Game Changers: Resident Evil

Opinion by Jack Watling,
March 22nd, 1996 marked the launch of a new title on the PlayStation. It was an experimental title, borrowing from predecessors while daring to try new things at the same time. It also went by two very different titles depending on where you lived in the world, and was only expected to appeal to a niche audience in a then fledgling genre. January 24th, 2017 is the launch day for the latest installment in the same series, a series whose copies sold figures number in the multimillions. The launch comes just a couple months short of its 21st anniversary. In that time we have seen 28 titles across 22 platforms. Most importantly, not only did it go on to validate a genre that was struggling to find its way in a new medium, it christened its own subgenre and defined a template that many titles would later follow. 1996's Resident Evil was a game changer in every conceivable way.

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Back in those early days of home computing and home consoles, games were meant to be fun, a means of escapism. Restricted by the hardware of the time, gameplay, although it could be challenging and induce an occasional sense of panic, was still fairly simple and not really sufficient to convey a real sense of fear or horror. Text adventures could put players in scary scenarios but the fear was left to the players' imagination. Adventure games, such as the Wizardry franchise, would also send players off on dangerous quests facing foes like vampires, ogres, and skeleton warriors but with static text and images, it was hardly enough to raise a single goosebump or keep anyone awake at night.

Strangely, even very early on, a number of individual titles started experimenting with different ideas in the gameplay to invoke a sense of fear and dread. In 1981, a little-known title appeared based on the original Alien movie, named Nostromo, after the spaceship in the first film. A key part of the title was inventory management as resources were extremely limited forcing the player to think about what was essential to survival introducing a level of uncertainty and apprehension.

Game Changers: Resident Evil

The following year, in 1982, another classic appeared introducing another key concept. 3D Monster Maze placed the player in a 3D maze being chased by a tyrannosaurus rex. With no weapons, the player was left defenseless with no option other than to flee. With the game focused on the ever closing distance, the chase induced a sense of fear, panic and desperation with fleeing generally only postponing the inevitable. However, it was clear that being left defenseless and vulnerable shifted the player out of their comfort zone.

Sadly, these key elements were missed by the mass market and the aforementioned period of uninspired titles based on movies and literature. It was not uncommon to find gamers facing off against Frankenstein's monster, Dracula, ghosts, or even Jack the Ripper. There were games based on the movies licenses such as The Evil Dead, Halloween, and Friday The 13th but any fears that they invoked were based mainly on the players' memory of the movie persona than the sprite based 8-bit representation on the console.

For players seeking those real elements of fear and horror, something would have to change and amongst the excess of generally banal titles something new was stirring, something that would make gamers start to feel those first prickles of fear.

Game Changers: Resident Evil

In 1989, developer Dynamix created a game for the Commodore 64 entitled Project Firestart, a science fiction title based on a research ship where the player arrives to find all of the crew massacred by strange alien-like creatures. The title reintroduced the idea of leaving the player vulnerable, this time using weak weaponry and limited resources. However, the title introduced some new concepts which help build the tension and atmosphere. The story was revealed gradually and told through journals scattered throughout the ship and occasional cut-scenes. The player was encouraged to explore openly on their own, never being entirely sure what they would discover, increasing the feeling of isolation.

The end of 1989 also saw an important title appear in Japan — one that was sadly never released in the west — called Sweet Home, a Capcom title for the Famicom console that gave director Tokuro Fujiwara his first taste of horror games and would provide inspiration for what was to come. It was released simultaneously with the film of the same name and in an unusual move, the movie contained a trailer for the game and the game came with a movie poster - the two were inextricably linked. Whilst the film was entertaining enough, and is available on YouTube in its entirety for those interested, it was the game that was the most significant.

Game Changers: Resident Evil

Sweet Home was based on a single location, a large mansion. The player attempts to unravel the mystery of the haunted mansion by sending a team of five characters to explore inside. The party could be split into groups and the player could switch between them. However, each character had a specific skill and unique item — lockpick, lighter, first aid — which would be needed to solve the many varied puzzles required to progress and unlock areas, so the player was forced to continually juggle which characters belonged to which party.

Whilst that might be a little taxing, it became all the more terrifying through the brutality of the mansion itself. Whilst exploring, the player could fall prey to one of the many death traps usually requiring the correct response to an early form of quick-time events, or be attacked in one of the entirely random encounters. The catch was that the game featured permadeath for the characters. Lose a character and they were gone for good, leaving the team in an increasingly weakened state. Whilst the dead characters would drop their special items that could then be retrieved, the already restricted inventory space would become tighter. One character fewer meant proportionally less inventory space. As more of the team fell victim to the horrors of the mansion, the more difficult the game became, and losing the wrong character at the wrong moment could mean that the game could no longer be completed. This was also linked to multiple endings depending on which characters survived and encouraged multiple playthroughs.

Game Changers: Resident Evil

The title featured a number of puzzles that could not always be solved immediately and required the player to fully explore and backtrack through previously explored locations. The story was told through notes, secret messages and cutscenes. With the threat of random encounters and death traps and the consequences of permadeath for the team, exploration became a risky venture and the whole game became an incredibly tense affair. This was reinforced by what was considered at the time as horribly gruesome images for the family friendly console. The tension was also increased during transitions from room to room, with the screen showing the door opening slowly.

The last piece of the puzzle fell into place in 1992 when Infogrames released the classic title, Alone In The Dark. Whilst it might have fallen back on the literature for H.P. Lovecraft for inspiration, it was the presentation that distinguished if from its peers.

The game was set in 3D with the player’s character being a polygonal model. The rooms and locations inside the mansion, and in the caves and tunnels below, were all shown from fixed camera points which would automatically switch as the player moved around the rooms. This allowed the developers to create pre-rendered backgrounds which in turn allowed them to add much more detail than any other games. It was a clever trick and it didn’t go unnoticed. The graphical presentation was critically praised. The game, for its time, was far superior to others in the genre. The gameplay began to take on some of the elements from other titles. Resource management of restricted inventory, limited weapons, occasional death traps and battles with the supernatural inhabitants of the mansion kept up the level of suspense for the players.

Only a year later in 1993, Fujiwara started work on a new horror title for Capcom. He enlisted the help of Shinji Mikami, a strange choice given that Mikami’s CV consisted mostly of work on Disney licensed games such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Aladdin and Goof Troop. Mikami, a self-confessed fan of movies such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Evil Dead later admitted that he always pondered what he would have done as the protagonist in those horrific situations, and he wanted to give those choices to the players in his games. He wanted to scare people and give them different ways of escaping those scenarios.

Meanwhile, Fujiwara was hoping to remake his game Sweet Home but as a first-person shooter, and quickly settled on revisiting the concept of an old mansion run amok with zombies. Mikami was tasked with fleshing out the concept. After about a year they abandoned the FPS idea and Fujiwara turned his attention to following the example set by Alone in the Dark and opted for fixed cameras and pre-rendered backgrounds. This proved to be a masterstroke, the pre-rendering brought the backgrounds vividly to life on the new PlayStation hardware whilst allowing Mikami to put more detail into the zombies and characters in the game. Strange as it seems now, but having abandoned their FPS concept, the engine they chose to build one of the scariest games of all time was a modified version of the Goof Troop engine with which Mikami was already familiar.

Like Sweet Home before it, the fixed cameras increased the level of suspense in the game. With the players not having control over the viewing angle, it meant that you could never see around the next corner or peek at what might be waiting for you. However the fixed cameras did cause an additional problem with the control system, something the team was still struggling with right up until the last minute, but even here, the control system was deliberately chosen to be a little different so that in moments of panic, players might get confused. It was cruel but it did indeed work. It reflected the attention to detail and the effort to ensure nothing was overlooked in attempting to bring the best horror experience they could to the console.

When Fujiwara was developing the game Sweet Home he was also given access to the movie set whilst the horror film was being made and he and Mikami put the experience to good use. They also weren't afraid to adopt ideas from earlier games in the genre and they blended them into their project. It might have the more western appearance but they also drew on the influences of Japanese psychological horror.

Right from the start, they toyed with the players. The FMV clip at the start of the game set the scene - originally shot in colour it was considered too scary for the Japanese market and was changed to black and white footage. The clip left the players in no doubt what lay ahead of them before they even picked up the controller. The first forays into the mansion have the player unarmed and feeling vulnerable, something that was highlighted further by the memorable encounter with the first zombie. It was a defining moment in a gaming that all who have played surely won't ever forget.

There were subtle psychological games being played too. When the player arrives back in the foyer for the first time to find his companions gone, there is a sense of abandonment, isolation and confusion. It was a plot point but it also played on gamers' fears. Contrasting that, the first encounter with the zombie dogs in the tightly constrained corridor was anything but subtle. This was the brilliance of the title. The pacing was balanced, leaving the player with a constant feeling of uncertainty at every step. The limited inventory and resources, the limited saves, restricted save points, even the opening door animation, done to hide the loading of new locations, were all included. Anything that could increase the tension was carefully added to the title including the puzzle elements that forced the player to continue searching and exploring the locations putting themselves in unrelenting perilous situations.

Before it was finally released however there was one slight problem — they just needed a name. In Japan, it was christened Biohazard after the subject matter, the T-virus, in the game. However in the US that was a problem. There was already a game with the subtitle Biohazard and there was a rock band with the same name. Allegedly, in the end, the marketing department settled on the name Resident Evil after a competition, and yet in the Sweet Home movie, one of the characters refers to the mansion as a "house of residing evil”.

When it was released, Fujiwara thought he was selling to a niche market and only expected to sell 200,000 copies. Mikami was slightly more optimistic aiming at 700,000. They needn’t have worried, the title went on to sell around 2.75 million copies.

The rapid fire releases of 'The Director’s Cut', the 'Dualshock Edition', and the sequel, Resident Evil 2 proved that this was no longer for a niche audience. With each new entry, millions of copies were sold, far exceeding anyone’s hopes. Resident Evil had not only created a new sub-genre, it had also given the horror genre the voice and foundation that it had been struggling to find. It validated the genre as a whole and led to a golden age of new titles that followed the template defined by REand also dared to try something new. Developers and publishers were keen to satisfy the demands of the newly created fanbase and titles such as Clock Tower, Parasite Eve, Fatal Frame, Dino Crisis and of course, the horror masterpiece Silent Hill. Most importantly, the horror genre could break free of movie tie-ins and staple mythology and monsters and begin to experiment not only with new techniques and new ideas but also with darker themes and more memorable storylines.

It is possible that the horror genre would have developed eventually, but it seemed to be floundering and a little staid, starved of original ideas. Resident Evil gave it a shot in the arm and provided the evolutionary jump that defined and introduced a whole new genre to a global audience of fans.

Game Changers: Resident EvilSomething wicked this way comes

The release of marks a turning point for the franchise with a number of firsts. It’s the first time that both names have been included in the title. It’s the first time that it has been written by an author outside of Japan. From a technical perspective, it's also built on a brand new engine. For the first time, a canonical title is in played in first-person view and of course, it will be the first time that any Resident Evil title can be played with a VR headset. This all represents a lot of change and even though the story and gameplay have gone back to its roots, some fans are already wondering if this will really a be a Resident Evil title worthy of the name. The playable demo has already proved a success with over three million downloads on the PS4 alone, making Capcom’s initial target of four million retail copies seeming more and more realistic.

Only time will tell if Resident Evil 7 continues, and in many important ways, redefines the series' legacy. Fans have been clamoring for many of the debut's elements to return as they finally are in RE7, and yet, so much else packaged with it feels foreign and unsure. Since that seminal debut shocked the world and ignited a genre over two decades ago, the series has been re-released, remastered, and most importantly reinvented more times than one can easily count. Is this the vision that returns horror's biggest name to levels of prestige it arguably hasn't seen in over a decade? Soon, very soon in fact, we'll all know what's behind that door.
Jack Watling
Written by Jack Watling
Hey, I'm Jack. I'm a long time member of the site and joined the development team back in 2015. When I'm not designing, adding, or leading the development of new site features you can find me running or gaming.
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