Resident Evil Remake is a "bad" game by today's standards and that's a problem
The 2002 remake of Resident Evil for GameCube is a poorly designed game by modern standards. It provides you with a measly 6-8 inventory slots while simultaneously throwing dozens of puzzle pieces, keys, healing items, ammo, and guns your way. It limits your ability to save the game, forcing you to find typewriters scattered around the environment and a limited number of ink ribbons necessary to create a save file. It throws you into tough situations with little-to-no ammo, forcing you to run past enemies while navigating a confusing maze of locked doors and twisting corridors. But what sounds like a tedious nightmare was actually one of the most rewarding game experiences I’ve had in a long time.
Few single-player games keep me up until 3 AM anymore, especially when it’s so easy to simply save, quit, and pass out. When a game does keep me up, it isn’t usually against my will either. Yet there I was a few nights ago, at the edge of my seat, running around Resident Evil’s mansion with nothing but an empty shotgun, some first-aid spray, and the key I’d been trying to find for over an hour. I couldn’t go to bed because I ran out of ink ribbons a while ago. If I died or turned the game off it would have meant a ton of lost progress. I should have been mad about it -- on paper that’s flat-out bad game design -- yet the experience was harrowing and the payoff when I finally saved was incredibly rewarding.
I can only imagine this is the kind of thing Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls players rave about, and at this point I have little excuse to keep that series in my backlog. Beyond that one franchise, though, few modern games approach what Resident Evil asks of its audience. Sure, there are plenty of hard games, but few demand more than one thing from players. Super Meat Boy, for example, is a ridiculously challenging platformer, but there’s safety in its design. You always know another attempt at a level is a simple button press away, and success is always in clear view.
Survival in long-form
Even The Last of Us -- played on hard, where the game approaches survival horror levels of ammo scarcity -- doles out challenges in bite-sized chunks. You may die ten times trying to find the best path through a brief encounter, but the designers are right there, checkpoint-saving away so you don’t ever have to worry about losing too much time. And that’s a good thing for that game because death comes swiftly and unexpectedly, but is it the way every game should be?
Resident Evil presents its challenges in long-form. The pace of the game is methodical enough that you can be careful and reliably run from danger. Death doesn’t come suddenly and unexpectedly, but a sense of dread sets in as your health and resources run low. It pairs this with a limited inventory, forcing tough decisions about what you bring on every journey out of a safe room. It spreads out how often you can save your game so that these long-form scenarios can play out, so that over 20 minutes, 45 minutes, or even an hour the stakes are raised, the tension is heightened, and the reward is that much greater when you catch a break.
This certainly isn’t good game design for every game, and it doesn’t mesh well with the adult lives of many of today’s gamers, but it shouldn’t be tossed aside as bad design. The Souls games prove there is a niche for this kind of methodical, rewarding challenge in games, so why don’t we see it more often? Developers should toss aside the notion that every game needs to appeal to as wide an audience as possible because it narrows the variety of experiences you can have. There’s a reason so many niche indie games take off, and it’s because players come out of them with unique, enticing stories to tell other prospective buyers.
Smart level design is memorable level design
Resident Evil strays from the modern survival horror model even further by presenting you with a giant twisting maze of corridors with tons of puzzle items, locked doors, keys, and landmarks. Keeping it all straight in your head is a challenge in itself. It’s a rewarding one, though, and those locations and situations are more memorable because of what the game asks of you. Compare that to Resident Evil 4, 5, and 6, where a key is simply an indication that there will be a locked door at the end of the hallway you’re currently navigating. It’s so straightforward, and the series strayed so far by RE6 that it has more in common with Call of Duty than the original Resident Evil.
The experience of navigating Resident Evil’s iconic mansion got me thinking about the way modern games put millions of dollars into environments, yet players blast through each location in a few minutes. Meanwhile, the original Resident Evil got a ton of mileage out of its environments without feeling repetitive.
Modern games often do even worse. Dead Space 3, for example, shamelessly repeats the same level chunks over and over again with slight alterations, hoping you won’t notice. Why not create smaller, more memorable, complex worlds that the player spends more time in? There’s no shame in smartly introducing backtracking into a game if returning to those environments is exciting. Metroidvania-style games have been doing it for years.
You can even compare BioShock to BioShock Infinite. The former had enough backtracking to make the world feel familiar, while the latter had you moving through areas so quickly that only the big set-piece moments are truly memorable. It seems that the vast majority of today’s games, even the really good ones, seem more comfortable shoving you through as many environments as possible in 6-8 hours than taking the time to design a few good ones. Again, Resident Evil’s design isn’t for everyone, but backtracking and getting to know a world shouldn’t be considered bad design.
A time to reflect on our past
Resident Evil Remake is a refreshing escape from the homogenization of modern games. It begs a lot of questions about what good game design can be and these questions are especially potent in light of what modern games have become. Can a modern game experiment with save files as a commodity (without relegating it to an unlockable mode, Dead Space 2-style)? Can a modern game offer complex environments that are challenging to navigate and rewarding to explore? Can a modern game truly limit your resources, forcing you to play in creative and unexpected ways?
These questions require developers to reflect on the past rather than continue to iterate on our increasingly modern game designs. There is freshness to be found in new technology and more innovative games, but there is value in looking back on the past as well. Especially now, with new consoles and a new generation of gaming set to begin, it could be more valuable than ever to look back on the games of the 90s and 00s and pluck inspiration from them.
Even if developers choose to ignore the past, I think its important that they unchain themselves from what is standard and what works. If playing through Resident Evil Remake taught me anything, it’s that there are no rules for what constitutes good gameplay. Games should not underestimate their audiences, nor should they go out of their way to cater to demographics. The old rules of simply making a good, creative, unique experience still seem to hold true, no matter what a dozen focus testing sessions might tell you.
Enjoy random thoughts about the latest games, the Sega Saturn, or the occasional movie review? Follow me @JoeDonuts!