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The Pleasures of Fixed Cameras in Resident Evil 2

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I'm only halfway through Resident Evil 2 (2019), and I already feel burned out on it.

This remake, like its source, is so close to being sublime. The visuals lack some of the original’s lurid Christmas kitsch, but the new camera system tries to compensate, encouraging a very careful appraisal of the environments. It recalls Silent Hill: Shattered Memories in its focus on the flashlight, its slow and focussed unpeeling of the station's layers and layers of darkness. The slight input lag on the flashlight is a lovely touch, punishing fast movement with disorientation. Your eyes can't dart around; they have to settle, go slow.

The police department is decorated lavishly. This might just be me (I'm quite new to the current gen consoles), but I was astonished by the density of detail, each room intricately staged. And the lock-and-key, metroidvania-lite level design works wonders for engendering a deep familiarity with these spaces. I'm confident I could draw a map of the station from memory.

You are sent whirling around the station in spirals, chipping away further and further into the building's depths. Decisions made hours ago come back to bite you, with new enemies flooding any unguarded corridors. Old and emptied rooms are put to new uses: you actively seek them out, as you try to carve a safe path away from Mr X. You’re in a space that seems capable of renewing itself infinitely, revealing itself more and more.

The game is quieter than the original, the soundtrack sparse. Its silences demand your attention. Initially, you are just listening out for enemy encounters. You listen closely – with good reason – to the rustlings and bangings from (somewhere) upstairs. But although the zombies here are a greater threat than in prior games, there are moments where they are crowded out of your attention by the silence itself. You become aware that the greater mass that surrounds you is not that of the zombies (who are relatively scarce), but that of the building. You feel hemmed in by its hulking weight, the silent mass of the walls.

Your eyes stay to linger on the details that don't matter. You find yourself looking intently into the smooth surface of marble, or at the fragile weave of shadow cast across the bumps and creases of wallpaper. I didn't know that I could be so fascinated by the patterns produced by dried paint. The architecture is not just the stage-set for action – it (almost) becomes the star of the show. The building is so still, so unearthly in its calm. You will sometimes feel that it is meeting your gaze.

The continual renewal of old rooms, the successive laps that strip away layer after layer: these are all suggestive of endless secrets, buried within the station walls. But the logic of this level design eventually comes to undermine the very pleasures it offers. The intimacy you develop with the station is a pleasant side-effect, not an end in-itself. The real goal of this looping level structure is to produce the satisfaction of box-ticking – of sweeping through a map and wiping it clean. I don't know how else to make sense of the speed with which we move on from the station, in search of new maps to explore conquer. The police station still feels potent, so alive with potential at the point at which you leave. I don't want to leave! I want to hunker down here. I want to stay travelling further and further inwards, in endless concentric circles.

But even were we to stay, I suspect there would remain something frustrating, something that feels wasteful, about the lavishness of these environments. All this baroque architecture, the station’s gorgeous dust and gloom, is rendered with greater detail and care than was possible in the original. And yet these pleasures ultimately feel relegated, somehow, to the background of the remake.

The original series’ pre-rendered backgrounds allowed for a very small range of possible combat encounters. I really don’t know how the series could have evolved its action had it not embraced an over-the-shoulder perspective. But what I loved about the PS1 games was the very fact that their form de-emphasized action. I liked how their tethered cameras limited your interactivity, freed up your mind to engage languidly with the world. You straddled the line between harried player and contemplative viewer. You got to imaginatively inhabit a series of painted landscapes, running around inside a world that was preternaturally still.

This unnatural calm emphasized the wonderful eeriness of Resident Evil’s environments. ‘The eerie’ is defined by absence – by an absence where there should be something, surely? Think of ‘eerie landscapes’, where what unsettles is a lack of movement, a lack of (visible) life. Absence is felt as an ominous presence. This quality saturates the best of Resident Evil – but in this remake it is punctured, by the new seamlessness and control afforded by the camera.  

The screen does not stay still. It chooses to, sometimes, when we use certain items: it takes control away to stare at a slowly opening shutter, the darkened innards of the room obscured by the shot. The imposition of the director implies that what we’re looking at is meaningful, the brickwork laden with some unknown significance.

With a behind-the-shoulder camera, this sense is greatly diminished. The player is sovereign, looking only at what she wants to see. Her screen is rarely imbued with quite the same weight, the knowledge that everything she sees has been seen first by the director. The grim finality of the pre-rendered shots; the sheer banality of what they looked at (just furniture, floorboards): it was this juxtaposition that unsettled. You felt the director was trying to tell you something with his blank-eyed stare. Something unknown is inhabiting the walls.

The remake’s environments are carefully dressed, but they cannot transfix you in quite the same way. Each pre-rendered screen stared out at you as you ran through it. You would be sprinting towards a goal and the camera would just sit there, unnervingly still. The scenery was given the space to breathe; you had time to contemplate it, even while racing ahead. To play with the same efficiency now (in a much slicker, more interconnected space) is to have the world run past you, the camera always moving on. You can choose to stay still and sit with the details, but you know that you’re letting the pacing down. You’re ‘playing it wrong’. The old design accentuated the eerie quality of RE; to try and fully recapture it in the remake, you have to actively resist the rhythms of its gameplay.

With pre-rendered shots, your character is only ever a small part of the scene. Walking down a strip-lit corridor, you recede deeper into the background, swallowed up by the space. While you busy yourself with your little plans and objectives, the station walls sit implacable. The architecture itself takes centre stage; we only exist within it.

With a camera sat behind our character’s backs, we now become the centre of the world. Everything is funnelled towards the eye of the beholder. The composition of each shot is flattened, with every room (however ornate) seen from the exact same perspective, our character always occupying the same third of the screen. There are none of the old dizzying shifts in perspective, the sense that we are seeing through the eyes of the building itself. The original game’s police station was primarily shot to look haunting and expansive, even if this undermined the capabilities of the player. It de-emphasised the human perspective, to unnerving effect. (As an aside: I think this same emphasis – on environment over character – was captured well by RE7’s first-person perspective)

In his reviews of Monument Valley and The Swapper, Tevis Thompson derides games that make us stop still and stare at the screen. He writes that “it’s movement that makes our onscreen selves come alive”; that what “might make for a beautiful set of posters” will sure “make for an empty game”. I’m only half-inclined to agree with this. The early Resident Evil’s are a fascinating middle ground between an action game and a photo album. While one half of your brain is in magpie-mode, hunting single-mindedly for keys and shotgun shells, the other half is confronted with stillness, with a stubborn refusal of stimulation. You are confronted with images that cannot really be interacted with – only contemplated.  

Your imagination can play with images in a way that controllers can't facilitate. The mechanics of the Resident Evil games offer plenty of fun; I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the combat afforded by the new camera. But the visuals pull my imagination far away from these concerns. I want to sit for longer in these rooms. I want another entry where the silences and blacked-out windows and palid light is made the point, somehow. I know that following this line of thought risks “[loving] the video more than the game”. But survival horror only counts as its own genre, as something distinct from other mechanically identical games, by virtue of its aesthetics and tone. I’d be delighted to see a Resident Evil that prioritised this at the expense of practically all else.

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About My Enormous Hairy Downstairs Kitchenone of us since 2:33 PM on 01.05.2012

Games, self-pity, ladsladslads.

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