There’s very little narrative set dressing in the Resident Evil 4 remake. Our main character, Leon S. Kennedy, has, as is expressed through a flashback montage, been through some shit. Now he’s arrived at a made-up hispanophone village with a mission to rescue the U.S. president’s recently kidnapped daughter. Sprinkled around the game’s levels are book passages and diary entries there to add a dash of worldbuilding, but most of what we’re doing in the game is blasting through a tense series of action setpieces on our way to the credits scroll. Most of what we see is a host of grisly humanoids cultishly chanting in Spanish, hardly distinct from the rows of cardboard standees the weapons merchant has set up in his shooting range for us to test our weapons on.
Resident Evil 4 feels less like a plotted story, one where we might observe things happening to characters, and far more like a carnival, a grim festival where our characters are unnaturally shuttled about and invited to partake in its macabre splendors, to play its game, to revel in its brutality and its challenges.
This framing is constantly reinforced by the presence of the weapons merchant, a cryptic character swaddled in a heavy overcoat, his pockets stuffed with guns and ammo, who appears at regular intervals throughout the game. With cockney inflected growl, he barks out a cheery welcome, regardless of whether you’ve just hopped down from a gleaming castle rampart or emerged, dripping with muck, from an old decrepit sewer. He offers you use of his ornate wood paneled shooting range, complete with roulette machine to cash out big prizes from your winnings. His presence serves as a punctuation and as a reminder that you’re not meant to take any of this too seriously. Better, instead, to take pleasure in the deranged carnival ride. Unload your horde of misbegotten royal jewels in order to buy bigger guns with which to blast through baddies ever more ferociously. Leon knows the score. After getting a glance at the merchant’s stock, he gleefully murmurs: “There are enough weapons here to get a party going.”
Carnivals are spaces committed to play. They are, at the same time, also dangerous and overwhelming. One’s view is cluttered with cool, retro-futuristic rides, spinning above in dazzling motion, their glass bulbs strobing against a darkened night sky. Junk food, dusted with sugar and dripping with oil, hits your taste buds amidst the noxious fumes of gasoline from portable generators. Crowds of anonymous bodies jostle in from all sides, as scheming carnies beckon you in to try their duplicitous games. The rides overhead creak with the whispered menace of rusted bolts and barely sanctioned safety records. All these elements combine to build a sense of thrill, of raw enjoyment and fun, just this side of feeling dangerous or threatening.
But all thrills inevitably fade, particularly when shoved in our faces to the point of desensitization. In Resident Evil 4, we get a carnival pushed beyond all moderation, into the realm of videogamey maximalism. It's a downright turgid work, crammed to the parasitic gills with mechanics and interactions. There are stealth sections, escort missions, wave defense, and countless other action game features long since codified into marketing buzzwords. There are huge boss battles against building-sized monstrosities, in singles and sometimes in pairs. There are harrowing escapes, mad dashes through hordes of grasping enemies. A chaotic medley of rides, one after the other, no breaks in between, aside from our gruff merchant, who shoves a gun into our hands, pats our proverbial shoulder and sends us right back out into the morass.
Have you ever been on one of those carnival rides that’s gone on for far longer than it seemingly should have? Ever spent a few too many extra moments plastered to the linoleum cushioned walls of the flying saucer, juddering violently around its axle, as the rich carnival food sloshes threateningly around your insides? I often felt something akin to this, wading through the game’s endless encounters. How many bear traps must I pry apart? How many bear hugs from masked assailants must I wriggle out of as I’m borne down upon by pitchforks and axes? How many panicked squeals from Ashley must I respond to, forcing me to lumber around the level trying to find her before she (and my chances of making it to the next checkpoint smoothly) is spirited away?
Resident Evil 4’s carnival rides extend beyond any sense of taste; they spin on and on. It continues to crudely offer up more chances to play, more advanced versions of previous bosses, bigger groups of enemies with heavier armor and deadlier weapons. Some of these rides are fun enough, but many of them are truly awful, dull and unrelenting, like the immediate run up to the castle, for example, or the fight against those two chainsaw crones. It doesn’t matter which ones you like and which ones you don’t, however, because they just keep on going, and you don't get to get off until you’ve made it through the lot of them.
In a classic Treehouse of Horrors episode of The Simpsons, Homer trades his soul for a donut and is sent to hell. There he is forced to eat from an endless supply of donuts, as fitting ironic punishment. Rather than balking, Homer happily swallows them whole, four at a time, frustrating the demon assigned to torturing him. Each new level of Resident Evil 4 feels like a new stack of donuts I’m expected to gulp down. I’m supposed to sit here, as content in my gluttony as Homer, just as endlessly, impossibly unsatisfiable; always capable of consuming more, of making room for and squeezing in whatever I am given. I don’t get to take a break, to take stock in what I’m doing, nor why I’m even doing it. I’m simply urged to push forward, to shoot and stab my way through whatever comes next, to compulsively enjoy it, and to beg for more.
But I no longer can; I can’t patiently open wide and swallow down this hellish overabundance. I can’t fit in any more experiences, can’t force myself to continue gorging well past the point of my appetite’s satiation.
After one particularly harrowing experience, (though, looking back, it hardly stands out against the game’s innumerable harrowing experiences) Leon shakes his head and groans: “I’m tired of these games.” In this moment, far more than any other in the game, I feel a deep, empathetic connection with Leon. I, too, am tired of these games, Leon. But Resident Evil 4 assumes that I simply cannot become tired with it. This remake, coming out eighteen years after the original, seems to serve as living proof, testament to the fact that all any of us seems to want is to go back to that old trough and heap out another serving of the same.
It’s enough to make you queasy, to bring all that junk food retching back up. But there’s no way off, no clear exit from this nightmare carnival ride. High above empty fairgrounds, long abandoned and littered with last season’s trash, we continue to spin on, the ride’s operators either absent or entirely oblivious to our discomfort.
Yussef Cole, one of Bullet Points’ editors, is a writer and motion graphic designer. His writing on games stems from an appreciation of the medium tied with a desire to tear it all down so that something better might be built. Find him on Twitter @youmeyou.