This article contains plot spoilers for 'Resident Evil 7'. If you're not past the game's first boss encounter, in the garage, just stop reading this right now. Perhaps go and read something else?
"Casualties continue to mount over the long years I have struggled," Chris Redfield growled over footage of a riot in an African town. This was the first trailer for Resident Evil 5, and, aside from its very questionable racial connotations, it presented the palpable sense that Capcom wanted its action-horror games to be taken seriously now. Whereas before, Resident Evil 4 saw protagonist Leon S. Kennedy light-heartedly quipping, "Monsters… I guess after this there'll be one less to worry about!" Quite the tonal shift.
In any long-running series, drastic changes in tone should be expected. When Resident Evil went somber—when RE5, RE6 and the two Revelations games (at least in comparison to their predecessors), started to focus on convoluted plots and the tortured pasts of all their characters—it lost its colorful and fundamental sense of humor.
Though commonly regarded as funny by mistake, the first Resident Evil's live-action opening encapsulates a willing and creative joie de vivre that later games unfortunately forgot. When the giant statue of tittering caitiff Salazar runs Leon out of the castle, Resident Evil 4, and the series as a whole, is at its most true hearted.
(We weren't joking about the plot spoilers. They're right beneath the image below.)
So what a relief it is that Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, at least in its opening hours, is not only very funny, but unashamedly so. Its inspirations are obvious. The car protagonist Ethan arrives in, at the beginning of the game, closely resembles Sam Raimi's Oldsmobile, and when poor Ethan is attacked by his possessed wife and later loses a hand, Resident Evil 7 starts to feel like Evil Dead 2: The Game.
Jack, Marguerite and Lucas Baker stand in for the Sawyer family from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But where Tobe Hooper's film is unrelenting horrible, when Jack casually hacks off Lucas's arm for some perceived social faux pas, British audiences in particular must get a sense of The Young Ones, The League of Gentlemen and Bottom. There are echoes, also, of Death Becomes Her, and the anarchic slapstick that transpires between a group of characters—like Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, or Laurel and Hardy—that can be wounded but never killed.
Resident Evil 7, in the most complimenting sense, is a silly game.
And so it goes. From Ethan running around the house with his cartoonish stump, spurting jets of bright red blood, to the veritable slap fight between him and Jack in the garage, where they tussle over the Oldsmobile in a chaotic battle to run each other over, Resident Evil 7, in the most complimenting sense, is a silly game.
Its spectacles are absurd, but it doesn't telegraph the jokes. When Ethan, with his one arm, picks up a gun and goes hunting for his wife, it'd be easy for him to—as it were—nod to the audience and remark "this is crazy." Such is the brand of fourth-wall-breaking humor often favored by games. Instead he mutters, "Okay, fine," and the game keeps moving and the laughs keep coming.
Such willing, such exuberance, is why Resident Evil 7 is funny. When the creators have the money, the means and the medium to create any scenario they imagine, it would be a waste not to continue to heighten every scene. A waste not to have Ethan not only find his missing wife but then have her attack him, cut him up with a chainsaw, then send him running around the game with a ludicrous, stapled-back-on hand.
At the same time, RE7 creates and then stays within borders. To me, bespoke "wacky" games, like recent Saints Row releases and Goat Simulator, feel vaguely desperate—as soon as you tell an audience you're going to make them laugh, you assume a certain ego, and the same audience becomes reluctant to let you have your way.
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But Resident Evil 7 lets us find the jokes for ourselves. And such confidence in its own material, and respect for our intelligence, makes the game likable: Since RE7 plays up to you, rather than telling you this is funny and you are going to find it so, you're more willing to laugh along.
If there's a simple rule to making video games funny, it's the same one that makes improv comedy tick: "Yes, and…" You create a scenario: a fight in a garage. You let it play out: there's a car, which can be used a weapon. And when you see an opportunity for a joke, you say "yes", and add it in: like bickering spouses, you suspect Jack and Ethan would slap each other's hands off the steering wheel until they crash into a wall.
The environment and the scenario are consistent. You're still trapped in a house, trying to escape, and that scene doesn't devolve into arbitrary gags for their own sake. But such comic turns, like the opening of Resident Evil, the foppish Leon in Resident Evil 4 and Alfred Ashford in Code Veronica, demonstrate a team of game-makers that understands precisely what's joyful about its subject matter.
RE7 doesn't seem like it was made to be a comedy game, but when funny moments naturally arose, the creators didn't try to write around or explain them away. Leaning into the absurd moments that occur naturally in such a heightened atmosphere represents an intelligent balance among restraint, a willingness to go there, and an understanding of what makes a game series like Resident Evil enjoyable to talk about and to play in the first place.