Horrific Controls

Resident Evil 2 & the Mechanics of Fear

Commentary - Resident Evil 2

My name is Kent Aardse. I’m the Commentaries editor on First Person Scholar. Currently I’m a PhD student in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo. My research explores how narrative and rule-based games may be the two most fundamental types of activity that characterize the human mind, and I believe the study of gaming may help illuminate certain aspects of how the mind operates.

Resident Evil 2 defined the survival horror genre. There are very few games that can boast this accolade. Some might say that the Resident Evil series, not just Resident Evil 2, defined the genre. This is somewhat misleading, though. The first in the series, Resident Evil, originally released for the Sony PlayStation in 1996, was a great horror title with truly memorable cut scenes and a great environment to explore. So why didn’t it define the genre? Some small hindrances are prominent throughout, which ultimately lead to a more comical game than was originally hoped for. The use of live action cut scenes, coupled with a poor acting cast, detracted from the spooky in-game atmosphere, and actually led to a sharp schism between cut-scenes and gameplay. This only reminds the player that she is playing a game, taking away from the survival horror elements. Further, Resident Evil suffers from some truly abhorrent writing. Anyone who has played the first game, and even some who have not, will remember the infamous “Jill sandwich” line of dialogue. While not directly impacting the gameplay, these moments of unintentional comedy derails the ominous atmosphere needed for an inspiring work of survival horror.

Enter Resident Evil 2, released for the Sony PlayStation console in 1998. Resident Evil 2 took everything that was great from the first game, such as atmosphere, enemies, puzzle-solving, and amplified it to a level beyond its predecessor. Scrapping the live action cut-scenes, Resident Evil 2 features pre-rendered segments that set up the initial story and feature sparingly throughout, oftentimes during intense sequences that benefited greatly from the graphical prowess available through the use of pre-rendered video. This creates seamless transitioning between gameplay and cutscene, effectively engaging the player without any awkward breaks between modes of representation. Although suffering from some interesting dialogue choices, Resident Evil 2 contains very few (if any) cringe-worthy moments of unintentional humor. Rather, the story is solid, the voice acting solid for its time, and an unmatched atmosphere of intensity and desperation.

Playing the role of either Leon S. Kennedy, a rookie cop on his first day of the job for the Raccoon City Police Department, or Claire Redfield, a mysterious woman looking for her brother Chris (whom players took control of in the first game of the series), the player is immersed into a world in the midst of a zombie outbreak. Writing and reading this in the year 2012, it might be easy to simply breeze through that last sentence and chalk it up to the current entertainment industry’s obsession with zombie culture. However, we must remember that this was well before the zombie blow-up, and the first two games in the series really played upon the earlier films of George Romero as a source of inspiration, and this was done at a time when zombies where not de jour of videogame enemy. As a result, these were classic zombies: they were slow, stupid, and full of moaning. In the end, this is to the advantage of the series, as the slow, brooding atmosphere and enemies really defined the nature of survival horror. Read, watch, or listen to any review of Resident Evil 5, one of the latest entries in the series, and you will find that most people agree that this newer game is more of an action game rather than survival horror. The zombies are faster, smarter, and not really zombies at all. Unfortunately, as with most of the industry, Capcom figures it must make everything bigger and badder, to compete with Hollywood, big budget action films. In a game scenario, though, it is readily apparent that this leaning towards quicker pace and smarter enemies means a drift away from methodical, psychological survival horror.

Resident Evil 2 provides us with an illuminating take on how the controls of a game can play into its immersion. At the time of release, and still to this day, the control scheme of Resident Evil 2 has been the one aspect of the game constantly criticized. The controls are sluggish, requiring the player to constantly press up on the directional pad in order to run forward, regardless of the direction the on-screen character is facing. This is in stark contrast to the majority of other games in which a direction is pressed on the gamepad to correlate with the direction the character is moving on the screen. In retrospect, though, this might just be one of the hidden strengths of the early Resident Evil games, and one of the very reasons for viewing Resident Evil 2 as being a truly definitive survival horror game.

The poor, dated controls of Resident Evil 2 create an even more tense atmosphere, as the player cannot readily turn and flee, or aim accurately in any given situation. In fact, the controls almost add to the authenticity of the game, as they recreate the feeling of tension and anxiety that I am sure would be felt by the average person in that sort of chaotic environment. I am not advocating for a return to this control scheme, but merely stating that it is the age and quality of Resident Evil 2 which creates the prototypical survival horror game. The controls lend the game a feeling of vulnerability, as the player never knows when she will have to maneuver around four zombies in a long, skinny hallway. Nowadays, a game that featured such horrible controls would be derided by many, but for Resident Evil, the affordances and constraints of the controls creates an intense, anxious atmosphere. I fear that we may never again see this same sort of survival horror, as our games have become much to sophisticated to feature this sort of thing. But Resident Evil 2 stands as a truly revolutionary experience, one that benefits from its own flaws, and one that deserves to be replayed and revisited by any fan of survival horror.