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By putting the player in a situation where’s there not enough space to move or to aim at the enemy, gameplay can quickly grow boring. But when combining gameplay with narrative and context, you can turn this into an even more immersive experience.
Resident Evil 7 came out a couple of months ago and was generally perceived as being “back to form”, even called one of the best games in the series. What really stood out to me was that it felt like Resident Evil had returned to its roots in telling a compelling narrative, and using that to power the experience. In order to unpack what I mean by this, let’s first consider the first Resident Evil game (1996).
As I guess most of you know, the first Resident Evil was heavily inspired by Alone in the Dark (1992), and the whole setup is basically ripped from there. Now the problem with Alone in the Dark is that it is extremely clunky. The controls are slow and not very responsive and the fixed camera angles makes it hard to get a good idea of your surroundings. Resident Evil improved a bit on this, but most of the basic problems still remained. Compared to a game like Doom (1993), the game’s combat is a lot less engaging.
Resident Evil attacks this problem by wrapping the game’s events in story. Consider the first encounter you have with a zombie:
You enter a room, see someone sitting on the floor. It turns around and reveals itself. Argh! It is a zombie eating on a corpse. You pull out your gun, shoot the zombie a couple of times, and manage to kill it.
The combat in this scenario is not very interesting in itself. The room is small so you cannot move around much and the clunky controls don’t help. You can’t really decide where to aim, either. You basically just have to turn your character in the right direction and press the attack button until the zombie eventually dies (or possibly you could just run out of the room). From a pure gameplay perspective this is quite dull. But when it’s wrapped in a narrative context it suddenly gets very exciting. In fact, the clunky controls and limited camera angles work to the game’s advantage here. They make the players feel like they’re not in control, which gets directly projected on the situation at hand – the approaching zombie. A tense and scary situation arises.
This is the power of narrative context. By wrapping gameplay actions in storytelling the experience that emerges exceeds the sum of its parts. Taken solely on their own merit, the gameplay mechanics don’t feel very engaging. But when used in the right environment they work far better at providing the intended experience than using the more streamlined controls of Doom.
This isn’t the only thing that keeps Resident Evil working as a game. Another big aspect of it is the resource management, which is a great help in making the game engaging over longer periods of time. But again, it works so well because of the world it is placed in. Making sure that you have ammo and healing herbs is not just a numbers game. By playing it in the world of a zombie-infested mansion it turns into a survival scenario which makes it a lot more exciting .
Over the years, Resident Evil has distanced itself from the narrative context, and focused more on improving the gameplay mechanics. Resident Evil 4 (2005) is the biggest step in this evolution.
Resident Evil 7 picks up where the first one left of and puts, once again, lots of focus on the narrative context. First of all let us consider the combat of Resident Evil 7. Here is a typical combat scene:
and here is one from another contemporary action game:
As you can see there is a lot less fun for the player to have in Resident Evil 7. The aiming is imprecise and the space doesn’t allow for a lot of movement. But all of this works in the favor of the game. Once again, we can’t just analyze the gameplay on its own. We have to take into account the context in which it happens. Here is where Resident Evil 7 has plenty. For instance, the first enemy that you encounter is your girlfriend turned mutant, who is now attacking you with a chainsaw. Sure, the combat is quite awkward, but that only fuels the desperation of the situation. This scene wouldn’t be nearly as good if the player was able to circle strafe, and had explicitly defined mechanics for avoiding incoming attacks.
The first half of the game continues like this, with many of the hostiles not being run-of-the-mill monsters, but characters with personalities. You’re not just taking part in generic combat encounters – you’re taking part in narrative moments. This is a huge improvement compared to basically any of the previous Resident Evils and, in these moments, the game honestly has one of the best implementations of horror combat in any game released. And all of this is due to not simply focusing on making the combat as fun as possible. Instead the focus is on combining context and mechanics in a way that gives rise to the desired experience.
How well this works becomes apparent when you start encountering the “mold monsters”. These pop up without much introduction and serve as the generic enemies throughout the game. Almost none of these encounters (the path to a girl’s bedroom is a great counter example) have any sort of narrative setup, and the monsters are mostly there in order to assure that the player keeps occupied.
The final third of the game makes this even clearer. Now the player mostly just encounters these generic monsters, and the game starts focusing on the gameplay instead by giving you more weapons and other offensive gadgets. Viewed from the lense of a survival horror experience, the game greatly suffers from this shift in focus. An important thing to note here is that the game doesn’t drop its storytelling ambitions. The last half of the game has a lot of story-stuff that it shares with the player. The problem is that the player is not put in any interesting narrative situations. Instead you have your documents to read, or cut scenes between the combat, but you’re never part of the storytelling like you were in the first two-thirds of the game.
It’s also worth bringing up that it’s not only combat that Resident Evil 7 wraps in a narrative, it also does this with its puzzles. For instance, there are a few instances when puzzles are put there by another mad inhabitant of the house. And while these puzzles themselves are nothing out of the ordinary, the context makes them a lot more exciting. You are not just solving abstract riddles – you are trying to outsmart one of the game’s antagonists.
So why don’t we see more games that has this kind of focus on narrative context? I think the biggest reason boils down to the fact that, at their core, games are simply too much fun. I wrote about this in a blog post last week. The gist of the argument is: when you can choose between making gameplay more fun, and improving the intended experience, focusing on fun gameplay provides a more straightforward path.
When you have a fun core loop you can test out your game using abstract shapes and temporary assets. The same is not as true for games that rely heavily on narrative context. You can imagine how the game will play out if all the proper assets were there, but you can never be sure. It isn’t possible to hand out a half-finished game to testers and expect to get proper feedback. On top of that, the aspects of the game that make or break the experience are often very costly. A big uncertain investment is needed and it takes a long time before it can be evaluated. The temptation to fall back on the good old reliable “classic gameplay” is very strong indeed.
Building these games works very different from games where the focus is on a fun core loop. But the benefits can be huge. I don’t think anybody will argue against the claim that Resident Evil 4 and 7 are very different experiences. One focuses on following the fun, and the other on creating a certain experience.
Resident Evil 7 is by no means the perfect horror experience, but it contains some truly exceptional stuff. The things that all stand out are heavily reliant on the idea of narrative context. To me it seems like the game has just dipped its toes into this though. As I explained in my post on games being too much fun, to go further down this route is not an easy mission. But if we are to evolve the videogames medium and provide stronger storytelling experiences it is the only way to go. The many signs pointing in this direction, some of them apparent in Resident Evil 7, makes me even more confident in this.
But we can’t just stumble blindly along this path, hoping to bump into greatness. We must scout the territory and see which route seems like the most promising. Finding how to do this is what this blog will continue to explore.
 The case of the resource management is not as clear cut as the combat one as it has a much better gameplay core going on here. In fact there are games like Desktop Dungeons that use a similar mechanic and bases its entire gameplay around it. So while the narrative context is an important factor here, it is not nearly as important as it is for combat.