Part 1 of the Resident Evil Retrospectives, looking back at how the series has changed in the past 13 years.
Originally Chris Redfield could carry six items and Jill Valentine, being a resourceful woman with more pockets, had room for eight. This led to ridiculous leaps in logic regarding relative mass and weight, so a shotgun, it would seem, took up the same space as a key. Other games like Fallout have attempted to deal with this conundrum by assigning weight to each item, keys and food usually equating to a tiny fraction of that of a weapon, yet still neither had it right. In Fallout the designers would have you believe that your hero could cart around ten assault rifles, a few rocket launchers, and a host of other weapons before you start to feel it and have trouble running, yet for game after game if Chris or Leon were holding a pistol, shotgun and the relevant ammo, plus a key and a crank, he would, when confronted with a vital, life-giving herb, be unable to stuff it into a spare pocket or (most ridiculously of all) simply consume it on the spot. Instead you had to hightail it to the nearest safe room, dump a few items in the trunk and then traipse back to the herb. Resident Evil Zero on the GameCube made another attempt to advance this by having Rebecca swap her items for what was lying on the floor. This solved nothing as backtracking for whatever you swapped it for was inevitable, but at least it made more real-world sense.
The magic trunks in every safe room had a strange reassuring quality. Big enough to contain every item in the game and transport them to various locations, often miles apart, they made up the core item management homebase that allowed you to feel like you were taking part in a genuine zombie movie, with limited resources and careful planning of trips around the house/police station required as a central facet of the gameplay. Bullets were wholly finite. There were 500 handgun bullets in the game and they had to be used sparingly as and when you found them. Even saving had a tinge of danger to it, as with ink-ribbons you had to find your saves, hidden in the bookshelves, drawers and assembled clutter of a spooky old mansion. Save too often and you may not have many chances left to continue.
Then came Resident Evil 4 and all that changed. No longer were there a set number of bullets in the game. Hoarding ammo was counter-productive and rather than a vast labyrinth of locked rooms, puzzles and backtracking, Leon Kennedy was faced with a relatively linear path of fast-zombie action. Sharpshooting rewarded ammo, so the more you used your guns, the more regular the flow was. The inventory also changed. Leon now carried everything with him in a briefcase, and the arms trade was brought in (later mimicked by Metal Gear Solid 4 in an expanded and, some would say, game-breaking manner) with the introduction of the mysterious and charismatic Australian. “Welcome!” he would shout. Then “What are ya buying?” and we would smile and gaze upon his wares and try to fit them in our case. Sorting, changing positions and selling items became a new mini-game and a welcome addition to the series.
This was when Resident Evil stepped up and out of the dark ages, into the next century, and both rode in on a wave of action games and also spawned the stylisations of more to come. Gears of War, Dead Space and Alone in the Dark, all profoundly influenced by this one, and in turn all of the Gears clones that are now emerging wretchedly from the shadows like post-modern slasher films in the years after Scream. Digital Cowboy Paul always expressed extreme gratitude to Capcom for these changes, and for the many others in 4. In his words it was as though the developers had asked themselves “What would Paul like to see in a Resident Evil game?” The answer was more action, less backtracking, better controls, more precise aiming and less faffing about.
Now Resident Evil 5 is here. I am three sections in and after struggling with the inventory system I can honestly say I miss the Australian. More than that; I miss the attache cases. I miss the magic trunks. I even miss the safe rooms. Because while there are safe havens, the only time you get to really mess about with what you have in your nine slots per character is on a static screen before the sectioned level starts and you are once again loaded into the zombie cannon and fired down the tunnel of shacks and market streets.
You assign weapons to each direction on the D-Pad, (mimicking Gears) and ammo and healing items go in the corners. It’s that simple, it’s that boring and honestly, in this writer’s thoroughly biased opinion, all the sparkle has gone out of the world of inventory management. Crucially the action no longer pauses when you check your supplies and you are highly likely to be attacked if you stop for a moment to look, so it’s more an issue of knowing what you have and taking fleeting jumps in and out to throw your partner some relevant ammo.
It’s a different type of game. You have to survive one onslaught after another and it is indeed horrific, but I dispute on a fundamental level that this is any longer definable as survival horror. The conundrum is, of course, how do you take it back to the days of inventory management without losing the tension and all the progression in game design that’s been made? Or is this even a step backwards, because now, in the frantic, neverending chase through the African back alleys and marshlands, I’m coming across items I can’t pick up… because my inventory is full.