header is screenshot from Resident Evil 2
Real Horror Show
Ed Smith

What police station requires you inserting a medallion into a statue in order to obtain the key to its evidence room? Who is Leon Kennedy that he’s permitted to wear a completely different uniform to all of his fellow officers? How did the owner of Kendo Gun Shop not notice that anything was wrong in Raccoon City until, in his own, dying words, “the entire place was infested with zombies?” It’s true that the original Resident Evil 2 does not make sense. It’s also true, or very much seems to be true, that modern audiences are increasingly, when it comes to their fiction, sense-aware, or rather hyper-nonsense-aware. A lot of modern responses—reviews, user comments, YouTube videos—to popular fiction assess the fiction’s quality relative to its verisimilitude, or plausibility. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when or how “character’s/world’s/narrative’s closeness to reality” became one of the central criteria by which films, TV shows, and videogames might be judged, but it seems probable that our appetite for realism has grown correlatively to our increased exposure both to others’ opinions and new information; the more people we read observing plot holes, inconsistencies, and “goofs”, and the more we learn, through interviews with actors or directors, post-mortem “making-of” articles and behind-the-scenes Blu-Ray featurettes, all of which are readily and precipitously available on the internet, the more popular fiction is demystified—the more it seems to emanate from real people and real processes, and so feels as if it ought to adhere to reality.

A likely consequence of this—this audience which discerns realism more keenly, congratulates it more widely and vocally and has a low tolerance, and equally public and vocal disdain, for whatever it deems bullshit—is an era when artists are rewarded for their attentive- and carefulness, and if they’re creatively brash, either reputationally, financially or both, risk ruin. Whether this results in work that is better or worse than it might be otherwise, if modern audiences weren’t as concerned with consistency, logic, the real, is an enormous question which, especially when applied to videogames, encompasses several other issues and debates: the righteous cries for representation and for games to explore literary territory beyond that which they have already charted so thoroughly, science-fiction, fantasy, etcetera, unquestionably are related to this growing desire for realness, and to roundly judge that desire as, say, detrimental, would constitute a comment on those cries and their morals by association, and without warrant. It’s also untrue that realism and an appetite for more realism are uniformly questionable. In the case of, for example, Papo and Yo, its elements of fantasy and magic that it applies to its story of child abuse have the effect, on myself at least, of diminishing its impact, almost belittling the seriousness of its ostensible central concern; a matter of personal taste, but it’s surely not that contentious, feeling like sombre subject matter is more easily empathised with when it’s delivered via a similarly sombre aesthetic, and that compromising on the depiction of a brutal reality can compromise also the depiction’s potential of impacting its audience. Our present enthusiasm for realism and the works which are influenced by it can be judged individually and on their own terms. Where fastidious attention to plausibility, or an increase in fastidious attention to plausibility, potentially deadens some works it enlivens others. By that same token, exaggeration, abstractness, and nonsense—indiscretion with regards to authenticity—can be vivifying also. There are works which implausibility makes them more cohesive and by extension more convincing.

The original Resident Evil 2 does not make sense, but it does not make sense consistently. The remake of Resident Evil 2 makes comparatively more sense (more in-game documentation is given to explaining the police station’s idiosyncrasies; Leon wears an outfit more similar to the other members of the RPD; the owner of Kendo Gun Shop, rather than inexplicably, risibly oblivious, is hysterical over the death of his daughter, as examples) but not consistently so. Its script especially is often at-odds with its pretence and aesthetic; Leon and Claire’s dialogue contains pauses, level voices ,and the two characters talking over one another, the various markers of a real conversation, a conversation that makes sense, but alongside Resident Evil 2 Remake’s puzzles, monsters, and other arch components it is inconsistent. After suspending their disbelief sufficient to appreciate the story of a viral outbreak unleashing zombies on a city which is controlled principally by valves that look like chess pieces, occupied by a secret agent, a mad scientist, and a special forces soldier codenamed HUNK, Resident Evil 2 Remake requires its audience to also, at the drop of a hat, recalibrate their minds back to reality, suspend their suspension of disbelief. At this point it seems reasonable, as a member of this audience, to feel like the creators of Resident Evil 2 Remake are expecting you to do a lot of work of making the game flow together on their behalf, which is tantamount to feeling like the game is wavering in its plotting and its tone, which is tantamount to feeling like it’s generally not of particularly high quality.

I personally underwent this thought process specifically in regards to the game’s combat mechanics. Given that Marvin Branagh, Leon’s lieutenant in the RPD, was clutching his side from a zombie bite (a detail confirmed in Resident Evil Outbreak: File 2, which actually depicted Marvin get bitten) and then later transformed into a zombie, and given that Leon defeated a zombie in Remake’s opening cutscene with a single shot to its head, it seemed reasonable to assume that Resident Evil 2 Remake operated on the established, Romerian zombie principles: if someone got bitten, they turned, and the zombies could be defeated by shooting them in the head. But then, when playing, if I got bitten—and there was no question that I did, the game’s camera canting and zooming to capture in close-up Leon’s meticulously rendered and textured flesh being ripped from his equally meticulously rendered and textured neck—it could remedied by imbibing a green herb, and the zombies I encountered were able to sustain several successive shots to each of their domes before expiring.

Not that Resident Evil 2 Remake is the first or only videogame wherein the actions as experienced during play are contrary to the logic as constructed during cutscenes, or in lore, but significant quantities of its premise, its appeal, are predicated on the idea it’s more plausible, more grounded and more consistent than its progenitor, and yet its attitude towards rules and principles—the rules and principles of zombies, which the game itself establishes, and which everyone playing it is likely familiar—is extremely pick-and-choose. Put more simply, and in context of a statement from the game’s director Kazunori Kadoi, who told Everyeye that the original game was “too prone to being fantastic”: Resident Evil 2 Remake differentiates and offers itself as an improvement on Resident Evil 2 as it transpires in a world more based on rules (rules of uniform; rules of architecture; rules of human interaction) and therefore more plausible and therefore easier to empathise with and imagine oneself embroiled in, and therefore more engaging. But this aesthetic and pretension both cease as soon as they become inconvenient: altering Leon’s police uniform and writing dialogue that sounds more humane are much simpler than manufacturing a combat system whereby a single zombie bite ends the game and enemies can be killed with one bullet, and where it’s still both enjoyable and challenging. Plausibility, of the kind that modern audiences seem to favour, Resident Evil 2 Remake makes it seem like an affectation. It suggests that popular fiction, specifically the kind that is often subject to discussions and criticisms relating to plausibility, can maintain it only so far—or would have to be completely broken and remoulded in order to include plausibility more thoroughly. In one sense, this suggests the calls for greater plausibility are misjudged, and the genres towards which they’re typically directed are unsuitable for plausibility in the first place, and cannot embrace it without, by virtue of embracing it, generating various other problems in relation to consistency and tone. In another sense, it suggests the responses to calls for more plausibility could be more imaginative and enthusiastic, that rather than just production design elements like costumes and environments, or even scripts, being made to seem and sound more realistic, the core systems of videogames—the mechanics; the rules of engagement, as it were, that are universally understood by players and makers and taken for granted; the basic ways a videogame works—have to be addressed also.

But I imagine one of the reasons Resident Evil 2 Remake is less fantastical than its originator is owing to apprehensions, on the part of its creators, with regards to being criticized for not being plausible, believable, consistent, etcetera, and with that apprehension, of how the game could be received when the audience today is both so canny and able to share its disapproval, it’s hard to envision any game-maker finding the pluck to try and completely reinvent the rules—the established realities of how videogames function—any time soon.

Ed Smith contributes to Edge, Rolling Stone, Paste, GamesTM, and PCGamesN.