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Resident Evil 6: Hoping for evolution, fearing conformity

4:00 PM on 01.25.2012 // Jonathan Holmes

When Resident Evil first hit, it was like nothing the home console market had ever seen. George Romero-style zombies in a videogame? Cinematic camera angles? Finite ammo and health? Constantly being forced to choose between fighting and fleeing from your enemies, without ever being sure which path is best? An overarching theme of distrust and claustrophobic entrapment? Sure, some of those design choices had leaked their way into Alone in the Dark and a few other previously released titles, but Resident Evil was the first game to stir all those ingredients together and plop them into the laps of an eager audience starving to experience something new.

As the series has moved forward, it has taken equal steps towards evolving its unique voice and conforming that sound to the ever changing preferences of the gaming world. With Resident Evil 2, auto-aim was introduced, making the player feel more empowered (and therefore, less scared). In turn, the game also introduced a nearly indestructible monster that would stalk you no matter where you ran, making the player feel constantly endangered (and therefore, more scared). Overall, the balance between evolution and conformity felt right, so the series never lost its original vision of a "world of survival horror."

With Resident Evil 6, I'm worried that the series might finally lose that vision. Remember when Kiss recorded this song? I'm really hoping Resident Evil 6 doesn't turn out like that.

Most of that worry comes from how Resident Evil 5 turned out. That game was overflowing with attempts to conform to modern "AAA" standards, exemplified by its welcoming difficulty, forced co-op play, a general aesthetic adhering to the action movie "blockbuster" style, and many other out-of-character traits. While RE5 suffered in the eyes of many fans due to these concessions, it certainly didn't hurt its sales -- it's currently the best-selling title in the series. It stands to reason that RE6 might go even farther in that direction, and the game's initial trailer doesn't tell us enough to be sure either way.

There are a lot things about the RE6 trailer that have me concerned. If two-player co-op in made RE5 less scary, I can only image what six-player co-op will do. There is also a lot of Uncharted-style, action movie fun that doesn't seem too scary. All that could still work in the "Resident Evil" way, as what's really important to me is that the series sticks to the philosophy on limitations that have defined it from the start. The occasional peeks at moving-and-shooting coupled with the superhuman, slide-on-your-knees dual wielding action doesn't have me feeling too hopeful. Maybe that stuff wont be as "wrong" as it seems -- they could be from QTEs or cutscenes, or they might not even make it into the final version of the game at all. If that's not the case, my current cautious optimism for the game is going to take quite a beating.

I'm sure a lot of people are loving the trailer, though. So many gamers today seem obsessed with the idea that every game should offer as few limits as possible. It's an understandable way of thinking, but in the end, it's totally self-defeating. Not only would removing all limits result in every game's playing exactly the same way, it would also result in the game designers' presenting nearly no original ideas of their own. 

Game design is the design of limits. These limits are in place to give players a direction to seek rewards and avoid danger. A game designer's job is to devise limits, rewards, and threats that force players to make (hopefully) interesting choices. For instance, in Pac-Man, you can't eat ghosts whenever you want. You can only eat ghosts for a limited time after you've consumed a power pellet tucked away in a corner of the board where it is most easy to become trapped. That's basically the essence of Pac-Man.

Okay, let's talk about Pac-Man for a while.

Over Pac-Man's history, there have been attempts to alter this design to help to cater to changing standards. For instance, in Pac-Mania, Pac-Man can jump over ghosts, giving the player a constant sense of empowerment over his enemies. Sadly, that level of empowerment only made the game more dull by requiring less interesting or exciting player choices. Empowerment is almost always fun for the first few seconds you experience it, but after that, you take it for granted. Then the dullness sets in.

More recent titles like Pac-Man Championship Edition and Pac-Man Championship Edition DX have been anything but dull, largely in part because they made little effort to conform to what gamers think they want. Instead, they maxed out on the traits that made Pac-Man what it is: getting in as dangerous a situation as you can for as long as you can, with as many ghosts chasing you as possible, then eating the power pellet and turning the tables on them at the very last possible second. All the limits, punishments, and rewards in those two games are rooted in the old Pac-Man principals, only turned up to 11. Even the aesthetics of the games are like Pac-Man on steroids. They are the Pac-Manliest Pac-Mans ever Pac-Manned.

Resident Evil actually isn't that different from Pac-Man in an abstract sense. With Resident Evil, the limits, punishments, and rewards have traditionally been focused on making the player feel disempowered, limited, claustrophobic, outnumbered, and conflicted between their own fight or flight instincts. Pac-Man's central conflict -- should I run and stay safe or grab a power pellet, turn, and fight? -- is the same as Resident Evil's. They both force the player to constantly make difficult, dangerous choices that may end in entrapment, loss, and death. The difference is that Pac-Man is fast-paced and sugar-coated while Resident Evil is slow, plodding, and creepy. While Pac-Man is pure survival, Resident Evil is true survival horror.

What exactly is survival horror? To me, it's basically horror Pac-Man. As in Pac-Man, Resident Evil forces the player to constantly question the best method for survival. "Do I stop moving so that I may defend myself from incoming enemies that can only harm me at close range, or do I continue moving, keeping my distance from my enemies but doing nothing to thin out the horde?" The horror derives from the elements added to the equation that are meant to constantly tear at the player's sense of control and safety, be they graphics, sound, controls, narrative, etc. That formula has so many potential variables and applications that it has been able to sustain the series for over 10 years, despite consistently dumb stories, an arguably stale premise, and ever-growing competition in the "zombie" market.

That said, that series has required revitalization over the years. Thankfully, game design genius Shinji Mikami was there to make that happen. Resident Evil 4 took the series' signature design choices and extrapolated them with incredible results. The game not only asked you to stop and shoot, but it took auto aim away, forcing you to stop and carefully aim a laser pointer at incoming enemies, giving even greater potential rewards (more accurate hits) and risks (greater likelihood of missing). You have to battle against groups of enemies that are potentially powerful enough to kill you in one hit and are smart enough to surround you and/or move out of the way of your attacks. Mikami also moved the camera to behind the back, making it easier to be surrounded and all the more tempting to run in fear.

That's just the tip of the iceberg of what it did to bring Resident Evil to its fullest evolutionary level. To me, the true stroke of genius in RE4 is the way it rewards the player for doing exactly what the series had trained us to NEVER DO. If you hit enemies in one of their harder-to-pinpoint areas (head or knee), they will become stunned. This gives you a few seconds to close the distance between you and them (effectively rejecting all your instincts to run and hide) then hit them with a powerful melee attack, scoring more damage and potentially smacking other surrounding enemies around in the process. It's basically the Pac-Man power pellet of Resident Evil. Just as this is the basic mechanic that made Pac-Man so compelling for 30+ years, it's also the reason why so many people can play RE4 and all the games that have followed for years without ever getting sick of them. The constant risks and rewards that they offer are pretty much endless.

This mechanic simply would not work if you could run at full speed and shoot at the same time. The whole idea revolves around the fact that you are making yourself vulnerable in the act of running towards the enemy that you were previously trying to keep far away from you. What if you could keep them far away from you at all times by walking backward and shooting? What if you could run towards them and shoot them in the face at the same time? What was previously a stroke of genius in design has just turned into a game about leisurely dispatching nearly defenseless enemies in just about any way you choose.

Besides, people already have the option to not one but two Resident Evil games that allow you to do that. Resident Evil: Revelations is largely a traditional Resident Evil experience, but it does allow for some limited movement while having your gun drawn -- if you dig into the options menu, you can enable this ability. It's still pretty disempowering, as your aim is controlled by the 3DS' gyroscope, but still, the option is there if you want it. Then there is Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City, which plays like a fully featured, co-op-focused, war-styled shooter that allows you to run your ass off at full speed while simultaneously firing in all directions. You can even hug zombies in the game! It doesn't get much more empowering than that.

So for those of you who want that kind of Resident Evil experience, you've got it. Can't we leave the "real" Resident Evil games -- the numbered entries in the series -- to stay true to what made the series great in the first place? Wouldn't it feel more appropriate for RE6 to instead evolve that survival horror science by offering even greater rewards for putting yourself in danger and even more detriments for playing it safe? What if you had to rush through a crowded mass of human NPCs only to find that there are zombies in the crowd, ensuring that you'll never know where the threat lies amidst the deafening crows, forcing you to risk harming civilians in your attempts to dispatch the infected? What if you had... I wish I could come up with more (and better) ideas than that, but most of them have already been done in the series at some point or another (RE3, REmake, and RE5: Lost in Nightmares had some particularly amazing new ideas). I don't claim to be a great game designer, but I do know that a bright and sunny, co-op-focused, adventure movie-styled, run-and-gun shooter doesn't sound anything like a Resident Evil game to me.

Pac-Man didn't need a jump button. Sonic the Hedgehog (or more specifically, his grumpy doppelganger Shadow) didn't need a gun. Street Fighter didn't need fatalities. Jennifer Grey did not need a nose jobResident Evil does not need run, aim, and shoot controls and action movie pomp. I'm all for evolving the series; what I don't want is for evolution to compromise its identity in order to fit the arbitrary standards of gamers who believe that any game that doesn't make them feel instantly empowered has "broken controls" and "artificial difficulty."

There is nothing "broken" about controls that are highly effective at presenting choices to the player that will consistently evoke intense emotions. In my book, that's the definition of "brilliant" controls. There is also nothing "artificial" about the difficulty presented by a game that challenges you to resist your own natural survival instincts and make nail-biting, dangerous decisions in order to persevere through what feels like impossible odds. In fact, that's my definition of "real" difficulty.

These are the things that mean "Resident Evil" to me. Without them, a game would be Resident Evil in name only. If that happens with Resident Evil 6, it may be the end for my long love affair with the series.

Jonathan Holmes, Bad Joke Uncle
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