Resident Evil 4 was a game that colonised my unconscious. It took root inside my brain. For about a week in 2006, aged twelve years old, playing through the game was all that I did. I mean that sentence literally. When I turned off Resident Evil 4, I went to my bed and I dreamed of it. Every night I did this. For a whole week, without pause: every hour of every day, waking and dreaming, was spent surviving inside RE4's muck and gloom.
Well. I have a job now. Two jobs, actually – and a degree to finish, and taxes to do, and a towering pile of sexual and social neuroses. My unconscious is full up, thank you. I don't dream about games anymore. Who on Earth has the time?
The art of Resident Evil Village is like a dream come true. The spaces that could only be suggested by Mikami’s final entry are now hewn with impossible detail. RE4’s fantasy – of barren wastelands, isolated survival in a scorched-earth wilderness – would seem to have finally been brought to fruition.
Hemmed in by the village's claustrophobic sprawl, you try to chart a path through a space where nothing is neatly segmented. The houses sit pressed together, asymmetrically, all too tight. Brickwork crumbling, they topple out into each other's domains, all boundaries forgotten, like a crowd of drunks swaying arm in arm. Graves sit there openly, laying out in the street, clustered erratically wherever space can be found – life and death mixing quite unselfconsciously. And the snow – the snow connects everything. Spread out as a messy blanket, it mixes brickwork and branches, foliage and mud into a queasy, indiscriminate, off-white spread. The cosiness of village life appears an intolerable closeness. Only the houses of the rich sit at a safe retreat.
The density of detail that confronts the player – and I mean this sincerely – is vertigo inducing. The frame is so much busier than it was in 7, with its oppressively neat and angular architecture. Village by contrast is aggressively messy: the spindling swirls of its trees; picket fences pocked by dirt, faded paintwork and grime, laying splayed and burst open by the force of the snow. The game is astonishing in its visual complexity, astonishing in how each footstep unveils a new composition as harmonious as the last, every viewing angle seemingly taken into account. Every inch of the map produces a new arrangement to admire. I kept wanting to line up new panoramic shots, or get up close and stare into the fine grain of the wood, at the plaster and mould – at their microscopic patterns circling infinitely inwards.
At first, this busyness commanded my reverent attention. I moved through the game at a near snail's pace – gazing intently, walking slower than the game seemed to be programmed for. Ethan's footsteps would shuffle comically fast, as though the programmers couldn't conceive of their players wanting to take this much time. I wondered if the designers appreciated what their artists had accomplished, had any sense of the gold-mine they had on their hands.
The appalling sensuality of Castle Dimetrescu – the heavy musk of its perfumes and overripe fruit, its oil-paint sneers, the violence latent in its wealth – this is all served incredibly well by the familiarity of its form. The Castle plays out as a standard RE puzzle-box: metroidvania-lite and tightly wound, to be swept clean and shiny by each successive lap. You know the rhythm of this. It sits dormant in your muscle-memory. With very minimal combat (and maximalist architecture), you feel able to shift your movements down into something like autopilot, leaving your eyes free to wonder as luxuriantly as they like. The Castle is a masterwork of design where the art, not the game, is made the point – facilitated by the most mercilessly formulaic of structures.
The whole of Village is like this – a compilation of formulas, all of them well worn. But as you move out of the Castle's formula and onto the next, you move into designs with considerably less charm. The Benneviento House proper – the basement down underground – feels remarkably artless and sparsely arranged, a brittle retread of Lucas Baker’s RE7 funhouse. Its strengths are narrow, lying only in its one-and-done ability to scare, all environmental flourishes focus-tested away. The Lycan stronghold, by contrast, coheres not at all – an overstimulating barrage, a barely functioning echo of the series’ action-heavy past. Village becomes much less pretty, and much less considered, but the RE Engine nonetheless keeps it all saturated in detail. I feel obliged to keep looking, take everything in.
The simple bold lines that formed the early game's design become crossed over and tangled with an abundance of side-systems: collectables, upgrades, the obligatory inclusion of optional puzzles. There’s even a whole living ecosystem, an abundance of animals to conquer and sell. Content, in other words. The game's bloated with content – as cynically fattened as a pig led to market. The lean gameplay loops of 4 could support all these strands, but Village's core design is itself already schizoid – ever-changing, uncommitted to any one version of itself. Nothing synthesizes, a jumble of under-utilised designs.
And the game sure grows to love the sound of its voice. A plot simultaneously overwritten and far too thin, with dialogue that barks above droning exposition. Has Resident Evil always been this stupid? I mean, yes. But these games used to have the good sense to be quiet. The houses of older games were given room to breathe. In their glowering silence, they suggested something more.
The initial potency of the village, the castle, the dizzying extravagance of its detail – for the first time in years, Resident Evil wormed its way back inside my dreams. Infiltrating and blurring with murky fragments of memory, I dreamt of fir trees and tundra, castles malevolently baroque - the dark glint of varnished oak, hanging in a starless void.
But by the end of the game, RE Village's art design has been wrung out to dry. You are called back to the village time and time again, armed afresh with new scraps of ‘backstory’ and ‘lore’. The mediocre script has decided that it should be the star of the show. The village's potency is drained bloodless by such rote ‘world-building’; the gorgeous art design is not fleshed out but gutted, beached remains lying empty as a hollowed-out carcass. I resented the game its beauty, the great care with which these spaces still demanded to be looked at. I could no longer believe there was anything underneath the surface.