***Ed Smith contributes to Vice, The Observer, Edge, Play Magazine, and Kill Screen. Find him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.
Resident Evil 7: Break the Mould
To justify and contextualise their broadest imaginative strokes—Adam Jensen's super strength, Rapture's deformed Splicers, zombies and monsters—game-makers often create not just fictional worlds, but fictional worlds unified by an ethereal, magical force: Deus Ex has augmentations, BioShock has ADAM, the original Resident Evil had the T-Virus. At best, these contrivances are described in brief, and used mainly to justify high concept mechanics—by collecting life force from fallen enemies, the hero of Dark Souls grows stronger. At worst, and as in Resident Evil 7, they are the nucleus of an entire story. Rather than leaving its abstractions to our interpretation, and focusing on its tangible, often hilarious human characters, the second part of the game is determined to explore the origins of a pervasive, monster-creating black mould. Thus, Resident Evil 7 becomes less about the flourishes birthed via creative license and more about creative license, and trying to explain creative license, itself; rather than any painting, it is interested in paint. Progressively, the Resident Evil series has drowned in lore. The twist, at the end of Resident Evil, that the Umbrella Corporation and Wesker are behind everything, is delivered by a single found photograph and a couple of documents; William Birkin's story, in Resident Evil 2, is communicated, largely, through a single cutscene. But after Resident Evil 4, the games became preoccupied by villains' motivations and characters' tortured pasts—paradoxically, considering how differently it plays to its predecessors, thus representing a clean break from the series, Resident Evil 4 was followed by 5, 6 and the two Revelations spin-offs, four of the most densely written games in the whole series. It's peculiar how, given its myriad differences to former RE games, Resident Evil 7 strives to be a direct sequel: in TV, movies and videogames the trimmed-down reboot has become a familiar conceit, but for once, here, that approach would have felt less like a cynical attempt to revive an ageing brand and more an appropriate, healthy new direction. And yet the latter half of Resident Evil 7 is predicated almost entirely on uncovering the histories, personal details and plot-relative information of both the player characters and the enemies. So determined is 7 that audiences must care about the black mould that it is given a human body, name and voice. Eveline, a “little girl,” ostensibly created in a lab, is comprised and responsible for the spread of the sinister ooze. One almost has to admire the game-makers' attempts to personify and make players care about what is ultimately a common and unobjectionable trope— something in monster movies has to make the monsters in the first place, but rather than let audiences accept such a contrivance, as one can only assume, after decades of horror films and games, they are perfectly prepared to do, Resident Evil 7 seems concerned that such blatant fiction is too unintelligent and responds accordingly. But really, who the hell cares? Who plays Resident Evil 7 and finds themselves, above the gore, the jump scares and the anarchic slapstick perpetrated by the Baker clan, captivated by the gradual unpacking of a basic horror premise? Audiences, surely, are not so jaded that they have no willing left to suspend disbelief. Game-makers, likewise, must understand that we don't need spectacle dissected, poured over and described—we've paid our money and are along for the ride. Resident Evil 7's preoccupation with explaining itself illustrates a low confidence both in its audience and in the wondrous, impossible things that videogames are—mythologically— uniquely equipped to create. On the contrary, Eveline and her monstrous black ooze are ill-defined: the effects of the mould seem to change depending on the whims of 7's creators, who use it to justify Jack Baker's invincibility, Marguerite Baker's ability to summon insects, and Eveline's transformation, at the game's end, into a monster the size of a house. Seemingly, Resident Evil 7's designers work without much regard for “world-building” and “lore”—some of them have used the black mould simply as a vector for their most brazen ideas, thus creating complete discord between the game's liberal abstractions and forensic, explanatory latter half. As a result, Resident Evil 7 is the microcosm of a general, pervasive conflict between two game-making approaches: expression, without regard for narrative or the audience's standards of “sense”, and clarity, the desire to produce and sell explainable stories to absolutely anyone, whether they have a disposition towards art or not. Some people, one can only assume, want to know what and why the mould is. Others don't care and enjoy, purely, the delights which it provides. The temptation, naturally, is to not make a value judgement and assure that should people,even in a game as patently outside reality as Resident Evil 7, relish explanation and clarification, that is acceptable as enjoying its expressions for their own sake. But too long have videogames been hostage to restrictive narrative ideals. Lily Zone's description of videogames, “unreal and abstract space and sensation, summoned like a wish from the ether onto a screen,” hangs heavy in the mind. And delving into the justifications for creative flicks of the wrist, when one could be indulging in the patterns, splashes and shapes they create, feels like a waste of time.