Jun 9, 2012

Resident Evil 5: Chris Redfield in the Linear Labyrinth

Featured on Critical Distance and Gamasutra.
[all images courtesy of residentevil.wikia.com]

Many words exist about the racism/colonialism of Resident Evil 5, but few about the spaces these ideas inhabit. Those are equally problematic. 
Manor hall.
Past Resident Evil games gave the player networks of claustrophobic spaces to explore, with optional rooms to check and the ability to tackle select areas in no specific order. The iconic Spencer Mansion of the original Resident Evil is a maze of rooms that increases the unease in the player by being tightly compact, in that you can travel across it rather quickly, but laid out with a plethora of Wind Crests, Helm Keys, and rooms full of traps to keep your mind thinking.

That distracts you, keeps you on edge.                

Genius use of space: Spencer Mansion from the 2002 Resident Evil remake. Note the close, yet jam-packed, layout.
Resident Evil 4’s village and castle areas are tackled in a slightly more linear manner, but feature opportunities for the player to skip over the intro village siege situation, logical but hidden scenes like shooting the lake resulting the in its monster devouring you, areas such as a room in the castle with a hidden magnum to double back for, and treasures to hunt down in side rooms and the ones you trample through.

The design of the levels is “open,” even if the player is limited to his path. What could be out there? What could be ahead of you? It’s not just that the previous games used Gothic-inspired architecture or night time settings.  

4's "Village." One area, but many chapters of play.

Resident Evil 5 eschews the earlier exploration-based level design for narrow paths, alleys that double in on each other, and a corridor shooter “don’t ever stop moving” mentality. Does it matter where you are? No. The city, the land between the tribal ground and the oil field, the oil field, the underground temple are identical spaces.

They are all set up as mazes that you are expected to rush through, giving the player no time to comprehend his danger or the disturbing events going on about him. No time to see the world and build fear or the action tension of 4, which mined its locations for details and set pieces instead of speeding through them.

Although many of the levels in Resident Evil 5 unfold in linear order, it is quite easy to get lost without the map due to visual design. Crowded city streets no bigger than corridors. Houses without significant life details—certainly nothing compared to the original Resident Evil’s “Lisa Trevor Room” or 4’s almost incidental castle cult sacrifice. The mind and the player’s body wanders. 

No doubt the claustrophobic design is meant to invoke fear, like with the original's mansion, but the streets and alleys of 5 are paradoxically too close for tension. The aesthetic and tone certainly don't help it.

Terror in daylight: a hard task to achieve. I can’t think of many games, movies, or books that pull it off beyond the blinding white of Antarctica in The Thing and portions of Silent Hill 4. The Resident Evil 5’s developers other, better game, Resident Evil: Revelations, suffers similar problems in its action sections: throwing dozens of monsters at a player in a winding area does not make it a horrifying 
"Make a straight at the light, then go straight." The levels of RE5. [planetresidentevil.gamespy.com]

The tone does not reinforce the horror, since the tone is that of a military shooter rather than a B-action film or a B-horror film. Resident Evil games prior to 4 mimic cheesy yet genuine terror of B-horror, where the cheese doubles as sincerity and relief from the despair going on in the rest of the work. Resident Evil 4 mimics B-action, which is almost always about gaining power—see Evil Dead 2, or Rambo: First Blood Part 2—over a powerless situation. Their aesthetics support that, and are coherent within themselves. 

The aesthetic of Resident Evil 5 matches a B-movie but with added tone from so-called “military porn” like Call of Duty, where the characters and tone are commercial, propagandist, and almost always “shot” from a position of power. That’s not a value judgment on the military porn genre, of course, but on “RE5” for misusing it.

The closest movie metaphor for Resident Evil 5’s aesthetic and tone would be if Evil Dead 2 melded with Transformers. It wouldn’t work, would it? There’s a reason for that. 

Do you feel afraid in Battlefield 3? Those type of games that Resident Evil 5 attempts to mimic are based on forward momentum, exhilaration. Propaganda, status beyond the human. Your character is often both a cog in a machine Everyman soldier and a God-like One Man Army; just check out the initial Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 trailer for the chorus and the silhouette shots of soldiers slo-mo standing up to answer the call. In a game like that you’re more likely to be in awe, or feel confident, or at the most frantic due to an ambush. 

If this aesthetic and tone are to be taken in the next Resident Evil, they need to ramp it up considerably. (Looking at the recent demos of 6, someone at Capcom understands this.) 

Things that are theoretically scary or tense in “RE5,” like a disturbingly rendered writhing mass of tentacles coming at you that can regrow itself, are not. The game is too closed in, despite the presence of a token few bigger areas like the tribal grounds and the arena you first fight Wesker in. Outside of those two times, you are almost certainly hemmed in by background objects and in literally and visually tight corners.

How is the equally tight room you fight this plagas tentacle creature supposed to contrast to the rest of the game?

Compare it to 4’s confrontation with the Giger alien-esque “right hand man” or 3’s Nemesis:

                Tight confines but with the suggestion of space ahead or around you. The nature of the monsters, as they are set up, subliminally tells the player that they could ambush you from those spaces. Pop out and get you. A child’s first fear, very primal. 

The problem with 5's linear focus is that it does not allow the game world the open space it needs, and ends up highlighting the racism of the images rather than the anti-colonialism (a probable extension of 4’s anti-imperialism) hinted at in the margins. Call of Duty has faced similar issues in recent installments due to the increasingly narrow and controlled game world: “No Russian” is a problem due to the linear manner it’s presented in, and with Modern Warfare 3 the series threatens to turn nihilistic due to its tight focus on extreme violence with no lulls in action or wandering around to contrast with it. 

Compare that violence to Max Payne 3’s, which contrasts some of the most disturbingly rendered violence in games with lengthy cutscenes backed by introspective narration and a few moments where Max can wander the immediate area for clues, or moments when he can sneak through an area. 

Compare this even to Call of Duty 4, the game that jump-started this structural trend. The game allows you quiet moments, like sneaking through the fields of Chernobyl, or moments when you can choose areas in a level to make a stand. When the nuke hits near a player character, we are granted almost complete silence in a scene after where we control our character as he crawls, injured, through wreckage before dying.

This is one effect that the Resident Evil series’ previous focus on exploration and puzzles granted us. The removal of it in 5 while tackling colonialism and big corporate greed is a serious mistake by the developers.

A brief aside there: it's obvious that the game means well in portraying Africa as exploited by uncaring big pharma, and that continues the themes of 3 and 4 quite astutely, but the presentation is off. The villains work: Spencer is an old European man who uses Africa and kills its tribes because he knows no one will care, all in an effort to build a utopian order that will last forever (like some sort of reich, perhaps?); Wesker is literally an Aryan ideal, complete with superpowers, blond hair, and Nazi-esque black leather. (The creepiest moment in Resident Evil 5 is when you realize Wesker dyed Jill's hair blond to match his own and uses her as a mind-controlled slave whose brainwashing you need to break by repeatedly punching/stabbing her cleavage.) Past that, the game fails due to its level design not portraying the rampant corporate destruction, like Resident Evil 3 does.

Nothing is wrong with a tightly done shooter or linear game, but when tackling issues like this and trying to make horror, the audience needs time to linger on them. Imagine if it put the level design to use in the way that God of War does to show threats like Ares off in the distance. And going as far as Modern Warfare 3 has is one step too far. Lack of room, of space, can hurt even pacing. Even at 4-6 hours long (the average completion time for a Call of Duty or Resident Evil 5), all action all the time ruins pacing.

Otherwise, where is the room for sympathy? It can’t be had. Players are funneled down corridors while hastily out-of-sight, optional files document the game’s bigger ideas and buried themes. 4 provided us with room for sympathy by giving Leon text reactions to the environment along the lines of “Oh my God, these poor people” and “Why would someone do this?” 

[thanks to wn.com]
Not limiting the sympathy to text descriptions people might miss, 4 also devotes its end credits to a tonal contrast. Not a betrayal of the earlier B-movie tone, but an added depth; the best B-movies, like early Godzilla, deal in humanism as well as cheese.

Expectations are in our heads as Resident Evil 4’s credits roll. It changes them. It’s odd. You might not even like it at first. 

You expect surfer rock. You expect a action tune. You get a whimsical folk sounding song matched by sketches of villagers who appear quite similar to the ones you spent the first few hours gunning down as monsters, just enjoying themselves. 

Children, noticeably absent, are present in abundance. Someone plays a lute or a guitar. The village eats together at tables that when you glimpse them in-game are covered in rotting food. But the music turns sinister. We see villagers forced to receive shots containing the plagas parasites. Their faces turn into the monsters we know. This is the effect cultural domination has on them, represented by pop culture figures of imperialism like the Spanish Inquisition (castle enemies/church), Emperor Palpatine (Saddler), Napoleon (Salazar), and a corrupt American spook (we can just as easily see Krauser rigging elections in third world countries).

By setting up its end credits in this manner, the game highlights the innocence of the villagers and tries to make us sympathetic. Resident Evil 5 cribs much content, including copy-and-pasted set pieces, from 4. As a sequel, it is only natural for the game to expand on those ideas of imperialism and control over people, but the method is so half-hearted due to the level design, so barely emphasized, that it comes off as a cheap copy that neuters the series. Not even Chris Redfield’s bulging biceps can tear open some space in these confines, nor can they give an ounce of sympathy to the victimized Africa of his game.

Beyond "it's gray" what can you tell me about the house?
Compare a similar surprise attack in 2. [via mobygames.com]


The same occurs in “RE3.” As Jill, we walk through shops, downtown, power plants—places people evidently used to be. 5 throws Savage Africa imagery at us without the corrupted normalcy and broken homes. Even when the game forces you to rush into a house to save a (white) woman, there is no evidence of what this place or person used to be before the outbreak. There is only a Bagdad style interior, telling us nothing.

And that level space and design in 4, more than anything, is what gives us sympathy. We get to walk through and raid the homes of these villagers. They are recognizable as homes (whereas 5 populates dwellings with sacrificed goats and blood-crusted axes the size of men.) Checking almost any item results in that descriptive text detail.

Foreshadowing appears in paintings of Saddler hanging from every wall where you would expect Jesus, giving us an inkling both of the cultish nature of the enemy and what he looks like before he even physically appears. Resident Evil 2 and 3 go to similar lengths to scatter Raccoon City with hints of life: the police station duty room where you meet one of the last surviving cops has a torn down party banner and favors that show us the cops planned to throw Leon a surprise welcome bash before the outbreak occurred.

Without that level of artistic detail, the level design is not just a maze but a barren maze with you and many an AI minotaur chasing after you until that moment when you tap “Quit Game.” 


Tim said...

I'm pretty sure that picture of the Spencer Mansion map is from the 2002 GC remake (and the second floor at that), not the 1996 original.

Andrew Lavigne said...


You're correct. I meant to include the first floor as well, to give a broader idea of the mansion, but it got lost in editing. I've now fixed this.

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