, sniping villagers on a cable car, elaborate death traps out of an Indiana Jones film, a hedge maze, and a run through a terrifying cave of shipping containers. The imagination on display means that playing is its own reward beyond the combat because you’re itching to see what else the game can throw at you. It’s only exacerbated by that silly writing, which is always good fun and gives the affair a campy carnival sheen. One escapade in a hilariously over the top mine cart ride only furthers the feeling of going to a haunted amusement park.
One thing that’s interesting about the level progression is how it uses a form of environmental storytelling. You start in a remote village with bewitched villagers and mobs, and soon after find giants straight out of folk tales. Soon you move to this ancient castle, with creepy cultists and haunted suits of armor. And you end on an island populated by some of the most bizarre grotesqueries in the series’ history, fighting soldiers with tasers and miniguns. You go on an adventure through history, seeing the danger of las Plagas evolve with the cynical eye of a science fiction parable. It’s why I can’t really describe the whole narrative as silly, because there is something genuinely powerful behind the cackling villains and the hero crying over the death of a man he knew for less than five minutes. It’s just integrated with the world instead of told through dialogue.
As an American critic, one of the weirder things about Resident Evil 4 is that for its origins by a Japanese company and its taking place in a universe removed from our own, it might be the best example of a post-9/11 game I’ve ever played. It presents a United States shaken by a horrific mass murder, whose GI Joe cartoon of an action hero has to fight a seemingly unknown organization targeting people for being American. The point is underlined when one villain, after Leon calls him a terrorist, notes it’s “a popular word these days.” It’s under no circumstances a strict or even historically apt analogy (even if it were, the goofiness of the plot hews far closer to 24 or Hostel than anything resembling real world politics), but it’s surprising that it resonates in such a way, to a degree few games at the time attempted. I’d say Mikami and Capcom had their collective finger on a cultural pulse about 21st century anxieties, but it’d almost be redundant. They clearly did in every other regard, looking at how utterly influential it became.
It’s incredible how well every element of the game works, to the point where it excels in a number of kinds of design you might not expect. The clear enemy types are wildly distinct and learnable, the possibility of that roundhouse kick QTE makes the gunplay’s “language” more elaborate, and it secretly adjusts its difficulty dynamically to account for how well you play. The combat alone would not have been as exciting without the evolving set pieces, and those would have been adrift without solid gameplay powering it. Even the parts where you escort Ashley are good because even though she’s a burden, she’s not an overbearing one. You have options for making sure she stays safe, managing a second health bar adds another wrinkle to the gameplay, she helps out in certain sections, and the times where she’s with you are spaced nicely. Every part is used to exploit your emotions and push you further, like how it spaces the appearances of its loopy merchant character to provide much-needed relief.
Far away from that terrifying village showdown, the game concludes with Leon fighting a giant tentacle man on a construction site, rescuing his sexy spy rival from being tied to a crane, and escaping an exploding island fortress on a jetski. How could it not? That categorically absurd, Hollywood action movie cliché of an ending – something the game itself describes as such – is earned, the culmination of fifteen hours of learning the central mechanics and empowering yourself through trial and error.
This stood out even in a banner year for games, standing alongside works as unique as Psychonauts, Metal Gear Solid 3, Animal Crossing: Wild World, WarioWare: Twisted, Shadow of the Colossus, Guitar Hero, and God of War. Its tight, over the shoulder camera quickly became the default position for third person shooters, as would its fixed widescreen ratio in general. It popularized horror elements, scripted quicktime events, and elaborate set pieces. Twilight Princess, which came out only a year later, bears its inspiration: action sequences like the bridge duel feel more like RE 4 than any Zelda game, and the Wii and HD versions are the only installments to use third person shoulder aiming. Uncharted also drew from its adventure movie influence, Gears of War its insectoid horrors, and Arkham Asylum its camera.
If Resident Evil 4 has a fundamental flaw, it’s in how far that influence went. Alongside how it inspired an entire generation of third-person shooters, the roller coaster design of it and games like Half-Life 2 inadvertently led to a design philosophy that drags down modern action games. From Assassin’s Creed to Uncharted, too many “AAA” works take a kitchen sink approach, stuffed with pointless sections or unrelated mechanics or sequences there for their own sake. Even worse, it kickstarted a trend in which most survival horror games for the next five years replaced their horror with an action focus. The genre’s other staple, Silent Hill, became more about combat before Konami axed a well publicized return to form by Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro. The classic Alone in the Dark got a swiftly forgotten, action-oriented reboot, and the next major horror game to come out after 4, Dead Space, had an even greater action focus. Its trilogy can be seen as an almost perfect encapsulation of the shift, with its third installment removing the horror entirely in favor of co-operative play and microtransactions for souped-up weapons.
Those trends moved in conjunction with how the very mechanics the game popularized were slowly diminished in their complexity. I’ll use games based around escorting a character as an example. Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite and Ellie in The Last of Us are sidekicks like Ashley – albeit far more resourceful and interesting – and like her, they’re central to the story and fulfill major gameplay functions. But they’re immune to danger, which makes their presence less stressful but removes gameplay, like using them to exploit enemy AI, and devalues the threat. This system, not one originating in but popularized by 4, has been dramatically watered down in games based around its very application. I suspect this was done partially to keep players from frustration (and avoid criticism towards an unpopular mechanic), but doing so excises ways to interact with the world. Many of 4’s most memorable traits have been made shallower in this vein; quicktime events just used for scripted sequences, shallower shooting mechanics, and a lack of satisfying tonal control are all unfortunately prominent.
That group of developers disappointingly includes Capcom itself. After Shinji Mikami left the company, Resident Evil 5 and 6 took the action and bevy of set pieces from this game while ignoring its wealth of tension and horror. 5 is the better of the two by far, but it’s just a cut down version of 4 that oscillates between extreme camp and a po-faced, confused political allegory. That wasn’t a high bar, but 6 still fails to clear it with an approach that threw as much at the wall as possible in the hope for something to stick. It’s confused and self-serious and not really innovative at all; a sink of bad ideas and oppressive action coalesce around a mess of a plot. However, the trailer for Resident Evil 7 suggests that we might finally be getting a shift from the banality of the last two games.
Whatever the case, if Resident Evil 4 killed survival horror, the genre inevitably reanimated. While the traditional avenues for the genre, like Silent Hill and Fatal Frame, became scarce as major publishers moved away from it, we’ve seen a resurgence of slower, less action-oriented horror games. This is an environment in which Amnesia, Darkest Dungeon, Five Nights at Freddy’s, Alien Isolation, Until Dawn, and a Steam re-release of the GameCube Resident Evil remake – all vastly different in almost every regard, including how they use horror – can be incredibly lucrative. And we’ve also seen a variety of alternative action games, from Dark Souls to Bayonetta, ones that defy the RE 4-meets-Splinter Cell mashups with stealth, sandbox, and crafting mechanics that define the “default” genre for a mainstream action game.
And Resident Evil 4 will always be at the pinnacle of both genres. It’s a brilliant masterpiece of impeccable game design mixed with every single formal element it needed. Its story and tone are like the movies of Walter Hill, George Miller, and John Carpenter that mix the serious, scary, and proudly camp with wild abandon, toying with players’ emotions in a demented fervor. If you have not yet played this game I cannot recommend it highly enough; it is an almost perfect example of how far one can take game design, and how each part of that design can work together.