Some time back I heard erroneous news about a Resident Evil reboot, but with news of the graphically updated remake of the Gamecube version I can’t shake the feeling that Capcom is circling that inevitable outcome. In spite of myself I still hold a strong affection for Resident Evil even after I’ve soured on other franchises I’ve loved when they lost their charm. In the event of Resident Evil getting a fresh start, let’s go over things it can do and pitfalls to avoid in order to not squander the opportunity of wiping the slate clean:
1. No co-op in the main story
While it is fair to argue that Resident Evil 4 got the ball rolling with the shift from survival horror to straight action game with monsters, it was really when co-op was implemented that the series really suffered. The obvious downside is immersion being ruined and the annoyance of lugging around a stupid player or an even dumber AI (then there’s the performance anxiety of not making mistakes in front of someone else). However, the real problem with co-op is that level design will invariably be over simplified and there won’t be any “puzzles” more complicated than “find the key” or “push these two buttons at the same time.”
As I see it, this is the big one. If they are going to impose co-op in reboot games, then they’re flat out not serious about returning to form. Co-op is perfectly fine for many games, but in Resident Evil it simply does not work. Maybe you can have additional modes like Far Cry 3 with co-op and team matches, but for the main story it needs to be a purely single player experience. Personally, I think online play should be ditched altogether to keep costs in line and hopefully Capcom might have more realistic sales expectations.
2. One location, or interconnected general area per game
A good survival horror game needs a memorable setting. Plenty of games can get away with going from location to location without looking back, but survival horror is about exploring to get the resources to survive or the tools to secure your eventual escape. If the story perpetually has the main character and thus the player going forward, then it’s a road movie more than a horror story. There are three rules to horror… two I’ve forgotten but I recall the first one is “Isolate.” Even in the second Resident Evil where you were in the city proper, you were playing chiefly in the police station, connecting sewers, and underground facility below. May not be recalling that 100% correctly, but that’s the general idea: Even as the player moved into new areas there was a connection to everywhere you were before and the isolation remained even as you faced the fear of heading into the unknown.
Let’s also look at the original game: You navigated the puzzles and horrors of the mansion, probably cleared out most of the zombies. Then it’s you vs. Plants aaaaand Zombies for a little bit and go back to the mansion. Just when you think it’ll be smooth sailing since you killed everything… Hunters show up to maul the bejesus out of you. A familiar place becomes even more dangerous due to a tougher, faster enemy. Capcom didn’t even have to create a whole bunch of brand new assets for a new level the player would try to blaze through and probably forget. When characters are casually globe trotting it doesn’t really work as survival horror. Survival horror is primarily about trying to escape the danger. Harry Mason was already trapped in Silent Hill when he realized the danger, he wouldn’t have driven anywhere near the town had he any idea what was in store for him. By Resident Evil 5, Chris Redfield wasn’t a man just trying to survive; he was Captain America without the charm or the cool costume. This reminds me of another concern.
3. Do not have the same main character in more than two games
Main characters in previous games can make cameos or be part of the background in future titles, but Chris Redfield became much like Ryu in the Street Fighter franchise: The plots did all kinds of gymnastics to make him central to the story even though he never grows as a character or does anything interesting enough to justify the focus on him. I can easily think of three games where “Chris is missing” was a plot point. Frankly, the more a player takes the reigns of a character in a horror series, the less credible the horror aspect becomes. I recall in Dead Space 3 thinking that Isaac really should die in the ending and put his arc to a close. A recurring main character is also irksome if there’s anything resembling leveling up, be it the character or their equipment. At least MegaMan Legends 2 justified the player starting with scratch because Roll sold his stuff to pay for the fancy new engine.
4. Keep it simple
Water is wet, puppies are adorable, and Capcom handles plots as well as David Cage does romantic subplots. These are basic truths. The fewer moving parts in the plot, the fewer ways Capcom can jump the shark. One of the primary benefits of a reboot is the opportunity to excise from the canon all the plot points which were too silly or just not good. If we’re going to start over, I think an air of mystery needs to be a constant.
Once we got into plots for immortality and secret societies that have been controlling everything for centuries… there’s not much to work with. While the player can learn the details of experiments and plans going on where they are, the overarching machinations should remain unknown or no more than hinted at for the player to draw their own conclusions. Ultimately, this not knowing could assist in the horror: We have a lone, scared, vulnerable human being who discovers through the events of the game how capricious and hostile the world can be. Further, there’s never a proper feeling of victory because the main character never crushes the conspiracy, they’re just a bit player who can only survive and endure.
Alternately, you could have the nightmare of what a few or even one crazed person can do when all they’re after is creating as much hurt and suffering in the world before they die. A lone degenerate with a gun and an expensive car can cause lots of mayhem and death, imagine the bastard getting a sample of a zombie virus or keeping a couple Lickers as pets in his personal murder maze.
The next couple are more like suggestions, but the last one is absolute:
5. Steal one general concept from Dead Space
One part about the first Dead Space which was particularly interesting was that Isaac Clarke was not a soldier with a badass gun, but rather an engineer improvising mining tools to defend himself against bloodthirsty monsters. True, most of the tools might be analogous to some conventional weapons, but the general idea is worth considering. Instead of giving the player a shotgun, give them a wrench (Guns remain in the game, but they’re hard to find and ammo is very rare). There’s something very exploitation movie about using tools to smash, tear, and incapacitate enemies. Without an optimum weapon, give the player options in how they use their tools to navigate combat with zombies, mutants, and other unpleasant things. Further, these same tools can be a means of solving puzzles and opening up new areas or finding secrets.
To be honest, I think we are getting diminishing returns given the expense of making graphics so so pretty. Games in this generation need to be pushing the limits of interactivity with the game world, and Resident Evil could well be an ideal stage for exploring this idea of greater interactivity. At the very least, having the main character using tools could help give this person an everyman quality that gets lost sometimes when protagonists eventually turn into dual wielding murder machines.
At the heart of this suggestion is the basic fact that not every game can have a seasoned police officer or special forces type as the main character. Sometimes it needs to be an average person who is doing whatever to survive the night. For example, a hospital in the early stages of an outbreak would inadvertently bring in the zombies, and touching on the exploitation movie theme there’s a visceral charge to be had as the player character pins down a deadite and sloppily splitting open its skull with a bone saw.
6. Smarter enemies/Evolving threat
Remember when people got hype over that demo of The Last of Us where the enemies displayed some semblance of intelligence… only for the actual game to give us the same generic “charge at the player” tactics every other game employs? When we start off with the zombies, it’s perfectly fine for them to be dumb… swarming enemies like crows are fine too at first. However, as the game progresses the monsters trying to kill us need to step up their game by using some kind of tactics. Flanking, traps, feints, changing attack behavior as they lose health or even fleeing because of self preservation instincts.
Logic would dictate that late game monsters would be truly vicious as they are bred and trained to be the best at dealing death. This is another point which the game industry as a whole needs to be working on, but I think in the case of Resident Evil it’s possible to tell a story with the kinds of monsters the player faces and how they behave. Big pictures are made up of little details and a scene where a Tyrant displays curiosity as it studies the impaled body of a character could be more chilling than a monster which just runs around a lot and tries to stab you a bunch.
7. Focus on making a good game and everything else will fall into place
Here’s a quick history lesson: XCOM: Enemy Unknown and The Bureau: XCOM Declassified were developed independently. The former stayed true to the core mechanics and spirit of the franchise while the latter took the property and refashioned it as a generic third person shooter. Enemy Unknown was received positively by both critics and fans, which then led to the expansion pack Enemy Within. The Bureau, meanwhile, well… it’s largely been forgotten except to contrast with the superior game which also remained faithful to the originals.
Not every game can be Call of Duty and make all the money in the world once a year. However, a good game can still be very profitable and generate plenty of goodwill to ensure the interest of fans for future installments or spiritual successors. There are plenty of niches not being filled as games either devolve into homogenous shooters or become Frankenstein’s Monsters with no core mechanic. Look at the example of two XCOM games, the one that compromised its identity did not do as well as the one which understood its heritage and strengths.
Be a Resident Evil game. That’s the only real rule here. Everything else up to this point is a guideline for avoiding problems which led to the series losing its sense of identity. A revitalized Resident Evil franchise would be a joy to me and a number of fans as well. Rumor has it that a Resident Evil 7 is already in the works, but if Capcom ever does a reboot… please don’t fuck it up.