Resident Evil 4 – Exploration: A Love Story
I fell in love a few weeks ago. Now love never leaves me any obvious signals; as an emotion it often takes shape of a liquid substance, coursing through my body as though my blood were gradually being replaced with a euthanizing antidepressant. As opposed to the feeling of mere attraction, love limits the level of desire for but a matter of time, till its toxic form has thus cooly molded within the veins which fuel my physiological vernacular. As such, love never lays its demanding yet warm hand upon my cheek at any introductory sequence; disallowing the swelling to turn my countenance a prominent pink before my mind has first been given the time to think these newfound feelings through.
And as such, love trumps desire; and as far as my experiences have taught me thus far, it always will. Attraction fades; but true experiences of love take on an almost immortal posture, bearing a posterity which promises a lifetime of past memories to be prevalent on a functioning day-to-day philosophy. One does not grow tired of the memories of a loved one, no matter how distant in time and place.
What allows love its lasting influence over my very person is indeed a direct consequence of its slow, gradual oozing into my pores and corporeality. Without that primary longstanding decision-making, in which my mind reckons to consider the emotions, which straddle my heart and cause a swarming uneasiness in my stomach — without, I am but a fool to the allure of perfection, limited to an initial reaction, an unfulfilled image of beauty and innocence; struck dumb by the sight of a facade which promises forever-after but presents only disappointment.
But enough Melville-imitation, what I really want to talk about are videogames. Personally, a great game, like a newly-identified love interest, takes time to settle into. Often I find myself playing through the introductory sequence of a game only to take a break from it and start all over again some weeks, even months later. This isn’t to say that most great games I play start off slow or uninteresting; quite the opposite, a great game will usually stagger my first impressions due to specific unique gestures or mechanics which manage to take me by surprise.
After my first experience with Metroid Prime, I was blown away by how precise the Super Metroid mechanics translated into a 3D first-person environment, as well as how comfortable the controls felt despite the game’s age and limitations of the Gamecube’s controller; yet after its magnificent opening level, I put the game away, not because I was disappointed whatsoever, but because its striking beauty and haunting allure were not so compulsory as to immediately hook me within its sophisticated grasp. There was simply too much to take in and appreciate, but when I returned to the game I felt comfortable enough with its distinctiveness to carry forward with the journey laid before me.
Similar experiences have occurred with nearly every game which I would later describe as to having a lasting impact on me. BioShock startled me with its stupefying intro; now I reference it as one of the most personally-influential games I have ever played. Dark Souls greatly intimidated my inexperienced-roleplayer persona; but as I continued along its numerous menacing paths, a chord finally struck and I was hooked. I can safely say that I love all three of these particular games, and my adoration largely stems from the fact that they not only consistently bewildered me with their inventive gameplay and design, but because they immediately presented something new, something different from anything I had experienced before them. I still to this day measure every introductory sequence I play through to that of BioShock; every tutorial segment to that of Dark Souls; every 3D reimagining to that of Metroid Prime. So not only do these titles present a lasting impact on my intellectual thought process, they also present themselves as ideal templates for the creative process done right.
Most recently, Resident Evil 4 has had an equal effect on me, but perhaps in an even more transfixing manner. Having first played the game a number of years ago, my first impressions were, shall we say, bewildered. The early signs of tone juxtaposition — as presented through a daunting initiatory cutscene featuring both a developing introduction to the very first enemy encounter and the protagonist Leon S. Kennedy performing a wicked spiral kick to his head — baffled me, especially given the fact that the “silly” as combined with the “dread” actually worked.
Upon reaching the village segment, my entire frame of mind in regards to game design was shaken at the roots, forced from the soil and replanted as a grotesque reimagining of a tutorial. The game not only had the nerve to force me into running around wildly contemplating what the hell I was supposed to be doing, but never once did it provide any sort of obvious nudge towards a proper means of survival. From there on, I knew Resident Evil 4 was going to be quite unlike any other game I had ever played; and upon returning to reattempt an excursion through its twisted linearity, my thoughts were ultimately proven correct; yet I also progressively grew to understand how.
Allow me to explain: Resident Evil 4 is a horror game in the most unconventional context. While it certainly delivers chills through grotesque imageries and enemy abominations, as well as a fair share of exciting moments; where the true ‘horror’ of the underlying experience lies is in the sedate pacing, the brooding, nearly-silent atmosphere, and the lack of player reassurance which consistently follows you throughout each of its instantly-memorable levels. Featuring level design which demonstrates the importance of utilizing environment to players’ advantage, RE4 constantly presents situations where enemies may be thwarted through often-simple application of environmental traps and trickery to navigate one’s way through the area while sacrificing as few resources as possible; because RE4 is never one to hold the player’s hand and guide them to a large cache of ammunition or a recurring instance of health pickups. In fact, the game prides itself — much in similarity to its predecessors — on its lack of assistance to the player. Sure it will present you to a shotgun, but only after you search upstairs an open, abandoned household; an ideal sniping position is set up for the player to employ moments after buying a new rifle, but an informant never pops onto the screen pointing it out.
Ultimately this brings us to the game’s most interesting systematic achievement: its insistence upon exploration as a means to achieve a more successful venture towards the player’s set goals. However often the specific goal is simply making one’s way from point A to point B, Resident Evil 4 consistently offers not only an engaging challenge, which often finds the player growing to habitually utilize specific game mechanics to permit progress; but also forces the player to question the most effective methods of ascertaining a route through dangers and obstacles which lie ahead. And yet perhaps its most impressive accomplishment is its consistency, for each new area delivers upon this design concept in engaging ways, always providing complexly-coordinated stages filled with hidden items, traps, and means of which to proceed.
Such an orchestrated idealism is what further allows pursuit of a true ‘horror’ experience. By subtly suggesting that the player experiment with their preferred methodology of progress, in such an intimidating setting surrounded by formidable and gruesome foes, who will eat through their resources without mercy lest the player quickly adapts to situation; Resident Evil 4 capitalizes on human instinct and anxiety to summon forth a profound and genuine response from the individual behind the controller. This not only instills ‘horror’ in the most natural and effective sense, but simultaneously effortlessly invites player actions to have applicable consequences, often dire and always impactful.
A recent episode of a GameInformer video series, in which editors Tim Turi and Dan Tack chronicle a semi-blind excursion through Dark Souls, has the writers joking about making comparisons between the game and Resident Evil 4. The tone is sarcastic, and the conversation is quickly dismissed as nothing but; however this posits in my head a topic for discussion: to what extent can Dark Souls and Resident Evil 4 actually be compared? And after some pondering, I came to the conclusion that really, you could almost call RE4 a true precursor to the Souls series. Both delve into the concept of making progress through cautious exploration, patient but forward-thinking combat mechanics, and understanding enemy encounters as obstacles to study and thus overcome.
If you look at the consistent world-building of Dark Souls, one notices the strict attention to detail present in every level; each features an elaborate path to worm through with multiple areas to further discover as a means of uncovering an item or power-up to aid the player in truly impacting manner. Sound familiar? RE4 has this in spades, albeit less of an ambiguous lore to uncover throughout its environments (which even further constitutes exploration as a means of progression throughout Dark Souls). Regardless, Dark Souls then only further appears to be a more complex, and perhaps sophisticated successor to Resident Evil 4.
What allows Dark Souls its success as an intuitive experience is its silent ability to coax the player into studying and growing to recognize the complexity of the situation and the setting, all for the efforts of allowing that player to become a “better” player — and thus, a “better you.” Exploration is key to successfully advocating this idea of progression, and so the game must also present multiple opportunities for exploration to not only exist but to relatively reward. And it does, very much so. People go on about the infamous difficulty of the Souls series, but there’s a great difference between a game being difficult and a game presenting a challenge.
Dark Souls falls into the latter category, as does Resident Evil 4. Neither gives the player a simple means by which to progress; instead they present stimulating obstacles to overcome, alongside certain mechanics and environmental arrangements to allow the obstacles to be overcome: through dedication, through patience, through understanding. A “difficult” game can be taxing for the sake of taxing, hearkening back to the days of arcades where games were designed to kill the player as much as possible, often unfairly, to force more money out of their pockets. A “challenging” game presents the player with a set of rules and test their skills as thoughtful individuals — the very foundation of gaming as a medium.
With that being said, what is it then that I ‘love’ about Resident Evil 4? The insistence of exploration as to necessarily instill genuine player reaction, in addition to highlighting the most basic fundamental of nearly all games (or rather, all people): the instinctual desire to adapt and develop. The game plays upon both the natural reflex of fear and the wondrous fascination with improvement, featuring a narrative fueled by a sly ability to achieve a sophisticated experience without ever taking itself too seriously; which is a difficult goal to accomplish.
And yet Capcom seem to do so effortlessly with this groundbreaking iteration (ironic then how the series seemed to tragically break away from this idealism with subsequent releases, positing the idea that perhaps the developers themselves, too were baffled by their own unparalleled creation). Given how long the game was in the development cycle for, going through multiple identity phases before the developer finally reached a gameplay concept they could get behind, it’s easy to notice how much care went into the final release. So it’s only the more disappointing to see how serious and generic the series quickly grew to become.
Regardless, what is most important about these functions is how intuitive and successful they remain throughout the ten years since RE4’s original release. Other “challenging” games of decades past like Galaga or Super Mario World or even the more recent Demon’s Souls each shows signs of age, whether in terms of stale level design or aging control schemes or perhaps a timely insistence on linearity. Whereas Resident Evil 4 subsequently appears just as revolutionary and influential as it did back in 2005. Despite the plethora of franchises which took its over-the-shoulder aiming mechanic and made it more “accessible,” the frantic energy sparked from the cumbersome manner in which Leon turns and moves is a design which is perfect in and of itself. And the quicktime events (praise be to the pulsing font and exclamation points promoting the apprehension of the sequence) are still unmatched in terms of awarding accommodation to tone and mood, even in this current “quicktime-mad” generation.
While arguably too many subsequent games present themselves as quick, accessible experiences, Resident Evil 4 still dares to limit the player’s ability in order to truly assess their skills. In the face of danger, presented with restricted function and little to no support, how do you evaluate and gain control of the situation? Resident Evil 4 wants the player to deserve the success it allows them, not merely be rewarded for continuing, but for actively remaining engaged the whole way through.
And I can’t help but fall head over heels for that.