By: Terence Gavin
Resident Evil for the Sony Playstation is in my opinion, a perfect game. Open-world game design spearheaded by the “Metroidvania” style promoted exploration and player ownership. Detailed canvas-like environments created an unnerving sense of realism and physicality. Challenging enemies were painstakingly hand placed to elicit both challenge and raw player emotion. A mature plot sewn together with care featured swirling intrigue and action surrounding a stranded squad of elite law enforcement in the mysterious halls of a dark brooding mansion. Puzzles seemed perfectly fit for this realm, each requiring a certain level of meditation before workable solutions presented themselves. Terror.
True terror as I had never experienced or believed was possible in the videogame format. Distant moans of the undead, gloomy hallways staring back at me, cutscene’s revealing unknown seemingly unstoppable enemies were just a few examples of the constant danger abound. A unique save system so perfectly couched in this world it never broke the fourth wall and provided both challenge and player devised stratagem. You were taxed to not only reach certain physical locations(typewriter) to save your progress, but the amount game saves per playthrough was limited by the need for an in-game item(inkribbon.) All of these aspects blended perfectly creating a rich, unforgettable experience still bright in many gamers’ psyches over a decade and a half later.
Resident evil 6 is a perfect disappointment. After having devoted 40+ hours into Capcoms most recent foray into the long running series, I can regretfully see why this game received such mediocre scores. RE6 is the lowest scoring numbered entrant in the franchise, with a combined console Metacritic rating hovering in the low 70’s. Considering the production values are second to none, this is without doubt a harsh but fair judgement of its unsatisfying gameplay mechanics. As with many big budget games in recent history, Call of Duty’s DNA is definitely abundant throughout. Multiple action-packed globetrotting campaigns where no boss fight is too grandiose, bullets are loosed by the thousands and every helicopter will crash in the now clichéd Black Hawk Down fashion. A skill system ala COD multiplayers’ perks where you can purchase 3 different skills to compliment and empower your preferred play style has even been adopted. It is perplexing how such a prominent franchise, managing to spawn the most successful movie crossover in videogame history would be so quick to shed the very genre it created. This is not survival horror.
The development team attempted, futilely, to shoehorn in familiar RE concepts and mechanics. Considering the leagues of enemies thrown in front of your path, ammo is strangely scarce. This design choice seems bizarrely counterintuitive with both pace and tone of this adrenaline-fueled action extravaganza. Upon completion of the campaigns, the player is then rewarded with the ability to purchase unlimited ammo skills to make subsequent playthroughs on harder difficulties much easier. Considering how instinctfully flawed many of the shooting and game mechanics felt, this seems to be the only way the highest difficulties could be tackled without instigating mass controller destruction by the players. Green and red herbs are still present for healing player health but seem so out of place in this modern setting that at times it’s almost laughable. Leon Kennedy’s campaign is a trite attempt at recovering the spirit of a survival horror game, and instead proves itself as a testament to the lack of player freedom and a failure to incite even nominal emotional reaction. This game has no pulse. Pun very much intended.
Resident Evil is not beyond saving. I believe we can construct a RE game that both satisfies diehard survival horror fans and modern action junkies alike. The key I believe is freedom. Let’s begin…
The first step is to decide on an environment for the game. Historically, RE games are centered around one engrossing location. RE1 featered a sprawling mansion that set a decidedly eerie tone of isolation. RE2 was host to the Raccoon City police department which helped propel a theme of societal collapse amidst escalating chaos. This is paramount, as a dramatic but realistically grounded environment captures the players attention, sets the mood and builds a sense of exploration and locality. Why labor to create hundreds of set pieces and spread them thin across the world when you can paint one singular realm? A Fitting location for the series should be large enough to elicit a sense of wonderment yet fundamentally isolate the character from rescue. An offshore oil platform, underground bunker system, remote military installation or cruise ship would all be natural options fulfilling this criteria.
Gone will be the linear level structure that is in my opinion a backwards leap to archaic game design. This will be an open world interconnected from the very first room until the final conflict. By instating multiple paths leading to the climax the player creates their own route to victory using instinct and emotion as a guide. With your new found key you have the option to leave the barracks, or continue clearing it room by room which has already proved so treacherous. Why not dive into the ventilation system towards destination unknown or unbar the doors to the mess hall in search of answers and treasured supplies? Every hidden item will be earned, every fight a sacrifice, every door opened an ambition.
Gameplay will still use the 3rd person over the shoulder camera which proves to be the best modern interpretation of RE1’s cinematic disembodied camera angles. Ammunition will be limited with more curious players being rewarded for going off the beaten path. To make up for the lack of ammo, players will have to master a robust hand to hand/weapon based melee system that RE6 begins to hint at with Jakes campaign but fails to fully realize. The best players will figure out how to spear, stun, grapple, counter, disarm, neutralize enemies without firing a shot all the while exposing themselves to danger in close quarters combat. Those that wish to distance themselves will be forced to figure out the best shooting positions for each weapon and master breath control. Distraction elements and environmental objects will play a constant role, such as flood lights that can be shot out, noxious lab samples that when destroyed can have varying effects on creatures and character alike, Pressure doors that can be hacked and manipulated to crush enemies and fire containment systems that can be tricked to automatically expel halogen freezing enemies in place. The player’s surroundings themselves are a force that should be manipulated but respected.
The days of slow shuffling zombies have been swept aside for a myriad of grotesque mutations each more wicked and fantastical then the last. The game has changed and so should our protagonist. When considering the odds, a seventeen-year-old medic named Rebecca wielding a 9mm handgun is no longer a viable vessel for this journey. It is clear to me that a new breed of RE action game will involve a player character that for better or worse is exposed to one of the many strands of virus inhabiting the RE universe. Honestly, it is ridiculous that reoccurring characters like Chris and Leon haven’t contracted any biological agents considering the thousands they have come in contact with. So, we are infected and our goal is a cure ourselves, or sacrifice ourselves to synthesize a cure for the world, or harness the powerful infection to find and destroy those who caused the biological attack. It’s up to you… freedom, remember!
Wielding an infected character not only puts in motion a plot device, but opens the door for more involving game mechanics. This infection could be the basis for an in-depth leveling system akin to role-playing-games. And why not, RPG elements have snuck into almost every genre and when well implemented provide abundant player motivation, reward and customization. Let’s say the character is first given one of 3 choices for their base mutation, then, upon gaining experience will be able to choose more advanced mutations offering both divergent gameplay and player freedom. Possibilities might include telescopic retinas allowing the player to zoom in while a weapon is drawn for better shot placement, regenerating health, a mutated arm that provides a shield and harder hitting melee attacks. Maybe there are only a handful of potent mutations to choose from or hundreds of subtle choices that when combined create wholly different playstyles. In the spirit of freedom, I would be remise to leave out the option of avoiding mutations alltogether, provided there were motivators and consequences of doing so.
On the topic of experience, it should not be an ethereal number floating on the heads up display, instead XP should represented as a tangible item dropped by enemies. The player will then have to sacrifice their finite inventory room to carry these XP items which I’ll refer to as DNA samples to specific in-game locations. These might be something like military-grade medical injection sites spread throughout the game. All of these mechanics help reinforce immersion, a cornerstone of the RE franchise. Further RPG elements might include sub-bosses that can be revisited with the intent of acquiring elusive mutation drops. When equipped these rare “drops” might allow the player to mimic their respective bosses’ powers. Providing player motivation to return to already cleared areas is not a familiar notion to the series, so this unapologetically stolen mechanic might be one of many design choices necessary to promote replayability. Careful attention to detail and player immersion would dictate that these fallen beasts could not simply reappear. A believable in-game item such as a DNA sample could be used under special circumstances to recreate the beast. Not only have we satisfied our design choice… we’re playing God.
But where’s the horror? I know… I’m getting there, but were going to have to take a modern look on what gets players heart’s pumping. The slowly trodding pace, poor character control dubbed “tank controls” for their rigidity, and alienating camera angles that caused so much tension were rightfully shed by Capcom. These aged tricks can no longer be relied on to provide genuine terror. Capcom just hasn’t figured out how to replace the scares, or have they? In RE6 there is an unlockable game mode termed Agent Hunt in which you are tasked with invading other players campaigns. Blending in as one of the many nightmarish creatures you stalk your prey in order to halt the hosts progress. A griefer mode, huh? Diabolical, yes, but ultimately it falls flat due to a lack of any natural direction. You endlessly assault the poor target because you’re told to do so. Successfully murdering the host player sends them packing back to reload the last checkpoint, and our victorious invader is then spit out to the menu or anticlimactically cycled into another game. Agent Hunt mode is at best, a mildly amusing time waster. It does however provide a glimpse into a possibly frightening game theme, chaos through natural human interaction.
What if every time the player loaded a new area or region during their quest software was invisibly matching them up with others online. You would be forced to rely on memory and keen senses. Do you hear footsteps in the distance, was that blast door open before, didn’t you leave the slow lumbering zombie in the lab alive? Constant alertness would prove imperative if others might be right around the corner. Remember were aiming for freedom here so no true goal is set in motion for either party. You may work together to explore and take down creatures as a team, trading precious ammo and health along the way or simply try and kill each other for a chance to sap valuable XP. Every matchup will be as unpredictable as the person behind it. There are rewards for working together or against. Will someone use you to help them take down a boss then instantly turn on you for the chance to replenish their expended provisions? There should be contingencies in place to allow the player to disconnect from a chance meeting if the need arises, such as hiding in the oft used air vent or locker. When being chased by a psychotic twelve-year-old with a 12 gage shotgun and scorpions tail simply hide. After enough time has passed in your secure location the software will automatically disconnect the other player allowing you to continue your journey in relative peace. Not only is the human element the driving force between all interaction, the narrative itself is being written by those you bump into. Freedom and power…
Death is a journey. Player death is inevitable, but restarting at a checkpoint to repeat a failed challenge shouldn’t be. From software’s Demon’s Souls has set a new standard in using player death as a part of the characters journey. The player uses every grim demise as a learning experience and is then challenged to retrieve what wealth they have accumulated in a seamless transition back to life and continuous narrative. Player death should no longer be followed by an attention breaking load screen. Why would the game market developing more and more cinematic adventures be so reliant on catapulting players backwards to a previous checkpoint to play out the same failed scenarios ad infinitum? Would even your favorite scene from a film hold up if you were forced to rewind and watch it 15 times before allowing the story to continue? Invite player death to become part of the story not an agent counteracting it.
Let’s use our theoretical medical injection sites spread throughout the world as a dual purpose DNA synthesizer that also recreates the character the last time you uploaded your sample to it. Not only is death part of the narrative but we’ve nestled it neatly within the constructs of the world similar to the originals type writer mechanic. Along with our potent DNA analysis machine we can easily implement another original RE component, the “box.” The box added a sorely missed level of depth and strategy to the series in which players were able to bank items they wished to keep but could not fit in their inventory. Using our new respawn mechanic the box will also play a new role as death and the possible loss of gear will force the player to place emergency items and supplies inside. Now, using Demon’s Souls method as an example we can add the challenging punishment for player death. Some items, possibly including XP, weapons, ammo or quest items are still in a backpack where you perished and you must recover them. In this way the player is not forced to play out the same failed scenario, but compelled to return and exact vengeance.
In the original RE games many small choices stacked up to create unique playthroughs. Just 10 to 15 missed handgun shots on the first few weak zombies could come back to haunt you hours later and frequently did. Every choice should have weight and add up to something more than a pre-scripted boss fight and universal cut scene. The freedom the player is met with should only be matched by real consequence in the final chapters of their journey. The final boss’s attributes and location should be decided on multiple subtle changes you’ve made to the environment throughout the game. Entire world tendencies could be altered by the flick of a switch. Perhaps you found a rare item that when placed inside the climate control system eradicates a single breed of enemy from the game completely, possibly making others stronger. These world altering decisions get interesting when they are collated and applied online to others’ games. For instance, if enough players accidentally damage a power relay station during a certain boss fight it will cause a temporary blackout in everyone’s game. When your hallways and laboratories begin to strobe with red emergency lighting you will know too many noobs destroyed the generator. These world tendencies could create an impactful experience that echoes the achievements of others or a haunting reminder of their failures.
The basic formula for compelling game mechanic comes in three steps, discovery, challenge and reward. The player must first be taken to a new believable world. In order to keep the players attention this world must immerse the player with interesting dynamics and reliable mechanics. Challenging the player is best accomplished when multiple solutions are hinted at. Allowing the player to utilize their own strategies based on the world mechanics allows the player to solve challenges how they see fit. Reward is best demonstrated through consequence and world manipulation. Unlocking a new more powerful weapon or earning more hit points is not enough. The environment must transform based on player actions. By the final conclusion the player isn’t tasked with slaying the boss because that’s the next level. The player must be motivated to do so and take responsibility for their choices leading to the finale. A more compelling view of the three base game mechanics might be immersion, freedom and consequence.
This theoretical Resident Evil is not impossible to develop. The next generation of console hardware is right around the corner and online connectivity is steadily growing with data speeds climbing every year. None of the proposed game mechanics are revolutionary. Budgets for top tier videogame franchises are surpassing that of Hollywood productions. The question is… does Capcom trust the player enough to allow this kind of freedom?