Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Market of Familiarity

In January 2005, I had just moved into my first apartment. It was and still is today something out of a Tyler Perry drama; to outsiders, I live in an old 1930s complex that looks like a druglord's roost, the projects that the wealthy forgot. To me, it's not quite home, but comfortable enough to lay my head and drink my drink in its confides. We never truly retrieve home after we've left it; even to go back, it is not the same as it once was, it's a place all too familiar, yet your heart is no longer invested in it. It remains, it is your ties to the location that have separated.

Leaving home is also a bittersweet affair, with the loose living arrangements and "I can do for myself" freedoms clashing with your leaving-the-nest instincts coded into your DNA. You're in a strange place with all of the things that are familiar to you, but the location is different. Your computer no longer sits next to the window where you peered out as a teenager in curiosity of what it would feel like to live in this very moment you're in now; as it turns out, this moment is terrifying. And your computer is nowhere near a window, much less the one from your childhood.

Right on cue, panic sets in. You want out, the deal was a bust, it's time to pack your bags and head home to where it's safe, to where it's familiar. "Familiar" is a good feeling when you feel alone. You want familiar things to ease you into the process of leaving the nest and spreading your wings; this includes being surrounded by family and friends, if only by phone calls. This is step one in a three step process. Step two: stray from your new reality by leaving your new surroundings in substitution of familiar restaurants and locales--you've got to feel safe somewhere. This step is harder to execute if you're new to a town or city. Finally, step three: surround yourself in familiar media.

Steps one and two were gracefully executed for me. Step three? Seemingly. I watched Aqua Teen Hunger Force continuously, wording every line as it was delivered. I watched the Shining ad nauseam. I cranked Ben Folds MP3s from my crappy computer speakers as I arranged my furniture to my liking.

Gaming, however, seemed to have been lost in the knee-deep snow that January.

My gaming decision? I was to try something new, but something I could count on for being familiar: Resident Evil 4. Yes, I had read that things were a little different this time around, such as a new camera system with the cam over the shoulder of Leon S. Kennedy, the star of my favorite game in the series, Resident Evil 2. It was the first time Leon was to appear in a Resident Evil title since the award-winning second installment. He was a familiar face. I could tolerate that unfamiliar camera.

As I began to play the game, my hopes remained high and my anxiety stayed at bay; this was Resident Evil, not some action game. I was certain that the first sequence was there simply to introduce a new element in the game: persistent enemies who would crowd you by the dozen in a fit of Los Angeles-riot-induced-rage. This was what they were doing to grab some new fans, to convince them that these small spurts of new, insane combat were just the right amount of a steroid injection to hook their Crank-obsessed, testosterone-craving egos into getting scared a little. "It won't turn your boy-parts into lady-bits to shriek a li'l bit, guys! It's fun!"

I was wrong.

Chapters faded into the distance. The familiarity wore off. I was playing a new game in a new series with new characters who had familiar names. As old loves change over time into people you do not know, these characters I loved, these characters I was so familiar with, had changed as well. Names that lose their significance to you are no longer names, but merely words, and just as people change, my beloved, familiar game series was something new, something different, right when I needed it the most.

So what did I do? I kept playing it. This deceit I held for the title was still apparent, and completely justified--or at least I made myself believe. "Is the game great?" "Yeah... if you like mindless shooters." I made sure to understand and appreciate the game for what it was, a blockbuster movie experience made into an interactive marvel the likes of which gaming had not seen up to that point (but since seen numerous times, and much better). But it wasn't the same.

And so Resident Evil 4 provided not what I wanted, but what I needed. I encountered an immersive experience that transported me away from my coddling anxieties and into a different world I was not familiar with. "The game tricked me! Why I oughta..." It was not what I wanted when I started it, as I craved such familiarity to get me over the hump of living out on my own, but it was what I ultimately needed, the effort to throw me into the water instead of tip-toeing into the shallow end.

As much as I appreciated Resident Evil 4 and the things it did for my emotional state back then, I miss the classic style that only Resident Evil had. Tacky acting, distinctive style in level design and enemy isolation. The enemies were so scarce in the original Resident Evil on the PlayStation that you'd be taken aback and startled when you actually encountered one; by constrast, you were surprised when only two enemies were in a section of a map in Resident Evil 4. The change was drastic, and I craved the old cut 'n' paste mentality that ultimately led to "old school" Resident Evil's demise. Fact is, gamers are a fickle bunch with pseudo-ADD; if you do the same trick a few times too many, they crave differentiation, regardless of how tried and true--familiar--a formula is.

So imagine my surprise when gamers and critics alike revolted at the release of Resident Evil 5 in March of 2009. Bored of the non-stop action sequences in the brisk daylight? Already? Sure, we saw several re-releases of Resident Evil 4 across three platforms over the years leading up to the fifth installment, but this is technically the sequel to the mega-ultra-blockbuster that folks praised and revered just a mere four years prior. The old formula lasted through four core releases, two online installments, director's cuts, revisions and more before gamers finally grew stale of the fixed camera angles and tank controls. This time around, the correct answer is one? A single release?

For those unaware, the differences between the fourth and fifth installments in the franchise are about as noteworthy as the differences between the first and second back in the mid to late '90s: a tweak here, a tweak there, a slightly new setting that feels familiar, and viola! A recipe for success, or at least one decade ago. In the day and age of download content, where 18 maps in a multiplayer game is never enough for the insatiable boredom of today's gamer, there need to be groundbreaking innovations with every entry into a triple A series.

But is Resident Evil actually a series on par with the likes of Mario and the Legend of Zelda? It's certainly a huge franchise, but the survival horror genre as a whole was always niche, reserved in the corner--not necessarily the shadows--for a few million hardcore fans who craved what the developers were good at: setting a scene and making you feel isolated.

My proposition to come back into the fold of pleasing everyone and releasing a Game of the Year-esque title? Blend the two. Start from scratch. Drop the characters, who now yawn at the sight of a zombie due to overexposure, and go the route of someone experienced in stress-related combat and tactics, yet not in flesh-craving monstrosities. This allows for seamless pace increases and decreases, where aggressive attackers group together to give you an adrenaline rush and then dead silence afterwards.

The key problem with Capcom's choosing to rush the player with twenty to forty zombies per sector is overexposure. You will never feel truly terrified or the slightest bit of panic if this is what the game consists of from the cover to the credits. Drop atmosphere into this gameplay core, and instantly you have a starting point for creating a title everyone can agree on, meanwhile winning back the fans of the genre you have previously betrayed.

I came up with this blueprint in my then-new apartment five years ago. I knew if they released another Resident Evil like the fourth entry, it would be met with mixed results. Why? You can do the same thing over and over again when you're in a niche market because there's a small handful of titles to choose from; once you enter the mainstream, gun-toting gamer's land, you have literally thousands of shooters with better core mechanics and better atmosphere. One game in a sea of tens, one game in a sea of thousands... It's easy to understand why the game was pulled under by critics and fans alike.

Finally, however, it looks like Capcom is getting my drift.

This downloadable content, coming out February 17, 2010, looks like be on the right path. Spooky HD mansion? Looks brilliant. Sets a good atmosphere with experienced characters. This is the Resident Evil I wanted to play ever since I saw the cut-scenes throughout Resident Evil 5. "Why can't I play that game? That's the game I want to play, not this one!" I'd scream to my co-op partner, regardless of who it was, every time those cut-scenes would appear. I felt like a Dickensian ragamuffin, longingly staring through the window of a candy store with a dribble of saliva dangling from my lower lip. This is what I wanted--no, what I needed.

I'm on the verge of moving in the coming month, so I'll need something to keep my sanity as I adjust to another chapter of my life... preferably something familiar. Thanks, Capcom.


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