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Question Club: Where does Resident Evil 7 fit into the series?

And can it avoid falling into old traps?

Resident Evil is one of the most iconic names in video games, but it’s also a series that’s been floundering for a long time. What started out as a slow, ponderous take on horror slowly morphed over the years into a fairly generic action series. But Resident Evil 7, which launched last month, changed all of that. In some ways it’s a drastic reinvention of the series — shifting to a first-person perspective and even being playable in VR — but it’s also a return to the terrifying, exploration-based structure that created the subgenre known as “survival horror.” It also raises a number of questions. Are all of these changes for the better? Does the game cling to the past too much? And where does Resident Evil go from here?

How well did this game fit into the Resident Evil series?

Adi: I’ve actually played relatively little of the overall series, so I primarily enjoyed Resident Evil 7 as “Texas Chainsaw Massacre with mold zombies” plus some franchise lore thrown in at the end. While I won’t complain about this too much or get too specific, I think I would have enjoyed it even more as a standalone piece of fiction. I found the first half’s Southern Gothic vibe a lot creepier than Resident Evil’s overall military / corporate-warfare mythos.

The first-person perspective shift made for an interesting twist on the Outlast / Amnesia / Alien Isolation “run away from everything” genre. You get a mix of being stalked by enemies that you’re completely helpless against, and ones that you theoretically could kill, but need to ration your ammo around, with this slow buildup of serious firepower leading up to the endgame. It’s a very different kind of satisfaction than you get in those games.

Andrew: For me it felt like the series’ equivalent to Metroid Prime. Prime took a classic game concept — Super Metroid’s isolated alien planet and ability-focused sense of progression — and nearly effortlessly transported it to a modern first-person game. It wasn’t exactly the same as Super Metroid, but Prime had a remarkably similar structure and feel.

Resident Evil 7 does a very similar thing, updating the core of the original Resident Evil for 2017. It looks like a drastic departure, but cautiously exploring the sprawling Baker estate felt a lot like venturing into the giant mansion from Resident Evil in 1996. The sparse survival supplies, the cryptic and convoluted puzzles, the jump scares — it felt familiar. And unlike pretty much every installment since the first (Resident Evil 3’s nemesis monster excluded), Resident Evil 7 genuinely scared the hell out of me.

Chris: I agree with Andrew, though I’ll go a step further. Resident Evil 7 is a greatest-hits collection. The estate channels the original Resident Evil, but the player’s need to hide from the game’s immortal family reminded me of Resident Evil Nemesis, and the story (a hero searching for someone who has disappeared under mysterious circumstances) echoes Resident Evil Code: Veronica. Adi’s right that the game’s second half isn’t nearly as spooky as what precedes it, but I think the later missions are loving homages to Resident Evil 4, 5, and 6: the over-the-top boss fights, the heavy weaponry, the widening of scope.

It’s sort of like a new Star Wars taking time to honor the prequels, which sounds dreadful, but as someone who’s largely stuck by the Resident Evil series, I appreciated the effort to honor the good bits and the bad bits, too. If anything, Resident Evil 7’s later chapters — set amid an on-the-nose stand-in for the BP oil spill — takes the series’ fascination with paramilitary conspiracies and sci-fi melodrama, and grounds it with a setting that’s almost mundane, if you take away the spiderwebs and creepy dolls.

What do you make of the Baker family as villains? Do they avoid just being stereotypes of dangerous rural white people?

Adi: Without giving too much away, the game heavily subverts our initial expectations of the Bakers. And the daughter Zoe is just a standard, competent “voice on the radio” character. At the same time, they hit lots of the standard murderous hillbilly tropes for most of the game: they’re a dirty, sadistic, squabbling Southern family in a decaying plantation, with a bunch of taunts about Ethan being a weak city boy, which dear loving god I heard over and over because it took me a solid hour and a half to beat one of the boss fights.

This is just an iteration of a much larger debate for horror stories, which is how you create terrifying villains without dehumanizing entire groups of people. Some people thought Resident Evil 5 failed at this with its African characters, and I think it’s a fair question to raise with this game as well. Even if the creators are coming from outside the US and self-consciously playing on exploitation movies — which they clearly are — it’s worth being aware of the prejudices those filmmakers worked with.

In a purely narrative sense, I still have lots of questions about that house, though. Did somebody’s great-great-great-grandparents just really, really like puzzles and secret passageways? If the Bakers (spoilers!) weren’t always evil kidnappers, what kind of sane, well-adjusted clan decides that they’re going to lock their house with an incredibly elaborate three-part key shaped like the guardian of the underworld?

Andrew: I think the Bakers didn’t bother me so much because, for most of the game, they’re not really people, right? They were at some point, of course, but after a few confrontations with Jack it’s clear they aren’t anymore, and are under the influence of something. Exploding tentacle heads are a telltale sign in my book. I mostly thought of them as really smart, really scary zombies, like the villagers in Resident Evil 4. I also think that the game did a good job of showing how they were before with a sequence later in the game. It was really brief, but kind of confirmed my feeling that it wasn’t a house of murdering hillbillies. That stuff is more aesthetics than anything. Then again their sparse backstory may have just been a marketing technique for the game’s downloadable content, because I really want to check out the upcoming chapter that shows what the Bakers were like before Resident Evil 7.

Chris: I fall somewhere in the middle. I agree that the game isn’t quite sure how to paint these people in an accurate fashion. Are they American Gothic? Are they Appalachian hillbillies? Are they practitioners of voodoo? It’s as if Capcom dodged any single stereotype by smashing them altogether.

Frankly, I found the house to be a more compelling characterization of each family member than any dialogue. The patriarch’s garage is particularly memorable. It’s so spacious, and littered with junk — a domestic escape I saw constantly growing up in the Midwest. And that car! It’s a hybrid of a Firebird, a Camaro, and a Mustang. It’s the ultimate midlife crisis wagon.

Resident Evil 7

Do the goofy shadow puzzles work? Or are they a relic from the original game that should have been left behind?

Chris: I want to circle back to what Adi said about the puzzles. We’ve seen a number of smart games from Japanese developers in the past couple months, and I think all of them underscore in one way or another a different take on game design from popular thinking in the West. Developers like Naughty Dog (Uncharted), Rockstar (Grand Theft Auto), and Infinity Ward (Call of Duty) have fostered a theory of design in which “gaminess” must be carefully concealed. It’s a cult of immersion. Sure, these companies largely design go from point A to point B missions, but the puzzles and sub-quests are carefully framed so that they fit believably in the world. But then these games ask you to shoot a couple hundred people. Western games are driven by an internal logic until it comes to the guns, then logic goes out the window.

Games like Gravity Rush 2 hardly make an effort to hide that a mission is progression from one point to another or squashing a certain number of baddies. But it takes risks in other departments, like stripping away weapons from an action game. Resident Evil 7 splits the difference. It borrows heavily from Western first-person shooters, particularly in how it tells stories with its set decoration. But I like the weird, convoluted puzzles that don’t make sense in the real world, but fit perfectly as reference to the history of the series. And in some weird, dreamy way, they belong in this house.

Adi: I was pretty into the puzzles overall, because they provide these little breather sections in a very tense game. They’re usually completely segregated from the combat, so you can calm down and focus on the world itself. To Chris’ point, I think the overt “gaminess” of Resident Evil 7 breaks immersion but makes it more mechanically interesting. It’s not just the puzzles, it’s things like the arbitrary rules for where enemies can and can’t go. They hate doors! They instantly dissolve at safe rooms! They show up in weird, random locations if you walk away and come back! Figuring out how to exploit this adds a strategic element to all the jump scares.

Andrew: One thing I will say about the puzzles is that they do a good job of tying the game back to the rest of the series. Shadow puzzles, scorpion keys, even survival elements like collecting green herbs, these are all things that I associate with Resident Evil. They can feel a bit too video game-y at times — especially when you’re healing chainsaw wounds with a splash of antiseptic — but they keep Resident Evil 7 from feeling like a horror game that just happens to have the franchise name slapped on it. They also contribute to a structure that I quite like, the Castlevania / Metroid sense of progression where you come up against locked doors or specific puzzles that you’ll only be able to open later in the game after you find a particular item.

Where does Resident Evil go from here? How does it not fall into the same traps as its predecessors?

Chris: This seems to be a problem with sequels in the horror genre at large. How do you follow up a story in which the horrific unknown becomes known, and the weak protagonist becomes a highly trained killing machine? Is the answer for Resident Evil to become a series about the everymen and everywomen who accidentally stumble into the messes of major corporations? I just don’t know how our heroes Ethan and Mia can return from this experience and not feel overpowered.

I’m much more fascinated by the idea of Twilight Zone-like stories, individual strange events that are connected the clean-up crew that always shows up at the end. Maybe the closer comparison is Men in Black, but from the perspective of the average people who get their brains wiped.

Adi: I totally agree with this — I usually don’t want protagonists to come back for another round in anything that’s relatively story-focused. (Also, spoilers, but… my Mia didn’t do too well.) I like the idea of self-contained stories about the repercussions of advanced technology, especially because I think that lets you vary tone and format in a way that’s harder with direct sequels. Amnesia did this well with its spinoffs — A Machine for Pigs and the Justine quasi-DLC — for example.

Andrew: What I’d like to see, is if somehow they took this same structure and applied it to a new story within the Resident Evil universe. It’s such a convoluted franchise that there are plenty of places to go, and it could be really cool to have a series of separate, but interconnected stories all within this kind of framework. Basically I want to wander around Umbrella Corporation’s headquarters in first-person, to see what kind of horrors are deep inside.