Sunday, October 17, 2010

Resident Evil's role in Horror

The horror genre has come a long way. Haunted House, Alone in the Dark, and Silent Hill to name a few. But one series in particular has become iconic among gamers. But where exactly does the Resident Evil series fit in today's gaming?

The moan of walking corpses may echo louder today than they did decades ago, but the undead have roamed the gaming landscape since 1972 when Haunted House opened its doors on the Magnavox Odyssey. The Atari 2600 got its own terror fest when players had to guide a pair of eyes through a dark labyrinth in Labyrinth. Following these titles were implementations of popular slasher films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Friday the 13th and even A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Already responsible for arcade hits such as Street Fighter and Megaman, Capcom released a horror game called Sweet Home to promote a film of the same name simultaneously. In 1995, Shinji Mikami was hired by Capcom to work on Disney games, but he set his eyes on more scary games with an emphasis on the dead, puzzles, and a haunted mansion. Capcom launched the horror thriller on March 9th, 1996, and they called it Biohazard. Outside of Japan, the game was known as Resident Evil. It was the first game, classified by many fans to be the first title in the Horror videogame genre due to its clunky controls, eerie music, odd camera angles, puzzles, a haunting story and atmosphere, and limited amount of ammunition and health items to fight off the dead.

The story starts within the fictional city of Raccoon City, where hikers and mountain bikers have been missing for some time in the fictional Arklay Mountains and woods. The RPD, (Raccoon Police Department) sent in two Special Forces Teams, Alpha and Bravo to investigate. Bravo went first but their helicopter crashed, so Alpha went in to rescue, only once on the forest ground, were ambushed by zombie dogs and the police fled in terror to the nearest shelter: a dimly lit mansion with its windows glowing like red eyes in the dead of night. The player could control two characters, either Chris or Jill, both members of the RPD’s STARS team, Special Tactics and Rescue Service. From there on, the police are split up, picked off one by one, and you have your first true Survival Horror videogame. It started a trend that would become very popular, only to sink to a slow and what seems like a dying halt today to the ever more popular Action Horror Genre.

Resident Evil boasted many landmark rules that almost all horror games would follow for quite some time. Such rules are limited inventory, only being able to carry a limited number of items at a time. Most videogames would allow players an endless inventory, stocked full of bullets, guns and other ridiculous objects. Players must conserve ammo, health and weapons while carrying puzzle solving items. Thankfully, a limitless trunk was available in many store rooms to drop off reserves. The game also used 3D controls or “Tank” controls, a cumbersome movement system which inspired fear and anxiety upon being ambushed by a monster or monsters. If the player pressed forward on the movement stick, the character would move forward in the direction they’re facing, same for back and sideways would turn the character. You would always be walking, unless holding a certain button to run; another to stand still and aim a weapon, and a second to fire. It made fights hard and although sometimes frustrating, scary. Somewhat more real as well, considering people stuck in real life suspenseful situations do not have access to shotguns, machine guns and have the bravery to run around monsters while guns blazing. Later monsters in the game, however, made the early zombies look like target practice, sometimes killing the player in one hit, raising the suspense bar even higher. Then the camera angle, added with dark hallways and eerie music that inspired fear, were the series trademark. The angles were fixed, always, and would change constantly as the player moved, forcing you to adjust. Sometimes it would sink low to the ground and into a corner, or from a top down view or even halfway down a hall facing the character, forcing the player to face the creepy noises in front of their character that they couldn’t even see, sometimes leading to blindly firing off ammo until the zombie moans stopped.

Now, Resident Evil wasn’t the very start of survival horror, but it certainly gave it the kick-start it needed. Other survival horror titles from back in the day would be the original Alone in the Dark, which also featured a haunted mansion, (It spawned a number of sequels as well) and Clock Tower on the SNES, which then moved to the PS1 and PS2 with its sequels.

Almost every single Survival Horror game followed these “Golden Rules”, even today, a few do, but more should. Resident Evil spawned countless sequels, Resident Evil 2 in 1998, Resident Evil 3 and Resident Evil: Code Veronica in 2000, a remake of the original in 2001, a prequel titled Resident Evil Zero in 2003, Resident Evil 4 in 2005 and Resident Evil 5 in 2009. Resident Evil 4, however, sparked the start of Action Horror games. At this time period in gaming, they were on the news, on the web and on people’s minds, so almost every game took inspiration from them. This is noticeable in most games that use an over the shoulder camera system where the character is towards the left side of the screen, like Gears of War, Dead Space, and Alan Wake. However, and unfortunately, these “shooters” were only good for that, shooting. Their storylines were generic, unoriginal and somehow this rubbed off on most of the videogame genre. (This comment is obviously towards action horror games. I am not saying Alan Wake is a shooter, or that Gears of War is horror and that Dead Space is a poor game; they were just examples of the camera usage.)

Resident Evil 4 was a third person shooter, but it retained its horror roots, no matter how scarce they may seem, or so the developers claimed. It ditched the fixed cameras and static gun combat. Instead, the Tank controls remained intact, but the camera was constantly behind the right shoulder of the player, so the game was much less cumbersome. And when the player held the aim button, the character would stand their ground and aim their gun, and the player, using the movement stick, would guide the laser pointer on the end of the gun around and tap the fire button to attack. This allowed for dynamic combat, slowing enemies down by hitting them in the legs, the head or disarming them of their weapons. And the enemies were different as well. Instead of a zombie and monster inducing virus, the game boasted a mad and crazy ever changing parasite that would hide within creatures. This meant mad villagers running towards you with axes and other sharp farming tools, forcing the players to become accustomed to this new style of aiming. The story however, suffered quite a bit. It was simple and very bland. You play government agent Leon S. Kennedy, previous hero from Resident Evil 2, six years later, investigating the kidnapping of the President’s daughter in Spain. Only when Leon gets there, he is swarmed by the mad villagers in this seemingly unknown and rural village. Of course, the game sported many hideous monsters and boss fights the Horror genre would never forget, such as a giant lake monster and troll like giant named “El Gigante.” The game is considered the best GameCube game of all time for its “tense yet extremely action oriented combat”, thus spawning the Action Horror Genre.

Since Resident Evil 4’s release in early 2005, there’s been the great debate of what’s better, old school and scary Survival Horror games or fast paced, action oriented Action Horror games? That debate would become more than just that, but crucial information for game developers today. After Resident Evil 4, an action horror game titled Dead Space used almost the exact same control scheme, even furthering the action horror genre. Dead Space though, did many more things right than Resident Evil 4 did. Dead Space allowed you to move while aiming, able to run from monsters even while combatting them. The tense atmosphere was retained throughout the entire game: blood smeared walls everywhere, flickering lights constantly going out, people screaming and doors banging, pipes clanking and glass breaking. Resident Evil 4 hardly had an atmosphere; the game felt like a dry steak, it was only largely successful due to its, at the time, unique action.

Silent Hill, another Horror videogame series, was like the psychotic clone baby of Resident Evil. It copied its controls and used the “Golden Rules” down to the bone. But the story and atmosphere were splattered in blood, supernatural monsters, deranged protagonists and unlikely heroes. One game in the series had been pushed by its producers to be “more like Resident Evil” in an attempt to garner more fans. Silent Hill has a cult following, and isn’t the most popular game series around. But it makes money and has an army of loyal fans willing to keep it alive. That “more like Resident Evil” Silent Hill game, just so happens to be, possibly, the worst Silent Hill game to date. I’m talking about Silent Hill Homecoming. See, by the time the producers asked it to be more like Resident Evil, (This was in 2007/2008) Resident Evil had already gone down that Action Horror route and failed to return. Of course, it gained many, many more players that hated the older games for being “too hard”. That Silent Hill game certainly has the classical Silent Hill feeling at parts, but at other times the complete opposite. The developers tried to give the players more action in dealing with the creatures, but it really did nothing for the game, as it still felt cumbersome, and somewhat flopped.

You can imagine Survival Horror games were slow, creepy, haunting, nightmare inducing and original. One way to put it better, “Survival Horror games most often leave players out of ammo, dying, trapped and hopeless. But that’s the kind of horror that nightmares are built on.” Action Horror games tend to be fast paced shooters with explosions, big monsters and guns, and tense chase scenes. I myself love both Survival and Action games, but when the lines blur and great games suffer or disappear entirely, I begin to hate Action games, for they’ve done all the inspiration, sometimes like an infection. I hope that someday, all future game developers will look to their past, and not be afraid to copy gameplay mechanics and cliché’s if it means making both lots of money and fans happy. What’s wrong with a few nice carbon copies? Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Fatal Frame, Siren and many others led the Survival Horror genre by doing just that back in the day. I can tell you that the last true Survival Horror game I played was Amnesia: The Dark Descent. To spare this from being far too long, download steam and download the demo, then read up about it on google and youtube. It's a first person horror game that's all about puzzle solving, exploration, and hiding from monsters. I had to stop playing at least five times in the span of a week getting through this game, as your heart rates shoots far up despite a lack of guns, explosions, and giant monsters, which is a good thing in the right quantity. Other than that, I can't tell you the last good survival horror game I played since the first half of this decade. I can tell you just about the last five Action Horror games I played, though.


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