Posted by: Junahu | June 20, 2017

Junahu “teaches” Game Design #4

Like an actual corpse, it’s….

My half arsed ramblings about things I’m not actually qualified to teach shall now continue! Like… a bajillion years after the last one I wrote. I know.. lame.

Really, I should be calling this “Junahu rants about games, and maybe you’ll learn something (but you probably won’t)”, because this time I’m just gonna talk about my favourite video game. But I’ll try to keep it on-topic at least.

The game in question is pretty much my favourite game of all time: Resident Evil 2. Its action movie plot may not be all that deep, and its universe kind of collapses in on itself if you think too hard about the specifics. Yet Resident Evil 2 stands above all other games as THE example of a symbiotic relationship between gameplay and world-building. And by that I mean that these two elements, typically divorced from one another in lesser games,  help present one another to the player in THIS game. If you want a back-of-the-box-blurb for this article, it would be: “Resident Evil 2 is immersion done right”.

For this article I’ll just be discussing the first few minutes of gameplay, because I’m lazy, and armchair analysis is easiest when looking at the start of a game.

But before we dive in to specifics, I need to establish a bit of context. Resident Evil 2 is, like almost everything old, a product of its time. If you don’t approach it with the right attitude, you’ll just end up comparing it unfavourably to the “conveniences” of more current games. In particular, it’s important to establish that the classic Resident Evil series existed during a very brief time when voiced CGI cutscenes were such a new, amazing, concept that players were all but guaranteed to watch them.

recutscene

pictured: good graphics

Intro Cutscene

The reason that little bit of context is important, is because Resident Evil 2 uses its CGI introduction to not only set up the tone of the universe and your starting point in the plot, but it also secretly puts ideas about the game’s gameplay into the player’s mind. This way, when the player starts actually playing, they will naturally make these planted observations, believing them to be born from their own intuition.

So what does the CGI cutscene teach? To start, there’s the core world building, like explaining what a zombie is and that this is a horror game. But there is also basic gameplay information hidden in there. Things such as general zombie behaviour, how zombies will get back up when knocked to the floor, how you won’t have enough ammo to kill everything you meet, how you’ll find items and even weapons by searching various logical places. Then there’s the introduction of the new zombie mechanics specifically introduced in Resident Evil 2. Grounded zombies can grab your ankles, zombies can be staggered when shot, etc. These things are explicitly shown in the introductory CGI (Leon’s scenario at least, which is Disc 1, making it the default for new players) so that when they appear in gameplay, they feel natural, and the player understands the consequences of those mechanics.

Because the player wants to view this new fangled pretty CGI FMV, Capcom used it as a means of delivering a tutorial in a manner that is consistant with the figure-it-out-yourself pacing of the rest of the game. It saves time, it gets players into the action faster, and it doesn’t baby them. That last part is particularly important because..

Initial Credit

The coolest thing that the introductory CGI does, is allow the game to hit the ground running. The initial segment of Resident Evil 2, from the fiery wreckage of the police car to the safety of the Police Department interior, is genuinely and unapologetically difficult. There is no save area or checkpoint here. Die, and you start the entire game all over again.

And you will die, because the game is very deliberately geared that way. It needs to kill you at least once, in order to teach you the importance of cautiously avoiding damage, and making judicious regular saves. I.E. it needs to teach the player what survival horror actually MEANS, before they get too far into the game and become frustrated by the discovery.

And with your first, second, third death. You go back to the start, rewatch (you can skip it if you need to) the starting cutscene, perhaps learn a little more from it, and then progress further through the unforgivingly brutal Raccoon City streets. In terms of gameplay, uncooperative players are being beaten into line by these deaths. In terms of narrative, the game is setting its stakes, and giving players an understanding of what it must have been like for all the unlucky civilians who could not escape the city. Because death is a powerful occurance when it happens in gameplay, the player becomes more empathetic of death within the narrative, and more attached to the events of the plot in general.

Controls

Now, we need to back up a little. I’ve described the initial section in pretty broad strokes, but there are many specific design choices throughout this section that deserve closer analysis. Let’s start right from the very beginning; the absolute first screen of gameplay.

RE2 first screen

After emerging from an explosive inferno, your character is now under your control, with nary a word from the game as to what those controls are. Right from the start, your character is in peril. You can see one zombie approach from the side, and another begins rising out of the flames behind you. The wall of flaming metal is a very effective and obvious blockade, you’re clearly not going to go back that way. Your character is facing away from the wreckage, directly towards the screen itself. So your first player instinct, is to move the character DOWN, and unless you read the intruction manual first like a nerd, you’re going to make your first mistake by pressing DOWN on the D-Pad. In Resident Evil, Down makes your character walk backwards, which in this case is right towards the very fiery carnage you wanted to run from. A shot of panic sets in, and the player instinctively tries the exact opposite input: UP. With this act of misdirection, the game almost immediately teaches the player its controls by tricking them into using them wrong, and then right, in that order.

Turning, of course, is a whole other ball-game. The first screen gives you a large empty space to the left. Or rather, to the “right”, since the controls are orientated based on the character’s POV. So when the player tries to move into that space on the left (by pressing LEFT) they’ll end up turning the wrong way. It’s strange to have the first screen of the game so hellbent on throwing misinformation at the player, but the game really wants you to panic here. In spite of the dangerous facade, you won’t actually be assaulted by an enemy for about 5 seconds. And the numerous other enemies that aren’t visible, are in their idle states for now.

The street itself you’re on may be wide, but it is full of zombies you absolutely must slalom around. Each consecutive zombie is on the opposite side of the road, coaching the player to alternate between using RIGHT to turn clockwise, and LEFT to turn anti-clockwise. The game doesn’t really expect you to get this right first time. It wants you to just barely reach the gunshop at the end of the road. But in future attempts, the player will eventually master the ability to move and turn at the same time, thanks to this initial slalom course of enemies that the player will always be subjected to right off the bat.

This whole labored procedure of learning the controls actually has a excuse within the narrative; the explosion the character escaped from moment ago has left them disorientated and weak. Because the player is put into a situation that tonally matches what the character is feeling in the story, the narrative feels better integrated and more engaging. By-the-way, this is precisely the reason why The Legend of Zelda games begin with Link asleep. It’s an in-universe trick to pardon the player’s sloppy control by making it part of the narrative.

POV

I should also mention that the POV style of controlling your character is pretty much required in order to keep the control scheme consistant across multiple camera cuts, which are a staple of cinematic games using prerendered backdrops. But it also encourages the player to think in terms of their character, (what things are on the “character’s” left, or what’s behind them) instead of thinking as the outside observer of a scene (what things are on “my” left, or what’s approaching from behind the camera). Naturally, things don’t quite work out that way. The fact that you ARE observing the scene from a POV that isn’t your character’s can still be a hurdle to immersion.

Yet Resident Evil actually finds ways to take advantage of this disconnect between what the player sees and what the character sees. Many scares in these games come from not being able to see the enemy, until the camera shifts angles at the very last moment. To compensate for your broader view of the area, there are things that only the player cannot see. This helps equalise the player’s awareness with that of the character under your control. You may not be seeing the exact same thing, but you and your character are still equally disempowered.

To keep this from being overly cheap in gameplay, the player is given a couple of contextual clues to help them spot foes. The obvious thing is that all enemies make noises when they move. The sounds of shuffling, or moans, or footfalls, grows louder as the enemy approaches the camera POV. And the noises are distinct enough that players will be able to tell what kind of monster lurks off-camera, whether it is moving, and whether it’s alone or not.

RE2BusScreen

The lesser known tool in the player’s belt is that their character’s head will turn to face points of interest, zombies included. This mechanic is introduced in a very solid (and very cruel) way during the game’s introduction. Upon boarding a crashed bus, the player is met by this cramped camera angle, and the unmistakable shuffling sound of zombies. They sound close, and there’s no room to avoid them, so you need to shoot them, even though you cannot see them. Of course, with a room this narrow, no enemy would be able to avoid your bullets if you simply aim straight down the bus. If you’re playing with auto-aim switched on, your auto-aim will confirm for you where the enemies are. Simple, right?

The character’s head turns to the right, and towards the floor. That second point is the important part of this clue. If the player doesn’t take that into account, they will turn to the right, aim straight ahead, and shoot. In the process, they completely miss the zombie crawling along the floor just off-screen. Zombies biting your ankles does little more than waste your time so that other zombies can advance on you. So in this case the mistake is not that costly. That is, unless you mistakenly think that crawling zombie was the only one on the bus, in which case you’ll run right into the waiting arms of another zombie.

It’s a cool way to get players to be more receptive of the little things going on around there character, which in turn helps the immersion seem all the more… immersive.

speaking of immersion…

Immersion!

RE2secondscreen

Because the game used cutting edge CGI rendering on its backgrounds, you would think that’s all Capcom did to make the backdrops immersive. There are also the obvious visual tricks, such as dynamically lighting the models to reflect the colour and intensity of the light source, and layering certain elements so that the player can walk behind them. Those things make the world solid and tangible, but that would have been useless, if the world Capcom were rendering were not so convincing.

So, just as an example, take another look at that screenshot above. It’s taken from the 2nd screen of the game. Notice just how much text is prominently displayed here. It’s not meant to be read, so why is it there? Well, the idea is to bombard the player with incidental detail. Their brains will filter it out so they can concentrate on the situation at hand, but they’ll still get the feeling that the gameworld is full and complete. All of these signs and storefronts had a purpose before the T-Virus outbreak (even that ironically placed “No Trucks” sign). Thematically, signs and text imply a sense of culture and society. People lived here, a lot of people lived here. Little details of normal city life are juxtaposed against scenes of wreckage and decay: Racoon City is now a city of the dead. Compared to the secluded mansion of the first Resident Evil, the stakes have been drastically raised here for its sequel.

What I’m getting at is that the world is more immersive, because there are so many details that are irrelevent to the player’s goals, yet flesh out the world that is in turn driving the gameplay. It should go without saying, but immersion primarily comes from things that the player is not meant to consciously acknowledge. Because to do so would invite reflection, and doing that would shatter the illusion.

Gunshop

RE2gunshop

Kendo’s gunshop has no guns.

I’ve been deliberately avoiding the Gunshop up until now, because it’s such a perfectly tight little scenario that I need to describe it in its entirety before I can explain why it is so brilliant. Immediately after that intense run through the city streets, the player enters the only building that is open; the Gunshop Kendo. The music stops dead, the camera POV is so close to the door you entered from, that it is impossible to see anything else in the room. The player can relax.

That’s the setup for the cutscene that occurs the moment you try to move. The gunshop’s owner brandishes a shotgun at your character, startled by their sudden entrance. After a tense exchange, Kendo lowers his gun and walks over to the player. He locks the door while explaining that the town is infested with zombies. The player is then free to have a look around. Since it’s a gunshop, the player is inclined to believe that they can find weapons here. This motivates them to search thoroughly, and while their search does not reveal any guns, the player does find some extra ammo. Which is good, because the player started the game with absolutely no spare ammo. The player will likely remember that Kendo himself has a gun, it’s an important detail, and it comes into play the moment the player tries to head towards either the exit, or Kendo.

Without warning, four zombies break through the glass window and pounce on Kendo, who manages to get only a single shot off before dieing (incidentally, the shot Kendo shoots knocks off one of the zombie’s arms, which is something the shotgun can actually do in-gameplay). The player is perfectly positioned to leave the building immediately. But, having seen Kendo being attacked, and now that you have ammo to spare, the player may want to kill the zombies so that they can pick up the shotgun. The gunshop is layed out in a manner that is exclusively to the player’s advantage, as this will be the first fight that the player can realistically win. Primarily, they can use the same tactic as Kendo used in the cutscene; camp behind the counter so they have to walk all the way around the room to reach you.

Okay, so what’s great about that whole scenario?

First, there’s the human element. The player’s encounter with a human survivor relaxes them, the room has no dangers, and plenty of ammo to support their attempt to reach the police station. And then that survivor’s abrupt demise (which happens through a jumpscare) takes that security away from the player. It’s another tool used to help the player understand the weight that death carries in this game.

Secondly, it introduces the player to exploration and context in a very controlled way. You search the gunshop because it’s a shop for guns and guns are how you combat enemies. The back of the counter is a natural place to look, because it’s where you saw Kendo when you entered the shop. Travelwise, it takes the player longer to get behind the counter, than it does to reach any other point in the shop. Not only is this in keeping with where the player expects secrets to be hidden, but physically moving to this location gets the player to subconsciously map out the layout of the store. In particular, the player will understand that the room is longer than it is wide, and that the counter acts as a partition, splitting the room into two. This information can be used by the player once zombies break into the shop in order to maximise the distance that the zombies must travel to reach you. The downtime when the player was not in danger, was an opportunity for the player to plan ahead and familiarise themselves with the room.

Thirdly, it’s a scenario driven by the player’s choices. While Kendo’s fate is all but sealed, everything else is up to the player. They don’t have to fight the zombies. While the fact they begin the encounter facing the zombies encourages the player to fight, their proximity to the exit means that at any point they can just turn around and leave through the door. They can even choose to exit the gunshop early, leaving Kendo to die alone. While these choices boil down to whether the player fights some zombies and gets a cool weapon early, the fact they have a choice at all makes the game much more immersive.

Because the player will likely engage with this scenario more than once, they will more chances to analyse the consequences of their actions. In particular, they can see whether the shotgun is worth a loss of health/ammo. This kind of assessment is pivotal to the experience of Resident Evil, as it forces players to anticipate potential dangers and plan around them. Without the choices given by the Gunshop Kendo, the player would not be afforded the chance to do this.

To reiterate, this kind of scenario is only possible because it is at the beginning of the game, AND the player is forced to repeat it should they fail to reach the police station. Players are coached in a way that is antithetical to a traditional tutorial. The game neither divulges information directly, nor does it present its ideas in a safe enviroment. The player is given room to experiment, but there are irreversible consequences for doing so. It’s trial and error, where error can often mean starting the game over again from scratch.

And it works. By god, it fucking works. The hostile world inspires the player to improvise and experiment. Death at this point is mere minutes of lost progress, so despite the stress and the difficulty, the player is not being pushed away. On the contrary, the game is teaching them, just not in the way player’s expect to be taught.

And that hard-ass, sink-or-swim approach works specifically for Resident Evil, because it is a game that is thematically and literally about death

 

Addendum: Music

Since I didn’t get a better chance to mention this in this article, I thought I’d end the article with an honourable mention of the clever theming done using the soundtrack. The song used for this very first “room” of the game (the first streets of Raccoon City), uses a melody that is later reprised as the theme music of the game’s main monster; William. It’s actually the game’s main theme, but it’s predominantly used for William.

The game establishes this melody right away, so that feels familiar and forboding when it appears later. Remember that the player is going to be replaying this section multiple times until they can finally reach the police station in one piece. The theme becomes ingratiated in the player’s mind as a theme of death and rebirth. Death, because you’ll have to hear it again after you die. And Rebirth, because it’s the music you hear when you start your next attempt to survive the streets. These two opposing concepts play an important role in Resident Evil’s story in general, but they are specifically important to William, whose new virus revives him in new grotesque ways every time he is killed.

Because the music is used to frame this specific gameplay experience, it becomes more personal to the player, so it has more emotional weight when it is used later on.

 

Author’s note:// At the time of posting, this article is actually a few years old. I just.. forgot to post it. Sorry.

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