Friday, 7 October 2016

Resident Evil 7: Beginning Hour & Survival Horror Game Design

The Blair Witch Project got its fame as much from its marketing campaign as it did from the actual film. It was arguably the first movie to really leverage the internet as a tool for hyping up and advertising a release. In effect, the advertising became a game in and of itself as people rushed to websites to research or uncover the real secret behind the movie.

Obviously, modern audiences in 2016 are a lot more savvy when it comes to dealing with the internet, but the premise behind Resident Evil 7: Beginning Hour works in much the same way that Blair Witch did nearly two decades ago.

Granted, Beginning Hour also has a lot of other influences closer to home. The rise and subsequent fall of P.T., that one ray of hope that Silent Hill would end its slew of poorly handled cash-in sequels, was smashed when Konami shut down the Silent Hills project after the break up with Hideo Kojima. Capcom have picked up those pieces when it comes to Beginning Hour, utilizing similar techniques with a dash of new ideas.

By far the most noticeable thing about Beginning Hour is the move to a first-person perspective. Resident Evil’s history can roughly be divided into two categories. First, there’s those games that relied on fixed camera-angles, the archetypal “survival horror” instalments, dating from the original 1996 release right through to Resident Evil Zero in 2002. Then, there’s the far more contentious “action horror” period which ranges from Resident Evil 4 (which is still an absolute masterpiece, regardless of what some people say about it) through to Resident Evil: Revelations 2 in 2015.

Beginning Hour marks what would perhaps best be described as “phase three” of Resident Evil’s core design, shifting the player to a more immersive viewpoint, as well as picking up a few design influences from the first-person horror trend that we see in Amnesia: The Dark Descent through to Alien: Isolation.

In many respects, despite the drastic changes to the series formula, Beginning Hour also sees the series attempt to recapture what the original Resident Evil set out to do. Beginning Hour is about navigation. Granted, it’s only a demo, but the core “thing”  the player does throughout the game is navigate through areas, finding keys (not necessarily literal keys but simply items designed to progress), such as the bolt cutters and fuse, and then proceeds to continue that same loop until completion.

Take your first playthrough for instance. The first thing you’ll spot is the fuse box (which you can’t do anything with), then, after maybe messing with the attic button and getting freaked out by the mannequins, you’ll end up in the kitchen. From there the player is able to easily spot the obvious cupboard with the huge lock around it, before going towards the front door, finding it locked, and picking up the bolt cutter.

Then, it’s back to the cupboard, grabbing the video and taking it back to the start room to watch the tape. Then, after noting the secret lever, the player can make one final trip through the house to the back door, completing the demo for the first time. To sum it all up, the path goes like this:

Starting Room → Hallway → Kitchen → Hallway 2 → Back Door → Bolt Cutter Acquired 

This path is then repeated back the other way, as the player retrieves the video tape and then repeats the loop again in a sense, whilst watching the “past” event through the eyes of the camera guy in the recording.

Now, there’s a lot of other things going on whilst you play. The creepy environment, its mise-en-scene if you like, along with the unsettling sounds and general atmosphere are what communicate the horror of the game, but, as with the original Resident Evil, the core gameplay is built through navigation/exploration.

Where Beginning Hour is really interesting is how it uses this navigation gameplay to enhance multiple playthroughs. P.T. did something similar, sure, and the core idea was likely nabbed from that demo, but where Beginning Hour differs is that the player is navigating from point to point, moving from room to room, rather than simply repeating the same loop of hallway that gradually changes. The demo goes one step even further by expanding this navigational gameplay to different time zones; players explore the house both normally and then as the cameraman on the videotape, further emphasizing this exploration-focused gameplay.

So, the crucial difference going into the second playthrough of Beginning Hour is that the player is now aware of the secret lever, and its location in the very room they start the game in. By going to the secret entrance from the start, the player is given access to the fuse, enabling them to then explore the third floor of the house, which leads to the demo’s second ending. The path then looks like this:

Starting Room → Secret Entrance → Upstairs → Third Floor Hallway → Phone Room

Note how going this route uses very little of the same locations as the first, but that it requires players have had knowledge of the whole house (in the other words, they did the standard playthrough and left through the back door). All of Beginning Hour’s “secrets” are available from the very beginning. The game doesn’t block off routes on the first playthrough but instead encourages repeat playthroughs by its clever drip feed of clues and hints from playing the game.This concept of replaying the same core gameplay loop and getting different results is fascinating and I hope in the future that more games explore this concept for design ideas.

There’s also the few interesting tidbits that the demo throws in to keep you guessing, and to keep the more curious players constantly booting up the demo once again. The dummy finger still has no practical use as far as I know. There’s also a lock pick that can be located, allowing you access to the axe that’s found in the kitchen. If you take Beginning Hour as a “vertical slice” of what we should expect in the full Resident Evil 7, then the axe, along with the “quick swap” menu shortcuts, and now the ammunition in the most recent update, it would seem to suggest combat is still on the cards to some degree, in contrast to games like Outlast.

Speaking of games like Outlast, Beginning Hour delves into the realm of found footage, with the video tape that is found in the cupboard. There’s actually a school of thought in film theory that posited the idea that the rise of found footage movies as a popular sub-genre of horror was a response to the growing popularity (and financial success) of video games. By their nature, films cannot match games in terms of visceral reaction and level of immersion. By adopting some of gaming’s techniques however, such as a forced first-person perspective, for example, they are able to tap into some of the medium’s strengths.

Games like Outlast and Beginning Hour bring this idea fall circle, with games reusing the visual aesthetic of found footage to enhance gameplay through a first-person perspective. I have a soft spot for found footage horror movies, and think that the look and style, when done right, can lend a lot to creating a sense of horror and urgency that you can’t get with a regular movie; see movies like REC for an example of this.

Perhaps the biggest bit of genius about Beginning Hour is how it has people playing the game over and over again looking for different things. There’s the creepy ghost images to spot, or random details that can be gleaned from the environment. This is a good thing for games because it reinforces the notion of strong environmental storytelling. Even more than this however, the investigation and search for clues, cross referencing with other players on the internet, becomes a game in itself, with players working as detectives in order to uncover new information. Sure, the cynic can easily called it crafty marketing (and it is) but it’s also fascinating in its own right.

By simply giving the player a few tools and then having them repeat the process in hopes of getting something different, Beginning Hour is a like its own mini puzzle box as much as it is a teaser of what’s to come. Having people rapidly do the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the stock definition of insanity. Whether Capcom realize this or not I have no idea, but it is more than a little scary.


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