Re: All things Resident Evil (Biohazard)
Posted: February 5th, 2018, 11:18 pm
Alright, let's do this. I finished the game yesterday, so here are my thoughts on RE7, including spoilers, images and embedded videos. I'll also use a truckload of footage from REmake, RE4, Far Cry 3, MGS3, MGS Ground Zeroes, Half-Life 2 & BioShock. Rant incoming.
- Spoiler: show
- Perspective and Visual Characterization
For example, if I see this:
...I think to myself "Oh no, Jill is trapped in a mansion!".
Whereas if I see this:
...I think to myself "Oh no, Dude X is trapped in a mansion!".
It's not like Jill is better written or more fleshed out or anything. But at least I have a visual reference to absorb. Without it, I find it hard to empathise with the protagonist. I much prefer seeing Claire limp down a corridor in RE2 than seeing blood spatter on the screen in RE7. The former clearly indicates that the character is in a state of distress, the latter looks like an artificial special effect. Because it is.
There's also the tangentially related issue of the Audience Surrogate or Player-Insert character. Personally, I think that designing protagonists with the intention of making them as relatable as possible only ends up making them bland and forgettable. I don't have the urge to see myself in fictional characters, or to turn every story into my story. I much prefer to have fleshed-out protagonists with firmly established personality traits, even if I end up actively disliking them. This issue is not limited to video games, btw. My favorite fictional characters are people that I get to know and understand, they're not empty vessels that need the audience to be complete.
The problem only gets worse when the two issues are combined, and a game has both a first-person camera as well as a bland and forgettable protagonist. I don't find that combination to be "immersive" in the slightest. What it does instead is make me lose interest. RE7 runs into this issue head-first.
Of course, I'm perfectly ready and willing to tolerate the use of a first-person camera in certain action games. But interestingly enough, my favorite first-person games usually find a way to circumvent the aforementioned issues. Neither Master Chief nor Samus are the loquacious type, but they have very memorable visual designs and the games always make sure that the player keeps them in mind through the use of third-person cutscenes, occasional third-person gameplay sections (vehicles / morph ball), and even small visual clues like the visor reflection in Prime. It's always crystal clear who you're playing as. On the other hand, you have games like Doom who completely commit to the non-descriptive nature of their protagonist. Doomguy is closer to a deity than to a human being, he is the symbolic embodiment of the holy war against the forces of Hell. He is the Archangel Michael, embroiled in a never-ending righteous conflict since time immemorial, he is not a guy who's going to go home and do his taxes afterwards. There's no need to show his emotions, because it's not like he's gonna get scared, now is it?
- Cutscene Direction and Camera Design
Time for a few examples.
Let's say you want to introduce your villain in the beginning of your game by having him visit his captives in a cage:
Never mind the differences in graphical fidelity, writing, voice acting, production values or anything like that and let's focus on the cinematography alone. The second, to me at least, is trite and boring to look at in comparison. It's a waste of perfectly decent material that would have greatly benefited from a more elaborate presentation. There are only so many first-person scenes of characters holding monologues in the camera I can watch before they all start to blend together. No matter how interesting the writing may be, it's boring to look at.
If there's no point in giving the player control of the main character, then don't. Giving the player the option to jump on people's heads when they tell their life story is not going to be beneficial for anyone. And if you don't give the player any control, like in the above BioShock example, why not just do a conventional cutscene instead, with all the advantages it provides? Especially since these scripted sequences tend to be unskippable.
I'd rather sit through a 20-minute MGS cutscene than a 30-second exposition scene in Half-Life. Much more visually appealing, and at least I know that I'll have something mechanically engaging to do as soon as I reattain control over the character. These half-baked sequences and forced walking sections are the worst of both worlds and a complete turn-off for me. Give me skippable but substantial cutscenes in-between sections of substantial gameplay, instead of this awkward and highly frustrating mix of both.
Now, all of this is not to say that you can't have non-intrusive interactive elements during cutscenes or cinematic elements during gameplay. But they should always enrich the experience instead of diluting it. Metal Gear Solid 3 understands this perfectly: Whenever it gives the player the option to switch to a first-person view during a cutscene, it's to emphasize a particularly important moment. But if all of its cutscenes were presented in this way, they would lose out on a lot of their appeal. Which brings me to the subject of the fixed camera angles of the classic Resident Evil titles. They are one of the best tools to incorporate interesting elements of photography during gameplay sections without taking control away from the player. The specific design of the camera angles helps to give every room a very distinct visual identity. And like I mentioned at the beginning, the fact that the protagonists are always visible reinforces the notion of their physical presence within the environment.
Let's compare two screenshots taken in the wooden house section during the mid-game in both REmake and RE7:
This frame tells me Who and Where, in a unique way that differs from the frames before and after it.
This shot just tells me Where, and through the exact same perspective that 99% of the game is shown in. The look of the environment is interesting and I can tell that a lot of work went into designing it, but the way it is presented is just boring in comparison.
Camera design in 3D action games is a lost art. God of War will apparently be the next fortress to fall, and yes I'm salty about that as well.
Also, it's not like you can't have subtle traces of camera design even in games with 3D backgrounds and controllable cameras. Imagine how less effective the ladder scene in MGS3 would be without the top-down view and the increasing sense of vertigo it provides in order to underline the no-turning-back thematic of the entr'acte:
Now look at the way RE4 emulates a dolly zoom trick to emphasize some of the melee moves, for example:
As well as the imagery it uses to represent its villains:
This shot implies how much of a sheer physical threat Mendez is through sheer perspective and juxtaposition.
This shot indicates that while Salazar is more of a condescending prick than a physical presence, he is the undisputed lord of the castle (especially since this scene takes place with him on a balcony set one storey above Leon), and that you will have to deal with his subordinates first before you can get to him.
"OH SHIT SON YOU'RE IN TROUBLE NOW".
I mean, none of this is Roger Deakins-level material, but at least there's some interesting imagery going on.
Now, let's look at the way RE7 portrays its villains in comparison:
Close-up of Mia going "Boo!" in front of your face.
Close-up of Jack doing god-knows-what to your face.
Close-up of Marguerite slamming a door in your face.
This is completely boring, but let me make one thing clear: I don't think any of this is the fault of whoever was in charge of these particular scenes. This is a fundamental core visual design flaw. If you insist on having your entire game in first-person, this is the best result you are going to get. Everything of interest will need to happen right in front of the protagonist's face in a way that doesn't rely on his or her reaction or body language. Of course it's gonna get boring after a while.
Not to mention that action scenes suffer as well. Just look at the first 20 seconds of this clip:
Forget proper choreography or exciting editing techniques, getting thrown around in shaky cam followed by vague grunting and close-ups of hands is, again, the best result you are going to get.
Close-ups and POV shots are powerful techniques that should be used sparingly. There is nothing inherently wrong with video games adopting some of the language of photography and/or cinema into their own medium. But at least read the fucking instruction manual first.
In short, stubbornly deciding to present an entire game in first person will automatically reduce the creative potential of its imagery and visual language. And what really pisses me off is that the actual graphics of this game are absolutely gorgeous to look at. The light and shadow effects, the textures... all great. But there is no visual direction that showcases any of this. All the pixels in the world won't do much good if there is no creative direction involved. What a complete and utter waste.
- Sound Design
RE7 ticks all the wrong boxes for me in terms of presentation. It substitutes the insanely charismatic and memorable protagonists of the series for a complete walking snooze-fest. It insists on introducing a restrictive camera perspective that forces the overuse of scripted walking/crawling sequences and hampers both its visual language and its gameplay diversity. RE2 manages to create a better atmosphere with a static background, a piece of music and a limping hero(ine) than RE7 does with its high-end graphics, the Vegemites barfing around in Dolby Pro Logic IIz 9.1 and its idiotic CoD-style blood spatter effect. In short, it's severely lacking in the directional department. It's all Technology and no Technique.
Perhaps I should clarify that I'm not much of a horror fan in general. I don't particularly care for horror literature or movies, in fact I tend to find them gross and off-putting. Seeing close-ups or reading intricate descriptions of repulsive stuff is not enough to keep me interested. Same goes for most horror games. The only two horror franchises I like are Silent Hill (thanks to its fascinating use of symbolism and sound design), and Resident Evil (thanks to its fantastic core gameplay loop, and the impeccable combat systems of the action titles). I appreciate the classic RE titles as tense and atmospheric action adventure games with cool characters and cheesy but endearing stories. Their horror aesthetics and jump scares are the cherry on top, but they've never been the main appeal for me.
- Story Events and Characters
If I interpret it correctly, the subtext of Ethan's hand being magically healed through the Redneck Stapler Surgery (because he had in fact been infected by Eveline's weird fungus which had boosted his regenerative capabilities) is pretty smooth. I'd like to think that was intentional, just to give the game the benefit of the doubt.
The Bakers are fairly tragic and interesting characters in their own right. What a shame that the last cutscene with Jack showing regret for his actions with his actual personality shining through is just a moronic dream sequence that might or might not be accurate or representative of anything.
The "choice" at the boat pier is another joke straight out of a David Cage story. I thought the game was expecting me to pick Mia, but I actually chose to cure Zoe instead. Partly because I was beginning to suspect that Mia was involved in the events (which she was), and partly because Zoe had been nothing but helpful and supportive to Ethan since the beginning. I was also curious to see how the game would handle the less obvious choice. Imagine my surprise when Zoe got killed off 2 minutes later (which apparently isn't even canon), and to then see Mia wake up near the location of the crash as if she had been on the boat all along! What a completely botched and useless sequence. The game would have been significantly better off with a proper cutscene instead of this contrived setup that it doesn't even commit to.
The race to save Ethan at the end of the boat level is a nice little touch, especially when the music kicks in.
Eveline is more of a catch-all plot device than an actual character. From the creepy kid trope from F.E.A.R and the illusory jump scares to the entire backstory revolving around her, she's everywhere and is responsible for everything. And while we're on the subject, I don't like seeing something like mind control being given such prominence in the context of the RE lore. I know it's not technically supernatural, but the way it is presented is just too close for comfort. For me at least, RE should be grounded in pseudo-science and physical threats, not cheap Alessa rip-offs who puke mushrooms and cause hallucinations.
Lastly, the Redfield "revelation" at the end didn't exactly surprise me given how Capcom had had no qualms about spoiling it with all the promotion they did for Not A Hero. I don't particularly mind his inclusion, but I have no idea why Capcom doesn't just hard-reboot the series if they're going to take such a drastic new direction. I'm struggling to wrap my head around the notion that this is supposed to take place within the same continuity as the rest of the series.
The core loop of key item > locked door > chest > enemy > key item is there, but it's completely dumbed down in a way that takes away a lot of the precious tension. Unlike in the classic titles, I killed the majority of the enemies I encountered, and I still had enough ammo to overthrow a small government at the end. "Return to the series' roots"? Pffff.
With that being said, the layered crafting system is probably the mechanical highlight of the entire game. The various ingredients are rare enough to constantly make you feel like you're about to run out of something. That's pretty cool.
Now onto the combat. Oh boy, the combat. The Vegemites are some of the blandest, most boring enemies the series has ever seen. I don't see any interesting mechanical interaction possible with them. They're even worse than the Revenants in Revelations 2. Pure bullet sponges who stagger in your direction until they hit the ground. They're a complete and utter chore to fight. The fact that there are only three variations of them in the entire game and no other standard enemy types otherwise (except for a few insects) is a complete joke. The Mines section that tries so hard to be all combat-driven all of a sudden is ridiculous.
The basic zombies in REmake are more mechanically engaging than these walking punchlines. And that game has about a dozen of other enemy types, too. To go from some of the industry's most rewarding combat systems and impressive enemy variety in RE4-6 to this nonsense makes this pill especially hard to swallow. What a laugh.
..Let's not even start with the "bossfights". Or why the designers thought that the last ingredient that was missing in the RE formula was a block button of all things. First the dodge button in Rev2 and now this. What the hell am I even playing.
My two favorite segment / locations were the old house in the middle and the boat with Mia towards the end. The former because it finally introduced a different enemy type and a new weapon type (burner) that served as an impromptu light source. It also gave me one of the only "Aha!" moments when I discovered the crawlspace behind the nest. The latter because I thought the level design / layout of the boat was the most interesting. The puzzles were solving themselves and the Vegemites were still tedious as hell, but eh.
NB: I refuse to call the Vegemites by any other name. If only because we have a few Australians on this board and they should appreciate the joke. Hi Joshi, how's it going? Thanks for reading my dumb rant, mate.
- Conclusion (for real this time)
I would really like to know how many of the people praising this game to high heaven have actually done any proper run of any classic title in the past couple of years, and how many are just going by what they remember them feeling like.
The Resident Evil games have always been defined by their exceptional polish and replay value. RE6 disappointed most (myself included) by being a broken unpolished mess and victim of its own ambition. What a shame that Capcom's idea of rectifying this was to make a game with impeccable polish but no replay value whatsoever. In an age when most people laugh at the idea of replaying games and prefer to juggle 200+ hours open world and multiplayer titles during their allocated gaming time, perhaps it's a wise business decision. Apparently, it's what people want. But it's definitely not what I want, and I'll certainly think twice before buying any future titles if this is in any way indicative of the direction that Capcom wants to take the series in moving forward.
The more I think about this game, the less I like it. Which is never a good sign in my experience. I wanted to like this game. I tried to stay away from spoilers all year long. I played it alone, at night, while wearing headphones and without any external distractions. And all I can say right now is "meh".
I can't believe I'm typing this, but I honestly feel more motivated to go play RE6 Mercs than to sit through another playthrough of RE7 any time soon. What the hell is wrong with the world.
I'll have a look at the handful of extra modes one of these days, but I would be very surprised if any one of them had the long-term arcade appeal of The 4th Survivor, let alone Mercs. But we'll see.