Resident Evil and Grim Fandango - not as different as you might think
Resident Evil and Grim Fandango – not as different as you might think

It’s perhaps ironic that my state of the art, next gen console has been challenged by little other than almost twenty-year-old games this month, but it only further serves to illustrate how slow this generation is getting up to speed, how increasingly sparse big marquee triple A releases are becoming, and how interesting they are when they do finally arrive, in the case of games like The Order 1886. What better way to plug the lacklustre gaps of the present by resurrecting the riches of the past for a new generation?

What do you mean I can't pick up those F&$"*^ng bullets!
What do you mean I can’t pick up those F&$”*^ng bullets!

Resident Evil and Grim Fandango were released in 1996 and 1998 respectively, two years that bookend an incredible period of creativity in video games that saw the origins of some of the medium’s most enduring properties, including Tomb Raider, Final Fantasy VII, and Metal Gear Solid. Both have been spruced up for modern audiences, but not so much that they lose the charm of the originals. Resident Evil, already based on the impressive GameCube remake, has been given an HD face lift and some impressive new textures and lighting effects, whilst Grim Fandango has benefited from some graphical polish and a new orchestral version of its gloriously noirish jazz score. Both games keep to the original 4:3 aspect ratio (although Resident Evil has a surprisingly well done pan-and-scan style widescreen variant), and both games offer both the original tank controls (in which movement was always from the character’s perspective, due to both games’ use of fixed camera angles) and newly implemented modern analogue movement.

But it wasn’t just the tank controls that Resident Evil and Grim Fandango shared, but an entire genre: as unlikely as it seems, I feel that they were both evolutions of the point and click adventure.

Hear me out. Of the two, Grim Fandango most obviously fits into this mould, and is largely accepted as the swan song of the golden age of point and clicks, the final game by Tim Schafer at Lucas Arts (unless you count Star Wars Episode One: Racer, in which he is credited as ‘Never Actively Tried to Sabotage the Project’), and the last adventure game made at that esteemed studio. And you know what? It still holds up brilliantly today: the writing, characters, theme and atmosphere are among the best games have ever achieved and the puzzles are pretty damn clever too. It’s a different experience to Resident Evil for sure, which has always drawn on a fondness for hokey B-Movie horror films, something that excused the god-awful localisation and dialogue of the first game. Whilst notoriously bad lines like “Jill, you’ve always been the master of unlocking” have, for better or worse, been excised from this version, there’s still plenty of toe curling corkers: “I found this can of fizz”, Barry says as he hands you some acid grenade rounds, and who the fuck casually says “ciao!” whilst trying to survive a zombie infested nightmare?

The mansion in Raccoon Forest, with its labyrinthine halls and doors locked by an intricate variety of keys… is a kind of architectural Rubix Cube that will have you crying to the internet walkthroughs as surely as Grim Fandango does.

Resident Evil is a slightly less obvious fit for the point and click genre, but there’s little doubt to anyone who has played it that the core aspect of that game is its inventory based puzzles (made even more frustrating by the limited inventory space and the fact that you can’t easily drop things once you’ve picked them up), a fundamental core it shares with point and click adventures. The mansion in Raccoon Forest, with its labyrinthine halls and doors locked by an intricate variety of keys, is chock-full of weird puzzles, some of which could have come straight out of Schafer’s head (only without the rubber chickens). These see you back-tracking through the mansion, which itself is a kind of architectural Rubix Cube that will have you crying to the internet walkthroughs as surely as Grim Fandango does.

Can anything evoke nostalgia as much as the Resident Evil mansion lobby, now with added shadows?
Can anything evoke nostalgia as much as the Resident Evil mansion lobby, now with added shadows?

The big difference here is that more often than not your route between essential items is barred by shambling undead corpses, and, although this is true also of Grim Fandango to a certain extent given its setting, the carnivalesque skeletons in Grim are more likely to make you balloon sculptures of famous modernist poets than they are to attempt to munch on your face. In Grim you may be armed with a scythe, but you can only use it in certain situations as dictated by the puzzles, whilst in Resi your trusty Berretta can be constantly employed to rid the mansion of its nightmarish inhabitants (provided you picked up enough 9mm parabellum rounds, that is).

The innovation Resident Evil bought to the point and click genre, in short, was its approach to combat and, whilst the genre had experimented with a combat mechanics many times before and since (to varying degrees of incompetence), this time it not only worked, but worked so well that it caused the game to transcend the genre it may have been more in line with. Immediately it was impossible to think of Resident Evil as a point and click, it seemed to be doing something very different that required a new name, and so the survival horror genre was born. But I can’t help but think that sans zombies Resident Evil and Grim Fandango would appear a lot closer than they initially seem (quality of writing not withstanding).

Even Grim Fandango has been given some swish new lighting, like this classic noir venetian blinds motif
Even Grim Fandango has been given some swish new lighting, like this classic noir venetian blinds motif

Not that you’d want to remove the zombies as Resident Evil does them so well. The proof of this is that whilst Grim Fandango is every bit as funny and ingeniously written as it ever was, Resident Evil is still a very scary game, which is undoubtedly its own biggest strength. I’ve been struggling through it exclusively in the daylight hours having forgotten how horribly effective the game is at unsettling you through its atmosphere and the intense encounters with zombie dogs (which are a lot more plentiful and aggressive than I remember). Not only that but the game now throws surprises at you at a much higher frequency. Not only have the designers moved several of the rooms around and come up with entirely new puzzles, but zombies now pour in through previously secure windows, follow you through doors (WTF?) and have the lack of decency to not die when you kill them (now you have to douse them in petrol and incinerate them lest they randomly pop back up in the future). Now even less of the mansion feels safe, making a very hard game even harder, and more frightening.

Zombies now pour in through previously secure windows, follow you through doors (WTF?) and have the lack of decency to not die when you kill them.

If it might be considered a stretch to suggest Resident Evil might have been conceived as an adventure game in its inception, it’s nonetheless important to note that this wouldn’t be Resident Evil’s only brush with accidentally forging new mechanics and genres. Devil May Cry, by Hideki Kamiya, was originally conceived as a Resident Evil game, but deviated from it so much in its early stages it became an entirely new project that founded the character action game (a mainstay of gaming ever since), and later Resident Evil 4 would break the series from the survival horror genre altogether and in the process considerably contribute to the development of the console third-person shooter. It’s a pity given this legacy of innovation that we arrived at Resident Evil 6, but as the Grim Fandango and Resident Evil remakes demonstrate, sometimes they really don’t make them like they used to. Erstwhile Resident Evil fans can only hope that Capcom recognise that truth too, and do something to turn the series around.

Gotta tell ya something...
Gotta tell ya something…

Another interesting thing that arises from considering Resident Evil as an adventure game is how it breaks away from the narrative emphasis of the genre. I’m reminded of video game theorist Espen Aarseth, who dismisses adventure games as little more than literature masquerading as games:

“Unlike other games, but like most novels, these games are normally played once, and typically not completed… Perhaps we could say that this genre is really only one and the same game, the same rule system repeated over and over with variable cultural conventions and increasingly better technology”. (‘Genre Trouble: Narrativism and the Art of Simulation’, in First Person)

I have problems with this stance in general; after all, could you not level the same criticisms at most genres that repeat tropes and conventions, and isn’t this exactly what defines the boundaries of a genre? However, I think that the differences drawn here between Grim Fandango and Resident Evil put a stop to this chain of thought. Genres are sets of repeated conventions, but occasionally a work will deviate from the norm enough to make something new, like Resident Evil – this is how innovation happens. Alternatively a game may be as formally generic as they come, like Grim Fandango, but have content that feels radically fresh, such as its fusion of Mexican underworld and film noir traits, to the extent that it feels like you’re playing Casablanca for a good chunk of the game. It’s curious that these two games should have received a new lease of life in the same month, as they represent a significant moment of rupture in the medium; the end of one great genre and the beginning of another. This is, after all, a transition that we are still waiting to happen in the new generation of consoles, which cannot quite seem to break away from the shadows of the past. Ironically by placing these two games together, it only serves to draw attention to what is lacking.

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1

An interesting perspective and well written as always, Dean!

Just to add further credence to your argument: as I'm sure you're aware, along with obviously referencing Alone in the Dark, the original Resident Evil was sort of a spiritual successor to Capcom's 1989 Famicom game, "Sweet Home". It was a bizarre and unique adventure/role-playing game with multiple endings and item management, and was coincidentally released not long before LucasArts' (then Lucasfilm Games) so-called 'golden-era' of adventure games really began with The Secret of Monkey Island.

2

Hi Scott, thanks for the comment. I had no idea about Sweet Home - to be honest i was being a bit flippant reading the intent of Resident Evil to be an adventure game. So apparently the visionary Japanese horror director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure, Pulse) was involved in the game and made the film it was based on - that is fascinating! I guess Sweet Home could have been influenced by Maniac Mansion, which came out two years prior...