Culture Bytes: Resident Evil - Where Did It All Go Wrong?

Resident Evil was once a titan of survival-horror in video games, but in recent years, to put it mildly, it's had a bit of a slump. But how did this once-amazing series jump the shark? Is Resident Evil simply old hat? Or was the change in the series just too drastic?

The reason the first Resident Evil game was such a success can be boiled down to something very simple. Upon it's release, it offered something entirely unique. In 1996 (the year it first came out) Resident Evil's main competitors were shooters like Duke Nukem and Metal Slug or platform games such as Crash Bandicoot and Super Mario 64. While these games are now also considered classics, Resident Evil offered something that nothing else of its period could. It was darker than any platform puzzler and more cerebral than any shooter. Its story could have been lifted from a George A. Romero film and its atmosphere was genuinely chilling. In short, Resident Evil offered a completely unique experience for the player. If you wanted to know terror, there was no other game to play. 

In my opinion, Resident Evil 2 is one of the classics of the medium. Yes, it has a terrible script and the voice acting is more wooden than a brain-spattered baseball bat, but, in all of its B-movie glory, this had all the markings of an amazing game. Tim Bisley, Simon Pegg's character in the Sit-Com Spaced, described Resident Evil 2 as 'a subtle blend of lateral thinking and extreme violence' and this is about as good an explanation as you could hope for. The situation is genuinely eerie with a soundtrack to match. The emphasis is on survival; the player is encouraged to avoid confrontation and conserve ammunition as you can never be sure when you're really going to need it. The puzzle solving element was also very original; okay, some parts were a little far-fetched, but some of the puzzles were genuinely difficult, forcing you to think back to the very beginning of the game or even use your own knowledge. Of course, the internet is now so ubiquitous that puzzles in video games can be solved with a quick Google search, but on the game's original release it was much harder. The series continued its winning ways with Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, the eponymous villain adding yet another fear factor. Nemesis was a creature created by the Umbrella Corporation to kill S.T.A.R.S members such as the character you play as, Jill Valentine. This added feature made ammo conservation even more imperative as you would definitely need it to deal with Nemesis, whereas the average zombie you could simply run away from. You never knew when Nemesis would appear. Add to this the puzzle solving elements of Resident Evil 2 and we have a game every bit as refined as its predecessor.

Resident Evil 4 was a departure for the series in a lot of ways. This was the first of the main arc on the PlayStation 2 for starters, but there was also a marked change in the zombies. Gone were the tradition slow-zombies inspired by the films of George A. Romero and we were introduced to the inhabitants of a small rural town in Spain, inflicted with a violent mind-controlling parasite. These were harder enemies to face; faster stronger and more intelligent. This new enemy meant something new in gameplay too; more action. While puzzle solving was still important to progressing in the game, it wasn't as paramount as in previous installments. That said, there was a greater level of ingenuity needed in the action of the game; different situations calling for different tactics. Despite its change,s this is still a very popular game, with scores of internet lists ranking it as one of the best games to ever grace the PlayStation 2. While I do believe this was an overall good game, to my mind there was always something missing from Resident Evil 4. I felt a distinct lack of atmosphere. Yes, there are eerie moments, however a fast-zombie lacks the omens of a slow-zombie. Unfortunately, this marks a change in the video game industry as a whole, in which video games became less-diverse in experience and most situation boiled-down to who had the most bullets. Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil 3 were survival horror in an almost Hitchcockian style; Resident Evil 4 was a slasher.

Whereas the changes in Resident Evil 4 were welcomed by many, the new direction in Resident Evil 5 felt like something of a betrayal. The puzzle-solving had almost completely disappeared and the gameplay consisted of shooting hordes of zombies. The survival-horror classic had become a shooter. However far worse than this were the game's social implications. The game being set in Africa was problematic in many ways, invoking the dangerous 'dark continent' narratives our society should have left behind long ago. The idea of having a white protagonist pitted-against countless black antagonists is insensitive and, frankly, racist. The idea that the game's developers thought this was a good idea on any level is astonishing. This controversy made the game unplayable for many and was a far larger obstacle than the uninspired gameplay. The fact that Resident Evil 5 received so many positive reviews is disconcerting, both from a gaming perspective and a social perspective. It's a worrying thought that this lack of diversity seems so ingrained into the medium. For a better perspective on this we only need to hear N.K Jemisin's statement "I refuse to play Resident Evil 5... because video games are supposed to be fun, and racism and sexism aren't." (Full interview here.) Or this article in livescience.

Though lacking the controversy of Resident Evil 5, subsequent releases have continued to move away from the series' survival-horror roots and more towards action shooters. There are numerous reasons this could be the case. The film series based on the games has taken far more inspiration from the action elements than horror and has proven constantly fiscally successful. Shooting games such as Call of Duty head the best-seller charts; Perhaps Capcom wanted to match these sales? Not to mention that Resident Evil 4 was so lauded; the change of direction was probably urged on by this.

The fact of the matter is there is likely no singular reason for the demise of Resident Evil's quality. there are a host of factors; the main one being that in becoming more of a shooter, the series lost its originality. This series once offered something that nothing else could; the atmosphere and psychology of classic horror movies. But this loss of originality seems to be inherent in the medium of late; we are losing games with a diverse experience, instead opting for a typically male and violent one (further explored in this article). Change can be good. Change breathe new life into a franchise. Unfortunately, in the case of Resident Evil, that change sucked the life from it and left the series a shambling, mindless corpse.

Sam Leeves is the author of the novels 'Endless Tides' and 'In the Footsteps of the Behemoth', he is also a member of The Fawcett Society. Find him on twitter, @CptSkyheart.

Alt:Mag © Kaizo Minds Collective 2023 | Layout designed by Rumah Dijual and Lewis Cox.