Evil Refined: Why Resident Evil Remake is a masterpiece

There is a long standing argument that in order for a piece of interactive entertainment to be a videogame, it must be fun. However there is an inherent fallacy to this sort of mentally, as survival horror is one of the oldest genres in gaming and the goal of the genre is not to make sure people have fun, but that they feel fear. In 1996 the original Resident Evil taught us that videogames could evoke so many more emotions than just enjoyment or pleasure. Since that game, the genre has continued to refine and perfect everything that it did right. The most obvious example of this is the 2002 remake of Resident Evil for the Nintendo Gamecube. Resident Evil 2002, or ‘REmake‘ as it’s been called by most fans is often cited as a textbook example as to what a survival horror game should be. That is due to how it nails the proper atmosphere, balances difficulty accordingly, acknowledges the importance of reprieve in horror, features a story that accentuates the gameplay, and brings all these elements together better than any other survival horror game.

Note: For the rest of this article, I’m going to continue to refer to Resident Evil 2002 as ‘REmake’ to avoid confusion with the original game. Also: Slight spoilers.

Atmosphere has become a bit of an abstract concept in gaming mainly because it’s used so liberally when describing how an environment in a game makes the player feel. Personally, I believe it is something that developers use to drive home the setting, tone, and mood of a game. In the case of REmake, the game looks to set a lonesome feeling throughout, starting with the very opening cutscene. Players are given all the information they need regarding the plot in about 3 minutes time; you’re a member of a special forces police unit looking into a series of grisly murders. The game doesn’t want you to be thinking about a complicated back story, it wants you to focus on feeling helplessness. There’s a section of this cutscene that just features the protagonists running from a pack of dogs for several moments. While it may seem like just a chase scene, it establishes just how far away from civilization and safety the STARS team is. They’re bolting from rabid dogs in a pitch black forest, their helicopter pilot has left them behind, and their only chance at safety is an abandoned mansion in the middle of nowhere. This cutscene lays everything out for the player in a concise but effective manner; you and your team are alone, murders are involved, some of your friends are missing, and there are monsters outside preventing you from leaving. All of this serves a very specific purpose: to make the player feel isolated and cut off from the rest of the world.

The mansion players have just entered is anything but safe, as you have quite literally just entered the world of survival horror. The Spencer Mansion itself is probably the primary reason why Resident Evil and REmake have resonated with players for nearly two decades. The labyrinthine level design makes it feel like a massive undertaking to explore while simultaneously feeling cramped and claustrophobic.  What makes the Spencer Mansion so unsettling is how it feels like a real, lived-in place; at the same time it feels like a perversion of reality. All of the booby traps, monsters, puzzles, and absurd amount of hidden nooks and crannies obviously would never exist in the real world. However, it is the attention to detail and environmental storytelling that really sells the mansion on feeling like a real place. Almost every room feels lived-in due to the clutter, notes, and various items scattered about. A great example of this is a living quarters early in the game. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about it in terms of useful items, but if you examine the bed you’ll notice it looks as though someone was walking on it and passed right through the wall next to the bed. It’s something that has always stuck with me cause I’ve never been able to make heads or tails of what the developers were insinuating with this tiny detail. There’s a good chance it is there only to mess with the player’s mind and make them feel uncomfortable, which just shows how brilliant the level designers were when making the game. The game is just teeming with tiny details put there by the developers to unnerve the players.

The lived-in quality of the Spencer Mansion in REmake was elevated  well above that of the original Resident Evil. The mansion in Resident Evil looks far too barren and clean for a supposed “world of survival horror”, or at least it does by today’s standards. Naoki Katakai was the art director for REmake and is probably largely responsible for the intimate level of detail in the game’s environments. Something that a lot of modern games suffer from, including recent Resident Evil games, is a lack of grit. The Spencer Mansion in REmake is a dirty, dusty, old, decrepit, and miserable looking place – but in a good way. The way floorboards creak and how dust is often kicked up when you walk around is again all part of how the developers sell it as a real place. By making the mansion feel real and tangible, it’s all the more scary when you come across something unnatural. All fears no matter how irrational they may seem are rooted in reality, and the atmosphere of the Spencer Mansion is this mentality embodied in game form.

One of the aspects of designing a horror game that is most difficult for developers is balancing the difficulty. If your goal is to make people afraid, you don’t want to make it too hard because players might get frustrated and the immersion will be broken. At the same time, however, a horror game should never be too easy either. If the enemies/puzzles in the game are a cakewalk then there’s no reason to be intimidated by them. Be it too hard or too easy – go too far in either direction and your game probably isn’t going to be scary.

Yet again this is something that REmake does so successfully that it makes it look as though there was no difficulty hurdle at all for the developers. Most people will tell you that REmake is a very tough game, and on the Normal difficulty setting (Mountain climbing) it is indeed quite a challenge. It’s a tough game but at a no point is it unfair, at least not on Normal or Hard. If you pay attention to the notes, plot, environmental storytelling, and tips you can minimize your death count significantly. For example, most first time players will say that the Crimson Head Elder boss fight is very brutal on a first playthrough. If you’ve been paying attention to the notes and have been burning the zombie bodies, you already know that Crimson Heads are weak to fire. That applies to the Crimson Head Elder as well. In Jill’s case,  if you load the fire rounds into your grenade launcher then this fight will be incredibly easy. When it comes to the enemies, REmake is all about knowing what tool to use for the job and when.

Since I touched briefly on Crimson Heads, I feel it is important to elaborate how brilliant this enemy type is. If you’re not familiar with the game, a Crimson Head is basically what happens to a zombie if not properly disposed of. There’s so much backtracking in the older Resident Evil games that once you had cleared a room of enemies, that was it; you were safe. REmake spiced things up a bit and really shook experienced Resident Evil players to their core. Basically, if you kill a zombie and don’t blow off its head or burn its body, some time later it’ll come back to life as a Crimson Head. Unlike zombies they are slow and aimless, Crimson Heads can sprint after you and are far more aggressive, not to mention tougher to kill than a traditional zombie. This forces players to carry around a flask of kerosene (and a lighter in Jill’s case) in order to burn zombie bodies. In a game where the inventory is so limited and management is important, you run the gambit of either just fighting Crimson Heads later or have the flask eat up inventory space. It is just another way  how the developers didn’t want players to feel safe in rooms they had already visited.

Puzzle difficulty similarly strikes a very healthy balance. Survival Horror games from the late 90’s and early 2000’s often had very obtuse puzzles that required the players to consult walkthroughs, because the information needed to solve the puzzles were straight up not available in the game (I’m looking at you Silent Hill 3 Shakespeare puzzle). REmake’s puzzles and progression is often very sequential, you need to do a lot of actions in the right order to progress further. It’s a good system that often leaves you feeling satisfaction at a healthy pace. More importantly than that though, there’s never a point in REmake where the solution isn’t visible in the game.

In any sort of horror or dramatic media, it is important to give the audience a moment of reprieve. The reason for this is if you bombard the viewer, reader, or player with nothing but an oppressive atmosphere then it starts to lose its affect after a while. For example, in Amnesia: The Dark Descent the game initially starts out very scary, but it never lets up on the tension and after a while you get used to it and it gets kinda boring. Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami has known this since he directed the very first game. This is primarily what the purpose of the save rooms are: to offer the players a reprieve. REmake does this better than any other game in the series before it as well. The save rooms are often littered with welcoming, warm colors of candlelight coupled with a the relaxing song “Save Heaven“. The save rooms give you a brief moment to relax after all the stress that the rest of the Spencer Mansion can cause, but they’re also there so that you don’t get comfortable with the rest of the environment. You could argue that most of the games in the core series do this, but REmake surpasses the rest of them in my opinion due to how much better the score and art direction is.

This next part is sure to make a few people upset, but it needs to be said: the Resident Evil games are not well written. The characters are often lucky to be stereotypes at best, and they almost never grow and change as people. More than that though, the plot for almost every game is identical: Virus gets lose, characters are stuck in the middle of the chaos and must find their way out, and there’s an explosion at the end. REmake‘s narrative is by no means great; it’s essentially just a silly B-movie. There’s nothing wrong with that, though. In fact, I’d gladly take a B-horror movie presentation over the comical melodrama and “saving the world” nonsense of the later games in the series. REmake actually has an air of mystery to its plot, mostly because it helps the mansion seem more uncomfortable, but it works. Unless you had played a Resident Evil game previously, you have no idea where the monsters in the mansion come from or what exactly the mansion even is. It all ties into the fear of the unknown, which of course is the basis of all fear.

The best writing in the series has always been featured in the notes you find left behind by previous occupants. They are not always remarkable, but it’s interesting to discover a backstory as to how the environments you explored came to be so messed up. I would argue though that REmake is the only game in the franchise to feature some genuinely good writing. The entire backstory you uncover behind George, Jessica, and Lisa Trevor is very tragic to the point where the game makes you feel sympathy towards a horrific monster that’s wearing the skin of its mother. It’s a fine addition to the game that fits so well that it feels as if it should have been in the original game as well.

More importantly than the quality of the writing is the fact that REmake‘s narrative was not written at the expense of the gameplay. When you look at a modern Resident Evil game, so much of it is full of silly set pieces that don’t mesh with the rest of the game because they want it to tie into the overarching narrative of the series. Resident Evil 5 was particularly guilty of this when it shoehorned in two awful boss fights with Wesker because Capcom knew fans would eat it up. Meanwhile in REmake, there’s never a section where you have to avenge your fallen comrades by having a QTE battle with those individuals that betrayed you. The mansion, its environments, the atmosphere, the gameplay, and just horror in general are given priority. For both the original game and REmake, it feels as though the story came secondary to everything else and was designed around the other aspects. In that regard it works extremely well.

What ultimately sets REmake apart from other games mentioned when the “best survival horror game ever” topic springs up is just how well rounded it is. Something like Silent Hill 2 obviously is much more well written than REmake, but at the same time that game is largely broken from a gameplay standpoint. In Silent Hill 2, you can run past nearly every enemy in the game with ease and end up with hundreds and hundreds of bullets by the end. The same could not be said for REmake, as it is a far more challenging game with much more lethal enemies. Similarly, a game like Resident Evil 4 arguably has more refined, innovative, and thrilling gameplay mechanics than REmake; but it’s at the expense of nearly everything else that makes for a great horror game. When I say REmake is the best survival horror game of all time, I don’t mean it does each individual aspect better than any other survival horror game. I mean it does every aspect so well that it elevates it above all of its peers.

The Spencer Mansion truly is the birthplace of survival horror, and REmake refines the experience into a fine powder and makes it leagues better than the original game. A masterpiece doesn’t mean a game is perfect, more that it excels in everything that it sets out to do. REmake isn’t without its own flaws of course, but it is so good that it makes you forget all about its few shortcomings. The world of survival horror has never been on as full display as it was in REmake, and you owe it to yourself to spend a night in the Spencer Mansion.

               
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COMMENTS

  • Andrey Martim

    I am a very long date RE fan… Since my 8 years when I played RE3 for the first time… Today with 22, the original game and the REmake are, at least for me, not only the horror game but the best game ever made. It’s just perfection… Also I like the story, much of the retcon made for RE2 and 3 with the inclusion of Lisa, who makes a guy like Nemesis sounds like a kitten. I put this game in a “perfect” position alongside Metal Gear Solid 2 (Another one of my “perfect timeless masterpiece”) for it’s gameplay, overall feeling, soundtrack, story, monster and level design… Everything.

  • Megan Schneider

    The only problem I have with this port (and it’s very minor). I noticed on a play through that a couple of Wesker’s lines were delayed/weren’t in sync with the subtitles. Overall this is one of my favorites and I hope they port RE 0 as well. I don’t know that they’ll ever make RE2 or 3 like this but one can hope 🙂

  • Thomas

    …… first off someting tells me you really REALLY like this game…..

    Dont worry im the same way and i consider it what a Resident Evil game is supposed to be. “Survival Horror” and yes i thinkg its an amazing game as well.

    I have the Gamecube and Wii version but im really scratching my head if an updated version really is worth buying considering its basically the same game with better window dressing…….

  • kyle

    Wow you just nailed it. It hurts me to think the possibility that this is the last time I will experience a game like this. The static camera angles allow each scene to be hand drawn, due to the unchanging perspective. That means hundreds of unique objects and details can be added by an artist, rather than each object being a 3d model which takes much time to create, causing objects to be re-used over and over. Evidence can be seen first in RE CVX. A supposed newer game, bland and lacking in these details. Each room in RE Remake Is unique, it has character, its memorable, and you become so immersed, you remember the layout of the mansion, areas to avoid, locations of puzzles and locked doors. I could stand in a bedroom and be told a story of what happened, read a note left by the dead occupant, hiding in the closet behind me. You are not able to simply headshot each zombie like modern games, even deciding when to flee or fight is a puzzle in itself where later you can be screwed if you made poor decisions. There is never a point where earlier gameplay doesn’t punish or reward you. The game as a whole is in fact a masterpiece, and it holds up visually even in 2015

  • Demi

    What? REmake is not the best written RE game, thats Code Veronica. Even Zero has better story. The only interesting thing in REmake is Lisa’s story. Wich ultimately leads to an anticlimatic ending. The monster escapes, Barry/Wesker say that shes probabbly still alive but she never appears again.

    • Andrey Martim

      Wesker kills her for good in Umbrella Chronicles. He traps her under the Mansion’s chandelier and the explosion probably killed her.

    • Levito

      Yeah that part where Steve said he was in love with Claire after having maybe 3 small conversations with her was *really* well written.

      • Demi

        Well ,if you want to reduce the plot to that not my problem. But in reality, people communicate through enunciation, the spoken word is just a small fragment of enunciation, body language, eyes, gestures, actions, all that matters too. Even the silence is part of enunciation.
        When you gather all that, you see that there was a lot more than just “3 small conversations”.

        • CasuallyDressed

          “But in reality”

          This is a VIDEO GAME.

          REmake > Code: Veronica. Everyone knows it.

          • Demi

            Thats obtuse, if you are invalidating potential methods of communication because its a videogame, then might aswell invalidate every story too. Wich makes you posting here useless.

          • CasuallyDressed

            That’s exactly what I’m doing. The animation on Code: Veronica is not good enough to accurately portray the range of emotions that you’re implying.

            Eyes, body language, gestures? Really? Newer games barely get that stuff across, let alone a 15 year old one.

          • Demi

            IT doesnt need to be good enough to accurately portray the range of emotions. Take Clock Tower for snes as an example of it.

          • CasuallyDressed

            I’ve not played Clock Tower on the SNES so I’m going to defer to you and ask that you provide proof of the scenes to which you’re referring. Shouldn’t be that hard to find a YouTube clip.

      • zackfurniss

        That part kills my soul.

      • Andrey Martim

        Something “cute” to say, but I took two less conversations to fall in love with a girl.

    • Govindarajan

      CV has better writing? Is that a joke? CV is the game which compleletely destroyed RE storyline.

  • Nyar

    I do love Remake and would agree it’s at least close to masterpiece material. Silly/stupid writing but ascends past it with the quality of just.. everything else it offers.

    I have to disagree with your remark on Silent Hill 2 though. I think it is similarly masterpiece material. Its writing is great and its game design works with the story rather than treating it as an entirely separate layer.

    It’s not a tough game as you mention. But why should it be? Its story is not one about a fight for survival and this is reflected well through the gameplay. The creatures feel like part of the world around you rather than enemies specifically designed to hunt and kill you. Its difficulty levels are balanced in a way to keep different players engaged – but still to fit the subtle tone/pacing of the story. Not adding difficulty for the sake of it.

    I think it’s brilliant from a design perspective (for its time) just as much as its writing. They go more hand in hand than other games from the genre or even its own series.

    • Levito

      It’s not that Silent Hill 2 isn’t masterpiece material as well, it obiously it. As a game though, it’s design is noticeably sloppy compared to REmake. As a whole, I believe REmake to be the superior survival horror game. I actually like Silent Hill 2 more than REmake.

      • Nyar

        Fair enough. But I was mostly debating your comment on it having sloppy design rather than questioning your enjoyment of it.

        I think SH2 is actually very well designed, but just can’t be judged in the same way as REmake. The game is designed with more consideration for its story, and the story isn’t really about survival.

        I think this is why Silent HIll 3 and 4, as much as I love them, aren’t held up as often by many people. They each focused more and more on the survival mechanics which did little but distract.

        • Levito

          Being able to run by almost ever single enemy in the game easily is *not* good game design. No matter how you try to frame it, having more focus on the story is not an excuse. I adore Silent Hill 2, it’s in my top 5 favorite games of all time, but it’s combat and enemy interaction is really underdeveloped and lacks the polish that something like REmake has.

          • Nyar

            I don’t see it as an excuse, but, a reason. Why is it bad, being able to run past the monsters? Within the frame of the story and setting they aren’t made to have a clear goal of killing you, unlike the zombies and monsters of Resident Evil.

            Having more in depth combat in SH2 would at best, do nothing for the story, and at worst actually work against its themes and style.

          • Levito

            The story being good does not mean that the game is suddenly without faults, that’s what I’m saying. Saying the monsters have no clear goal in killing you suggests that enemy interaction is pointless, and therefore the monsters are pointless outside of visual iconography. If that’s the case, then there shouldn’t be a combat system in the game at all. However the developers put in a combat system cause… it’s a survival horror game. You can run by most enemies in REmake too-if you’re good. You have to time zombie grapple animations and pace yourself accordingly. Almost every enemy in Silent Hill 2 can be straight up walked into and you aren’t punished for it.

  • Andy

    It is a masterpiece. I wish more RE games or all survival games were like this. RE0 was also amazing as well.

    • Liam Mountain

      I hope we get RE0 Remastered next , Rebecca is one of my faves.

  • Robert Moreno

    Gosh I remember when I first played RE: Director’s Cut & it came with a demo for Resident Evil 2. Well my brother started with RE so I started with RE2 demo & was sold. I watched my brother play the director’s cut and then played after. Hell my Mom was into the game too. Hahaha yeah my Mom used to watch us play them all up to RE4.

  • Morir es vivir

    I got it, it’s ridiculously gorgeous. Visually, it takes a shit on many current gen games. But…. I’m pissed, because: They have screw a few background scores!!!! WTF MAN???!!!!. They have screw the Guest house score BIG Fucking Time!!!, They have Screw Mansion 2F revisited score AS WELL????!!!! WTF DUDE!!!!???? Those are the most fucked up. They also fucked Mansion B1 score :_( :_( :_( :_( The Lab’s score is also fucked but not as much tho. WHY?? Why did you have to do that Capcom???, You where supposed to remaster not to SCREW!!!!!! Thank you for Remaster Remake but FUCK YOU for screwing the scores. FUCKING IDIOTS!!!!!

    • Carl Johnson

      Dude, at least try to act like an adult.

      • Morir es vivir

        I don’t act Mr “grown up” fag. I’ll express my opinion the way i fucking want. If i’m pissed i’ll express my self as such.

        • Carl Johnson

          Ok, geez, don’t get mad at me because mommy grounded you.

          • Morir es vivir

            You thumb up your own comments with a guest account faggot?? hoho ur a fucking looser. U talk to me like that in person fag and i’ll stomp the fuck out of ur head until u stop breathing, little shit.

          • Carl Johnson

            hahahahaha
            HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA
            BAAAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

            Man, I hope your parents don’t take away your internet. You’re just so god damned adorable.

          • Morir es vivir

            U assume i live with my parents fag? i see u live inside ur mind. I guess it’s better to live like that than facing reality right faggot?

          • Carl Johnson

            Ahahahahaha, thirteen year olds. Is anybody else just loving this?

          • Morir es vivir

            First the parents attack, then the girls attack, some one is speaking about himself?? xD

          • Carl Johnson

            Who mentioned girls? And attacks? Hahahahahahaha this is the best thing ever

          • Morir es vivir

            You thumb up your own comments with guest accounts and edit them to change what you said??. You are one sad piece of shit.

          • Carl Johnson

            AaAaaahahahaha Your rage sustains me

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