Welcome back to the world of survival horror. Good luck.
In the 16bit era, developers were able to produce beautiful but mainly abstract worlds for players to explore. The arrival of the PlayStation moved the yardstick of what was possible, and the subsequent games produced for the system forever changed the public’s perception of the medium. WipEout & Tomb Raider were responsible for this shift in Europe, but Resident Evil grabbed the attention of everyone who caught glimpses of it.
Set in a labyrinth like Mansion on the outskirts of Racoon City, the original was completely in debt to George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, replete with dark humour and a confined setting. The opening story has you investigating reported cases of cannibalism and missing people that was very grounded and dark, compared to the more excessive and ludicrous instalments later in the series. Resident Evil was most noted for its shocking depiction of violence that was unprecedented for a game of its time, and the cinematic flair of its camera angles with pre-rendered backgrounds giving it detail that was not possible with polygons alone.
After the release of the genre defying original, Capcom had a troubled development period where they attempted to create a fitting sequel. After many years and one cancelled project, they released Resident Evil 2.
Opening up the setting to Racoon City itself was a bold move and one that completely changed the dynamic. Rather than be confined to hallways and stairs, which left you wondering what was through the next door, Racoon City allowed Capcom to open up the horror. No longer could you count on the solid wallpapered walls to filter you through to the next location, as there were now vast areas for any number of enemies to jump out at you, with no defence for their attacks. Windows could be smashed, barriers could be leapt over and fences could be scaled, with Leon & Claire not being able to rely on solid scenery for back up.
Racoon City was a large town, replete with neighbourhoods, factories, sewers, car parks, Police station, underground railroad and Umbrella’s secret lab, which gave Capcom a large canvas to paint the downfall of its citizens to the T-Virus. Compared to the original Mansion, where its occupants were scientists and test subjects, Resident Evil 2 tracks the plight of families and individuals caught up in the catastrophe. As Leon & Claire make their way through the destruction, they come across pockets of survivors still trapped in the City. From children who’ve seen their parents die, police officers who’ve decided to stay, people fighting for their life, to members of Umbrella and its army who are trying to recover their research. Meeting these survivors are often brief affairs before they’re killed or your forced to split up again, to continue on your search for others and to escape the town. This structure means you are own your own most of the time, with only the imposing shadows and gothic décor for company.
The style and atmosphere of the abandoned locations throughout Racoon City brings the survival horror to life. The city itself is a traditional western town and it’s within this comfort of familiar surroundings, that Capcom play on your fears of dark alleys, abandoned buildings and distant noises. After the car crash separates Leon & Claire, you witness a devastated modern city, with smashed windows, police barricades, fire pouring out of apartments, emergency vehicles wrapped around lamp posts and the dead rotting in the street. However, as you pass through the streets and into the Police station, a different atmosphere is evoked. The building itself is Medieval in appearance, with high ceilings, gargoyle statues and violent paintings adorning the walls. It feels like a gesture towards the original Mansion in Resident Evil, as the modern warm tone of a city, is replaced with a cold and imperialistic structure that feels hundreds of years old. This feeling of progression through history continues, as you descend through a gothic hell into the morgue, where you fall further into the Victorian sewers before ascending through the water processing plant onto the industrial area and into the future with Umbrella’s Labs. This journey through empty streets, abandoned buildings and destroyed bodies is given emotion and context through the diaries, journals and photographs left behind.
Hidden away in the offices and homes of residents are these hand written notes, documenting the events the terrified inhabitants are going through, and it’s these scraps of paper that are the glue that hold the narrative and setting together. Uncovered whilst cautiously making your way through the game, they add light and horror to an otherwise normal location, reverting a cluttered office to the scene of a last stand. Because you can only read the characters thoughts and not interact with them, it adds a sense of helplessness and despair that is prevalent throughout the entire story. As you uncover more of Umbrella’s plans and encounter the people responsible, you slowly realise the town can’t be saved. There’s no magic bullet or mass produced miracle cure for Racoon City, the population will eventually be ravaged by the T-Virus and it will spread to the surrounding towns, not stopping in till the entire country is infected with Umbrella’s creation. It remains a dark prospect but back in 1998 it was even more shocking and bleak compared to its rivals, with Resident Evil 3 playing out the scenario to its bitter end.
After you escape Racoon City, with thousands of bullets fired and more than a few first aid kits used, it’s not the monsters or Zombies that stick in the mind. It’s the memories of a city trapped at perpetual midnight, the hand written letters to loved ones and the distant sound of a door being slammed shut.