Monday, 25 April 2011

Resident Evil 4

I really feel like I should like zombies more than I do. Don't get me wrong, I do appreciate zombies as a monster, but they've never really been my first choice and I can't, however much I try, get as excited about them as I feel I really ought to. Nerds (such as I am) love zombies, they are of the holiest of the holy; along with pirates, ninjas and robots they form the ever battling idols of the geeks. They have got to the point where they justify themselves - you don't even need an explanation for the zombies in your zombie film any more.

The fact that there are zombies is enough to justify the presence of zombies. The previous instances of zombies in any number of media, and the fact that your audience will have seen this media, is sufficient set-up and backstory for each further instance of zombies, so much so that by now too much explanation actually detracts from the flow of the narrative. We don't care how the zombies came to be, only that they are there.

Unfortunately, for me, this points up something essentially incomplete about zombies as a monster. They are not the real point of the story, only a placeholder for danger. Dead wood that forces all the other players to do their part, that keeps them within the bounds of the story without stealing any of their lines.

Resident Evil 4 isn't really a game about zombies any more. I mean, it is in a way, but the zombies are really just heavily othered Eastern Europeans, which makes it much closer to being a game about vampires, except that in most of their incarnations vampires are by now all either emos or cyber goths. However, it still uses a whole set of zombie game tropes, which are sort of synonymous with survival horror tropes by now, so that even the monsters in a sci-fi survival horror game like Dead Space are still functionally zombies. And some of the bosses are clearly re-animated, too.

I said in this post about Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem that I would come back to and expand upon the theme of survival horror games and my inability to complete any that I play, so here we go. The main thrust of the zombie/survival horror game is that you have limited resources and the monsters are unstoppable and will just keep coming, unless you can find a way to escape you have no chance to stem the tide. Zombies cant be scared off or reasoned with, they don't need to stop or recoup and they don't have a motive you can use as leverage.

The games follow the same sort of logic as the defining films in the genre, that the characters should never feel safe, and they should be constantly aware of how much ammo they have left. Which is absolutely great, because it makes playing the games a really cinematic experience, and heightens the fact that you are in a story rather than in a game - everything has consequences, you can't just hold down the fire button and hope to get out.

The problem that this brings is that when you do die it's even more jarring. The odd death here and there is OK - it actually relieves the tension and lets you breathe - it's when you die constantly in the same spot that grinds down the immersion and leaves you much more aware of the game you are playing. For me, that often happens about halfway through - I'll get to a point I just can't get past, usually because I fucked up and didn't retain enough ammo and the control scheme's clunkiness becomes too obvious.

In RE4 that point was a section when you could either go and fight a giant armed with only a pistol, or attempt to get through a huge area filled with chainsaw wielding Easter European stereotypes, armed only with a pistol and having to hide a girl in a bin at the same time. Both routes provided minimal actual gameplay, just a set of tedious timing based challenges or a lot of waiting and figuring out patterns and I just died so many times that that was it. I no longer felt like a badass, even a scared badass, I just felt like a dick.

Because the fundamental difference between a film and a game, unless you've played the game before and know exactly how to beat it - at which point to me it's not so much of a fun game anymore (unless it's Donkey Kong Country 2, a game I will never get bored of re-playing), is that a film represents a single sequence of events where everything goes just right enough for the main protagonist that they make it through. Whereas in a game random death is a possibility, in a film it is only a predetermined inevitability for certain people. Yet, I try to treat survival horror games more like films, and so I am disappointed and I eventually give up and try something else instead. I am not a very hardcore gamer.

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