The great critic Roger Ebert, who comfortably reduced many a nuanced vision to thumbs-up or thumbs-down, invited a lot of angry mail in the years leading up to his death with his insistence that videogames could never be art. And I have always found that opinion, much like Bill Maher’s recent equivalence of comics-as-art with a dumbed-down culture, worth little better than a bag of hammers. It’s myopic, elitist, gatekeeping bullshit that purposes personal ignorance as intellectual superiority, which is the real indicia of a dumbed-down culture. I have played Dragon Age: Inquisition and know it to be untrue. If Bioware is not making art, then neither have George R.R. Martin or Peter Jackson or Bill Shakespeare. I have been moved by the final, terrible revelation of James Sunderland’s wife’s death in Silent Hill 2. I am still gutted by the surprisingly raw emotional honesty of Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep. But even relatively-shallow trifles make you engage, think, learn, and grow, and the participatory component of games I’ve always found uniquely compelling and potentially, well, game-breaking as a storytelling device. Whether the relationship between the makers and the gamers is entirely collaborative, as in your big sandbox games like Skyrim or Little Big Planet, or a glossy, fully-mapped narrative like Heavy Rain or a latter-day Final Fantasy, to my mind, too much deliberate artistic consciousness and skill goes into videogames to consider them anything less than art, ideally and functionally.
But the perennial problem of games-as-art is that they can’t offer perennial experiences. No matter how well-realized the story and integrated the play mechanics, games live on formats with a planned obsolescence, and as audiences become accustomed to technological advances, even if a game is available on the latest hardware, it may not really work. I alluded to the heart-wrenching climax of 2001’s Silent Hill 2, still a masterpiece, still topping lists of horror games almost 20 years after its release. But when Konami remastered their classic in 2012, I found it too cumbersome to play for long. Some fans even opined the cleaned-up visuals detracted from the haunting atmosphere of memory. Would Silent Hill 2 have been a classic, or even widely played, if released for the first time in 2012? Doubtful. And if it can’t deliver a comparable experience to players 10 or 20 years down the line, is its value as art degraded? Nullified? No masterpiece moves perfectly untouched by time, no matter the medium. Paintings must be cleaned, books must be annotated. Movies that dip into similar CGI toolkits as videogames also wane with audience sophistication, but then, movies are a relatively passive medium. You don’t usually need to buy new stuff or keep old stuff to access them. You can experience a film and understand your experience with caveats for Gollum looking a lot faker than you remember. But slogging through an entire 10-hour game without a quick-turn button in 2019? That’s a hard ask.
So what do you do? Well, if you’re Resident Evil developer Capcom, you’re platform agnostic. Barring exclusivity contracts, you will port anything, anywhere. Capcom will port your mom to the PS4. And while that’s meant their share (and more!) of barely-tweaked cashgrabs, they have offered a few interesting and appropriate adaptations that either expanded the reach of the original game or kept it relevant in a new context. The original Resident Evil popping up on the Nintendo DS and the portable Resident Evil Revelations escaping its narrow audience on the Nintendo 3DS spring to mind. But even an enthusiastic porter like Capcom might realize there’s a point when simplifying access isn’t enough. It’s the Silent Hill 2 problem again. Now, 1996’s genre-defining Resident Evil and its blockbuster follow-up Resident Evil 2 (1998) were scary. I know. I was there. But decades pass, and blocky pixel zombie dogs and mutated frogs are somehow no longer fright-inducing. These are the moments when it looks like Roger Ebert might have been right all along, even if it wasn’t a reason he ever gave.
It may be then the best way to harvest what was great about a title is to let it die and cook something else from its bones. Capcom took this approach in 2002 with its Nintendo Gamecube remake of the original Resident Evil, using the original game as a blueprint, but redoing everything. This means not just a state-of-the-art graphical overhaul and cinema-worthy sound design, but deepening the story, modernizing the control scheme, and ratcheting up the challenge. They added areas, enemies, and puzzles, and teased fans of the original by making traps out of their memories of the first game. The result was something both faithful to the original and transcendent of it, a game that managed to deliver an equivalent experience to its source material by not being the source material. Does that validate what Ebert believed? A full remake isn’t exactly scrubbing the scum off da Vinci’s brushstrokes. But done well, that’s certainly what it feels like.
Resident Evil 2 (1998) just got its own remake treatment with Resident Evil 2 (2019), and again, it’s a gorgeous, current, state-of-the art version of everything I remember the way I would like to remember it. It’s like that Star Trek TOS episode about the salt vampire. When it appears to Dr. McCoy as his former flame, she’s as young as when they last parted. The Resident Evil 2 remake is my salt vampire lover, as beautiful and scary as it always is and never was. Like its predecessor remake, Capcom simply made the game again, better than before, which it almost had to be to be considered as good. Again, it’s not just the graphics or the sound design they’ve updated. The challenge of the game – always meant to be survived rather than won – has been upgraded to reflect the player’s increased control and perception of their environment. Even the lowest-tier enemy, zombies, are tougher to kill, because gamers are absolutely better at killing them twenty years later, and the control afforded by modern hardware lends a nimbleness not possible in the original’s tank control-saddled framework. There’s more story, more areas, different monsters, but nothing contradicts the original. It feels roughly as though they had taken a line drawing and deepened it with color and shadow. I’ve seen many reviews suggest the remake is harder, but I think it’s just that the remake asks more of the player because the player can meet those expectations and needs to be kept on their heels to really simulate the frights of the original. The balance of the game is downright insidious, because the moment you get into a winning, rather than surviving, mindset, be sure you’re about to get a vicious momento mori.
As far as the story, less a couple complicating flourishes, the remake of Resident Evil 2 follows the map of the original version to a T-Virus. The sinister Umbrella Corporation’s tinkering in bioweapons has unleashed a full-fledged zombie outbreak in Raccoon City, and we join the outbreak in progress with a pair of characters: rookie Raccoon PD officer Leon Kennedy reporting for his first day on duty and Claire Redfield, the motorcycle-riding, sidearm-wielding sister of the first game’s player character Chris. The characters connect, but are soon separated by fire and flesh-eaters; the player, then as now, can choose which character to play as first, with the assurance that the other character’s story will intersect with the chosen character’s and you can play that part of the game after you finish to get the whole story, as it were. Both characters wind individual paths through the suspiciously-ornate Raccoon City police department, following the mutant tendrils of the Umbrella Corporation’s B.O.W.* program as they try to escape. Leon and Claire each have their own subplots, unique locations, and partner characters to discover, with all roads ending in a massive Umbrella research facility. Along the way, they’ll confront zombies, the blind, but super-nimble Lickers, a guy breaking out in eyes, lurching shrub monsters, and more. They’re also hunted for the majority of the game by a nigh-invulnerable monster in a smart hat, the Tyrant, or Mr. X, Umbrella’s most successful B.O.W. dedicated to squishing witnesses to the program what birthed it. That would be you.
One of my toddler’s favorite expressions, with a kid’s genius for saying exactly what they mean, is “turn the dark on,” and that’s a good description for Capcom’s approach in this reimagining. The original Resident Evil games, until a big camera change in Resident Evil 4, depended on static, cinematic camera angles to create tension. It also destined you for a few cheap deaths since you couldn’t always see what was coming. I liked it, but however you feel about that in the context of the original games is a little irrelevant; in modern, fully-rendered 3D worlds, it’s antiquated stuff. But Resident Evil 2 offsets the player’s control of the camera by turning the dark on everywhere, and the effect is a lot like the static camera of the original games. Swivel the POV however you like; you can’t see the bad things until you can smell their breath in this game. That could be cheap, but it feels realistic, and it heightens the sense of isolation and claustrophobia. Resident Evil has always straddled action and horror, with heroes and heroines that bring weapons training, if not straight-up badassery, into the fray, but it’s hard to be a badass when you can only see through a slice of rapidly bouncing flashlight beam while you flee and try to reposition against abominations closing on you from every unseen corner. You may have a fully-modded shotgun, a magnum, and a hand grenade, sport, but such comprehensive darkness makes Barney Fifes of us all.
Speaking of Fifing out, the Tyrant, Mr. X if you’re nasty, was pants-wetting in 1998, back when he featured in only a limited part of the game and adhered to set rules about when and where he would show up. Yet the dread of seeing his pasty mug loom up on a close-circuit monitor stays with me years later. Capcom put Tyrant’s brother-from-another-virus Nemesis on an even longer leash in 1999’s Resident Evil 3 and the patriarch of the Baker clan in 2017’s Resident Evil VII: Biohazard was similarly able to hunt you through his dilapidated plantation house, but the Tyrant gets special notice as the O.G. silent stalking brick of invulnerable death in the series. In the remake, he is unconstrained. He won’t show up until you’ve traversed a fair bit of the police station, enough to start feeling a little confident about easing quietly past the Lickers and bouncing sprightly away from the zombie you left crawling leglessly around the stairs, but once he does, you’ll never really be safe, not even in the safe rooms. Until someone makes a Halloween game, this is as close to the Michael Myers experience as we’re likely to get, and it keeps the game feeling thrilling and dangerous.
What’s pleasant and surprising, too, about the remake is just how much game they’ve packed into this new version, which is, again, consistent with what you expect when you plop down $60 for a game in 2019. In 1998, survival horror games translated to about 10 hours of playtime, not counting completionists challenging themselves with speed trials for a smattering of unlockables. Unlike many of its more story-driven peers, the Resident Evil series never offered alternate endings, but you could unlock challenging scenarios where you could play as supersoldier Hunk or a block of tofu with a knife. The RE2 remake has its own version of The 4th Survivor with Hunk and Tofu back in all their weird glory, but there’s also another game mode, reminiscent of Resident Evil 4’s Mercenaries minigame, offered as a free DLC called The Lost Survivors that allows the player to go through short vignettes with different story characters. It serves up even more challenges, achievements, and enemies in a pick-up-and-play format. So after you’ve played the main campaign and its follow-up with each pair of main characters, you still have plenty to scream about for hours. And of course, there’s alternate costumes, always alternate costumes. The noir costumes, with their accompanying black-and-white filter, are probably my favorite, but you can also swap in blocky original RE2 character designs and the original soundtrack, which made me more emotional than I expected.
I started this review pontificating about pontificating about the validity of games as art, and I feel as though I’ve argued my point and hollowed it out again by glowing through this assessment of the Resident Evil 2 remake. Surely it is an excellent game, and it is as much, if not more, Resident Evil 2 as the first version. Does that mean that Resident Evil 2, any Resident Evil 2, is truly ephemera? Nope. Personally, I think that the benefit of remakes in videogaming is much the same as in film, and that one doesn’t invalidate the integrity of the other or its accomplishments simply by existing. Roger Ebert questioned why it was important for videogamers that the medium be considered art anyway. “Do they require validation? In defending their gaming against parents, spouses, children, partners, co-workers or other critics, do they want to be able to look up from the screen and explain, ‘I’m studying a great form of art?'” It’s not seeking validation though; it’s understanding that this elaborately designed work of skill and craft and technology produces experiences and insights that cannot be otherwise achieved and wanting to fully apprehend that. Those insights may be crude, or derived from crudity, but the achievement of the effect of horror is a particularly human thing, like laughter, and not to be unappreciated when it can be evoked harmlessly. It’s the more amazing when it can be achieved in such a collaborative medium with so many moving parts, to say nothing of all the parts moving in the player. So maybe it’s not a strike against the artistic value of Resident Evil 2 that its inherent value is circumscribed by technology and that it might benefit from such recapitulation twenty years on. All great art is (and must be) recapitulated anyway. Maybe it’s because Resident Evil 2 was such an artistic success, it has enough heart and soul to sustain such a comprehensive resurrection.
* Bio Organic Weapon
Once Angela argued to a professor it was impossible for a modern reader to appreciate Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake as originally intended given how heavily coded it was with contemporary reference, but he thought it was less a philosophical position and more an excuse to get out of a paper.