In the 1990s, science was scary. The Millennium Bug was going to blow up the world. Genetically modified food would give us all cancer. And thanks to advancements in cloning, figureheaded by Britain's own Dolly the sheep, life itself was about to be redefined – dying would not necessarily mean the end.
Appropriate then that Capcom's Resident Evil, a game about zombies, reanimated after death, would launch in 1996, the same year as Dolly's creation. If Call of Duty plays on fears of terrorism and Watch Dogs technology and connectivity, Resident Evil was a nightmare about contemporary science.
Viruses and diseases were in the news as well. 1996 saw outbreaks of Ebola in Zaire and Gabon. And in March, the same month Resident Evil was released, the European Union, responding to the crisis surrounding BSE or "mad cow disease", placed a ban on all exports of British beef. Resident Evil bounced off these events. The story of Umbrella, a global pharmaceutical company that secretly develops lethal pathogens, it took players' existing, real-world fears and used them as the basis for fictional horror.
The Keeper's Diary, found in the first floor bedroom of Resident Evil's Spencer Mansion, wherein an Umbrella worker describes slowly losing his intelligence and cognitions to the effects of the T-Virus, would have sent a chill down the spine of anyone familiar with BSE. The disease itself, transferred through, bites, saliva and blood, and causing victims' organs to shut down and their bodies to become emaciated, is inspired heavily by Ebola. And then the Tyrant, Resident Evil's final boss, built in a lab by combining the DNA of other T-Virus monsters, is Umbrella's Dolly, an artificial but organic creature created through gene experiments.
When you hear people complaining that games ought to be "fun" or "just for escapism", or demanding that politics and games be kept entirely separate, Resident Evil is a valuable counterargument. Its real-world inspirations make it scarier. The true science horror stories that seep into it, arguably by cultural osmosis rather than a conscious decision by the writers, make it more colourful, more affecting.
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If you ignore their technological attributes, a lot of video games are simply stuck out of time – they can tell you something about the history of games themselves, but as broader historical reference points, indicators of the bygone zeitgeist, they are rarely useful. Resident Evil, albeit basically, albeit very disguised by horror and action, can tell you something about science and the predominating news stories of the mid-1990s. Beyond the all too often incestuous world of gaming, it has cultural relevance. It's a shame really that today, 20 years after the game was released, such a quality is so noteworthy.
That's not to say Resident Evil isn't looking its age. The horror games of today thrive on abstraction and obfuscation, muddling the medium's basic premises of progression and experience gathering with strange interactions. Hideo Kojima's free download frightener P.T. is (was) the most prominent example. Where in games you typically explore one room after another and head towards a goal, in P.T. you supernaturally loop through the same L-shaped corridor, never provided with information about who you are or what you're supposed to do.
At least in the conventional sense, there are no levers, keys or puzzle pieces – moments in P.T., the closest things the game has to successive levels, are triggered by, say, staring into a mirror for a period of time, or walking back and forth between a desk and a wall. It's a subversion of video game rules and expectations that one may (perhaps clumsily) liken to the shower scene in Psycho.
Killing the film's central character and biggest star, and killing her brutally, at the end of the first act, puts Psycho's audience on edge – for the rest of the film, it feels like anything could happen. When P.T., and to varying extents games like it, such as Lone Survivor, Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Silent Hill, contradict the standards of video game structure, they remove the player's safety net. Games are rule-based and comprehensible. Introduce abstraction, or deliberate opaqueness, and the player becomes less comfortable, more frightened.
That's why Resident Evil feels dated, or like it perhaps wasn't a great horror game even at the time. Everything in Resident Evil fits. Every weird key and object has a place and purpose. Even the mansion itself, at first seemingly inexplicable, is explained and characterised – booby traps and curios, it turns out, were simply a passion of the house's eccentric owner. The entire game is a gigantic puzzle, rule-based, mechanical and – with a little cognition – perfectly comprehensible.
Occasionally, like in the painting room on the first floor, the player's confidence is undercut: if they fail to solve the puzzle correctly, they'll suddenly be attacked by crows. There's also something to be said for how Resident Evil forces players to traipse back and forth through the mansion. The more time spent out in those hallways and corridors, the more (ostensibly) vulnerable the player is to attack – puzzles that involve roaming between rooms are a particularly cruel way of putting the player constantly in danger.
But Resident Evil still falls back on explaining and defining. Its lock-and-key puzzles, artificial save system and insistence on resource management make it feel very, very much like a video game. And video games, by virtue of being designed so as to be completed, are inherently safe.
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Twenty years since Resident Evil debuted, and it's still fun to laugh at its goofy dialogue and cheap voice work. But video game writing hasn't improved that much in two decades. On the contrary, Resident Evil's engagement with real life and players' actual fears is something from which contemporary games could learn – to a small extent, it's still ahead of its time.
The formalities of video game horror, though, have certainly changed since 1996. Resident Evil, as of today, represents what to steer away from: logic, easy comprehension, the implied safety of a normally functioning video game. It's a pity that the Resident Evil series itself has only gone further and further down this path. Today's Resident Evil games are the most nominal kinds of shooters. Mired in traditional, instantly understandable Video Game Design, they seem more archaic than their now 20-year-old forebear.
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