Gaming

It’s Remembered for Its Action, But ‘Resident Evil 4’ Was a Superbly Scripted Video Game

<i>RE4</i> was outstanding of visuals, sound and set-piece variety – but more than that, it was a fantastic example of video game writing.

by Ed Smith
14 September 2016, 9:36am

All screenshots courtesy of Capcom

The opening minutes of Resident Evil 4 have a lot to do. Foremost, they need to establish that, for the first time in the series' history, the enemies are not zombies. They need to explain how stalwart antagonist Umbrella is now dead, rookie police officer Leon S. Kennedy is now working for the Secret Service, and that the US President's daughter, Ashley Graham, has been kidnapped and taken to "rural Europe".

And these are just the basic narrative set-ups. Resident Evil 4 – when you place it in the context of its release year, 2005, after Code Veronica and before Gears of War – has to ingratiate to players a completely different pace of action. The mechanics are brand new (rather than a fixed camera, auto-aim-enabled pseudo horror game, RE4 is an over-the-shoulder, third-person shooter) and the tone is different.

Resident Evil games typically open with a dark night and ominous soundtrack. RE4, by contrast, begins with a relaxed Leon Kennedy, driving a sunny woodland road, backed by Spanish guitar. Immediately, the energy is up. When the game begins proper, and Leon – wearing fingerless gloves and holding his pistol like James Bond – gets on the radio with his Secret Service handler Hunnigan, the mood begins to settle. You are not some lone survivor, stumbling into a zombie outbreak by mistake. You're a professional, on a mission, with agency support. Your inventory screen is a sleek attaché case. Your gun has a laser sight – there are even some crows perched in front of you, just begging you to test your aim. You are equipped, primed and ready to be an action hero.

With that established, Resident Evil 4 turns its attention on your enemies. In a few, short lines of dialogue, the opening cutscene has killed off Umbrella. Thus, players are expecting a new antagonist and new monsters. RE4 responds by having its first enemy do two patently un-zombie like things: stand in a house, tending his fireplace, and talk to you. Roughly translated, Resident Evil 4's first enemy calls you "bastard" and tells you to get out; with his raised voice and harsh language, clearly he is a creature of emotion, the opposite to a brainless, shambling undead. It's final, but you almost don't need the single line of text that appears after checking his body: "He's not a zombie..." By now, less than five minutes into Resident Evil 4, you understand the enemies are thinking, feeling, almost humans. And if the peppy music, Secret Service combat gear and Leon's chiselled good looks and perfect hair had you convinced you were a badass, it was only to prepare you for the monsters to come.

In this style, Resident Evil 4 continues for its entire duration. Obviously, the game has an electric pace. Inside 20 minutes, between the end of level 1-3 and the start of 2-1, you have a boating section across a lake, fight a huge monster residing in said lake, pass out, wake up in the middle of a storm, see the standard enemies evolve into the more dangerous, mutant-headed ones, rappel down a cliff, solve a lever puzzle, walk through a waterfall, take another boat trip and finally – with the help of a wolf you rescued at the beginning of the game – fight and kill a gigantic troll.

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It sounds dizzying, but Resident Evil 4, more than visuals, sound or even variety, is a fantastic example of video game writing. Those opening minutes set a standard. Myriad, sometimes abstract concepts are contextualised and explained in Resident Evil 4 using just a few words or pictures. Why do you have to fight the monster? Because a rope from your boat has got caught on its neck. How do you know the mutant-headed enemies are more dangerous? Because you get a three-second cutscene, shot from a foreboding low angle, showing the mutant head appearing, and after you kill one for the first time, you're given a reward. It's not always graceful, but the writing in RE4 is economical. When in the first village section Leon examines a portrait of a then-unknown man in a cloak, he remarks, "Definitely the type I don't get on with." An hour or so later, when the cloaked Saddler first appears on on-screen, you know right away he's the main villain.

There are small details – as if removing it in preparation for a fight, after the opening level, Leon is stripped of his jacket – and also big conceits. From, basically, the start of the game, both Leon and Ashley have been infected with the Las Plagas parasite: if they don't remove it from their bodies in time, they'll both turn into monsters. Above simply "rescue the President's daughter" or "escape", this narrative set-up lends Resident Evil 4 massive dramatic stakes. It's not always in your conscious mind, but the game's aforementioned breakneck pace is aided by an implicit awareness that the characters are against the clock.

And there's something particularly unnerving about the Plagas. It won't kill Leon. Instead, if it finishes growing, it will place his mind under the control of Saddler. This is the same reason that the alien, from Alien, is so frightening. Understanding that dying is barely a hindrance in video games, since you can simply hit restart and try over, RE4's writers have created an enemy that doesn't want to kill you so much as violate and use you – for basically the entire game, you're looking down the barrel of a fate worse than death.

And compared to so many video games, the story of Resident Evil 4, in its entirety, can be easily remembered and told. Final Fantasy VII and the Metal Gear Solid games are renowned for their writing, but it's difficult to explain, or even mentally put into order, what actually happens in them. RE4 is a simple, unambiguous tale, but its snappiness and clarity don't make it a lesser script than some sweeping, full, role-playing game. On the contrary, it's written, always, to benefit its action – it's the epitome of a great genre piece. Leon is a superlatively gorgeous, goofy jock not only because a main character ought to look good, but because his floppy hair and dumb jokes lend to each sequence levity and breeziness. You like that guy. He makes you smile. So when you wade into a fight, it's with added brio – you want to be with Leon while he does his thing.

The launch trailer for the new, remastered versions of 'Resident Evil 4', '5' and '6'

Similarly, who could resist wanting to pummel the peevish, whining Salazar? When in so many games you're killing enemies just because, by the time you fight that little twerp in RE4, he's already tried to crush you in a trap, impale you on a spike and stomp you into dust using a gigantic, moving statue of himself. It feels like the entire castle section is designed to build your fury towards Salazar. If hearing a church bell ring in the opening village section, and then later arriving at the church itself is a small example of RE4's plant-and-then-pay-off style of narrative, then from the first time you hear Salazar's grating, high-pitched titter, to the moment his annoying little face finally goes dead, is one consistent, self-contained secondary story.

Clearly, Resident Evil 4 is full of things to do. While fighting enemies, overcoming dozens of unique set pieces and safeguarding Ashley, you're also hunting for treasure, chasing weapon upgrades and, in what could almost be a spin-off game unto itself, managing your inventory. Such a dynamic – layers upon layers upon layers – is mirrored in the writing. At the same time as trying to rescue Ashley and remove the parasite from your body, you're hunting for Salazar and searching for a way out of the castle. As well as giving you several things to do, Resident Evil 4, consistently, gives you reasons to do them. It's a game filled with colourful, magnificent moments, but none of them feel arbitrary.

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Often in video games, spectacle and violence are given zero context. Alternatively, and particularly at the moment, as game-makers fall over themselves to prove how sophisticated they are, lore, information and "back story" overwhelm action. Quality has become confused with quantity. It's rare that a game is able to sufficiently, and briefly, humanise its characters, explain its story and contextualise its action. Even rarer is a game that can do all of those things again and again and again, shifting from one idiosyncratic scenario to another, in quick succession, while still keeping the player up to speed and motivated.

Sometimes it does it through found items. Other times it uses cutscenes, scenery and sound cues. But from those deceptively packed opening minutes to the closing credits, Resident Evil 4 ensures you always know where you are, what you're doing and why. Given the typical quality of writing in games, that is no modest achievement.

Remastered ports of Resident Evil(s) 4, 5 and 6 are available now for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

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