This Critical Compilation of Capcom’s 1998 Resident Evil 2 and its 2019 remake comes to us via Emma Kostopolus. Emma is a Ph.D student of Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Kansas, where her work focuses on the intersections of rhetoric and videogames as well as gaming in the classroom. You can find her at Nerd Salad.
Every attempt at a remake is a careful balancing act to supplicate and entice the old guard while not alienating the new. Sometimes this is done more successfully than others; in the case of Capcom’s 2019 Resident Evil 2 remake, it largely appears to have gone off without a hitch, if the Metacritic score is to be believed.
The two Resident Evil 2s are tied together in critical and affective ways, so this compilation is about more than simply seeing a game update itself for 21st century audiences. In order to get at a lot of the truly great thought dealing with this game, you have to take both the old and the new together, as being both the same in very important ways and yet at the same time entirely different. So, while this work will differentiate where relevant between the 1998 and 2019 versions of Resident Evil 2, the distinction is not always so clean, and that is represented in the complex thought being brought to bear here.
A Tale of Two (Raccoon) Cities
One of the important things to note about Resident Evil 2 is that, in order to get the full narrative arc, you have to play through the game twice, once as each of the available player characters. Players can choose to be either rookie cop Leon Kennedy or teenage Claire Redfield for their first time playing, but if they do not return to the other character and play through their scenario as well, they miss out on content. Some actions and changes are persistent between playthroughs through the game’s “zapping system,” described in detail by Harrison D. on Medium. How well this system works across versions is contested by Rob Rich, who claims that the changes on the second playthrough by the first are more consequential in the original, and that the remake fumbles where it could have used updated technology to make these two stories even more intertwined.
Multiple writers for the Resident Evil 2 issue of Bullet Points Monthly had thoughts on the multiple pathways of the game. Joshua Calixto pointed out that one of the most interesting choices the remake makes is in the utility gap it creates with the weapons the player finds, which changes across characters. Calixto points out that “Resident Evil 2 knows its horrors, and it knows what tools work best for defeating them.” In a different vein, Astrid Rose points out some of the affective differences between the two characters. While both characters are mechanically identical, Leon is “solid” while “Claire’s comparative physical fragility… comes with way more tension.”
Atmosphere and Design
Design is particularly salient to discussions of horror games. Ethan Horn points out that in survival horror games like RE2, a lot of the work of horror must exist outside of what the player is able to control:
It’s important to remember that at the beginning, with games like Silent Hill and Resident Evil, the atmosphere made the game. The atmosphere did its work through dilapidated structures, eerie soundscapes punctuated with screams and roars, dark environments and the constant threat of an inhuman aggressor. Verbs, how the players could interact with the game world, had a lesser emphasis.
This lack of emphasis on player action contributes to the senses of helplessness and powerlessness that players often experience in survival horror settings; by de-centering the player and their ability to affect change on the game world, Resident Evil 2 effectively removes all chance of the game acting as a power fantasy, pointed out by Louis Schermerhorn. According to DeconRecon on Medium, the game uses that lack of power fantasy to teach courage through a balance of tension and power. They do acknowledge, however, that the empowerment of the player is still ultimately enacted through violence.
Of particular import to the design of Resident Evil 2 is the presence of Tyrant, or Mr. X. In the original 1998 game, this character only appeared during the second playthrough, when the player was working through whichever of the two storylines they did not originally choose, and only in scripted moments. In the remake, Mr. X appears in all playthroughs, and stalks the Raccoon City police department freely. Some, like rainsoakedtofu, call Mr. X a “revelation” because of the ways in which he freely pursues the player for a large portion of the game. Josh Bycer, however, contests this point, and says that most of the scares in the game come from “scripted events instead of emergent gameplay.” Bycer’s point is supported by Writing on Games’ video, which states that Mr. X is actually more predictable than standard zombies, and thus provides less tension overall. Others, including Jeremy Signor and Patrick Gill, have commented specifically on the quality of Mr. X’s sound design. The thematic construct of Mr. X was also addressed in a long-form video by RagnarRox (manual captions), wherein they make the case that, while the game was probably not made with this in mind, that Tyrant bears great similarity to Nietzsche’s concept of the Ubermensch. Whatever his philosophical underpinnings, Mr. X has become the most popular piece of modding in the game, with people altering his appearance to be anything from Thomas the Tank Engine to Untitled Goose.
The Question of Realism
In his review of the remake for Rock Paper Shotgun, Matt Cox points out how, with the current hypersaturation of our culture with zombie content, that Resident Evil 2 does not hold the innate horror it once did: “nothing quells fear like familiarity.” With most players intimately familiar with the undead as they are presented in the game, the remake had to find a new way to shock and horrify. And it landed on perhaps an expected piece of ground for revisiting a PlayStation 1 game: updated, photorealistic graphics. Reid McCarter argues that:
In its gore, Resident Evil 2 justifies its realism by prompting disgust by more fully modeling wounds we’ve experienced or seen, turning the bodies we spend every day with into horrific version of themselves.
Thus, the game operates at an intersection of the uncanny and the real. And this was intentional: in an interview with Chris Plante for Polygon, RE2 Remake producer Tsuyoshi Kanda discussed having to bring “groundedness” to the game, since the realistic graphics would naturally throw the unbelievable parts of the game into sharp relief. This point is echoed by Ed Smith, who points out that the realism of the game extends only to the graphics and not the plot, which can lead to player discontent.
The graphical realism of the game naturally lends itself to the idea of the game holding a mirror up to reality in some way. Nic Reuben delves into the history of the zombie as metaphor and ponders what using the same tropes as George Romero does in the 21st century:
[If] we ‘save’ Raccoon City by putting a bullet in the head of every single zombie we find there, what are we actually saving?
Cinematic Angles and Tech Restraints
While many have written well and eloquently about the iterations of Resident Evil 2, few have distinguished themselves as much as Heather Alexandra. In her Kotaku review of the Resident Evil 2 remake, Alexandra asks the very important questions:
What was the game doing? What new things were built upon a familiar foundation? Did all the changes really work?
The answers to these questions are necessarily complicated, and no easy answer is forthcoming. While many fans will say that the remake is a much-needed update, there is something to be said for what was lost, and how the gameplay now fits together with the environment and atmosphere in an entirely different, and not entirely positive, way.
Beyond her review, Alexandra also wrote another Kotaku piece about the different potential responses to horror movies versus horror games, and uses Resident Evil 2 as an example to make a point about the unique terror of being made complicit in the action unfolding:
While some of Resident Evil 2’s thrill rests in being backed into a corner and overwhelmed by foes, another equally intoxicating aspect involves the moments when you decide to press forward.
But the overall set of data the player has in making the decision to move on in the game changes drastically based on what version you are playing. The original Resident Evil 2 had “tank controls” where the player moved the character around in a given area with a single fixed camera angle. The remake updated the controls to a third-person, over-the-shoulder view, similar to Resident Evil 4, which is often considered a tidal shift in the tone of the series, to some people’s chagrin.
The debate about the camera angles is a wide-ranging one, but critical consensus seems to be that, while the fixed angles were originally the produce of technological constraints, treating them as simply a product of a bygone era that can be written out of a remake takes away something very special about the original game. Kent Aardse at First Person Scholar pointed out that the original camera angles added to the tension, since they necessarily limited the amount of information that the player had at any one time and could be used to artfully conceal things. Nerrel agreed in their slightly campy video (auto captions), and builds on the idea by pointing out that not only does a fixed angle allow for concealment, but it makes it clear that everything that the player does see is purposefully visible: thus, angles are not just fixed, but also carefully composed. Esther Rosenfield expanded on this, saying:
[If] the fixed camera angles of the original Resident Evil 2 are a compromise forced by technical limitations, they’re a brilliant one. It’s a great example of how games can adapt the cinematic arts without shoddily imitating them, building out a new art form that is influenced by another one rather than adhering to a misunderstanding of that other medium’s rules.
The attribution of cinematic qualities to the original was also commented on by Dan Whitehead, who said that:
This was horror brought home, with blood splashing across familiar city streets rather than contained inside a gothic artifice. If the first game was a tribute to a more traditional kind of stage-bound horror, the sequel was a more cinematic and relentless beast.
Thus, the fixed angles, rather than being something that the remake gladly does away with, was a technological decision with far-ranging consequences for both the mood of the game and the way in which play takes place.
In his review of the remake for Polygon, Michael McWhertor contended that “Capcom hasn’t always understood what makes Resident Evil great.” And it’s true that as the series became ever more action-oriented and the plot got more convoluted, the survival horror that typified the first entries was left behind. Resident Evil 7 was lauded by many as a return to form, but it was with the remake of Resident Evil 2 that many fans saw as the truest expression of what a Resident Evil game could be with modern technology.
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