In 2017 we’re quite used to entertainment franchises being “rebooted.”
In video games, the first, most notable example I can think of is Tomb Raider (2013.) In the time before its release, the Tomb Raider franchise had become little more than a running joke. TR never really grew up. It grew, but in ways that nobody asked for. Each iteration seemed like the developer was being forced to make a new TR game – wringing dry anything that had made the series stick in the first place. It seemed that every game existed simply “to exist.” Tomb Raider (2013) took the shelf of tacky snowglobes that were its predecessors, smashed them on the ground, and scrambled away on all fours. Everything, from it’s more dire scenario, to its insistence that Lara is a real goddamn woman cut the shit and ran with it. It distilled down the spirit of what a Tomb Raider game “is” into a fine elixir.
As I played through Resident Evil 7, I actually had to remind myself that it was called Resident Evil 7. My mind would tell me that I’m just playing “Resident Evil.” As I played it there was little to no distinction between playing Resident Evil and Resident Evil 7. Capcom somehow essentialized the franchise in such a dramatic way that RE7 evoked in me memories of playing Resident Evil as a ten year old, sitting cross legged on the floor of my parent’s living room, eating Sour Patch Kids. But here’s the kicker–I never played Resident Evil as a kid, I was never allowed to. In my twelve hour playthrough of Resident Evil 7 the impression it would leave on my mind from moment to moment was so singular and focused, that it in some ways retroactively filled that gap of memory.
Resident Evil 7 is actually scary, which, considering its lineage, is actually quite uncharacteristic of the franchise.
I’d always thought of the RE games as “horror-flavored” but Resident Evil 7 is often panic-inducing. This is due in part to its shift to first person, but not in a way I would have expected. Comparisons to Amnesia or Outlast are low hanging fruit. Playing those games, I would always feel that my emotions were being manipulated. Of course I’m scared, you didn’t let me see the thing standing behind me.
This isn’t to say that RE7 isn’t rich in jump scares, because it is, but the fundamental difference between RE7 and its peers in 2017 is that your character has a modicum of power. You actually have a way to defend yourself. By providing that layer of player agency, you’re scared of being detected or crept up on precisely because you can fight back. RE7 does not simply oscillate between playing the game and a failure state like Outlast, most of the game exists in the dramatic limbo between the two.
In my writeup of how the introduction of the first person perspective changes gameplay, I argued that it makes the space you move through feel much more real. Not because it’s more spooky (which it is), but because we move through our own waking lives in first person. This makes the places you explore feel architecturally sound and real. Going to the living room in RE7 fills the same psychological space and memory identity as going to the living room in your own home. This effect of realizing physical space, translates to a gameplay experience that feels cozy. It feels like you’re supposed to be playing Resident Evil 7, and that’s a very good feeling.
That’s all well and good, except when that house of cards begins to feel unstable.
Issues that stand out like this are often referred to as “immersion breaking” in other games. Because Resident Evil 7 feels so correct in every other regard, this is doubly painful. The stock enemies you fight, the Molded, are just fucking lame. They feel out of place in a game that is so focused and tight, like they were copy/pasted from whatever game was scrapped before being rebooted as Resident Evil 7. They seem to be a design holdover from the days when an investor would routinely drive to Capcom HQ, go up the elevator, and hold a gun to the design team’s collective temples when they made Resident Evil 5 and 6 (that’s an alternate fact.)
This is such a shame because the thrill of resource management and gathering in RE7 is so good. In the same vein, combat in RE7 feels wild, sloppy, real, and loud. It’s just too bad that the things you’re pointing your shotgun at are so aesthetically uninspired.
Then we have the third act. Without spoiling anything, it finds you in a radically different circumstance than the rest of the game (I say radically because the rest of the game is so constrained.) What’s so mystifying about the third act is that it doesn’t seem that it was tacked on at the end of development. In terms of both plot and game construction, the third act feels like it was on the design document from day one. The issue is that it doesn’t seem to recognize what made the first three quarters of the game so good. It’s almost insulting, that so much good will would be built up with the player just to throw it away. I’d rather the game wrap up what it has to say by the end of hour nine or ten and simply be done with it.
This is what leaves me so curious about what we’ll see in Resident Evil 8. Clearly Capcom built (most) of Resident Evil 7 knowing that we are all sick of Umbrella, alphabet-viruses, and writhing malformed poop-monsters. This game wouldn’t exist without that internal understanding. That being said, where RE7 stumbles leave me a little worried that Capcom doesn’t quite understand that we’re not just sick of those aforementioned tropes, but actually don’t ever want to see them again.
This sentiment of pulling back the reins and refocusing seems to be endemic in the industry right now, something I’m glad for. From Ubisoft shelving Assassin’s Creed for a year, to the success of Hitman (2016) and Doom (2016) I can only hope that we see the same level of restraint from other developers and franchises in the future.