“The hideous creatures such as the El Gigante and the Novistadors are merely by-products of the diabolical and inhumane experiments conducted on the specimens that were once human. But there’s one type of creature that clearly distinguishes itself from the rest. These creatures are called Regenerators…”
The first thing you notice when you enter the operating room of Lord Saddler’s research facility, is the complete absence of music.
You see, only moments before, every room and hall way was accompanied by some form of atmospheric soundscape. Here, nothing.
Nothing but the sound of various bits of nonsense technology and Leon S. Kennedy’s own footsteps. It makes, what is in reality, quite a small space, feel empty and open.
This isn’t the first time Resident Evil 4 pulls this trick. Sound is used throughout to, figuratively speaking, fill out the space. It has the effect of making tense situations feel even more claustrophobic. But then, at key points, the music is dropped entirely, and it is almost always just before something really nasty pokes its head around the corner.
The tension from previous encounters hasn’t left you yet, so instead of this sound design choice creating a feeling of safety, you’re left with the sense that there’s something still out there, waiting and watching in the distance.
This particular example of sneaky sound manipulation sticks with me, because it’s been so long, at this point in the game, since the player has had any opportunity to catch their breath. You welcome it, but the emptiness of the room feels very eerie.
The first thing you see is the Regenerator itself. It’s just lying there, on an operating table, behind the window of a small, sealed room. You think, “Huh, that’s creepy. I’ll probably encounter something like that later on. Onwards.”
This is such a dastardly move on the part of the developers. They show you the biggest danger in the room, but then frame it so that you don’t immediately perceive it as a threat. I’m sure everyone gathered that this “corpse” had some sort of significance. However, I believe many assumed it was foreshadowing dangers down the road, not the danger right behind them. That said, the mere promise of a new enemy is unnerving enough, so the player is slightly more on edge at this point.
After a pretty stupid arrow puzzle to allow access to the adjacent room, you’re presented with another creepy vista. What looks like Resident Evil’s take on a facehugger, is digging its finger like limbs into a guy clearly not having a particularly great time.
In this instance however, you can shoot it, and stab it, and come to the pretty clear conclusion that it is 100% dead. I’m sure most players didn’t need that much convincing, but for the more paranoid amongst you, the option was there.
This image conveys an important piece of information though. Lord Saddler is experimenting with not only humans, but the Las Plagas its self. This morsel of info is then elaborated on by a note left by Luis Sera.
It goes into a lot of detail, but the key bullet points are that Luis considers Regenerators to be the worst of the worst, and most importantly, that the damn things can heal from almost any wound. Now, dread rears its ugly head. An idea has been planted in your mind. “Hmm… is that guy in the other room really dead?”
Before you have time to dwell on that chain of thought, you pick up a key card and SMASH!
A window has shattered, and you know exactly which one. You start hearing the short, sharp breaths of the creature behind the door, and the music suddenly comes out of hiding and floods the room with tension.
What once felt empty and spacious, now feels so, so small. Everything about the Regenerator, from the way it sounds to the way moves, is designed to unsettle and unnerve the player.
The creature moves slowly, but not out of necessity. It exudes a calm confidence that seems to suggest, that it doesn’t see you as threat. It wants to kill you, sure, but why waste energy accelerating the evitable? In the creature’s eyes, you’re already dead.
You start unloading the magazine of whatever weapon you happen to have equipped. You might manage to blow off an arm or even its head, but the creature isn’t fazed.
It pauses for a second, and then just carries on strolling towards you. Remove a leg, and the creature will slither and leap towards you with a frightening level of speed and flexibility. After only a few seconds the creature’s limbs return, and any damage is reversed.
On my first play-through, when I didn’t know exactly how to tackle these guys, their unflinching determination and near invincibility scared the hell out of me. I thought I had mastered the systems the game had presented me at this point.
I thought I was a badass, mowing down any Ganados that crossed my path. But then Shinji Mikami throws a giant, fleshy cog in the works, and suddenly I’m a fragile little snowflake again.
Of course, now I know explosives are my friend, and have mastered the use of the infra-red scope. So the threat of the Regenerators has diminished over time.
However, the introduction of these creatures still stands as one of the absolute best examples of slowly building tension and dread through visual and audio cues, and then having all of that overwhelm the player. It’s a compliment to this game and the regenerators themselves, that nearly 10 years on, they still manage to slither into my dreams, turning them into nightmares.