Thursday 6 April 2017

Resident Evil and the power of narrative context

By putting the player in a situation where's there not enough space to move or to aim at the enemy, gameplay can quickly grow boring. But when combining gameplay with narrative and context, you can turn this into an even more immersive experience 

Resident Evil 7 came out a couple of months ago and was generally perceived as being "back to form", even called one of the best games in the series. What really stood out to me was that it felt like Resident Evil had returned to its roots in telling a compelling narrative, and using that to power the experience. In order to unpack what I mean by this, let's first consider the first Resident Evil game (1996).

As I guess most of you know, the first Resident Evil was heavily inspired by Alone in the Dark (1992), and the whole setup is basically ripped from there. Now the problem with Alone in the Dark is that it is extremely clunky. The controls are slow and not very responsive and the fixed camera angles makes it hard to get a good idea of your surroundings. Resident Evil improved a bit on this, but most of the basic problems still remained. Compared to a game like Doom (1993), the game's combat is a lot less engaging.

Resident Evil attacks this problem by wrapping the game's events in story. Consider the first encounter you have with a zombie:

You enter a room, see someone sitting on the floor. It turns around and reveals itself. Argh! It is a zombie eating on a corpse. You pull out your gun, shoot the zombie a couple of times, and manage to kill it.

The combat in this scenario is not very interesting in itself. The room is small so you cannot move around much and the clunky controls don't help. You can't really decide where to aim, either. You basically just have to turn your character in the right direction and press the attack button until the zombie eventually dies (or possibly you could just run out of the room). From a pure gameplay perspective this is quite dull. But when it's wrapped in a narrative context it suddenly gets very exciting. In fact, the clunky controls and limited camera angles work to the game's advantage here. They make the players feel like they're not in control, which gets directly projected on the situation at hand - the approaching zombie. A tense and scary situation arises.

This is the power of narrative context. By wrapping gameplay actions in storytelling the experience that emerges exceeds the sum of its parts. Taken solely on their own merit, the gameplay mechanics don't feel very engaging. But when used in the right environment they work far better at providing the intended experience than using the more streamlined controls of Doom.

This isn't the only thing that keeps Resident Evil working as a game. Another big aspect of it is the resource management, which is a great help in making the game engaging over longer periods of time. But again, it works so well because of the world it is placed in. Making sure that you have ammo and healing herbs is not just a numbers game. By playing it in the world of a zombie-infested mansion it turns into a survival scenario which makes it a lot more exciting [1].

Over the years, Resident Evil has distanced itself from the narrative context, and focused more on improving the gameplay mechanics. Resident Evil 4 (2005) is the biggest step in this evolution.

Resident Evil 7 picks up where the first one left of and puts, once again, lots of focus on the narrative context. First of all let us consider the combat of Resident Evil 7. Here is a typical combat scene:

and here is one from another contemporary action game:

Titanfall 2 (2016)

As you can see there is a lot less fun for the player to have in Resident Evil 7. The aiming is imprecise and the space doesn't allow for a lot of movement. But all of this works in the favor of the game. Once again, we can't just analyze the gameplay on its own. We have to take into account the context in which it happens. Here is where Resident Evil 7 has plenty. For instance, the first enemy that you encounter is your girlfriend turned mutant, who is now attacking you with a chainsaw. Sure, the combat is quite awkward, but that only fuels the desperation of the situation. This scene wouldn't be nearly as good if the player was able to circle strafe, and had explicitly defined mechanics for avoiding incoming attacks.

The first half of the game continues like this, with many of the hostiles not being run-of-the-mill monsters, but characters with personalities. You're not just taking part in generic combat encounters - you're taking part in narrative moments. This is a huge improvement compared to basically any of the previous Resident Evils and, in these moments, the game honestly has one of the best implementations of horror combat in any game released. And all of this is due to not simply focusing on making the combat as fun as possible. Instead the focus is on combining context and mechanics in a way that gives rise to the desired experience.

How well this works becomes apparent when you start encountering the "mold monsters". These pop up without much introduction and serve as the generic enemies throughout the game. Almost none of these encounters (the path to a girl's bedroom is a great counter example) have any sort of narrative setup, and the monsters are mostly there in order to assure that the player keeps occupied.

The final third of the game makes this even clearer. Now the player mostly just encounters these generic monsters, and the game starts focusing on the gameplay instead by giving you more weapons and other offensive gadgets. Viewed from the lense of a survival horror experience, the game greatly suffers from this shift in focus. An important thing to note here is that the game doesn't drop its storytelling ambitions. The last half of the game has a lot of story-stuff that it shares with the player. The problem is that the player is not put in any interesting narrative situations. Instead you have your documents to read, or cut scenes between the combat, but you're never part of the storytelling like you were in the first two-thirds of the game.

It's also worth bringing up that it's not only combat that Resident Evil 7 wraps in a narrative, it also does this with its puzzles. For instance, there are a few instances when puzzles are put there by another mad inhabitant of the house. And while these puzzles themselves are nothing out of the ordinary, the context makes them a lot more exciting. You are not just solving abstract riddles - you are trying to outsmart one of the game's antagonists.

So why don't we see more games that has this kind of focus on narrative context? I think the biggest reason boils down to the fact that, at their core, games are simply too much fun. I wrote about this in a blog post last week. The gist of the argument is: when you can choose between making gameplay more fun, and improving the intended experience, focusing on fun gameplay provides a more straightforward path.

When you have a fun core loop you can test out your game using abstract shapes and temporary assets. The same is not as true for games that rely heavily on narrative context. You can imagine how the game will play out if all the proper assets were there, but you can never be sure. It isn't possible to hand out a half-finished game to testers and expect to get proper feedback. On top of that, the aspects of the game that make or break the experience are often very costly. A big uncertain investment is needed and it takes a long time before it can be evaluated. The temptation to fall back on the good old reliable "classic gameplay" is very strong indeed.

Building these games works very different from games where the focus is on a fun core loop.  But the benefits can be huge. I don't think anybody will argue against the claim that Resident Evil 4 and 7 are very different experiences. One focuses on following the fun, and the other on creating a certain experience.

Resident Evil 7 is by no means the perfect horror experience, but it contains some truly exceptional stuff. The things that all stand out are heavily reliant on the idea of narrative context. To me it seems like the game has just dipped its toes into this though. As I explained in my post on games being too much fun, to go further down this route is not an easy mission. But if we are to evolve the videogames medium and provide stronger storytelling experiences it is the only way to go. The many signs pointing in this direction, some of them apparent in Resident Evil 7, makes me even more confident in this.

But we can't just stumble blindly along this path, hoping to bump into greatness. We must scout the territory and see which route seems like the most promising. Finding how to do this is what this blog will continue to explore.

[1] The case of the resource management is not as clear cut as the combat one as it has a much better gameplay core going on here. In fact there are games like Desktop Dungeons that use a similar mechanic and bases its entire gameplay around it. So while the narrative context is an important factor here, it is not nearly as important as it is for combat.


  1. I hope you continue to make posts like these in the future, because they are always very interesting to read.

  2. I'd just like to say, as a fan of your team's games since Penumbra, I adore these blog posts. They provide such a fascinating insight into how you approach game development, particularly the narrative aspect.

    Eagerly awaiting your next post and your next project.

    Cheers from the US.

  3. Being surrounded by fog and having to estimate the distance of the approaching monster from the flapping of it's wings, while being challenged to turn and aim very quick to accommodate for your character's slugginess, is fun gameplay.

    It may not feel fast, fluid and impactful but it's still pretty enjoyable by virtue of its solid mechanics, even if this type of gameplay is not a very popular one. But the point is that it does provide you with a challenge that has a certain level of complexity, so it's not like making the gameplay to feel good is a hindrance to building a good horror experience.

    It's just a case of having to make sure that the systems support the theme of the game. For example, if the protagonist is supposed to be an everyman, unprepared to face the nightmarish situation that is trapped in, having imprecise aiming will enhance that feeling.

    Another example: One might argue that resource management makes combat to feel less satisfying, because every bullet is a reminder of your ammo being in constant danger to be depleted. But that doesn't mean that a game about resource management isn't fun to play. In fact, there are resource management games with very minimal narrative context, so the enjoyment here has to stem entirely from the gameplay.

    "The combat in this scenario is not very interesting in itself. The room is small so you cannot move around much and the clunky controls don't help much. You cannot really decide where to aim, either. You basically just have to turn your character in the right direction and press the attack button until the zombie eventually dies (or possibly just run out of the room). From a pure gameplay perspective this is quite dull. But when it is wrapped in a narrative context it suddenly gets very exciting. In fact, the clunky controls and limited camera angles works to the game's advantage here. They make the players feel like they are not in control, which gets directly projected on the situation at hand - the approaching zombie. A tense and scary situation arises."

    While this scene is pretty good as an intro to the game, and a nice way to show the basic mechanics, a game that would consist entirely from just shooting in one direction would be pretty dull. A variety in equipment or enemies that require the employment of specific tactics could make for better gameplay without being in contrast with the desired survival horror experience (as it is the case with the Residen't Evil).

    PS. I agree that providing narrative context to the gameplay is the next step to improve interactive storytelling, so no arguing with that. My objection has entirely to do with the claim that aiming to make gameplay to feel "fun" is a major impediment to developing better game narratives.

    1. Important to be clear I have nothing against making gameplay smoother, responsive, etc (more "fun" basically). I think that can be crucial when making a narrative game even.

      However the problem comes when you just follow the "path of most fun" and don't think about how it alters the end experience.

    2. Well I agree that trying to create engaging gameplay might tempt you to add mechanics that don't fit well with the overarching theme.

      However it's not true that mechanics like imprecise aim are inherently inferior and less fun than precise aim just because they are more "frustrating". That would be like claiming that Dark Souls doesn't aim to make the gameplay as fun as possible because it deliberately makes you die over and over again. The frustration here is a key component to how the gameplay works. Stuff like imprecise aim, slow attack animations, tank controls etc work in a similar vein.

      What does that mean is that "unfun" mechanics not only can enhance certain narrative experiences, but also certain forms of gameplay.

      Note: Let's not forget that Silent Hill was actually quite lite in the narrative department, so for the most part a gameplay focused experience. And while it's true that the gameplay wouldn't be nearly as interesting without the unique atmosphere that arises from the visuals/sound design/Yamaoka's music, the same it's true for games like Doom. Actually a huge amount of Doom's appeal originates directly from its attack-on-hell theme, the heavy metal aesthetics, the gore etc. If we replace the enemies' sprites with abstract schemes like squares, for example, the shooting would be way less fun.

    3. Additionally, while it's true that Doom has better gameplay in terms of overall polish, depth, and variety, it still cannot scratch the same itch that Silent Hill's gameplay does.

      That being said, I also believe that it's possible to design gameplay based on clunky combat that is developed on a level that a comparison with a decent shooter would make it hard to tell which game has the superior systems.

      I think that the main hitch when designing everyman style combat is that good combat is skill-based, so that clashes with the task of emulating a character with lack of such training.

      The solution seems to come from the fact that the main character is a different person from the player; Making the character's moves clumsy doesn't mean that the player behind him can't be skillful; That indded achieves the effect of emulating a low skill protagonist while also providing sufficient challenge to the player (who has to deal with sluggish mechanics) that keep the combat tense.

    4. I think it's important to emphasize on the fact that you may be arguing on different definitions on the word "fun." There's the one that everyone knows, it's the common use of the word where we'll ask ourselves if we're entertained and if we can say yes we'll know that we're having fun.
      On the other side there's the designer's textbook definition of fun, which is different in the sense that it's not necessarily a subjective measurement in the same regard, but an element of the development process, the philosophy that dictates which questions we ask during the prototyping stages.

      It can be very hard to discuss this topic developer-to-player because of this difference, each party commonly assuming that the other half talks on the same terms as we do ourselves, simply because it is the way we're used to coining those terms in our everyday lives. It all boils down to whether or not both parties are familiar with the design terminology, if we're to evolve our understanding together and not just discuss in parallel even though we usually agree.

    5. @Genero Machina here is a synopsis of the argument without the "fun"-related semantics stuff:

      The first point is that some kinds of gameplay are unsuited for horror games, and these kinds of gameplay seem to be the most interesting, engaging ones.

      Then a question arises: Does that mean that the gameplay of horror games is condemned to be primitive? Can we have both complex gameplay and good horror? And I think that we can.

      I mean, how tense a combat scenario can be if the combat system is just press X to attack? And what's the potential of more complex systems?

    6. Silent Hill was not at all "lite" in narrative. There was tonnes of story going on, and you could spend entire playthroughs just thinking about it.

      Anyway, what Thomas is saying is that "fun" (responsive, fluid, easy-to-pick-up) gameplay is good in its own right, which is why it's so popular. For horror games specifically though, it's an equation. Less responsive controls, and less control in general + a tense narrative context = a better, more fun experience in the end.

    7. We are talking about the first Silent Hill, right?
      It was light in the narrative aspect when compared to the gameplay aspect. So for example, you go to school for story reasons and then you play the school level, solving puzzles, fighting monsters etc. Then you go to another place, maybe watch a cutscene, and play another level. The story exposition usually happens as a short break between those levels. Most of the time the gameplay lacks explicit narrative context. Obviously that doesn't mean that Silent Hill has no narrative, it means that it has way more gameplay than narrative.

      On the second point, we seem to talk about different things. You are explaining what the article explicitly says while I am arguing about the implications of it.

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  5. Another great article here Thomas!

    I’m slowly becoming a big fan of your theories. In fact, your blog has been my holy bible for the past 6 months and has helped me a lot with a new project that I’m working on. I still think there’s a gap that you need to fill on this one though, and I’ll partly agree with the ‘Anonymous’ above.

    You approached the analysis of Resident Evil based on the conclusion of your previous article however; there’s a huge space for misunderstandings around the word “fun” as I’ve already tried to state on Twitter .

    I personally think RE7’s gameplay (on its own) is way more fun than Titanfall's high speed shooting circus. SOMA’s run and hide systems can easily be considered more fun than that too. Again, I'm talking about gameplay on its own, not the story behind those games.

    The theory of the “Too fun for its own good” may seem a little bit incomplete at this stage (always in my personal and humble opinion) or maybe not well phrased yet.

    1. I think it is worth not just think about "what I consider fun" but what the development process has been like. And while you might not think Titanfall is more fun than RE7's core loop, I am quite sure their development has been very different.

      Titanfall is has had a goal to have as engaging and fun gunplay as possible. RE7's focus has been on crafting a good survival horror experience.

    2. Yes, I absolutely agree with you on that part. My only disagreement is that I think that we could further simplify the whole thing by focusing on player character’s nature instead. I’m sure you already have considered this approach btw. Just mentioning it for the sake of this discussion.

      Titanfall features a fast, strong, almost superhuman type of soldier (even if that’s based on the available tech around him) while RE7 features an everyday human. As you already said, each game had a different goal but in both cases everything falls back to the nature of the main protagonist. If we swap characters things will be way different for both games, and this is where your theory comes which, aside from focusing on the word “fun”, I think is brilliant!

      I had a recent bad experience from trying to mix those two types of characters in a game btw :)

  6. Interesting look at the game.

    You make a very good point regarding horror game. Nothing is horrific without placing it in context. It's maybe a bit scary to see a zombie, but to have to fight a zombie who was your loved one a moment ago is horror.

    Wrapping gameplay in narrative is the next step in gaming. At this point graphics are solid and gameplay innovation is rarer and rarer, especially in AAA titles. The old tropes that sold game are becoming less and less prevalent. I would say that those who don't embrace an integration of narrative and gameplay in every form are going to lose out (except for multiplayer. That's a more complicated system).

  7. When will we get news about Frictional's next horror game?

  8. I'm not sure if 'follow the fun' is the best way to describe, but more to do with the thinking behind the game mechanics. In Resident Evil 7, the game mechanics are more about restricting the player to the point they feel tense and claustrophobic, while in modern FPS the focus is more run and gun, fast, fluid and engaging gameplay. Perhaps we're talking more about power-fantasy than rule of fun? As the main change that I can feel is that in the Titanfall 2 example you feel empowered, you *can* make that jump and run right in and shoot, the gameplay is fast and direct. In Resident Evil 7, it's a case of you can't, it's usually a better case to run away. While skilled players can take on the Bakers, even then it's usually better to run away. The corridors are tight, movement is slow and restricted and it's all toward making the player claustrophobic and worried about whether they'll get caught.

    Interestingly, while you think that Resident Evil 4 and 7 are completely different, I actually think there are some parallels, at least narrative wise, in that it's got more 'flavour', but this is just from a narrative trope perspective. I totally agree that when you use narrative in the right way it can turn gameplay that may not be engaging on its own into something that captures the player.

    Looking forward to reading more posts from you!

  9. Resident Evil has become a poor game.

  10. You should warn of spoilers :c


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