I find myself confused by Resident Evil 7. Not negative towards it, you understand, but confused. The game’s surprise reveal at E3 2016 was undoubtedly one of my most whoop-worthy highlights of the show. It was exactly what I’d been saying that Capcom needed to do with the series. For years. A full refresh. A clean-slate reboot, freed up to do whatever it wanted by virtue of dropping every trope and trapping the series had accrued and eventually become bogged down by. Later, Chris. See you, Jill. So long, Leon, and thanks for Resi 4.
And hello to a grimy, dark house, sinister, backwoods surroundings, and a quiet, seeping, new kind of horror. The kind that doesn’t lumber up and try to bite your face off, but rather slinks quietly behind you in the shadows, subtly sliding a knife in front of your throat too slowly for you to notice until it’s too late. The kind of horror that, although different in a great many ways – not least in its switch from a third-person perspective to first – is actually far more in tune with the original Resident Evil’s values than much of what we’ve seen from the series over the last decade. Yes, the original might have expressed its intent via hokey dialogue and chunky, gun-toting spec ops agents, but that was very much the language of 20 years ago. Resident Evil 7 looks every bit the more refined, modern day equivalent.
But the thing is, that understanding only stretches as far as the broad strokes picture. And I’ve found the picture, ironically, somewhat muddled by the game’s demo, which was released to PS Plus subscribers straight after Sony’s E3 press conference. The demo is in many ways a really intriguing experience, taken in isolation, blending the dirty, rural, entirely more ‘physical’ horror of Outlast and Resident Evil 4 with a slow, methodical, adventure game structure of environmental puzzles and enigmatic clues. It’s really interesting, if not entirely as captivating as the Silent Hills PT teaser upon which its strategy is so clearly based. But the Silent Hills parallels cause me a degree of pondering beyond that.
As Andy noted last week, Resident Evil 7’s presentation at E3 was clearly shaped in order to echo Konami’s reveal of the now sadly cancelled Silent Hill reboot. And as I noted, that was a very smart move, for both Capcom and Sony. The latter company has successfully presented itself as the creative saviour of lost gaming dreams for the last couple of E3s. It re-revealed the now actually-nearly-finished Last Guardian in 2015, at the same time as aligning itself with both Shenmue 3 and the Final Fantasy 7 remake, and its press conference this year was no different in tone. This time around it played on Hideo Kojima’s alleged ill-treatment by Konami, with the triumphant reveal of his triumphantly weird, Sony published, Death Stranding. And with fans also feeling stung by Konami’s cancellation of Kojima’s Silent Hill project, Sony and Capcom made certain to present Resident Evil 7 with serious echoes of the little we saw of that game.
Now of course, we’ve since been told that Resi 7 was in development before PT launched its stinking, skin-crawling horror into the world. There’s no accusation of copying here. Both series just happened to be in need of a reboot at a time when indie games were pushing horror in a more intimate, affecting, and distinctly first-person direction. But in light of having now played the Resident Evil 7 demo, I can’t help but wonder if Capcom hasn’t slightly confused its own game’s identity by paralleling it so tightly with that of Konami’s.
Because, while it certainly shares several key traits, the Resident Evil 7 demo is not very much like PT at all. And of course, it doesn’t need to be. Resident Evil isn’t Silent Hill, and there’s no real pressure for it to become that. But the pre-emptive parallels, both in the demo’s release and the very Silent Hill vibe of the main game’s E3 trailer, set up rather a jarring contrast between perception and reality. A bit like when you take a swig from a glass of water and your tastebuds only realise it’s vodka a second or two after it’s in your mouth. It’s not necessarily unpleasant, but it does throw you off a bit.
So the Resident Evil 7 demo was a tricky thing to get to grips with at first. Once I did though, it delivered good stuff. The most exciting element is the heavy focus on methodical puzzle-solving over action, a real hark back to the meat of the genre’s early days. An immediate statement of slower-paced, cerebral intent. Exactly what Resident Evil – and survival horror in general – needs right now. The atmosphere and aesthetic – all rust, blood clots, and grubby VHS filters - are also incredibly effective, if a little familiar in these post-Outlast days. They have the side-effect of leading one to expect a similar brand of sneaks and scares, which doesn’t actually arrive, but the demo eventually makes the trope its own by focusing on story and puzzle systems.
But here’s where I kind of run out of things to say. Because while the Resident Evil 7 demo does a great job of telling us what it isn’t – after drawing us in to play it by hinting that it might in fact be those things – it doesn’t do much to tell us what it is.
There are oblique hints at the demo’s intent, flashes of what it’s trying to tell us the final game will comprise. But its brief running time, and sparse stock of Things To Actually Do, ensure that it never really lets fly. Anything could be anything or nothing right now, any perception of the shape of Resident Evil 7 the product of the same ambiguous perception-clash between hope, insight and possibly-reading-far-too-much-into-things that is currently driving Reddit to the point of delirium trying to decipher the use and meaning of the demo’s last two inventory items.
Which brings us on to the issue that’s really giving me cause to wonder what’s actually going on here. At the moment, we know that there are two different ways to finish the demo, with a scripted jump-scare at the culmination of each. One involves completing a short chain of object puzzles in order to unlock a door, the other demands the use of different items to make it up to the attic. Both are good little horror journeys, even if they do lose their tension once you realise how little danger is really present during the majority of play.
And along the way, we (possibly) get a couple of further hints as to Resident Evil 7’s horror philosophy. While the demo doesn’t subscribe to PT’s metaphysical nightmare logic, there are dashes of oblique supernatural elements, and a sense that the threat might spiral into something far weirder than murderous rednecks. An intermittent haunting here, a moving mannequin there, and perhaps a possibility of (some version of) Umbrella, if you squint at that photo of the helicopter in the attic. There’s even a puzzle chain that requires you to change events in the past – by playing through a video tape flashback - to acquire an otherwise hidden object in the present.
But this naturally leads us to the matter of the finger and the axe. Which is where the Resident Evil 7 demo blows coherent identity out of the water and way over into the realm of the unknown.
The former object is the finger of a “dummy”, found lying around the house. The latter is the aforementioned hidden item, secured via that bit of time-hopping narrative manipulation I mentioned, and can be used to whack any surface in the demo. And in quite satisfyingly hefty fashion too. But neither of them seems to do anything useful.
Here’s where the ambiguity kicks in rather hard. Is there a purpose to either of these seeming gameplay elements? If so, it’s buried deep, behind a deliberately obtuse ‘puzzle’ that, after more than a week of failed internet collaboration, must be so obscure of solution as to exist primarily to delay its own solving. And that’s not great game design. A great way of prolonging intrigue – that being of course half the point of the Resident Evil 7 demo, and certainly a strategy borrowed from the unashamedly abstract PT – but in order to be truly effective, there has to be some compulsion at play beyond ‘I don’t know what this does’.
In PT, the mystery was part of a holistic, tonal and stylistic weirdness. Extreme abstraction, ironically, made sense. And for all the weirdness, there was actually a sense of logic to PT’s systems and puzzles, a wholeness to the way it expressed and explained in its own chosen, metaphorical language. Despite its dreamlike abstraction, the game was solved relatively quickly, and certainly more instinctively than has been the case here. It’s just not as captivating when a game is simply tricking you out by being straightforward and obscure at the same time, with little entwined artistic pay-off. Ask anyone who played too many bad point-and-clicks in the ‘90s.
And beside all that, Hideo Kojima was attached to PT. No-one in the AAA games industry has more form for trustworthy, purposeful oddness than he. Conversely, Capcom does not yet have any sort of reputation with that sort of design yet, a fact that, combined with all of the above, is leading to a notable feeling of mistrust regarding the matter of whether there’s genuinely anything worthwhile to find here, or if everyone is just wasting their time with a cynical red herring.
This is what worries and confuses me about the Resident Evil 7 demo. Are we actually seeing real, but perhaps clumsily-implemented hints at the final game’s thoughtful, creative ethos? Is the finger’s obtuse purpose intended as an abstract tease of mystery and intrigue? Is the axe’s time-bending puzzle an attempt to showcase some more experimental design elements - albeit one that distracts from its intent by mistakenly foregoing the inclusion of a satisfying pay-off? Or are we simply looking at a bunch of fake-outs intended to extend play time without providing a real reason to continue? Or maybe even a ‘bugged’ demo sent out incomplete, to be extended with patched content once the player-base reaches breaking point and threatens to walk away?
It’s impossible to know. And I’m not going to be cynical enough to assume any of these increasingly troublesome possibilities. But the fact that a week later it still is impossible to know what’s going on, to understand what Resident Evil 7 is trying to tell us about itself and how it intends to engage its players, is enough to make me wonder what the purpose and value is here. Building hype through mystery and public involvement is a grand idea, and has been effective for as long as PR has been fed through the internet. But sooner or later you need to reward with something gratifying. Perhaps that’s part of the problem here. With PT, the ultimate reveal was the existence of Silent Hills, but with Resident Evil 7 already known, there’s nothing to do but tread water.
It’s fine to keep your audience dangling, but they need to know that they’re actually waiting for something. And right now I have no idea what that something is, in terms of either demo revelations, or Resident Evil 7 itself. Too little comprehensible content, too much contrived mystique, and the very large experiential gap between the two, has ensured that.