Resident Evil 1: The One Perfect Blend of Game and Movie
The first Resident Evil game came out exactly when two major forms of media crossed paths: games and movies. I feel that it’s the only perfect blend of the two.
Decades: The 1990s
In the late 1980s and early 90s, video games took off worldwide, seriously challenging movies as the number one entertainment industry. But the interplay between games and movies started to gain momentum as well. During the 1980s, early games looked to movies for inspiration, lifting concepts and characters from popular Hollywood fare. (1) Movies, on the other hand, started using more and more computer-generated imagery.
In 1996, the two mediums converged briefly into a perfect blend: Resident Evil.
Director Shinji Mikami and his team at Capcom conceived of Resident Evil in the early 1990s, a pivotal time for video games. The technology was changing from 2D sprites to 3D polygons. Popular genres relying on 2D imagery, such as platformers, spaceship shooters, or brawlers, were on their way out of the mainstream. Polygon powered concepts like racing games and first-person shooters rose in the genre ranks.
Resident Evil hit exactly the sweet spot in this convergence of fundamental gaming concepts. It used 3D polygonal character models running around on literal 2D image files, connecting gaming’s past and future. Mikami pretty much mixed Tomb Raider with Myst: think classic, blocky Lara Croft superimposed on Myst’s rendered landscape images. (2)
Numerous developers of the time employed this style in their games. The pre-rendered backgrounds enabled them to add a lot of detail, something that real-time 3D engines of the 1990s could not yet handle. Some of the most well-known games using the technique were Squaresoft RPGs such as Final Fantasy VII or Chrono Cross.
However, no game incorporated the 2D render stills as effectively into the actual gameplay as Resident Evil. Philip J. Reed makes a great point in his book about Resident Evil: he says that Shinji Mikami did not simply use them as backgrounds, but gave them an essential purpose — as cinematic camera angles to tell his and the player’s story in the game.
Take these scenes from the early part of the game for example (PlayStation Director’s Cut version):
By placing the “camera” far away from the player character Chris, Mikami creates a sense of dread, of being powerless and, quite literally, small compared to the ominous mansion. It seems like someone, or something, is watching the player. Especially in the scene on the right, there is no way of knowing what lurks in the hallway since very little of it is shown. Remember: we are looking at fundamentally flat images here. Through the forced perspective, they look remarkably three-dimensional.
Another example is the approach to the game’s first boss, Yawn, a mutated snake.
Chris comes across a wounded comrade who tells him about the dangerous snake monster. In the next room, more foreshadowing of the terror that lies ahead: Chris, and we, the players, see a bloodstain in the form of a hand on the wall, next to a stairwell. The camera is placed on top of the stairwell, so again we do not see what is coming. Then the camera shifts, revealing a door, looming way above Chris. There must be something powerful behind it.
This sequence, which at its core consists of three image files, evokes feelings of fear and uneasiness, setting up expectations in the player that a really tough enemy is coming up. Shinji Mikami effectivly employed cinematic and photographic techniques here.
In comparison, RPG games like Square’s Chrono Cross (1999) use render backgrounds quite differently. Player characters are much smaller, the areas look like updates of classic RPGs from the 8- and 16-Bit eras:
Compare this to a fully 3D game. Here, the player controls the camera, essentially making her or him director of the story. Incidentally, the first game to competently give players this power, Super Mario 64, came out in the same year as Resident Evil.
Games with full 3D graphics and a movable camera are great, of course. There is a reason they have long since become the standard in third-person style games. However, the lack of fixed camera angles means losing much of the cinema style experience. Resident Evil came close to a playable movie exactly because of its purposeful borders. Starting with Metal Gear Solid in 1998, most 3D games made up for this by showing the player literal movies in between gameplay. These so-called cutscenes tell the game’s story. (3)
Granted, Resident Evil also features numerous cutscenes and live action sequences bookmarking the game at beginning and end. But these are always shown in the style of the game, with still images and moving polygon models. As such, they resemble cutscenes and set pieces from classic 2D RPGs, such as Final Fantasy. The lineage in gaming history is striking and another marker of the transition from 2D to 3D. It is the magic of media that such a basic mix can elicit strong feelings in the player. Compared to games that feature movies interspersed with the gameplay, Resident Evil feels more coherent and organic in its approach of creating an interactive narrative.
Philip J. Reed, in his book about Resident Evil, rightfully claims that many great movies feature famous and emblematic images and situations. Alfred Hitchcock had a great eye for such scenes, the shower scene in Psycho, for example, or James Stewart hanging from the rain pipe in Vertigo.
The “Turning Around Zombie,” a term coined by Shinji Mikami himself, is that scene for Resident Evil — and gaming in general, for that matter. Mikami put it right at the beginning of the game, making clear that nothing is what it seems. Every creature is out there to get you. This first zombie is, of course, just the beginning. The player has to do away with many of them during the first few hours of the game. Resident Evil’s zombies are slow and mostly easy to take out. Players can practice the shooting system when battling them. (4)
A house in the woods, zombies walking slowly, with raised arms towards the player characters, trying to eat them: all of these tropes cite George A. Romero’s work, especially the original Night of the Living Dead. The influence of cinema is obvious. Interestingly, zombies do not appear that often after the characters leave the mansion for the first time. Jill and Chris battle a giant shark (“Jaws”), mutated insects (“The Fly”), killer bees (“The Swarm”), killer crows (“The Birds”), and killer dogs (“Cujo”). I read somewhere that the hunters might be based on Jurassic Park’s velociraptors, which is possible. I find it remarkable how Shinji Mikami boiled down these monster archetypes into “snackable” enemies in the game. Another great blend of gaming and movie sensibilities.
In another scene that has become famous, Mikami briefly transcends even fiction tropes. The keeper’s room contains two signifiers of horror straight from everyday imagination: the creature lurking under the bed or in the closet. The keeper’s room looks like it could be found in a normal person’s home — probably even the player’s. Resident Evil steps out here for a moment of being a fictional work which cites other fictional works. The game reminds the player of his own mundane nightmares.
Right afterwards, we are back in the cinema world again, with the zombie in the closet reveal. This trope appears in many movies, I was reminded of the original Halloween. (Even though the roles are switched since in Halloween Laurie is hiding in the closet to evade Michael Myers. The closet, however, looks very similar in Resident Evil, with the horizontal door boards.)
In addition to movies, Mikami cited and recontextualized TV shows as well. TV shows, like games, started to converge with movies throughout the 1990s, taking on movie style camera work and narrative. This development, which we take for granted today, culminated in 1999, when HBO first aired The Sopranos. It began as early as 1990 though, with Twin Peaks, and was followed up in 1993 by The X-Files. Incidentally, Resident Evil cited both these shows.
The X-Files shares themes and especially a musical style with the original Resident Evil. Like The X-Files, Resident Evil deals with the theme of science versus belief, something I’ll touch on in more detail later. There is an even stronger parallel between Resident Evil and The X-Files, that has, to my knowledge, nowhere been mentioned before: the music. I am positive that Shinji Mikami and his team were influenced by Mark Snow’s X-Files score when creating the game. Consider Adflatus, a prominent X-Files theme:
Slow string synths, used effectively to create an ominous melody. Reminds me a lot of Resident Evil’s early mansion themes, such as Wandering About, which plays when exploring the mansion’s second floor:
Resident Evil is often seen as a “b-movie.” But there is also a layer of “high-brow” influences woven into the game’s fabric. The X-Files‘ spiritual predecessor Twin Peaks must have been on Mikami’s mind when he outlined the game. Strange woods in rural America, two-faced characters, an ominous overall atmosphere: the Twin Peaks vibe can be felt in Resident Evil. Famously, Twin Peaks had a big impact on Japanese game developers in the early 1990s, even influencing the Zelda series.
There are many more markers of high-brow culture found in-game. The characters come across classical oil paintings all over the mansion, there are gemstones, statues, delicate furnishings. During a key scene, Jill, or Rebecca, in Chris’ campaign, play a piece by Beethoven, the Moonlight Sonata, to activate a hidden mechanism. (Interestingly, only the female characters play the piano, hunky Chris cannot.)
Most Popular Stories at Decades:
Cinematic styling and influences are great. But Shinji Mikami went yet a step further with Resident Evil, giving it a classic three-part story line — just like a Hollywood movie. The genius lies in the way this story is connected with and told through gameplay.
The basic story beats in Resident Evil are these:
1. Confusion and Fear
The S.T.A.R.S. elite police squads ventures into a mansion in the woods, expecting a routine mission. But the opposite happens, they meet otherworldly monsters. The characters are puzzled, confused, not equipped to deal with this kind of challenge, seemingly supernatural. The player experiences this helplessness directly: most rooms are closed in the maze-like mansion, there is very little in the way of arms, enemies appear near indestructible.
2. Getting a Grip
Then, slowly, the characters, and the player, get a hold of the situation, by using scientific methods to uncover the truth. They explore the mansion, solve puzzles, open up new ways, read reports scattered about. At the same time, the heroes take out various enemies, which get stronger as the game goes on. The more they uncover the truth, the more vile the enemies get, revealing the extent of the conspiracy.
During the game, both the characters and the player slowly realize that those demons do not come from another world, like in Doom, for example. They were, in fact, created — created by the same system that made it possible for us to explain natural phenomena in the first place: science. Why? Corporate greed. Scientists working for pharmaceutical company Umbrella used their methods to create biological weapons, to be sold to the highest bidder. Resident Evil, a PS1 game about killing zombies, in the end critiques the state of capitalism in the mid 90s — a time with many debates about the limits of corporate research into genetics. Science has brought companies such as Umbrella great success. In their hunger for more, their urge to control nature, they misuse it, turning test subjects into monsters.
3. Beating the Odds
This artificial creation of the supernatural culminates in the Tyrant, the final boss. The characters find him in the underground lab, a hellish place. A literal super-human, its heart beating outside its body as if to prove it. The characters have to use their most powerful weapon to kill the Tyrant, the rocket launcher. After the battle, they escape in a helicopter, leaving hell and soaring to heaven, similar to the survivors of the first Jurassic Park movie.
They are fighting science with science, bio-mutants with rockets. But of course, all the while they are only fighting the symptoms, not the actual illness that has befallen mankind: insatiability and the need to control everything — impulses which helped us evolve but which might also undo us.
Even though science is responsible for all the horrible things that happen in the Spencer mansion, Shinji Mikami never condemns it. Indeed, he has the player use scientific methods (and a lot of shooting) to unravel the mystery. In the end, it’s people he criticizes.
Four: East and West
Most characters in Resident Evil react with confusion when first confronted with the horrifying monsters crawling around in the mansion. The game’s heroes call them “creatures” or “demons.” This can be seen as a commentary on Mikami’s part on humankind’s own development. In the beginning, people didn’t have the concept of evolution, of random mutations, survival of the fittest. They believed in supernatural forces, spirits, and ghosts. The first hours of Resident Evil reflect that.
Seen another way, Resident Evil also connects two different cultures: Asia and the Western world. Carlos Ramírez-Moreno points out in a paper on survival horror that creature horror is traditionally an American genre, whereas Japanese horror tends to be more mysterious, ghostly, and psychological. Both approaches to horror can be seen at work in Resident Evil.
And there are many other connections between East and West found in the game’s story. It is set in the USA, of course; even though it was conceived and made by Japanese creators. (5) Various explanations are likely here: Ramírez-Moreno argues that the reasons for placing the game in America are economic, that Capcom wanted to cater to the American market with the game. That is a valid point, and a likely motive. I would like to offer one more possible reason: the story itself. The events in Resident Evil — an elite police squad shooting monsters in a mansion — simply fit much better into an America background than into a Japanese one.
The famous translation and voice-work in the original Resident Evil can also be attributed to this worldwide cultural exchange. To many Japanese players, the English used in Resident Evil does not sound strange at all, it simply adds to the movie atmosphere: many Japanese watch American movies with subtitles. When Japanese comedian Shinya Arino played the Resident Evil Director‘s Cut in an episode of his show GameCenter CX with other Japanese gamers, they only read the Japanese subtitles, not at all noticing the infamous English translation and dub.
Mikami took a Japanese forte of the time, video games, and connected it to a traditionally Western, especially American art form: movies.
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(1) For example, Konami’s Contra pretty much remixed Aliens and Rambo 2 into an action sidescroller.
(2) I would love to see such a game for real.
(3) Today, big games feel like CGI movies with gameplay interspersed. Horizon Zero Dawn contains almost six hours worth of cutscenes; that’s the length of an average first playthrough of Resident Evil. Blockbuster movies, on the other hand, feature long gamelike action scenes we watch passively.
(4) The zombies in vanilla Resident Evil do not manage to gross me out; they are too low-poly and abstract. I have a hard time playing the newer Resis, since all the detail makes the enemies almost too grotesque.
(5) When I was in Japan, many aspects of daily life actually reminded me of the Resident Evil series: building layouts, elevator dials, maps. It is no coincidence that during and shortly after Resident Evil’s release, Japanese culture enjoyed a lasting boom in the Western world.