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How Resident Evil's Villains Reframe Survival Horror
DESIGN DIVE: Pivoting to first-person, makes your antagonists even more terrifying
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In recent years, Capcom has sought to redefine the Resident Evil franchise by pivoting to a more contemporary approach to survival horror. 2017's Resident Evil 7: Biohazard introduces the Bakers: a family replete with malicious intent that will hunt you, taunt you, and torture you for their own amusement. Meanwhile, Resident Evil: Village from 2021 balances between character-centric horror and the more conventional enemies that are challenging to overcome and defeat.
In this episode of Design Dive, we explore the pivot to first-person horror, and how this new perspective leans towards crafting enemy AI characters that are more fleshed out, defined and ultimately scarier than their predecessors. While the AI behaviours of the likes of Jack Baker and Lady Dimitrescu are relatively simple and ultimately quite limited, the developers exploit the rich backdrop each game presents to offset their limitations and deliver a more engaging experience.
The Challenge of First-Person Horror
Biohazard and Village are one of the two ways in which the Resident Evil franchise continues to evolve. The first-person horror titles sit alongside the remakes of Resident Evil 2, 3, and 4 which seek to recapture classic franchise moments in more contemporary game design fixings. But Biohazard and Village represent an evolution towards a more contemporary approach to horror.
As discussed in part 1 of this series, Resident Evil has been a guiding force of survival horror video games since the genre’s inception. But during this time, a new breed of survival horror was emerging in western markets that innovated in a way that Resident Evil had resisted for a long time, by transitioning into first-person.
Now yes, long-time fans and a keen search in Google will highlight that the original Resident Evil was going to be a first-person game, and some of those trappings are still evident, what with the character-driven perspective of the doors opening during loading sequences. But ultimately, Resident Evil resisted this notion for a very long time, given - as you may have noticed - Japanese games seldom embrace the first-person camera perspective.
The 3Cs of the Resident Evil franchise - the camera, character, and controller - make the player responsible for the survival of a given character, be it Chris, Jill, Leon, Claire, and many more. While there's no overt declaration of why this is the case, it is very much in keeping with the themes of popular Japanese franchises, be it Final Fantasy, Persona, Yakuza, heck even Super Mario or Dark Souls. You're controlling a particular character, and experiencing the game and any associated narrative, from an external perspective. This enriches your relationship with those characters and their journey, and in turn, is why the likes of Jill Valentine and Leon Kennedy are so beloved by the fanbase.
And this is what makes Biohazard and Village interesting from the perspective of Resident Evil as a cultural artefact, given they embrace the western approach to horror in which you, the player, are in the driving seat. The story comes less from interactions with allies and more from confrontations with enemies and relies even more on environmental storytelling to fill in the gaps. While you may be playing a character in the context of the fiction, when the horror strikes, be it in the likes of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Outlast, Devour, Five Nights at Freddy's or Alien: Isolation, the horror is front and centre, and your connection with the character is largely removed.
Now what does all of this have to do with the enemy AI of the game? Well, it's not about the technical aspects, but rather their position as a device for narrative design and player engagement. By shifting the perspective to first person, we lose the connection to the character and their plight, given it is now in many respects our own, and instead the connection is derived from the villains. If you've played Biohazard or Village, you'll notice that Ethan - your avatar - is never shown in his entirety, his face obscured, and his character is a bit milquetoast. This is a deliberate design decision, given the games want you to become Ethan, and in keeping with my prior point on association with character, they avoid letting you see him such that you can imbue him instead.
But now, the games focus on the relationship between you, as Ethan's controller, and the enemies you face. The handful of friendly or allied characters simply die often to serve the fiction and reinforce the player’s sense of isolation. All of this leads to the villains propelling each story forward. No longer just boss battles, the Baker family, and the children of Miranda hunt you throughout your time in both games. You learn who each of these characters is, and what motivates them - however mad or insane it may seem. The humanity lost by removing your connection to the avatar is distorted and injected into these enemy characters. Instead of worrying about the safety of your avatar, you're worried about your own, given the agency, the threat, and more chillingly, the twisted humanity that these characters present.
One of the most exciting, and interesting things the first-person Resident Evil games present is the idea of a more intelligent set of characters that hunt the player down in regular gameplay, outside of cutscenes and boss battles. The series as a whole has seldom invested in villains that really have any high-level brain function.
The earliest games relied on the horror of enemies whose lack of humanity is their most terrifying aspect, be it zombies, lickers, or hunters. Meanwhile, Resident Evil 4 and 5 relied on enemies that are faster, appear to communicate and carry an element of problem-solving and tactical intelligence that zombies simply lack. But any high level of intelligence was reserved for the masterminds of the plot: Saddler in Resident Evil 4 and Albert Wesker in Resident Evil 5 are notable examples, but they also are boss battles and often are overcome by their respective mutations by the time you actually fight them.
The two exceptions to this rule, even if they suffer from gaps of logic, appeared in my previous episode. Mr X is a killing machine that seeks to eliminate all threats to Umbrella's plans but is limited by the scope of Resident Evil 2's design - be it the original or the remake. The unstoppable bioweapon that can march through the Raccoon Police Station unfettered, until he reaches a door leading to a save room. Meanwhile, the Nemesis suffers even more so, particularly in the remake of Resident Evil 3, and ultimately becomes a boss battle or the focus of elaborate set pieces in the latter hours of the game.
This is what makes Biohazard and Village so interesting, in that the villains are front and centre, and that places a greater emphasis on making them more intelligent and more fleshed out. The isolated nature of these games means that exposition is delivered by these characters in cutscenes, but also in moment-to-moment gameplay. Now it's worth saying that in each case, they're not particularly intelligent, but it's all about how it's framed to the player.
Resident Evil 7: BioHazard is a game that relies heavily on the hide-and-seek nature of its setup. After a frightening and surprising showdown against your own wife Mia, who appears to be on her own special brew of insanity and steroids, you are held hostage by the Baker family: Jack, Marguerite and Lucas are three twisted individuals whose insanity and general mental fragility mask their superhuman capabilities.
Upon your escape, Jack Baker makes it his job to hunt you down and teach you a lesson. Jack is a solid example of how to convey tone, character, and underlying narrative courtesy of his behaviour in these sequences. He wanders the corridors of the main house looking to find you, as you zig-zag around him, unlocking a door here, finding a secret passageway there, and gradually working on the overarching puzzles that you need to solve in order to escape.
Jack is largely invincible until the game’s narrative dictates otherwise, and excess damage will merely stun him for a period. His AI (and to a lesser extent Marguerite's) is built to wander a given locales, and hunt locations based on noises being registered by the player’s activities: being either aware or unaware of the player’s location at any given time influencing their movements. On occasion teleporting around the environment when the game requires it, or moving faster than normal when no longer in range or proximity of the player. This might sound awfully familiar, given it's virtually the same system re-used but two years later in the remake of Resident Evil 2 for Mr. X.
But what makes it all the more engaging is the personality injected into Jack. What was once a loving husband and father, has been replaced by a deranged sociopath. Killing any who get in his way, as he continues his quest to toy and manipulate Ethan for his own purposes. A lot of this is driven by animations, and barks, a form of dialogue that is executed as a result of particular configurations of the game state. A topic I've previously covered in my AI 101 series. And it's by adding these flourishes, that the characters seem much more nuanced.
For example, being in proximity to the dining table can lead to Jack interacting with it, smashing it up and getting it out of the way. He'll taunt you as you escape through the floor hatch in the pantry, as you head for the laundry room. This even leads to one of the more memorable interactions, in that once you've unlocked the door to the laundry room and fled back into it upon being chased by Jack, he will, on occasion taunt you as well.
This carries a lot of weight, given it resolves a big issue with Mr. X in the remake of RE2: where if you reach a safe room, the creature simply refrains from entering without context. Here, it's made evident that Jack knows what you're doing, he understands it, and taunts you about it. It achieves the exact same effect, in that the player has an otherwise safe location from which to collect their thoughts, plan out their next move and then head out. But the fact that we have a reason for this safety in the context of the game narrative - in that Jack simply doesn't care, he knows you're still trapped in that part of the house - makes it all the more compelling.
All of this combined with the threats to hurt you, or even fake attempts at sympathy, elevate the core behaviour of the character. I mean it's all window dressing, but it's what distinguishes Jack from so many other villains of the series, in that he is still, on some level at least a human being.
This concept is applied to several other characters across both Biohazard and Village, be it Jack's wife Marguerite, whose own sequence becomes increasingly more horrific the longer it lasts, to the denizens of Castle Dimitrescu.
Lady Dimitrescu and her daughters, Bela, Cassandra and Daniela adopt much of the same concept: stalker AI behaviour, with teleporting and the additional animations and bark dialogue that adds a lot of depth and menace to each interaction. It's worth mentioning that while Dimitrescu herself operates much like Jack Baker, the daughters are a much more distilled version of this. The sisters often spawn in fixed locations, with Bela in the cellar, and Daniela in the library, while Cassandra more openly wanders the halls. But in each case it's largely the same: it's designed to create a short, tense interaction, scare the player and force you to act. Given the only actions they have beyond following you are to fire swarms of insects and conduct melee attacks.
But at they're core, it's not the behaviours themselves that are so powerful. It's the overall presentation, the essence of the character, the implied threat, the underlying menace, and all of this is a real testimony not just to the programming team, but to the animators, sound designers and performance artists as well.
Despite being the focus of this piece, each of these interactions is but a fraction of each game. Jack and Marguerite take up arguably the first third of Biohazard while Lady Dimitrescu and her daughters only comprise but a couple hours of the overall experience in Village, with the remaining denizens of the village delivering different shades of the Resident Evil experience. But in each case, they're notable in that they're the part of each game that players take away the most.
It's not necessarily about making them as smart as possible, it's about identifying interesting ways to have them interact with the player. As with any horror game, sometimes the most terrifying elements aren't found in your character’s final moments, it's all about the build-up, the tension and the state of unease that players will experience as they turn the next corner.