As Resident Evil Village fast approaches, Ross is going to be revisiting some of his favourite titles from a series that has undergone many permutations since 1996—from survival horror to white-knuckle third-person action—reinventing itself whenever the formula became too staid, to varying levels of success. But when it works, it really works.
Between my mid-teens to early adulthood I was convinced that in order for a game to be truly good it required a strong narrative, a complex cast of characters, and mature themes. I held to this conviction in spite of being surrounded by a bunch of titles I loved that did no such thing.
It’s no coincidence this period coincided with my attempts to marry a burgeoning interest in telling stories to game design. I’d get together with my writing partner, pen a story, and then set about trying to recruit other people to make it a reality by doing the gameplay bits.
It met with failure every time.
I didn’t even really know what I wanted from the stories I was telling, let alone how they applied to interactivity – or rather didn’t. I just knew I wanted to tell them, and games were my then medium of choice. The best games possessed a strong narrative, I reasoned, and those were the kinds of games I wanted to make.
Bad reasoning, boyo. The video game does not require a strong narrative, at least not in the traditional sense. Sure, if they’re trying to tell a complex, twisting tale with believable characters then yes, that which makes a good story in other mediums is equally applicable here. It is an amazing space in which to tell stories tales rooted in empathy, emotion and all that good stuff. There are many terrific examples of the narrative-driven game. Better yet, some tell them in such a way that only the video game is capable of doing – a true testament to the medium’s artistic merits.
But games aren’t engines of narrative in the way we consider, say, films to be. And that’s for a really simple, obvious reason: they’re games, and they’re meant to be played. The game can tell emergent stories – stories that are realised in the interaction between player and gameplay. These stories are unique to individual players, because games are systems we interact with; systems that predominantly emphasise choice.
And unlike narrative-focused mediums, the game can survive just fine without a good story. It can even survive when saddled with badly written trash, which is just as well because it often is.
See the Resident Evil series, which is most certainly badly written trash (I love it dearly).
More specifically, see Resident Evil 4, again badly written trash, but nonetheless a near perfect game and arguably one of the best ever made.
Resident Evil 4 was released in 2004 for the GameCube, round about the time I was starting to apply a real adolescent smugness to things I loved. My parents bought me a GameCube for the sole purpose of playing this one game. I adored it then and I adore it now – with one difference.
In 2004, I thought it would’ve been better if it had characters who didn’t speak in clichés even the worst of action movies wouldn’t countenance, or at least had those characters feel like real human beings. That it called for better story than the dumb, juvenile occult nonsense it served up without shame.
Bad reasoning, yet again. Resident Evil 4 would not be improved if it had been penned by someone who could write. It’s not even an argument about how it’s ‘so bad it’s good’, which I don’t really believe in anyway…
…I just don’t think it matters.
Watch the cutscenes or skip the cutscenes, it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference. Resident Evil 4 makes plenty fun of itself and is sufficiently self-aware to know what it’s doing – or not doing – but it’s still not necessary to engage with the story.
And that’s because Resident Evil 4 succeeds at capturing the elemental spirit of action in the substantive sequences that occur between them. As a game it’s raw, white-knuckle poetry; almost as rhythmically rewarding and gratifying as watching a superlative piece of choreography.
The first set-piece is a sublime example of this artistry in action, and to this day it’s a bona fide masterpiece of an introduction to the game’s core gameplay, then a major reimagining of the series from survival horror to essentially action.
On the hunt for the US President’s kidnapped daughter (lol) in rural Spain, you arrive at a village. You’ve already been attacked by grumbling, crazed locals – wryly noting they aren’t the zombies of old – and your two guides have gone missing, so it’s fair to say the mission isn’t going well so far.
It’s about to get worse.
Approaching the village, you see a pyre in the centre, around which are several barns, a few grotty cottages, and a bell tower. In the distance, a church. The cluck of hens and a succession of deep moos from stable cows create a thick, heavy atmosphere – you can almost smell the fetid mix of manure and ash.
What are they burning? One of the guides. He’s hanging from a meat hook above the pyre. More of those villagers are lurking about, too; crazed, yes, but apparently compos mentis enough to push hay around and sprinkle the ground with seeds. Y’know, farm stuff. It’s jarring, unsettling.
And here we are, standing on the threshold. ‘Go on,’ the game seems to goad. ‘There’s no turning back now.’
Almost as soon as you cross that threshold a villager spots you, points, and cries out. And then it begins. A madcap dash to relative safety takes us into one of the cottages, where a brief cutscene demonstrates the ability to push furniture in front of windows. Taking the hint you quickly set about sealing the house, hoping to create an impenetrable fortress.
The revving of a chainsaw cuts through the cacophony. Well, this escalated quickly.
A window shatters upstairs: a ladder was just slammed against it. Bang. Bang. Bang. They’re hammering at the door. You dash upstairs. A shotgun – thank God. But it’s slowed you down: they’re already clambering through the broken window. There’s a second window on the landing. You need to get out, but they’re on the adjacent rooftop.
Aim the shotgun through the window, pull the trigger. Glass shatters and enemies scatter. Some straight off the roof. It won’t be long before they’re back up: more ladders are being raised even as you try for a 360 degree turn to properly assess just how fucking fucked you are.
What then ensues is a frantic, brutal confrontation with an angry mob that seems only to swell in number. Your goal is simply to survive, which takes you in and out of buildings, finding new ways to slow the mob down, be it knocking away ladders, kicking flinching enemies, or lobbing your only grenade into the biggest congregation of them you can find and praying it’s enough to stem the tide.
Eventually an ominous bell tolls, sending your attackers into a trance. They drop their weapons and shuffle away one by one. It’s over.
From there Resident Evil 4 only escalates further, constantly refreshing its set-pieces and turning them into something new and exciting, whilst at the same time redeploying that core premise: white-knuckle action. It’s something we’ve seen attempted many times since, but few succeeded. Even Capcom failed, offering the lacklustre Resident Evil 5 as a follow-up.
In raw narrative terms Resident Evil 4 closest cinematic equivalent is Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. And by ‘raw narrative’, I mean the bits you play. That’s not just because there’s mine cart chases and goofy traps; it’s that they’re both essentially roller-coasters that take you from set-piece to set-piece without ever letting up. They both trade in macabre horror, but there’s a genuine sense of joy to their respective adventures.
Yes, that’s what Resident Evil 4 is: a joy. Pure, unbridled, high-octane joy.
There are some story bits for those who want them – the nutty, inane lore of the series many justly adore. I reckon, though, that the best story is told in the ingenious stretches of gameplay, which telegraph every narrative element required to grasp the context for your motivation.
In the end, however you choose to engage it, Resident Evil 4 is no more or less than a near perfect experience. Let’s hope that spirit is retained in the VR remake coming our way later this year.
You can pick up Resident Evil 4 on Steam.