What makes Resident Evil such a resilient strain of horror?
Having reinvented itself more times than Madonna, no one quite seems to know what Resident Evil is any more – least of all Capcom. As the series nears its 20th birthday, its umbrella uneasily encompasses survival-horror classics, a startling action rebirth, lightgun games, score-attack curios, team-based shooters, and an ongoing series of middling-to-poor movies that’s seemingly continuing to no greater end than to bankroll Mila Jovovich. It is, in short, a mess.
Those with shorter memories might pinpoint the blame on the departure of series creator Shinji Mikami after 2005’s Resident Evil 4, but Capcom began its experimentation with the formula as early as 2000’s risible Survivor, a clunky lightgun shooter featuring a stock amnesiac protagonist. Despite a critical trashing, Survivor 2 Code: Veronica would follow the next year, establishing a pattern that has endured to this day. For all that zombie fatigue has supposedly gripped this industry, there’s still a ravenous appetite for games with Resident Evil on the box that has little relation to the quality or mechanics of the software inside. The record sales of the muddled Resident Evil 6 alone attest to that.
So what is Capcom to make of forum kvetching as the different strains of Resi fan struggle to return to one of several perceived glory days? What is it to make of ten years of happy stockholders and mixed reviews? What it has always made: more Resident Evil.
There are signs, however, of a company seeking to understand what the series should mutate into next. Should it return to its roots? January’s HD remaster of the original game’s GameCube remake played strongly to the survival-horror crowd, many now lucrative 30-somethings with a soft spot for Jill sandwiches and an almost pathological desire to see the excellent Resi 2 remade. Revelations 2, meanwhile, recaptures the tensions of limited ammunition and storage space, stitching them back onto the raw action that characterised Resis 4 through to 6, a formula in which Capcom perhaps sees diminishing returns. You can be sure that management will be watching the sales figures and fan reaction to 2015’s offerings with interest.
Yet there’s a grand irony in all of this. Resident Evil as a whole is so impervious to changing trends precisely because it occupies a space in the media spectrum where it’s OK, even desirable, to come with low expectations. Its genre is not defined by camera position or any design document, but by the corpus of B-movie horror. And just as no one looks to that end of the cinematic scale for Academy bait, so no one looks to Resident Evil to advance storytelling or technical achievement in games. Instead, every Resi parasitically latches onto the baser parts of the human psyche which crave the tingles of shlocky melodrama and mild revulsion – and some of them have managed this so brilliantly as to trouble game-of-the-year lists. Resi games would rather be hokey fun than high art.
So maybe Revelations 2’ s episodic reinvention is more appropriate than it first appears. The series’ storytelling has long mirrored the telenovella, its characters, plots and even mechanics improbably shaped and reshaped to fit pulpy tales of world-ending stakes and gruesome bioweapons. The best Resi games put these parts together in ways that shock just enough to be captivating, never quite enough to be off-putting. The worst ones are the games that fail to create dramatic tension, that stop you wanting to shovel metaphorical popcorn into your gaping mouth as whatever gribbly menace grows in the shadows. In that sense, Revelations 2 is a dramatic step forward for the series, evidence of a Capcom finally in on the joke and ready to turn the undying quality of Resident Evil to its direct advantage. And whatever comes next mechanically, it’s a promising sign for the continued survival of gaming’s seminal breed of B-grade horror.