Sunday, May 8, 2011

PC Gaming Journal - Resident Evil 5 (Part 1)


Each entry in this series will examine a game and its different aspects - such as design choices, looks and mechanics - and through them discuss the current trends and opinions in the gaming world and the directions it is (or could be) taking.

The first game I'll be going over in the series is Resident Evil 5.

At first it was just a random pick out of a few games I was playing at the time, but as I got through it I realized it was actually a very important game to cover. This game is a shining example of a design ethos which I believe is not good for gaming in general. Practically everything about it, from the interface to the controls to the story, is flawed. That's not to say that this specific game is all that bad - I even enjoyed it somewhat - but the way it seems to compile a lot of awful design decisions makes it ideal to explore in-depth.

Actually, there is one part of the game which is pretty fault-free, and that's the graphics. It's not breathtaking but it looks shiny and slick. But, for now, let's look at the game's story.

The game's protagonist is Chris Redfield, accompanied by Sheva Somethingorother as they attempt to chase down some terrorists who are using the zombifying virus to their own evil ends. 'Course, things go out of control fairly quickly and a far worse villain emerges from behind the curtains. The evil, black curtains.

The first fault? Yeah, it's the story. I think the air of childish silliness to the whole thing is typical of the series, and of many other games as well. I mean, just because it's violent and has some overly-sexual women doesn't make it adult. It's a cliche of several motifs put together all with the purpose of giving vague context to shooting things in their hot-spots. It's not interesting but it's also not so different from the majority of games out there.

You'd think that with Africa being the setting we'd get some subversive anti-imperialist comments or some issues with racism but nah... it's just black zombies. That's why I find it pretty funny that the game sparked such debate upon release. There are ingredients for something controversial but ultimately it's a very innocent and meaningless affair. And even if there is some underlying socially-relevant theme to it all, it's likely on the same intellectual level as an average Pokemon episode. My guess is that Africa was the chosen as the location for the game because of films such as Blood Diamond and the like which popularized the setting.

That's not a bad thing per se. Games don't need to have deeper meaning or themes and presently most of them indeed don't have any. I do wish, however, that games started utilizing the tools of their medium, even if it's just for escapism. The most important aspect of the story in survival horror is the atmosphere. Dead Space had a better plot than Resi 5, but the reason I truly remember it is for the fear it managed to emulate in me and the sense of barely surviving the horrors on the Ishimura. Resi 5's more childish approach to character removes a lot of the fear of the game, regardless of how gory it can get.

The problem is that the game tries to set atmosphere through its numerous cinematics rather than the actual gameplay. There's barely a 10-minute length of game that doesn't have a cut-scene interrupting it. Cut-scenes can be nice rewards for a hard level or something to set a mood - but here they're used to pretty much tell the story. That's exactly what I mean when I say they don't utilize the medium. The plot in a game doesn't have to be spelled out to the player. It can be part of the fabric of the world they play in; hints in the world itself. Done right (like in Portal 2, for example), and the story can be told from actually playing rather than watching a movie disguised as a game.

The atmosphere and story problems extend to the level design. That's not just how everything looks, but how the player can function in this world. In terms of random-creepy-things-lying-about, such as dead goats and human cadavers, the game has plenty. But there's something about the way the levels are formed which is just boring. This is hard to explain because Dead Space, for instance, isn't so different. Levels being constricted is necessary for survival horror. You can't have too much freedom to move. You need to feel suffocated. You need to want to get out of whatever place you're stuck in. So maybe the problem with Resi 5 is just the setting; maybe it's because it's sunlight most of the time and whenever something big with a chainsaw rushes towards me I can see where it's coming from. Maybe they just picked the wrong kind of backdrop.

But I'd like to delve deeper than that. I keep choosing Dead Space as an alternative because it's the most recent survival horror game I've played and I think it does the same things better. So, sure, both games have constricted level designs, but if you look at Dead Space, the game constantly puts you in front of something overwhelming. Just looking into space and the emptiness that threatens to overtake you, or a hint of something running in the corner of your eye. And in most cases you have to double back throughout a level... the place feels like a spaceship you need to navigate through. The story is told better through the level, and it is rich in atmosphere. Resident Evil 5 does have the required constricted level design, but where Dead Space comprises of a straight line which branches off into several interconnected straight lines, Resi 5 is just one line.

The game, probably because of engine limitations, doesn't let you see a lot, either. What you do see looks great, but your view is often blocked by crates, or trains, or buildings. When you get some breathing room, there's nothing to see... they don't use the space to make you fear or feel anything. The places are just places. So it's not just the setting that doesn't work for the genre. They could have worked fear into it. A zombie is just as frightening in the day as it is at night (just watch Walking Dead if you don't believe me). It seems that in terms of level design more focus was given to how shiny things looked and how smoothly it played than making the game evoke any actual emotions through its levels.

This journal entry will be continued in Part 2!

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