Why Resident Evil Failed and How it Rebooted a Genre

By Andy Humphreys

Remember this?

Remember this?

October 2nd, 2012:

Resident Evil 6 is released to an almost universally lukewarm reception. Despite praise for the game’s art direction and the length and variation of its story, the consensus among critics is that the path the series has taken -- a push towards adrenaline-fueled action and co-op focused gameplay -- is now leeching away what originally made Resident Evil resonate so strongly with an entire generation of gamers.

This critical indifference must have been even harder to take as just seven years earlier Capcom had strengthened the franchise with the seminal Resident Evil 4. Here the developer sought to eliminate many of the series’ long-standing issues, succeeding spectacularly. The notoriously clunky controls, for instance, became more intuitive, along with a better system for aiming and shooting, plus an end to the notoriously awkward fixed camera angles..

It must have seemed like a natural progression, then, for Capcom to double-down on what gamers appeared to love about Resi 4 for their next title, Resident Evil 5. This game was even more action-skewed than its predecessor, and again received a largely positive reception, but the introduction of co-op play and the relocation to sun-bleached Africa meant the series’ origins in survival horror were left well-and-truly behind. As an action game, it wasn’t half bad. But this sure wasn’t your daddy’s Resident Evil.

By the time Resident Evil 6 was released, the series’ metamorphosis was complete: Capcom had created a game unrecognizable from its roots, save for the typically nonsensical plot and few fan-favourite characters. Only now these characters found themselves dodging and blasting foes in a style more akin to a straight-up action series like Gears of War than anything previous seen in the Resident Evil universe.

It was a serious misjudgment by Capcom. In trying to innovate, they had pushed their devoted fan base away, and now, by making a game completely devoid of even the basic feel of a Resident Evil title, risked losing them altogether.

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In the following years, the horror genre, far from shrinking away, blossomed in the absence of its flag-bearer. Perhaps identifying the particular need that was not satisfied by Capcom’s latest, indie developers stepped in to pick up the slack. Proper horror was once again en-vogue, with some games removing combat entirely in favor of pure survival (Outlast), and some relying more on jump scares to set spines tingling (Five Nights at Freddy’s). it seemed Resident Evil had inspired a mini genre revolution that would not have taken place without the series’ misstep.

One game in particular proved particularly influential. And, unbelievably, that game would end up being cancelled long before its release. P.T., the ‘playable teaser’ for the Konami title Silent Hills -- more of a tech demo or a proof-of-concept than anything else -- caused a huge stir. Its use of a first-person perspective (a departure from previous games in the series) gave the action a visceral feel that is lacking from many horror games, creating a compellingly unsettling atmosphere. Many praised the developers’ intention for solutions to the demo’s puzzles to be discovered in the real world through the game’s burgeoning community, an element of the game that caused much commotion across the internet and social media. When the announcement came that the game had in fact been cancelled, it was to unanimous disappointment. But P.T. in itself had done enough to change the course of the horror genre.

 

June 14th, 2016:

Resident Evil 7 is announced at Sony’s E3 press conference. Much like the Silent Hills reveal, Capcom immediately release a demo for their upcoming game, and, in a another parallel with Konami’s game, the demo is a proof-of-concept style teaser, showcasing the ‘feel’ of the final game without giving away anything of its actual story.

It wasn’t long before those who played Resident Evil 7 Teaser: Beginning Hour (as the demo was known) began to realize how inspired by recent horror games, especially P.T., the new game was. First, and perhaps most startlingly, there’s the first person viewpoint --  a first for a Resident Evil game, but very much in keeping with current genre trends. Dig deeper though, and beneath the refreshed veneer, numerous Resident Evil staples are there for all to see: An unsettling, house-based setting; a genuine fear of the unexpected; and, most significantly, a style of gameplay that couples slimmed-down action elements with a good dash of old-fashioned puzzle-solving.

Capcom clearly listened closely to the criticism in the aftermath of Resi 6 and it immediately paid off. Fans engaged with the demo in a way reminiscent of P.T., taking to forums to discuss its many mysteries and writing page after page of theories about what each miniscule detail might mean (a certain mannequin’s finger, in particular, has been the centre of a huge amount of discussion). This attention has continued as Capcom has periodically updated the demo, subtly changing elements to instigate further fan reaction and build even more hype. And if this reaction is anything to go by, the new direction taken by the game’s developers will make Resi 7 the most successful in the series in years.

And with good reason. Resident Evil 7 seems to combine the best of both worlds: a fresh new feel applying many of the genre’s recent trends and advances, and a definite move to rekindle Resi’s horror-focused past.

But this apparently winning formula hasn’t been discovered by chance. Capcom have much to thank for this long-overdue reinvention of the Resident Evil series, and not just the many developers who took on the baton and furthered the genre in its absence. Capcom owe much to their own mistakes, and should take heart from the fact that in learning from these mistakes, and, presumably through much soul-searching and difficult decision-making, have managed to refresh a failing franchise that was hemorrhaging fans, looked out of ideas and decidedly past its best.

However it came about, Capcom has once again cemented Resident Evil’s place as gaming’s leading horror franchise. And fans couldn’t be happier.