Written By: Patrick Kitzie
EDIT 3/23/17: Typo correction in regards to terminology describing Resident Evil 1 on GameCube. It was originally written as being a remaster when the term should have been remake. Yes, we are human and yes, we do pay attention to social media & reader comments if it pertains to making content accurate when it slips through the cracks in editing. /BCG
The logic of building solid, playable systems in-game, and their internal checks and balances have always fascinated me. What some claim as being overpowered may be fair to others and totally useless in the hands of others still. Game designers are forced to take something numerical in value and find a very specific digit to place in a very specific decimal place that somehow translates into “fun”, which is entirely subjective. How do you do that successfully? This bizarre fascination of mine presented itself once again with Resident Evil 7. I realized that the best way I could explain my curiosity in the mechanics behind the curtain, if you will, is through a deep dive into the history of Resident Evil – a franchise that has both excelled and failed in its attempts at keeping survival horror alive. What many people may not realize is that much of the fear and tension had to do with a very specific inventory system and the internal monologues it created for players over the past 2 decades.
Surviving Survival Horror
Before the game-changing arrival of Resident Evil 4, there were 6 main titles in Capcom’s famous franchise that had significantly smaller, “boxed” inventories. From the very beginning, Resident Evil 1 was described as “survival horror,” setting the expectation that this wasn’t a DOOM clone where health packs would be strewn about. Before the opening cut-scene, the game forced you to choose between 2 protagonists. One started out with a pistol and 8 inventory slots, while the other started with a knife and 6 inventory slots, but took less damage. It was a rather simple balance. Yes, one might have fewer inventory slots, but if you take less damage, then you will have need of fewer healing supplies. Except for the fact that you couldn’t drop things. Resident Evil worked on a sort of “the floor is lava” logic where the instant you discarded an item, it ceased to exist. There was no putting your box of bullets on the ground to heal up real fast and then pick the ammo back up. If you dropped that ammo, it was gone for good. Proper planning and being aware of your own gaming abilities were paramount to survival. If you had bad reflexes, you weren’t going to get out cleanly on a risky “no herb” adventure to a new area of the map. Save scumming wasn’t an option either, as even that required an item (Ink Printer Ribbons), meaning you had a finite amount of saves to make it through the game. Once you used them up, you had to get through the entire rest of the game without dying. From Resident Evil 1 up to Resident Evil 4, there was such a thing as playing it too safe. A staple in the series that aided inventory woes were large crates, capable of holding more items than you would realistically need them to, but were placed strategically throughout the map.
Now that we understood the rules of game play, we were ready to take on the zombie outbreak. Except, wait a minute. Why does a key take up 1 inventory slot but so does a shotgun? That’s ridiculous. Game, are you telling me that 4 keys, a knife, and a plant take up as much physical space as a shotgun, rocket launcher, revolver, pistol, and 2 metal slabs? That doesn’t make any sense.
There’s the often misconstrued “survival” part of “survival horror.” Contrary to what most consider it to mean (not dying), that word is actually intended to mean that you’re struggling with how to manage the “not dying.” You don’t get scared and tense from messing up, dying, and reloading a save. That’s just annoying after the first few times. Dark Souls can teach you that. You become scared and tense from uncertainty. As in film, horror is often not at its best when showing gore and death. It’s at its best when nothing happens, but the audience is worried that it might and are actively trying their best to avoid what their imagination is conjuring. Bringing it back to Resident Evil, you’ve just picked up a key that allows you access to 5 new rooms in the mansion. Do you play it safe and take a pistol, ammo, 2 herbs, and the key with you? That only leaves 1 free slot. There will inevitably be something new worth picking up in one of those new rooms. Will it be a new puzzle piece, healing item, weapon? Could be any or all of the above. Crap. Maybe you’ll swap the pistol and ammo for a shotgun, ditch 1 herb, and just be a careful shot. You can always come back. But you don’t want to come back and also you don’t want to die and lose progress. You have to choose. This internal monologue over just managing inventory contributed to your feelings of dread more than you might have realized.
That’s what made Resident Evil 1 keep you thinking on a regular basis. The security camera-style angles further added to the sense of paranoia by making sure you never really knew what was around the next corner until you heard it or were face to face with it. Zombies may have been the first enemy, but they were far from the last. You never knew when a poisonous spider, super-fast and high jumping Hunter, or gigantic boss monstrosity would show up. You had to be prepared for any and all of those situations at any time.
How do you keep that system from getting old in a sequel? Resident Evil 2 introduced simple and effective ways to improve on the old system while not breaking it. Basic inventory was changed to a flat 8 slots, with one character or the other being able to extend that to 10. After a certain point, 1 of the 2 selectable characters could even obtain weapon parts to upgrade their stock pistol, shotgun, or magnum. An item nearing obsolescence became new again due to increased damage output, larger ammo capacity, or even faster rate of fire. Just when you wanted to abandon a tool, the game found a way to make you stress over a decision again. The other character now had a weapon that could fire multiple types of ammo. The internal monologue changed.
What kind did you want to bring with you? What would work best for the enemies you’re facing in that area? Can you get by with 6 of these? What if you find more, will that put you over the limit? Wait, you just found a bunch of healing items and puzzle parts. If you decide you’re OK on health, than hope you don’t need them later, since you’re not going to remember to come back.
Resident Evil 3 only had one character to play as, who had the same inventory system as Resident Evil 2. A big difference was that now you could craft ammunition. Ammo types A, B, or C could be combined in a myriad of ways to fit your needs. Did you want a lot of pistol ammo or wait for a bit and combine it with another type for shotgun or grenade ammo? What fit your play style? It was your choice and you had to choose wisely. Now, the Nemesis was after you all the time, and pistol damage wasn’t going to cut it against that hulking behemoth. To offset the introduction of an enemy like Nemesis were decision moments where, if you chose correctly and quickly enough, you could create an environmental hazard that would deal enough damage to incapacitate the Nemesis without using any of your precious resources. So maybe you played a little more dangerously.
Maybe you totally screwed up and had to try and outrun something faster than you while trying to do more damage than something stronger than you. Of course, Nemesis shows up at the worst, and most unexpected, times. There was no safety. There was only “I hope I prepared for this right, because I am full-on screwed otherwise.”
Resident Evil: Code Veronica was the last game for number of years to sport the old 8 + 2 inventory system, but it added the fun of dual-wielded weapons. The catch was that they took up 2 slots. You got double the fire power and both hands were taken up. Seemed fair enough, except you couldn’t reload them. Once you used up their available ammo, you had 2 precious slots worth of dead weight. If you didn’t manage things right, 20%-25% of your space was taken from you until you could reach an almighty item crate again.
The GameCube saw the release of several Resident Evil games, including a full remake of the first game as well as the all new Resident Evil: Zero and Resident Evil 4. The remake remained faithful to the 6- or 8-slot inventories, but Resident Evil: Zero did something drastic. You could freely swap between the 2 main characters who had 6 slots each. They could trade between each other, which meant that if you had them near each other, 12 slots were at your disposal.
For the first time in the series, you could drop items and they wouldn’t disappear. They’d stayed exactly where you left them, and the map would even let you know what you dropped and where. Say goodbye to aimless backtracking and nitpicking over what was in your backpack. This seemed like an upgrade until we consider the Hookshot Gun. The Hookshot was needed no more than 3-4 times in the entire game but was critically necessary to progress in each of those moments. Nearly everyone who played the game got tired of lugging the Hookshot around and dumped it somewhere only to need it again and have to trudge back and find it. If you made the fatal error of getting to Disc 2 without carrying it over, you’d have to give up potentially hours of progress from your last save to retrieve it from the area in Disc 1. Eventually, this new drop system created headaches for those who got too loose with the newly granted freedom. There was only as much backtracking as you created for yourself, but if you played sloppy, that was a lot of backtracking. You were wasting your own time.
All these years of forced scrutiny of your gameplay ability, the environmental threats, and your available tools resulting from a simple 2×4 grid. 2×5 if you played your cards right. Amazing to consider how this often overlooked aspect of survival horror contributed to so many moments of frustration, and probably rage. Clearly, this system annoyed a lot of players who thought it was archaic and needlessly padding game length. However, consider the alternative. Picture a Resident Evil game where you can carry every weapon, healing item, and puzzle piece at the same time. You’re prepared for any situation. You’re not retreading old ground, wasting time managing dumb boxes, and can get to the fun part of the game. Except, now you’re not nervous or concerned. You don’t care if that spider spits at you because you’ve got 3 anti-venoms and can swap to a grenade launcher with flame rounds. Easy. Now you’re bored, and the “survival” in survival horror has been extinguished.
Horror Versus Action – The Delicate Balance
Enter Resident Evil 4. The old inventory system was gone and so was the fixed camera system. Now you could aim wherever you wanted versus just up, down, or forward. You could carry a boatload of healing items, weapons, and ammo while puzzle pieces had their own separate inventory section.
So how did Capcom still make the player feel intimidated despite this? They made things move faster and sent a lot more enemies at the player. Having a village swarm you in the first half hour of the game leaves a lasting impression that you were still screwed. The tempo of the game had shifted incredibly from what the previous 6 games had established. What had previously been a creeping, ever present threat of dread and malice was replaced by outright aggression and frenzy.
It would never have been possible with the old inventory system. Stemming a tide of enemies without a ready supply of weapons and enemies dropping supplies (another first for the series) would be impossible given the old constraints. It was a refreshing change that made nearly everyone who played it happy.
For all these reasons, Capcom was banking on a grand slam with Resident Evil 5. Resident Evil 4 with co-op? What could go wrong? They would have if it weren’t for bad inventory changes. Improving on the system from Resident Evil: Zero, this installment gave each character 9 inventory slots and allowed them to freely trade between each other, but now time didn’t stop when you managed items.
You had to heal or trade gear while running. You had to grab ammo from your partner without getting hit, or the animation would cancel. In trying to take the frantic tension from Resident Evil 4 and increase it, Capcom ended up shooting themselves in the foot instead. That subjective “fun” thing I mentioned at the beginning didn’t hold up. Resident Evil 5 wasn’t intimidating, challenging, or even tense like any of the preceding games were. Even the introduction of fast swapping items by assigning 4 of them to the D-pad wasn’t enough to balance having to manage items on the fly. Resident Evil 4 gave you a breather from the action in its inventory screen and let you plan the next phase of your counterattack. Resident Evil 5 was like working in Excel while on a treadmill.
Resident Evil 6. The Fast and the Furious of the Resident Evil franchise. Love it or hate it for the plot, the gameplay changes went a long way to fixing what Resident Evil 5 broke. The main changes that made the system work so much better were clever divisions similar to what Resident Evil 4 had done. With Resident Evil 5, puzzle pieces shared inventory space with weapons and healing items. In Resident Evil 6, however, healing items and puzzle pieces (few though they were) were kept entirely separate.
Another big change: Resident Evil 6 was the first game in the series to introduce character-specific weapons. Not once in any of the 4 storylines did players have to worry about discarding a weapon. Those were forever in a character’s inventory and locked to that character. You could focus on threat assessment and management rather than whether to drop a pistol because you’re out of ammo and pick up a rifle instead. On the occasions that you needed to heal, there was also now a hot button for that.
There was no need for a break or to manage. However, as a result of all these changes, it wasn’t a survival horror game anymore. It had become an action game, and a lot of fans wondered if the Resident Evil they remembered was dead and gone.
RE Redemption – Modernizing The Art Of Fear
This year saw the release of Resident Evil 7, a game so different from everything that came before it, I have a hard time calling it a Resident Evil game. For the first time, the camera is now first person. Immediately, thoughts of Amnesia and Outlast sprang to mind upon playing the demo. As for the inventory management, Resident Evil 7 brings back the always active inventory system, but makes some needed changes. The D-pad shortcuts from Resident Evil 5 are back, but big weapons finally take up more than one slot. It took 20 years, but a shotgun is finally bigger than a postcard in the Resident Evil universe.
Melee moves are only possible with a melee weapon. Blocking is possible, similar to the fantastic Condemned series from the Xbox 360 days. A fixed, first person camera means that sound is at a premium when trying to avoid damage. One enemy in particular moves faster than you at all times. Similar to the Nemesis dynamic, his taunts are vital to gauging how far away he is and when you can safely heal as a result. Another detail to keep you guessing is the introduction of multiple damage animations making it trickier to determine when is a good time to run, repair, or counter. However, for me, the star of the show is the inventory system.
You start with a base 12 slots and can increase to double that over 3 upgrades. Healing items now stack in an inventory slot, and several weapons take up 2 slots. There’s a delicate balance going on here. Resident Evil 5 had the most troubled system and this is essentially that same system without the trading possibility. So why does it work when Resident Evil 5 didn’t?
I’ve been thinking about that ever since beating Resident Evil 7, and it all comes back to my opening paragraph. A very specific numerical value with a very specific digit that translates into subjective fun. Yes, healing items stack, but only a few times. The stronger the healing item, the fewer of them stack. Do you carry 2 really strong healing items and wait until you’re on the brink of death to use them or carry 4 weaker ones to top yourself off? That old self assessment of ability rears its head again, and the internal monologue returns. “Am I good at this game? Can I get by with this?” You might get by. Or you might fail, and when you do, you’re going to feel it. “I thought I was better than that…I guess I’m not.” There’s uncertainty again. You have to play it safe again. Sure, you can carry a lot if you take the time to search everywhere, but you move slower. Your puzzle pieces (numerous once again for the first time in years) are sharing space with ammo and healing items. The flamethrower is great against bug enemies but worthless elsewhere. Do you really want to gamble on those 2 inventory slots? Resident Evil 7 introduces collectible upgrade tokens. Do you pick those up or a puzzle piece? Will you remember to come back? Do you want to have a knife to save ammo?
What happens to all those questions, concerns, and uncertainty when you look back at the Resident Evil 6? With guaranteed weapons and separate inventories for healing, puzzle pieces, and ammo, the feeling is totally different. How much pressure you’re under to change weapons, heal, combine things, what to leave behind, what to circle around and grab with a boss hot on your tail; all that was gone. Gone because of 12 little boxes and what goes in them.
Resident Evil 7 is a success because the survival is back in “survival horror.” Keeping the plot for a separate conversation, the game play elements alone in this franchise craft essential behaviors to set a mood. You can’t have this kind of experience in any other genre. Resident Evil 7 is tailored, deliberate, and has purpose. There is a system once again. There is balance. Call me crazy, but I am fascinated.