The Resident Evil remake is a game that has stayed with me. I know I'm not alone in this. I'm fully aware of the game's reputation as a masterpiece – of it refining and perfecting the survival horror genre, codified in Mikami's scrappy original. But still – my preoccupation with it has surprised me. It's an unassuming game.
It has none of the self-conscious surrealism that marks out its sister series, Silent Hill. And the tone here is muted – markedly so, as compared with its predecessors. The dialogue certainly has none of the flamboyance that still colours the RE series – but it is less self-serious than it is sober, matter-of-fact.
The Spencer Mansion possesses a chilly and remote aristocratic grandeur. Autumnal courtyards, graveyards, sightless marble busts; portraits leering, wailing, lit by guttering fire – art that would be comically grotesque were it not evidence of obsession. Perhaps this is why the Spencer Mansion has stayed in my thoughts – it outdoes even the Thief games in making me feel that I do not belong.
The mansion does not convince, not quite. The colours are faded, the carpets are frayed: if this is aristocracy, they are going to seed. The dust and neglect, wooden staircases warped, mark out an occupant with quickly fading prestige.
This account does not convince either. This architecture is demented, too beyond the pale to be rationally explained. Pushing through cramped halls, ferrying swords, crests and keys, slotting a into b to make x rotate y, one truly does feel like a chess piece on a board. Much is made of the power fantasy of the RE series, and I am not denying it is there – but it is a very limited kind of power. The player is blind, reduced to dumb instrumentality: to successfully unlock the machinery of the house, is merely to conform to someone else's plan.
But whose? This puzzle-box logic is beyond bizarre, with traps and hidden passages that are hopelessly baroque. It's nonsensical, a child's caricature of elite eccentricity. One cannot imagine a human being living here at all.
Yes yes, fine, 'isn't video game logic weird', we've all heard this routine before. But it is weird. Here, in this game, this logic feels weird. It does not feel weird after the fact, or in discussion with friends, or in comedy YouTube videos. One feels this weirdness as one plays. And it is not the kind of weirdness that is found in countless other video games – the incongruities that pepper the interiors of say, Gone Home, or Everybody's Gone to the Rapture. The discrepancies in their designs (homes too tidy, carbon-copied, too meticulously arranged) are unintentional, simple failures of simulation. Resident Evil is more deeply and more thoroughly uncanny.
The Spencer Mansion is a house that is not a house. It operates by a logic that cannot be human - and then it tries to domesticate it, blend it in with the furniture. In play, one strains to buy into the canonical explanation: that the mansion is a decoy, an elaborate disguise for the lab underneath. This explanation is an unnecessary restriction on the game's sense of sheer weirdness. The game is videogame logic run wild, let loose to colonise our homes.
The Spencer Mansion is a home that is not a home: its residents are subordinated to the mansion’s will, wedged in and living between the gears of its mechanisms. When not hostile, the mansion is merely indifferent to its inhabitants. Freud's famous 'unheimlich' is translated as 'the uncanny', but the more accurate translation is the term 'the unhomely': that which ought to be familiar, but isn't. The game's near photorealism heightens this sense of the uncanny, the familiar warped, the sense that things are almost-but-not-quite right. Ed Smith argues for the superiority of the original game, in its dreamy surreality: over-lit and under-decorated, devoid of detail, furniture and clutter. George Weidman also argues for the horrible strangeness of this – but the original is too far from reality to truly evoke the uncanny.
On my first (childhood) playthrough, this space grew in my mind and took residence there. The game's conspiratorial silliness, its attempts to rationalise its illogic, was easily swallowed. I live in Fife, Scotland, where the UK government built and maintained a nuclear bunker during the Cold War. It was successfully hidden beneath a farm-house for over forty years.
The farmhouse is a gift shop now; I don't know how it was lived in. But the bunker itself is extraordinary, is preserved as it was. Built ostensibly for people, it is a space that only minimally, begrudgingly accommodates them. The bunks are cramped, the lighting dim, the air on circulation. The machinery and screens outnumber all living spaces; the bunker's inclusion of a chapel (strip-lit and airless, with fold out chairs and air vents) feels more perverse than would its exclusion. The bunker's primary concern was not (could not be) for the men and women who maintained it, but for the cold abstractions and logics of nuclear strategy. The last hope and holdout of 'the British way of life' was a bunker that held no trace of it whatsoever. It was constructed for new and alien occupants.
This all helped me suspend my disbelief at Remake’s plot – but one does not have to have patience for the game's canonical story. The dialogue and cutscenes are infrequent enough that the 'logic' they impose can be shrugged off quite easily. One can simply enjoy the strange not-quite-pleasure of moving through a space that has no rhyme or reason – or at least, not one that the player can discern. It is an alien architecture that sits crouching in the darkness: straining to keep still, pretending to be your home.
I'm finishing up playing Resident Evil 7, and while it's been (especially in VR) a big greasy treat of a game, it's not held me in the same way as did the 2002 REmake. It’s nowhere near weird enough. The Baker house is not a home – the darkness of the attic and the shadows in the hallway are all breathing, breeding, pregnant with new life – but it is not the architecture itself that is weird. The house has been colonised by something Outside, but it might still be expelled; a cosy core of lost domesticity can be glimpsed within the layers of black mould. The game's stage-setting and props draw an ultimately affectionate picture of US rural life. Normality is visible, might still be in reach.
RE7 cracks wise at the artificiality of its puzzles, and this jokeyness is necessary. The strange cogs and automata were given free rein in REmake; their illogic ran the show. The Baker house is too believable: the ornate clockwork puzzles, when they appear, appear genuinely out of place. But this incongruity is not weird, no kind of shock – it is banal and familiar, an intrusion of rote and familiar videogame logic.
Something of the REmake’s weirdness can found in the pre-rendered backgrounds of Resident Evil 2 (I have yet to play 3, or either of their remakes). Like in REmake, your camera is tethered and the backdrops don't move, bringing to each scene a terrible stillness. The games conspire to force an intensity of concentration. Ordinarily, your eye might dart over the world that you move through: in hunter-gatherer mode, reading the environments only for their utility. But with limited movement and interactivity, the world’s boarded-up doorways and blacked-out windows take on a new significance – are appreciated not for what routes or items they might hide, but for their simple sinister beauty, the quiet watchful eyes that their darknesses suggest.
RE2, like REmake, attempts a believable space. The game’s police-station setting is superficially quite logical; the crumbling city outside is given sumptuous detail. But the fixed camera angles and the queasy colour palate transforms Raccoon City into the landscape of a dream. The air is still, frozen, sat waiting and poised, settling in for a night that could go on forever; the colours clash gaudily, ludicrously bright, saturated and compressed like Christmas gone wrong. REmake’s strangeness creeps up on you, its illogic visible only at the edges of a pristine surface. RE2 is delirium, a fever dream fantasia. It is hard to imagine that this series was deemed the meat-headed alternative to a more fanciful Silent Hill.
I wrote this summer about (what I then thought was) the unique beauty of the Silent Hill series, and its very particular approach to its abandoned buildings. In videogames, the pleasure of exploring ruins is an aggressively common one. We're invited to see these games (like The Last of Us, say) as bringing shattering shifts in perspective. They confront us with humanity's insignificance: the precarity of our most prosperous civilisations, and the contingency of the farthest horizons of what we think is possible.
This hasn't been my experience of these games. One walks wistfully through lost cities, emptied homes, and thinks only of these places' past. Or, more precisely, one thinks of the past inhabitants of these places – their loves and lives, now scattered to the wind. It's pure narcissism. We walk through these ruins blindly, seeing them only for what they are no longer. Silent Hill, by contrast, asks us to see the potential in the inhuman present – in the strange logics that unfurl in buildings left to themselves.
Silent Hill is not a ghost town, or at least not quite. The inhabitants have been (temporarily?) disappeared; the player is drawn into a strange pocket of the present, where one feels only half a breath away from a busy and bustling town. There is the same stillness, the same pregnant night air, as is found in Resident Evil.
Caught somewhere between ruin and the mundanity of the present, Silent Hill’s buildings sit alone with themselves. Their builders have gone missing, and with them, the cultural mapping that give them sense. Empty shopping malls and tenements, bridges and streets: our most commonplace of structures lying obsolete and barren, staring out in the dark. It is a wholly unfamiliar pleasure to walk through these streets. They are glinting and strange, spaces robbed of all meaning – but which in their lines and jutting angles, contours and shade, seem to suggest buried logics all their own.
Silent Hill eventually descended into its own petty narcissisms. Silent Hill Downpour's overwrought Otherworlds make sense only as theme park rides: personalised fun-house tours through the capital-T Traumas and Issues of its characters. These spaces – roller-coasters and water-slides and haunted-house mazes – suggest no internal logic – could not exist independently of the videogame tourist trade. When the player turns her back, we must assume that these spaces disappear behind her.
What (the best of) Silent Hill and Resident Evil offer, is a sense of a perverted and self-contained world – spaces which no longer need us to flourish and thrive. These mansions and towns, breathing in stale air and shadows: they seem somehow like ecosystems. I don't know how to explain it.
I want more games that unsettle in this way: our brickwork co-opted and contorted by an outside presence; the shock of hostile logics wearing the skin of our homes. I want more games that let the outside in.
(Sidenote: I grew up ten miles away from Fife's 'secret' nuclear bunker, and visited rarely. Years later I went to work in a village three miles from its entrance, and on my first day (2017, Donald Trump newly elected President) I heard air-raid sirens blaring in the afternoon stillness. A coworker who cleaned the bunker in the mornings before work, later told me the owner tests his sirens as a matter of routine. Luckily I hadn't ran, or screamed; I had felt too uncertain and embarrassed to hide and take shelter. Good to know that, if and when war hits, social anxiety will be what literally fucking kills me. Happy New Year lads! I'm glad we all made it out of 2020. Thank you for reading the little that I've been posting this year - it has meant an awful lot.)