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Resident Evil 7: ‘fleshing’ out a story

This year’s Steam summer sale kicked off on 22 June 2017 and ended a couple of weeks ago on 05 July 2017. There’s a while to wait until the next one at the end of October which means we’ve got several months to work our way through the new titles we picked up (or leave them languishing in our backlogs). I bought 13 games myself including Mainlining which I’ve already completed, and Virginia which has been recommended to me by several bloggers here on WordPress.

My other-half didn’t buy as many but, as most of the titles on his wishlist are big-budget releases, they didn’t come in as discounted as the indie titles I tend to go for so he’s holding out a little longer. He did however purchase Resident Evil 7: Biohazard. Pete has had his eye on this one for a while because he loves a good horror; and it was hard for him to resist after Nathan told us it was one of the scariest games he has ever played.

I myself am bad at playing horrors because I’m just too much of a wimp. I’d much rather watch someone else take over the controller while I sit beside them on the sofa, hiding my eyes behind my hands or a cushion. I really enjoy a creepy storyline – I’m a sucker for a Stephen King or Dean Koontz book, for example – but when I’m responsible for taking the actions, I fall to pieces and start acting like a terrified idiot.

That’s why I (and my cushion) have been watching Pete play Resident Evil 7 for the past week or so. At the time of writing, we’ve only got through around four hours so far but the plot is pulling me in. Players step into the shoes of Ethan Winters, a civilian who has fewer combat skills that most previous protagonists in the series, as he looks for his missing wife Mia. His search leads him to a derelict plantation mansion, the home of the Baker family – and let me tell you, they’re not the sort of people you want to drop in on for a cup of tea.

Over the past few years there has been much discussion around whether cutscenes damage video games by breaking immersion. Your character suddenly becomes unplayable so new pieces of information can be shared with you, and to some extent this makes sense; after all, if titles want to tell a story, they need to have some kind of narrative mechanic to enable them to do that and cutscenes by far are the most straightforward.

However, the purpose of a video game is to play and interact with the digital world you find yourself in: to feel as if you’re in control of your character’s actions. Movie-like moments have the potential to detract from that feeling, particularly when they’re used far too frequently or are too long. Just take a look at Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. It holds the Guinness World Record for the longest cutscene, coming in at 27 minutes; and four separate scenes in the game’s finale total 71 minutes.

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Cutscenes are still used by developers but they’ve fallen out of favour with a lot of gamers in recent years. They’d rather skip through these sections to get back to the gameplay rather than put down their controllers, even if it means missing out on a vital piece of information or clue. Releases that allow us to experience the storyline at our pace, where plot elements are revealed through exploration and discovery, are generally much more positively accepted.

Resident Evil 7 utilises flashbacks to flesh out its story but it’s not as simple as sitting back and watching a cutscene. Ethan comes across VHS tapes that can be played using VCRs around the Baker family’s plantation; and ‘played’ is exactly what I mean, as you’re able to relive and control the events of the footage you witness. This mechanic not only offers insight into people other than the protagonist and reveal sinister secrets about the Bakers, but also provides some excellent gameplay.

It’s possible to interact with the environment shown in some of the tapes in a way that leaves an impact on Ethan’s own adventure. For example, unlocking something seen in the past footage will cause it to remain unlocked in the present, even if you’ve already seen it locked; this does cause some time-travel paradoxes but who cares if you can get your hands on a new weapon? While you’re in one of these VHS sections, the graphics change: they become grittier and slightly blurry, and static lines remind you you’re playing found footage.

Its modern first-person view in a photorealistic style may make Resident Evil 7 seem like a far departure from the original instalment in the series, but everything that made the classic game so great is here: a chilling location, a foreboding feeling, weird puzzles and terrifying enemies. There are even green herbs! As stated on the game’s Steam page, it ‘embodies the series’ signature gameplay elements of exploration and tense atmosphere that first coined ‘survival horror’ some twenty years ago’.

Cutscenes are a tool rather than a finished project. They need to assist the player in coming to the conclusion of the story rather than just giving them something pretty (or in the case of horrors, disgusting) to look at. So far Resident Evil 7 is handling them marvellously and I can’t wait to see what the rest of the title holds in store for us.

5 thoughts on “Resident Evil 7: ‘fleshing’ out a story

  1. This was my favorite Resident Evil! I’m just like you in the sense that I am a fan of horror, but will often sit back and watch others play it instead. The VHS cut scenes were pretty awesome in this game and I liked the idea of playing as the character that you were watching. I’m actually thinking about replaying it in order to find every item and upgrade. Also as a chance to hone my skills for the DLC.

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    1. Watching someone play a horror game is just like watching a film, except you get to help them decide what action they should take! We downloaded Until Dawn recently and I’m looking forward to ‘playing’ it with the other-half – I really enjoyed what I saw of it on Twitch when it was released.

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  2. It is in the top five for me so far this year for sure. The first person approach threw me off a bit at first but as the game went on it became more and more like a classic RE game which was fantastic.

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    1. Yeah, I really like the little touches that hark back to the original Resident Evil despite this game looking so ‘modern’. I almost expected some dogs to come crashing through a window at any moment…

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