Yes, I know the title of this post is a bit clickbait-ish. It promises a provocative and inflammatory article. But this is fitting, because this a provocative position that will unavoidably inflame some people. Resident Evil is an unbelievably popular franchise and Resident Evil 4 is considered the best of the series. It is regularly celebrated as one of the Best Games ever made and is regarded as being incredibly influential. So if this title seems like clickbait then it has more to do with the game itself and less to do with the content of the article. Sometimes people make controversial claims for attention, but sometimes people are simply expressing genuinely-held controversial opinions.
And besides, today is fireworks day, so it seems like an appropriate time to light some fuses.
To soothe the egos of fans: No, I’m not saying the game is worthless or that you’re stupid / wrong / clueless to like it. It’s fine. Like it all you want. I’m not trying to alter the legacy of this game by complaining about it. I just think it’s interesting how this celebrated game seems to have been engineered specifically to nail all of my pet peeves.
Since we’re already in clickbait territory, let’s resort to the crude savagery of a numbered list…
5. Incoherent Tone
If you’ve followed my writing and story deconstructions for any length of time, you know that tone is really important to me. Some people are fans of the Bollywood sampler approach to storytelling where you get a little of everything. They don’t mind if a story goes from slapstick comedy, to gut-wrenching drama, to earnest sappy romance, to bombastic action. But I don’t like mixing my Shaun of the Dead with my Shawshank or finding bits of Bridget Jones in my Terminator. That’s all good stuff, but that’s not the point. I love both Ice Cream and Pizza, but not together.
Tone is important because it establishes the rules and limits of the fictional world you’re trying to take in. I can accept that the world around Scott Pilgrim can drop into slow motion in the middle of a huge fight so he can trade dialog with someone, but I’d never stand for those sorts of reality-bending shenanigans in Star TrekI mean, without some technical explanation for why time slowed down.. I can accept Vin Diesel performing car stunts that mock the realities of physics and automotive engineering in a Fast & Furious movie, while the exact same stunt would be offensive if performed in something like Poirot. In your typical underdog sports movie I can believe (and even expect) the coach to rouse his team to overpowering levels of competence at the finale with a impassioned speech and well-timed musical swells, but that same trick would be implausible if it happened in something like Moneyball or Any Given Sunday.
Tone tells us how much this movie is going to adhere to the rules of the world we live in, and how much it plans to bend them in pursuit of spectacle or drama. For me it’s a key ingredient of suspension of disbelief, and if a story can’t nail down its tone then I can’t immerse myself in its world.
If a movie is going to have an incoherent mess of a story with a bunch of screwball characters, then it had better be a comedy. Some people claim RE4 is a comedy, and I suppose it’s sort of amusing in a “can you believe how stupid this is?” kind of way, like a movie that Mystery Science Theater might tackle. But it’s certainly not a comedy in the sense of being a witty send-up like Shaun of the Dead, Galaxy Quest, or other self-aware genre deconstructions. There isn’t any lampshading, winking at the audience, trope subversions, or even any jokes. It takes a preposterously stupid story and presents it completely straight. You could attempt to argue that the whole thing is just extremely deadpan comedy, but we’ve seen Capcom make twenty-five of these games by this point, and there doesn’t seem to be a big difference in their style between the times when they’re being deadly serious and when they’re supposedly “kidding”. This isn’t a deconstruction of bombastic B-movie action schlock, it is bombastic B-movie action schlock.
In any case, I can’t seem to switch gears the way the game expects. Sometimes the game is trying to scare you and sometimes you’re in these farcical conversations with a undersized ren faire rejectWas Salazar supposed to be short, or a kid? I can’t remember. where characters spout inane dialog that serves as exposition by having the bad guys tell you all their plans.
I have no idea what we’re supposed to feel during the story beats of Resident Evil 4. I get conflicting answers from fans. But for me I feel irritation, boredom, and bewilderment.
To make matters worse, the story doesn’t even explain itself properly. It sort of assumes you’re already a Resident Evil fan and you’re all caught up on the lore and backstory of this world, which means lots of scenes end up feeling like bizarre non-sequiturs if you’re new. This was my introduction to the series, which meant the cutscenes were doubly frustrating. Not only were they overly verbose, awkwardly translated, and laden with brute-force exposition, they were also failing to provide basic context about who all these people were or how they related to each other.
4. Quicktime Events
Of course, nobody’s really a fan of quicktime events. The best thing you can say about them is that if you do them just right, some people will find them inoffensive.
It turns out I am not one of those people.
It was actually worse for me than for most players, because Resident Evil 4 was one of my first console games since the days of the NES and Atari 2600. Dual-stick controllers were still pretty new to meI’d recently played Final Fantasy X and Silent Hill 2 on the Playstation 2, so modern controllers weren’t COMPLETELY new to me, but I was still lacking the second-nature muscle-memory required to pass a QTE on the first try.. Worse, I was playing on the Gamecube, which was totally new to me and which had a goofball mutant controller that was cheaply made and felt wrong in my hands. I still remember the awful hollow clacking when I needed to rapidly press the left and right triggers. It was unresponsive, uncomfortable, and noisy.
So out of nowhere the game would present me with one of those awful prompts where any failure would mean instant death. They tended to surprise you in the middle of cutscenes. Not only did I hate doing them, but this setup also meant the cutscenes couldn’t be skipped and I was obliged to watch their insufferable stupidity all the way through instead of walking away until the gameplay resumed.
The QTEs in Resident Evil 4 were usually two-button jobs, and it would take me a second to recognize the symbols and understand what I was supposed to be doing. Sometimes I’d have to look down to the controller to remember where everything was. Worse, I wasn’t familiar with the conventions of QTEs so I wasn’t even sure what was expected of me. Am I supposed to hold down these two buttons? No, the prompts are flashing, so I’m probably supposed to press them. Am I supposed to press them in unison or alternate them? How fast? Did I die because I wasn’t pressing fast enough, hard enough, or because I was pressing one button too fast or slow relative to the other? Or maybe I am supposed to hold them and the flashing is just there to grab my attention? Or maybe I died because I was supposed to be pressing X and Y and I accidentally nipped the edge of that great big A button hugging both of them?
Damnit game, tell me what I did wrong so I don’t have to keep watching this tortuously idiotic cutscene!
If you made any mistake at all it usually meant instant, gruesome death, a trip to the game over screen, and then sitting through a bit of cutscene. Since the two parts of the game I hated most were the cutscenes and the QTEs, this meant these sections were doubly miserable.
I wouldn’t even tolerate that sort of frustration today. I’d walk away from the game and never come back. But it was 2005 and my peer group had been trying to tell me about all the awesome console stuff I’d been missing on. So I stuck with it, figuring there had to be something worthwhile under this pile of stupidity and frustration.
3. Mouse vs. Thumbstick
By this point in my life I had over a decade of muscle memory using the mouse to aim. It was very fun and very natural for me. It’s one thing if you’re entirely new to gaming and all inputs feel alien. You don’t have any expectations of being proficient at a task. But when you change control schemes you suddenly find yourself struggling to perform tasks that would be trivial if you were using a different tool, and it becomes endlessly frustrating.
Sure, you can’t really blame Resident Evil 4 for this. It’s not a shortcoming of the design or anything. But it was something I had to cope with. The usual defense against the rest of my complaints is that, “Bah, the story doesn’t matter and the QTEs aren’t a big deal once you get used to them. Resident Evil 4 is all about the gameplay!” But the gameplay wasn’t working for me either because I was constantly irritated with my inability to perform simple tasks.
On top of this was the design decision to make it so that Leon couldn’t move and shoot at the same time, and then pit him against waves of constantly-advancing bullet sponges. Yes, that helps create tension. But I was already feeling plenty of tension because of my sudden inability to shoot accurately. The inability to move just felt like an arbitrary and needless frustration on top of what I was already experiencing. Again, it wasn’t a wrong design decision given their goals, but it was one that made the game miserable for me.
2. Horrible Horror
I’d just played through Silent Hill 2, and I’d become enamored of it. I had the misfortune of playing one of the greatest games in the entire genre before any of the others, which set the bar ridiculously high and created a lot of unrealistic expectations for what other titles might be like. Even the other Silent Hill games can’t really hold a candle to the brilliance of Silent Hill 2.
I like my horror to be slow, thoughtful, and mysterious. I’m not looking for panic and terror, I’m here for dread and apprehension. Less Friday the 13th and more “the last fifteen minutes of Se7en”.
The horror presentation of Resident Evil 4 kept creating these expectations of frightening scenarios. The darkness. The spooky laugh. The bloody title screen. The gruesome and gory elements of the enemy designs. The spooky subject matter of fighting against an infection that threatens to turn you into a monster. The surface seemed to promise it was exactly what I wanted, but beneath the surface it was a story about a gormless boy-band reject trying to rescue the president’s daughter from Squeaky the Midget King and his army of farmers and Python-esque cultist monks. It’s like a movie trailer that promised The Shining, but when the film comes out it’s an episode of The Munsters with all the jokes taken out.
1. Too Much Hype
As is too often the case, the fans of a game are often its worst enemies. My friends kept promising me that this was an incredible game. They set my expectations sky high, so that when the frustration and stupidity set in I felt like I’d been pranked. This thing wasn’t scary, fun, or clever. Instead it was actively repulsive, constantly annoying and frustrating me on multiple levels.
So that’s why I hate one of the celebrated classics of gaming. It was a game that ran against my personal tastes, played at an inopportune moment in my gaming life, experienced right after a beloved horror classic, after the game had been over-hyped by friends. Poor Resident Evil 4 was doomed from the start. I would have disliked it regardless of how I experienced it, but the particular timing of our encounter represents pretty much a worst-case scenario. If I’d played it a bit later in life (or was more familiar with the series and genre before playing) then I might think of Resident Evil 4 as “Not my thing” and not “One of my worst gaming memories”.
 I mean, without some technical explanation for why time slowed down.
 Was Salazar supposed to be short, or a kid? I can’t remember.
 I’d recently played Final Fantasy X and Silent Hill 2 on the Playstation 2, so modern controllers weren’t COMPLETELY new to me, but I was still lacking the second-nature muscle-memory required to pass a QTE on the first try.
C++ is a wonderful language for making horrible code.
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