Resident Evil is a goliath of PS1 gaming, and we’d be well within our rights to write about how important it is. But we’d be in danger of sticking Resident Evil on a pedestal (presumably with a slot at the bottom where a crest should go), when it’s less than perfect, and it’s those flaws that make it so endearing. There’s a weirdness about the original Resident Evil, and some of the quirks have been accepted as wrinkles in the fabric of the series, while others have been long-forgotten. Let’s take a moment to celebrate that weirdness.
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That weirdness comes from a few different sources, but the most consistent is a determination to strip away the video game stuff and make Resident Evil as immersive as possible. As an aim, it makes complete sense, and Silent Hill, Dead Space and any number of others have been doing the same since. There’s nothing less scary than a health bar. But to keep the game screen clean, you need to compromise, and Resident Evil did some amazing, weird somersaults to maintain that compromise.
There’s that wonderful inventory, of course. Resident Evil wasn’t the first to create a fixed space, with items taking up realistic chunks of it: Ultima and other RPGs absolutely pioneered it. But Ultima didn’t have zombies nibbling at your neck as you tried to Tetris a herb into a viable slot. That’s survival horror for you. It’s almost a shame that you don’t see that kind of inventory management in modern games anymore – not unless you’re Richard Garriott and you’re Kickstarting Shroud of the Avatar – but there’s an honesty to the approach, an attempt to mimic the real world that gets you cheering for Resident Evil.
If you’re fancy, you can call it skeuomorphism – the attempt to make something intuitive to use, by mimicking a real-world function in how they appear or work. Resident Evil is full of them, but it’s always backed up by bonkers logic that never fully works. Take the typewriters, for example. They serve a perfectly practical function: if you want players to feel tense, then you can’t let them constantly save. There’s got to be a risk in the exploration. Resident Evil needs to pace itself, too – you can’t have every room filled with dogs and hunters. So you create safe havens, and those safe havens can represent a save point, too.
But it’s that choice of typewriters – it’s so halfway to logical. No one needs that many typewriters, and an undercover tech facility definitely doesn’t need them. You don’t need an ink ribbon every time you want to write anything, and there’s the flimsiest of connections between typewriters and save states: your legacy lives on in what you write, we suppose. But it’s enough, and it carries the things that are important; that a player should be able to feel safe, but it’s going to cost them.
The same goes for herbs. Resident Evil could have just chucked us health packs, the ultimate pseudo-item that simply doesn’t exist in the real world. But no, Resident Evil wants to go halfway to realism, without quite getting there. So we get green, red and yellow herbs, all visible in the game world as potted plants because that’s reasonably believable. But what are you doing with them? Are you sniffing them? Rubbing them on yourself? Making a swift herbal tea? The combinations deliver some unexpected and awesome agency, but are you quickly whipping out your service-issue pestle and mortar for a spot of apothecary? I’m in love with Resident Evil’s use of herbs, mostly because Capcom said ‘sod it’ and added first-aid sprays in regardless, so herbs feel like a quirkily authentic remnant that didn’t necessarily have to be included, yet there they are.
Resident Evil’s strangeness comes from other places, too. The mansion map, and how it’s a genuine physical space, is legitimately brilliant. No strangeness there, but it’s the puzzles, the crests, the movable pillars that make Resident Evil so individual. Resident Evil could have taken a leaf out of Doom’s book and coloured some keycards. It could have copied popular adventures of the time, like 7th Guest and Myst, and staged rooms as ‘puzzle rooms’, with Mensa-like challenges to get through the door (to be fair, puzzles like the portrait room went somewhere close). But Resident Evil wanted you to wrangle with that inventory system. It wanted you to retrace your steps so that you could fall into a false sense of security and… gah, the dogs! And it wanted everything to be tactile, physical, and authentic to a ye olde mansion. To hell with the negatives, like players forgetting which crest went with what door, or forgetting to bring key items with them; this was Resident Evil, and if you can’t treat it like a physical thing, then it’s not going in the game.
But then there’s the contrariness, the abandoning of its own rulesets that makes Resident Evil so awesomely flawed. Storage boxes can teleport your items anywhere, like they’re suction tubes from Futurama (fair play to Shinji Mikami, he desperately fought to have them room-specific). Giant spiders and snakes need footnotes in the story for them to make any kind of sense. And then there’s the opening cutscene. Oh, the opening cutscene.
For a game so focused on believability and immersion, you had a sub-Romero cinematic with abysmal voice-acting and dialogue. It was always intended to be over-dubbed, but the results were supposedly worse than what we got, and filming was done in Japan with just about any American actors who were available (Jill was a high-school student with no previous acting experience). As a kid playing Resident Evil for the first time, the fact it had FMV was shorthand for this being an expensive production – you only got a cinematic if you were AAA – but even fifteen-year-old me could see how painfully wooden it was. And that woodenness was awesome.
Some of these wrinkles have found their way into future Resident Evil games, and they barely raise an eyebrow. We’d be disappointed if there wasn’t a herb or two scattered about the play area. But we can forget how many of them grew from Resident Evil, this strange little game that became the founder of the Survival Horror genre, and its design determination to make everything in the game feel real, regardless of the consequences.
So if you’re a Resident Evil fan, and you’re celebrating the anniversary of this cracking series, have a thought for the wrinkles that would probably have been ironed out if the series were born today.
What are your memories of Resident Evil? Are there other curious choices that we’ve neglected to mention? Jot them in the comments below!