Resident Evil: General topics

I’ve been a bit of a Resident Evil fan for a while now, but strangely enough I’ve never written anything about it for my blog. Turns out the reason for this is when I start writing about the damned game I can’t stop, and the meandering scrawl you see below represents somewhere around a quarter of a… thing… I’ve ended up over-thinking for the past few months. Um, enjoy?

In all seriousness what this wall o’ text attempts to do is pick out some key aspects of the original Resident Evil and then look at how they were either refined or outright changed as Mikami and co. revisited the game for Resident Evil: Director's Cut and the unhelpfully titled remake, Resident Evil (GC/HD). There’s also a section at the end on the remake’s Crimson Heads, because who doesn’t love Crimson Heads?

Before I forget: Any facts written here that aren’t something a player could find or observe for themselves in-game have been taken from either 'Bio Hazard Complete Walkthrough Manual' (Kodansha, 1996), 'Bio-Hazard Director's Cut Official Perfect Guide: Inside of Bio-Hazard' (Enterbrain, 1999), 'biohazard Archives' (Capcom, 2005), or 'biohazard Dissection Document: Wii Edition' (Enterbrain, 2009).

Graphical style and tone:
With the enviable combination of director as dedicated as Shinji Mikami, vastly superior hardware, and a team with the raw experience of six years spent working on other Resident Evil titles there was never any doubt that the look of the 2002 GameCube version would wipe the polished marble floor with the original PlayStation game, but the real reason the remake’s so exceptional is that it was never merely about more - more enemies, more cutscenes, more polygons -  but instead a game that's constantly asking itself the question: 'How will this improve Resident Evil?'


So the graphics department answered this by giving the Spencer mansion the most grimy makeover imaginable; the clean and surprisingly bright rooms of the 1996 original giving way to stained wallpaper, rucked-up carpets, and flickering bulbs dimly lighting up dusty baroque cornices: all ferociously mundane details that contribute towards an undefinable stomach-churning wrongness, a sense of an everyday normality that's been violently turned upside-down. Blood and monsters and scientists-turned-zombie may be gory and disgusting but they're also a very superficial sort of horror, easily dispatched and dismissed. What the remake excels at, and what a lot of its later imitators failed to grasp, was that while the monsters give people a fright, it was the mansion itself that lingered on and haunted their nightmares. A battle-damaged and bloodstained corridor may make for an impressive setpiece, but an unkempt bed hiding a bottle of liquor and a diary on a nearby table filled with rapidly deteriorating entries is a story. The mansion was always more than a set of puzzles hidden behind collection of strange keys and the GameCube version of Resident Evil revels in this silent tale; trapping the player in a building that creaks and rattles as if the mansion itself is alive, a malevolent force eager to devour both the overly confident and extremely cautious alike.


But heaping praise on the 2002 remake doesn't mean there's no joy or wonder to be found in the original, and what that brave PlayStation pioneer may lack in raw power is more than compensated for by the confidence found in its style and execution; boasting a design ethos mature enough even back in the haphazard era of 1996 3D graphics to understand that horror is as much about what you don't reveal as it is what you do. The general brightness of the backgrounds may not immediately call to mind the stuff of nightmares when viewed today, but the clearly themed areas and use of strong colour work well within the limitations of the hardware; just as they did for Resident Evil's main well of inspiration, the Famicom title Sweet Home, back in 1989. It's worth remembering that on hardware of the PlayStation's level over six hundred compressed pre-rendered images stored at the mind-blowing resolution of 320x240 were never going to be able to convey a subtle range of blacks and delicate shifts of hue and the game needed the definition and boldness that comes from the colourful style found in the original to prevent the backgrounds from becoming an artifacted mess.


The passage of time and the progress in consumer electronics couldn't be more obvious when you look between the two of them but the ideas and design philosophy driving both takes on Resident Evil are very much the same - to imply rather than show, to create unease in the player through tension and trickery rather than use straightforward spooks and scares.


Translation:
Resident Evil's remembered for a lot of things; the creepy soundtrack, the cinematic camera angles that conceal as much as they show, the bloody Hunters that can decapitate Chris and Jill with a single swipe when they’re low on health and I’m oh-so-close please let me reach the save room door (not that I'm traumatised by the experience or anything...) - there's a lot in there, and it all works together to create an unforgettable survival horror experience. But there's another mindless abomination lurking in the mansion, one called... voice acting.


There's no getting away from the fact that to the end user the dialogue in the original Resident Evil sounds horribly stilted; filled with odd turns of phase and unnatural word emphasis that would never pass anyone's lips even if they did have hordes of the undead shuffling towards them in the dark. But while it's easier for us all to imagine that this was simply a case of bad actors acting badly it's actually more likely that a perfectly competent if not especially spectacular English-speaking actor was locked in a small room with just a microphone for company and told by the native Japanese speaker directing them that they could read these daft lines about NOt OPENing THAT doOR or getting to the ROOT of the problem as instructed or not get paid. Voice actors, especially for games, and especially back in deepest darkest 1996, were told to read the words printed out for them and walk off as soon as they're done - no pre-recording group read-through with coffee and muffins, no chance for personal improvisation or alternative takes. Think about it - if the Emmy award-winning actor Peter Dinklage can produce a duff line or fifty in Destiny, a game with a budget somewhere around 'blank cheque' level, then what hope was there for the English voice-over to a Japanese game from two decades ago?

But even then blaming the acting and the translation itself can only go so far as once you start looking at the Japanese subtitles you'll find that yes, Barry really is meant to be joking about Jill fitting in sandwiches (with this line and some other timeless Barry-isms beautifully revisited in Resident Evil: Revelations 2) and that the rest of the Japanese text generally matches up with the spoken English dialogue - Resident Evil's English dub (and general translation of other details such as files and item descriptions) may not be down-to-the-bone accurate but it's really not as far off the mark as some people would like to imagine either: The painful fact is the Japanese text is simply not a literary treasure cruelly undermined by poor translation work, it's just [deep breath] not all that good to begin with. Thankfully by the time the GameCube remake came about Capcom had grown to understand just how much good quality voice acting could bring to a game that thrives on atmosphere, and second time around that particular aspect of the game received as much care and attention as anything else.


The English dialogue and its questionable delivery may contain the most obvious differences but they weren't the only things changed over the years; the original Japanese script, the remake's Japanese script, and even the all-new Japanese voiceover recorded especially for the 'HD Remaster' releases are all as different from each other as their English equivalents, meaning the long-held notion that there's one single 'real' version of The Mansion Incident that all the others are based on is simply not true.


Movement:
It wasn't until Resident Evil 2 that the series' trademark 'heroic limp' made its first appearance and allowed players to take an educated guess at their current health level just by looking at the way their character was walking; either bent over with one arm across the body for 'caution', or hobbling along with a potentially fatal slow limp for 'danger'. Unfortunately gamers playing the original game had none of this luxurious visual feedback to rely on and were instead forced to either take a quick detour to the status menu while playing or, if they were in a hurry, try to remember how many times they'd been bitten since the last restorative herb mix as they were being chased down the corridor by something or other. Rather than outright copy either of these systems the GameCube release chose to create its own middle ground between the constant full-speed dash of classic Resident Evil and the low-health shuffle that followed in later titles with a simplified system that still shows Chris or Jill struggling when they hit 50% of their maximum health, but with no further change when they go from better-find-a-herb 'caution' to nail-biting  'danger' status. The speed they move at when shown to be low on health is also much higher than the 'may as well reload my last save' rate of post-Resident Evil games too, giving the player a fighting chance even when they're so low on health a crow's sneeze could wipe them out; creating a fairer game overall while still punishing players who get themselves into trouble.

The exact movement penalties are:
Chris receives an 8%/1% run/walk speed penalty, while Jill suffers a greater 12% deduction to her run, but has a 7% boost to her walking speed.


In addition to the tweaked running system above the remake also gives players a special speed-based wrinkle all of its own to contend with, as weaponry now has in effect a simulated weight and equipping (not carrying in your inventory) a firearm will reduce your character's movement speed by a set amount based on the type of weapon held. Chris receives a straightforward 10% penalty to his running speed and 9% to his walking speed with any firearm equipped while Jill's is a little more complicated - small firearms reduce her run by 11% and her walk by 2%, whereas the shotgun and other larger weapons slow her run by 7%, and her walk by 1%. So overall Jill is a touch slower than Chris, but weapons have less of an impact on her movement speed (for those curious about Resident Evil's other playable character: Rebecca's movement stats are identical to Jill's). There are just two weapons that operate outside these rules - the survival knife and the rocket launcher dropped by Brad at the end of the game - neither of these affect either character's run or walk speed at all. What all this means for the player is that weapons become a double-edged sword - you may be better at killing things when you're backed into a corner and brandishing a shotgun but on the other hand you need to be, because you're just that little bit less likely to successfully dodge an attack or push past an enemy from behind. It's also an exciting dare for players who've exhausted every other mode in the game as the very best clear times only come from players with the skill and nerves to deliberately spend most of the game vulnerable to enemy attack.


Extras:
Adventure games often have a problem with keeping the player's attention after the credits have scrolled by, as once all the puzzles have been solved and the mystery's been unravelled there's no real reason to play through them again unless the story's especially well written, and if we're honest in Resident Evil's case there's... 'room for improvement', shall we say? That's never meant survival horror fans were left high and dry though, as the game in all its forms does try a lot harder than most to mitigate this thorny issue with two different leads to play as and six possible endings between them, and then on top of that throws in some nifty optional extras to freshen things up as well as offer some fun new ways to experience the game.
The unlockable extra most people encounter first are the various alternative costumes Chris and Jill can wear, accessed either by using the closet key on the otherwise impenetrable walk-in wardrobe found in the mansion or in the HD remaster just before finalising your choice of character and starting the game.The clothing available changes with almost every port and re-release, from canonical off-duty wear (the leather jacket Chris can change into in Resident Evil is seen hanging on a peg by his desk in Resident Evil 2's S.T.A.R.S. office) to plain silly (Rebecca's cheerleader outfit in Resident Evil: Deadly Silence) but the aim is always the same - to give the player a reward for taking the time and effort to rescue everyone (or just for finishing the game if you're playing the later remake), offer the player some freedom of choice,  and to give them an excuse to play through the game just one more time...


Let's not forget the super-powerful weaponry with infinite ammunition to be earned either, kept safely locked away behind some strict time limits - a condition which might prove puzzling to those struggling to make their way through the game as it looks like the one thing they need the most is furthest from their grasp. But there is some logic behind this decision that goes beyond simply making people suffer; as this restriction helps to maintain the integrity of the game's survival horror atmosphere for as long as possible. This revelation comes when you realise that these all-powerful armaments aren't there to help you kill things quickly because you otherwise wouldn't be able to do so, they're there to help you kill things quickly because you have reached the point where you know the game inside-out and you're speedrunning. Any player who can complete the game in the times required to unlock the rocket launcher or one of the specialist handguns has enough skill to start trying to race through Umbrella's house of horrors as quickly as possible, and instant-kill weaponry with a limitless supply of bullets helps them take this speedrunning concept to its logical extreme.


If you're playing the original Resident Evil then that's your lot as far as extras are concerned - you can look good and play fast. Perhaps feeling the need to out-do its older namesake the GameCube release tried even harder to expand on this post-game content, adding brand new 'Real Survival' and 'Invisible Enemy' modes on top of everything the original already had. Both of these later additions follow the same design mantra as the rest of the remake; taking a game the player had just started to feel comfortable with and then making significant changes that force them to re-learn everything they were sure they already knew. 'Real Survival' sees the unconnected item chests found in a prototype of the original game brought back and... let's just say there's a reason why they took them out, and there's a reason why when they did put them back in it was as a bonus mode only available to those who had completed the game at least twice already. There's a very fine line between 'difficult' and 'frustrating', and if Resident Evil had shipped with 'realistic' item boxes as the default then it would have definitely been on the wrong side of that divide. As an aside: this is also why small key items 'twinkle' - because as ridiculous as having sparkly keys is, it's a hell of a lot more fun than running against every flat surface in the game mashing the search button just in case there's something important hidden in a drawer or left on a shelf. 'Invisible Enemy' mode is an opportunity for confident players to really prove they know the game as well as they think they do, as the game makes the player rely mostly on their own memory of the enemies lurking within the Arklay mountains to survive. You can still hear the undead shuffling around the mansion's halls, catch a glimpse of their reflections in mirrors and puddles, and if the worst happens briefly see them as they land a hit, but otherwise you're on your own - even against the Tyrant!


Crimson Heads:
By the time 2002 rolled around zombies had been done, if you'll pardon the upcoming pun, to death. Resident Evil 2 and 3 may have upped the detail, variety, and numbers by a significant degree when compared to the first game in the series and Code Veronica had brought them slowly ambling into the next generation, but they were all just conservative refinements of the same concept - basic 'starter' enemies designed to mildly annoy players as they walked down a narrow corridor, just a little groaning something to use as target practise before things really kick off. So to combat this over-familiarity with what was once the spine-tingling unknown Resident Evil's remake tore up the rulebook and zombies could now... wait for it... climb stairs. Other than that and the obvious extra visual detail added since the 1996 original, such as proper fingers and motion-captured movement, the undead behaved largely as they always had done - unpleasant and irritating, but rarely genuinely dangerous.


Fortunately that unkind jibe only holds true until the player encounters their first 'Crimson Head', a new kind of dead dead zombie that's much faster and far more ferocious than the plodding raggedy scientists that usually roam the mansion's halls. Nobody forgets the first time they were chased down a hall with one of these slavering monstrosities baying for their blood, and nobody's quite so keen on mocking the shambling remains of Umbrella's staff after they've run screaming towards the nearest save room from their upgraded corpses. Zombies were scary and unpredictable again - and it's all the player's fault.


This is because rather than simply introduce Crimson Heads as a separate enemy type they're instead the result of finishing off a zombie with a non-critical hit and then leaving the corpse on the floor, waiting for its chance to rise again, instead of setting it alight with the kerosene/lighter combo both characters can carry with them (at the cost of precious inventory space, of course) or blowing its brains/kneecaps out with a powerful weapon or lucky handgun shot. To the player the exact time it takes for them undead to rise again seems to always be somewhere around 'the worse possible moment', but under the hood the game's actually using an adaptive ranking system to determine when Crimson Heads will arise.


So let's break down the mechanics behind the remake's most memorable foe:


First things first - no Crimson Heads will ever appear until two specific conditions have been met: The player must have obtained the dog collar from the second floor terrace, and they must have also 'woken up' the pre-turned Crimson Head lying on the floor of the mirror corridor by the door to the armour key puzzle/trap room too. Once those two conditions have been satisfied the ranking system comes into play, with the difficulty level determining the starting rank: one (easy), three (normal), or four (hard), from a total of six. The rank the player's on when they kill a zombie then determines which 'pool' the game randomly picks that corpse's revival timer from, as shown below:

Rank

Time until revival (minutes)

1

60/90/100/150

2

20/45/80/100

3

15/35/70/80

4

10/20/30/60

5

5/10/20/30

6

5/10/15

So as you can hopefully see, a zombie downed by a player on rank four (hard mode's initial setting) could have anything from ten minutes to an hour before it turns into a Crimson Head - but importantly there's no way of knowing exactly until it's sprung up to feast on a character's delicious brains, a fact which is further complicated by the way the game adjusts the rank on the fly based on how long it takes the player to complete vital tasks within the mansion.

 

Event

Time elapsed
(minutes)

Game start~sword key acquired

60

Sword key~armour key acquired

60

Armour key~sheet music inner pages acquired

90

Sheet music inner pages~shield key

60

Example: A player who takes less than an hour to obtain the sword key after starting the game will have their rank increased by one, while a player who takes over an hour will have their rank reduced by one. Rank cannot go below one or exceed six, and there are no rank adjustments after the shield key has been acquired (a point in the game which means they player's progressed far enough to face the prototype Crimson Head and then leave the mansion for the guardhouse).


What this series of interconnecting timers and triggers means in practise is a game that is always trying to take an educated guess at the player's ability and then adjusts Crimson Head revival times to match. This helps to ensure that players of all skill levels have to keep a watchful eye on the trail of corpses they're leaving around, while still protecting more cautious or methodical players from becoming engulfed by an overwhelming wave of mutated zombies.

That’s all for now folks! Thank you for scrolling to the end of this document, you have prooved the justice of our culture and so on. Please do let me know if you found the above post interesting – I’ve got about another 10,000 words worth of Resident Evil-related text looking at specific room, puzzles, and conversations (told you I had spent too much time thinking about this!) in draft form that I could potentially polish up and release into the wild, but if it’s best off kept to myself then I’ll drop it and work on something else.