A few weeks after finishing Resident Evil 7, the borderline reboot of the popular action-horror franchise, I am still chewing on one particular moment: the garage fight. The story opens with would-be hero Ethan breaking into the decaying estate of a mysterious family living on the Louisiana bayou. In short order time, Ethan learns the mother, father, son, and grandma are immortal monsters, and he looks for an escape. He finds a cop waiting outside a broken window. The skeptical man lends Ethan a knife, and tells him to meet in the garage. (Fair warning: Minor spoilers and a graphically violent video game sequence follow.)
This is the beginning of the adventure, so naturally the rendezvous goes bottoms up, with Jack Baker, the family’s tree trunk of a patriarch, killing the cop and cornering Ethan. The showdown starts simple enough, the immortal Jack lumbering toward you, like the game’s iconic zombies. But by the end, a car is wrecked, Jack is in flames, and blood is everywhere.
The fight showcases an ability to balance tone and scope, even when they are at odds with one another. In that way, it is the perfect, discrete example of how Resident Evil 7 threads together the careful, moody horror of its early entires with the action-movie spectacle of more recent releases. Curious about how the developer managed this feat, I spoke with Resident Evil 7’s director, Kōshi Nakanishi, to learn more.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Can you walk me through the conceptual stage of the battle?
Kōshi Nakanishi: At the conceptual stage, it was a completely different battle. Setting-wise, it was still set in the garage, but it was more of a traditional boss battle. We prototyped it to the point that we could test it out, but it became pretty clear to us that it was a bit lackluster as it was. We felt the need for the first boss encounter with the Baker family to be as memorable and impactful as possible, so that’s when we decided to start adding on to it.
How did the fight change during development? Was the car being used as a weapon part of the original idea, or was that added later?
I think it’s safe to say that all developers will continue to tweak, improve, and modify something as long as they have the time. Unfortunately, time isn’t limitless. In terms of the garage battle [...] we made a conscious decision to only make one large directional change, and move full-speed in that direction.
In the beginning, [the car] was actually just a prop in the background that couldn’t be used. When we play tested, there were comments about wanting to drive the car. However, there was some pushback from the team on trying to implement automobile controls just for this particular scene. At the same time, we figured because of that, it would also elicit a “no way” type of surprise response from the player. I mean, let’s be real now. What gamer doesn’t enjoy running over someone in a video game? I think it’s always important to figure out what the player would want to do in a given situation.
Another thing that was important to us in this fight wasn’t so much, “How do I defeat Jack?” but more so, “How do I survive this situation?” Drawing a line between those two feelings was important in maintaining that feeling of the survival horror genre.
In general, the weapon that you obtain right before a boss fight tends to be the most effective tool to use. In this case, you get the knife from the police officer. “Wait, am I seriously supposed to use this?” And then from there you get the gun. “Hey, it’s working. Wait, I’m out of bullets!?” And then you get the car keys. We wanted that level of panic and train of thought to set in while the player ran away from Jack. Rather than having the satisfaction of defeating a boss, we wanted players to come out of the fight thinking, “Yes! I survived against you!”
The game has very few cutscenes. Why was it important to keep the player in control of the action?
For a game to continue to be immersive and allow the player to feel like they’re the main character, we felt it was important to allow them to maintain as much control as possible. This was the understanding and direction even from the conceptual stages. Even though the garage battle was improved upon and changed later in the development cycle, the team continued to be conscious of making sure player control wasn’t taken away. It was a challenging balancing act of figuring out ways to portray a scene and allow the player to see what we wanted them to see, without taking all control away.
I've seen the fight end a couple different ways in YouTube videos. Why was it important for this fight to be completable with various techniques?
As one of the early challenges of the game, we didn’t want the player to feel like the fight was over the moment Jack got into the car. That’s why we left an alternate victory condition even in that situation.
And to be completely honest, I was also conscious about it potentially being a conversation piece amongst friends and fans online. I wanted there to be some discussion where someone might say, “That’s in the game?!”
How much did the the character of Jack make an impact on the design of the fight? And likewise, did the stage’s design change Jack’s character?
The main theme behind all the different implementations was “MORE CRAZY.” Up until that point, we aimed for a more ominous, stoic side of Jack to threaten the player, similar to the Jack character from The Shining.
From there, we wanted to add something crazy. We imagined something from a Grindhouse movie or an ‘80s B-rated horror flick. It’s scary, but at the same time, there’s something entertaining about it. We wanted to create a scene that would make someone say, “What the heck?”
When you combine the events leading up to the garage, and the garage fight itself, I think we were able to create a character that became spontaneous and unpredictable.
Around the same time [as we conceptualized Jack] I had given birth to the garage battle idea. We were also implementing the chainsaw battle against Jack as well. Having the player use a chainsaw was something that our boss Takeuchi-san really wanted to see in the game.
The car appears to be modeled after a Firebird, a Camaro, and a Mustang. It's like the hybrid of every midlife crisis car. What is it supposed to tell us about the type of guy Jack Baker is?
The motif of the car is an arrangement of many ‘70s car models. Of course, there’s a fair amount of personal preference peppered in by the designer as well. It’s actually the car that Ethan drove at the start of the game. We thought it would be funny if there’s a hint of recognition by the player when they see the car burning at the end of the garage battle that it could have been theirs.
Although, after checking out several playthroughs on YouTube, it seems like not many people realized it. It seemed like most players just wanted to get the hell out of the garage before Jack did something unpredictable again.