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Resident Evil’s Horrific Survival in Survival Horror: Is Mass Market Appeal Cancerous To Game Success?

This is a research paper and critique on Resident Evil 6 and the franchise as a whole. This was a school paper so not all the ideas were fully fleshed out due to word limits.

Leon Huang, Blogger

December 8, 2014

25 Min Read





    Resident Evil.The name alone is synonymous with horror and fear. Shinji Mikami’s creation truly proved to be the progenitor of all survival horror games and the father of the survival horror genre. A disturbing trend that gripped the series over the years is that it strayed from its roots and chose to adopt a more action-oriented play style to cater to a larger audience. This paper aims to investigate why this decision to enact the change was made, what were the ramifications of said decisions on the franchise and finally, what lessons can be drawn from this franchise trying to survive the monsters that Capcom had unleashed upon themselves.

  1. The History of Resident Evil  


    To fully understand the situation Resident Evil is in today, we must first understand its origins and creator. 



    Though Resident Evil was the first game to pioneer the survival horror genre, it was not the first in the horror genre. Sweet Home was a psychological horror RPG made in 1989 by Capcom that proved to be a success in Japan. The Western equivalent was Alone in the Dark, a horror game that released in America in 1992. With these two games as proofs of concept that there was a global market for horror games, Capcom thus took its first step in initiating global dominance in survival horror: They appointed Shinji Mikami as director of what would be Resident Evil. 


    Resident Evil released in 1996 to great critical acclaim. It featured tank style controls, a fixed camera perspective and highly underpowered characters against seemingly insurmountable odds. For its time, the fixed camera perspective allowed for pre-rendered graphics that made Resident Evil appear a generation ahead of its time. The tank controls made movement clunky,slow and combat practically a non-option. Coupled with limited ammunition and save points, this brewed the perfect storm of helplessness, fear and well… survival horror. 


    After the success of Resident Evil, the same formula was used in the sequels and spin-offs of the game. 6 years and 4 successful main sequels later, Resident Evil began to become stale. Critics praised the Resident Evil franchise, but sales did not live up to expectations as the clunky controls  and formulaic gameplay were preventing the fan base from increasing. A breath of fresh air was required, and it was called Resident Evil 4. 



2. Resident Evil 4: The outbreak of action begins


    Resident Evil 4 is one of the most successful titles in the Resident Evil franchise commercially as well as critically. Players get to play as Agent Leon Scott Kennedy, a returning face from Resident Evil 2, on a mission to save the President’s daughter who was kidnapped and brought to Eastern Europe. 


    With a distinct shift in the story, the mechanics were altered as well. The clunky tank controls were replaced with smooth and intuitive directional movement, the fixed camera perspective was substituted with a player controlled camera and the pseudo-impossible combat was supplanted by accurate weapons aiming and even some melee combat options. 


    Resident Evil 4 was not just a breath of fresh air, it was a hurricane that essentially threw out the mechanics of all previous Resident Evil titles. Though it was a far cry from the previous titles, it proved to be a smash hit. 


    Interestingly enough, Shinji Mikami had commented that Resident Evil 4’s play style was conceived in lieu of the lukewarm reception to the Resident Evil Remake in 2002. This move to become more action oriented than initially intended was the first step Capcom made in trying to appeal to the masses. With Shinji Mikami in the director’s chair, an ideal balance between helplessness and action was struck to still allow the game to keep it’s “survival horror” roots, albeit loosely. 


    Resident Evil 4 was indeed a highly acclaimed game, but was it a highly acclaimed survival horror game? This design choice may have brought the Resident Evil franchise into the mainstream and appealed to a larger audience, but there were old-school fans who simply felt the sequel was not faithful to its roots. In fact, Resident Evil 4 was the first beginnings of a polarising in the fan base. The shift towards action and derailing of the storyline were but a few of the gripes of old fans. The true problem was that the game was beginning to lose its identity. 


    The shift towards action led Capcom down a slippery slope. Just like in Resident Evil games, Capcom had created monsters for itself, monsters they thought  they could tame and reap benefits from, big emphasis on "thought" there. The first of these monsters? Resident Evil 5. 


3. Resident Evil 5: Call of Du- Bio-Terrorism?


      In light of the success of Resident Evil 4, Capcom decided to carry the action element over to Resident Evil 5. However, it appeared that they used a rather sophomoric approach to the game. Clinging to the idea that “action” was the quintessential ingredient that made Resident Evil 4 so successful, they proceeded to saturate the 6th instalment in the main series with…well…action. 



    Now playing as Chris Redfield, the protagonist from the first Resident Evil game, players must journey through Africa to stop a new bioterrorism threat. 


    With Shinji Mikami  refusing to work on this title, the focus on the game became overtly one of action. Melee attack variety was expanded, enemies became vast in numbers and the AI partner was also capable of combat and assistance. 


    Action can be an interesting element in a horror game as seen in Resident Evil 4. It was still possible to feel overwhelmed and helpless when you are facing a chainsaw wielding maniac with a mere handgun. However, an important element of survival horror is maintaining the sensation that the player is constantly ill-equipped or against insurmountable odds. Resident Evil 5 makes the player feel about as underpowered as an MMA Fighter in a kindergarten. 


    The focus on action immediately causes the horror aspect of the game to become undermined. To give a good action-oriented experience, the game became fast paced and reward oriented. Onslaughts of enemies, vast ammunition drops and an arsenal of ridiculous caliber weapons that would make the Expendables cast jealous simply do not contribute to a conducive horror environment, let alone the iconic and nostalgic sensation of helplessness the previous games managed to create. The protagonist actually punches a boulder into a pit of lava at one point. If that was not a design choice made to pander to a testosterone-driven audience that yearned for action, I don’t know what is.


    This change of tone and emphasis was the nail in the coffin for Resident Evil’s identity crisis. The pioneer of the survival horror genre appeared to have devolved into a tribute to the first person shooters like Call of Duty and Battlefield. Though this game was still phenomenally successful , there was a clear division in the fan base at in 2009: There was the niche audience of survival horror fans that were dwindling in number and the newcomers who waved the flag of adrenaline inducing action sequences proudly. 



    Little did Capcom know that their next instalment in the main Resident Evil franchise was about to alienate everybody. 


4. Resident Evil 6: Too Many Broths Spoilt the Cook


     The saying goes that “Too many cooks spoil the broth”. The idea is that too many people trying to add creative elements to a single piece of work would utterly ruin it. In Capcom’s case, there were too many broths that were previously created that satisfied the palates pf different groups of people. They had a niche, diehard audience from terrifying Resident Evils 1 through 3, and they also hooked in a great deal of newcomers from the high-octane, action packed Resident Evils 4 and 5. If Resident Evil 1 through 3 was cake and Resident Evil 4 and 5 was pizza, the big mistake that Capcom made was attempting to amalgamate the two in hopes of appeasing everybody. The result is a mass of “Pizzake” that disgusted lovers of cake and pizza alike. That “Pizzake” is Resident Evil 6. 


    Resident Evil 6 consists of 4 campaigns. The first starred Leon Kennedy and is set in an urban environment, an obvious allusion to the events of Resident Evil 2 and a tactic of using nostalgia to appease the older fans. The second starred Chris Redfield in a war zone that seemed to replicate Call of Duty from a third person perspective, an attempt to appeal to the massive first person shooter market in North America. The third starred a new character, Jake Muller, and focused heavily on melee attacks and action sequences in a series of settings, reaching out to action fans. The last featured Ada Wong, a recurring character throughout the franchise and focused heavily on stealth and puzzle solving, a blatant attempt to regain the faith of the fans who loved the original survival horror based Resident Evil. 


    To paraphrase Jim Sterling of Jimquisition, Resident Evil 6 is like the kid in school who adopted a chameleonic personality and tried to get all the kids to like him in fear of rejection of his true identity. Ironically, it was the very attempt to please everybody that made Resident Evil 6 seem like a maelstrom of mediocrity. Even Capcom acknowledged that the game was a failure.


    After almost 2 decades, the pioneer of the survival horror franchise has mutated into a seemingly unrecognisable shell of its former self with a polar opposite personality.  That said, where does this leave us on the topic of mass appeal?







5. Postmortem and Analyses 


    To Capcom’s merit, it can be seen that the shift towards action has indeed garnered a much larger audience with Resident Evil 5 shipping 6.5 Million copies. .



    However, it is evident that Resident Evil 6  performed abysmally as compared to its predecessors from these same statistics. Conducting a detailed autopsy on Resident Evil 6, one begins to see the horrifyingly toxic design choices that were a result of attempting to appease everybody. 


    When a person finishes Resident Evil 6, he cannot help but feel that Capcom was truly trying to blend everything that was ever successful in video games into their Resident Evil game. A wide arsenal of guns, car chase sequences, hand-to-hand combat mechanics, multiplayer, puzzles and even alluring female characters, this game was literally trying to appeal to everybody. However, one crucial detail seemed to elude Capcom: The elements implemented clashed horribly. 


    Leon’s campaign was too easy for the intended survival horror veterans and too slow paced for the action seeking fans. Chris’ campaign was mere mindless shooting and proved to be a mediocre knock off of Call of Duty. Jake’s Campaign was melee centric and was something neither survival horror fans nor action fans expected from a Resident Evil game. Finally, Ada’s campaign had the strongest hint of returning to the Resident Evil roots, but the puzzles were too simplistic and the stealth element proved to be more of a hinderance than a boon. All in all, every facet of enjoyable gameplay elements had its surface scratched, but nobody was satisfied. Even with the lofty name of Capcom emblazoned on it, it still failed to impress critics.


    In an effort to pander to the masses, Resident Evil 6 had superficial elements of a plethora of play styles, but lacked  polish or consistency in the game’s feel and atmosphere. 


    Stepping back and looking at the series as a whole, one would question why Capcom chose to pursue the action oriented route. Who was this mysterious target audience that they were trying to tap into? It is an audience that various Japanese studios have been desperately trying to appeal to in recent years: the Western gamers. 


    in an interview with Keiji Inafune, the father of the Megaman franchise at Capcom, Keiji actually noted how much Japanese game developers and publishers have been trying to appeal to western audiences. Evidently, it’s not just Resident Evil that suffers from this problem. A quick look at the abysmal Devil May Cry reboot by Ninja Theory is another prime example of the Japanese trying to cater to the western market and failing. Even Dead Space was eventually watered down and merely became something that resembled Call of Duty: In Space in order to appeal to the more action loving North American audience. 


    It is understandable that there is a need to appeal to a large market and audience for the sake of business, profits and sustainability. However, is it not clear that there are also plenty of games that do well by staying true to their Japanese roots? Just look at most Nintendo franchises. Mario, the Legend of Zelda, Pokemon, these games were all created for Japanese consumers, and yet they still do well in a Western market with their own merit. 


    It is heartening to see game developers trying their hardest to make the best game they can to win over as many people as possible, but sometimes, business simply blinds them to the fact that beneath whatever veneer of Western or Japanese elements present in games, gamers love a game for its true identity and its pride in maintaining that single identity.


6. Conclusion


    To summarise the history of the roller coaster ride that is the Resident Evil franchise, Resident Evil was born as a survival horror game to appeal to both Japanese and Western horror fans. After 4 instalments in the main series, sales were declining for the Resident Evil franchise due to stale and stagnant gameplay. In an effort to revitalise the franchise and increase revenue, the creator of the franchise, Shinji Mikami, decided to make Resident Evil 4 more action oriented to appeal to more people while still maintaining a feel of horror. With the success of Resident Evil 4, Capcom thus rode on the coattails of that success and moved further into action oriented gameplay with Resident Evil 5. Finally, to overcome the problem of alienating old school fans, Resident Evil 6 was conceived to be a game that encompassed survival horror elements and action elements  in 4 separate campaigns that made the final result appear like a Michael Bay movie. 


    So what exactly can be learned from the aftermath of Resident Evil 6? First, let’s look at the reasons why the previous titles were successful/  


    Resident Evils 1 through 3 were successful by their own merit as survival horror games. Resident Evil 4 and 5 also had clear identities of being action games. The games were built around mechanics that complemented the gameplay. An example in Resident Evil 1 was fixed cameras to provide a chilling atmosphere where you never knew what was around the next corner. Conversely, the free aim and melee mechanics in Resident Evil 4 allowed for a much richer action game experience.     


    By trying to blend all these elements together in hopes of “appeasing everybody”, Resident Evil 6’s gameplay feels inadequate for all the campaigns. It almost appeared like the designers had the dynamics of the game in mind and then tried to create mechanics that complemented the dynamics. However, due to the stark differences in the dynamics and aesthetics of each campaign, the mechanics did not feel coherent, relevant or polished. Two genres must be blended together with the idea that each genre offers elements that would complement and improve the experience of the other, not just haphazardly mashing two genres together just because “people like them”.


     Trying to appeal too heavily to the masses,  and using an assortment of popular but conflicting game elements made Resident Evil 6 lose its identity as any single genre of game and resulted in it being reduced to an amorphous blob of game archetypes. Most ironic of all, the monster that would cause declining sales was a bogeyman that Capcom created themselves. They were literally trying to survive from a horror that they concocted. 


    I thus have to conclude that the attempt to appease everybody was truly cancerous to Resident Evil 6. However, in a bigger picture, all game companies should have the revelation that pandering can only mean destruction to game innovation and success. Taking SquareEnix as an example, the recent success of Bravely Default proved that it was still possible to turn profits by remaining faithful to its identity as a JRPG and made SquareEnix reconsider its strategy of appealing to the masses. Even Capcom announced that they were going to return to the roots of Resident Evil  with the next instalment of the main series . With these signs that the game industry will rethink their notions of pandering to the masses, we just might avoid sad, misunderstood monstrosities like Resident Evil 6 in future. 









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