I had said in a meeting a while back that I’d do an article for our female protagonist-centred month here at The Vault. This was before really settling on anything, or even recently watching/playing anything with a good female lead. But as it turns out, I just played through the recent Resident Evil remake that hit PC. And as fate would have it, kids, Resident Evil has two playable characters – a boy one, and you guessed it, a girl one. I had originally picked Jill because she brings an extra item slot over Chris, and screw resource management, but let’s just be glad things turned out this way. Otherwise we’d be sitting with only one article centered on this month’s theme.
So, Resident Evil is a game. It’s a game I bet you’ve heard about, because it’s one of them seminal survival horror games that all the gaming hipsters get their bad sweaters in a bunch over. You run though a mansion, solve some puzzles, shoot some undead, and just generally try to survival some good old-fashioned horror in the face of diminishing resources and tank controls; I feel like most people know the drill, honestly. Which of course, brings into question what possible justification an article has for covering a re-release of a game that came out thirteen years ago, which was itself a remake of a PS1 game form 1996.
…What? You wanted me to answer that? Well, the short answer is that it let me write something loosely based on female protagonists, but you’re not supposed to know that. Ahem! So, Jill’s a female. She’s a more competent female than Chris, because if you think about it, Chris is hardly a female at all. I know his character design got a lot beefier as the series went on, but he still lacks both a second X chromosome, and more importantly, the willingness to identify as a woman. So in all, while playing Resident Evil I found that Jill was a much better female protagonist than Chris. And it addition to that extra item slot, Jill’s a lot smarter than the alternative, because she’s able to synthesize a deadly toxin using some chemistry witchcraft, allowing her to swiftly kill a giant plant and bypass a particularly nasty boss. Also, her campaign has the player team up with Barry, who’s basically the coolest guy ever. Speaking of other guys, they spend the entire game either getting turned into zombies, eaten by zombies, shot, or poisoned by giant snakes (although in my playthough, Jill was a little absent-minded and forgot to help them). So, when Jill’s not getting stung by swarms of bees or vomiting into toilets, she’s doing pretty well for herself, compared to everyone else. Aren’t women rad?
If none of the garbled nonsense this article has been made up of thus far has managed to convince anyone, I’d like to tell you that Resident Evil is still a genuinely impressive experience. There’s no need to worry about the game looking or feeling old, because Resident Evil (2002) was stunning when it came out, and the jump to high quality makes it shine all the, uhh… I want to write brighter, but I fear that goes against the tone of the game. Nonetheless! This has fast become one of my favourite games to look at because of how expertly-crafted each frame is. The entirety of Resident Evil is composed of set camera angles that change only when you walk onto specific areas of any given room, which feels as artsy as it is spooky. All of the backgrounds are pre-rendered with lavish attention to detail, but hide invisible polygons that are shaped into the image above them, allowing for accurate shadows, lighting, and blood-spatter. This does mean that sometimes you’ll come across a polygonal object you can interact with, which comes off a bit like the weird-looking book on a shelf you can tell a character from a traditional animation is going to grab, but the effect is never off-putting.
The other design departments hold up just as well, too. All the people seem to be down on the tank controls (a scheme I feel works particularly well in horror games, if done right) and the backtracking and the limited inventory and the hit trade nature of the combat and… you know, a whole slew of other mechanics that old games used to employ, but are often considered antiquated nowadays. But for the record, if anyone tells you those things are broken and frustrating, you have my permission to hide rotten eggs in their shoes. Because as we all should know, each new generation of games come with their own particular set of limitations that have to be worked around, which actually spurred some creative design choices – doin’ the best with what they had, as it were. There’s genuine merit to a game that lays a select few interesting yet tight rules at the player’s feet from the outset, then constructs the level design based on the abilities those rules provide. You wouldn’t complain about classical music because it doesn’t incorporate electronic house elements. Everyone knows it’s just taking a different approach with a different set of instruments.
The few instruments that Resident Evil does use all work towards creating an environment that starts off as harsh and unwelcoming, but as the player diligently clears areas of enemies and puzzles, begins to feel familiar – homely, even. Spencer Mansion, Resident Evil’s main setting, feels like it’s out of a Metroid or modern Castlevania game. Tight and dense, its layout becomes well-trodden as our hero’s eclectic inventory of keys and obtuse puzzle pieces grows to accommodate the sense of reclaiming the residence from the forces of the undead. This is a survival horror game however, so nothing feels quite as comfortable as you’d expect despite getting to know the environment as intimately as you do.
For starters, the aforementioned limit on your inventory spaces is a harsh one; stocking up on ammo and healing items leaves little room for carrying keys, running all your puzzle pieces leaves you relatively defenseless, and any combination therein ensures picking up anything else you come across is going to be a pain in the butt. So backtracking is a must, and I found myself planning enemy-fighting or puzzle-solving runs before setting out from the comfort of the few but altogether appreciated item box rooms. Between the preparation and resource management, parts of the game were certainly reminiscent of setting out for a new dungeon in an RPG. Still, players are kept on their toes, as fresh corpses have a tendency to reanimate themselves as more dangerous foes if not properly disposed of. Additionally, just because you’ve visited an area before does by no means mean you’ll know what to expect: enemies are wont to crash through the windows of corridors that were previously safe, and some of the craftier creatures can follow you through doors.
The stress of playing Resident Evil is entirely worth it however, because it makes the feeling of progress all the more rewarding. Spencer Mansion feels like a giant puzzle in itself, slowly being chipped away at as you discover what to do, where to go, and what goes where. As you begin to rationalize its structuring and eke out a safe area for yourself, each time an enemy enters a spot you’re used to it feels like a personal offence. In fact, there’s a part where you leave the mansion to do a number to elongated tasks outside of its perimeter, and upon returning all I could think was “ahh, home.” Its twisted, misty forests; its moths lazily fluttering around the soft light sources; the way lightning projects from its windows onto the ornate architecture; the relaxing music that plays in the supply rooms; the setting speaks volumes about creating a space that is at once threatening and welcoming, and the effect it can have on a player. I’m still thinking about it.
Speaking of thinking about the game, Resident Evil created a number of scenarios where I had to consider the game outside of its context (and I’m not talking about the few times I had to look up something on my phone because I felt lost otherwise). The ink ribbons, for example, tie the amount of times you can save your progress to a limited consumable item. Though this creates a scenario where you’re asked to carefully distribute your checkpoints strategically, there were times where I found myself thinking “I really have to be somewhere, and I saved my progress long ago enough to not want to repeat what I just did, but not long ago enough to justify using another ribbon, hmmm.” I guess the game’s a bit like Snake Eater in that way, where you’d be like “well, I don’t need that much stamina right now, but if I come back to this game tomorrow my squirrel’s going to be rotten and I’ll have to self-induce some puking…” Also, this is definitely one of those “figure it out in the shower” kind of games, where I found myself getting stuck, deliberating, and coming up with a solution while driving home or something.
So yeah. Jill is cool. Survival horror is cool. Spencer Mansion is cool. Resident Evil is cool. You really need to give it a look if you haven’t, regardless of your stance on the genre it comes from.