You know a game is important when even the release of a short playable demo is the most exciting, talked about event of the week. I am of course referring to the Resident Evil 4 remake, a 20-minute slice of which was made available for free on PlayStation, Xbox and PC last Thursday. The response has been ecstatic, both from newcomers and veterans of the original 2005 version. Fans are already discovering hidden modes and weapons and even modding it. Expectations for the full release are high.
I reviewed the game 15 years ago, and I can say with confidence that what made Capcom’s horror sequel so special then still works in its favour years later, in our era of vast open-world adventures. And that is flow. For many years, game designers have sought to give players the experience of flow, as defined by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who referred to it as becoming so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The activity, he noted, didn’t have to be mindless or repetitive – the flow state is about achieving a heightened level of skill and focus and, through the mastery of these elements, experiencing relaxation and happiness.
If you play games regularly, you may have felt it yourself – a period of time in which you achieve complete immersion, where your actions are utterly intuitive, and where everything feels seamless. Tetris is the perfect example, a game so tuned to the concept of flow that fans would see the shapes falling when they shut their eyes – a phenomenon later termed the Tetris Effect.
Resident Evil 4 isn’t an easy game, yet when I first played it I would lose huge chunks of time to it. Reviewing the remake earlier this week, I sat down at 7pm to play for an hour, when I looked at my watch again it was 1am. The game achieves this phenomenon in several ways – and this applies to the original version, too. The map is essentially linear, so you don’t have to make constant navigation decisions, but it doesn’t look linear, so there are often splitting paths and extra rooms to look in, which means you’re having to constantly engage with the space. You don’t drop out. Big set-pieces such as the village and the canyon are designed to feel open through their vertical structure – you can often go along the ground, or head up on to rooftops, you can pick off enemies from a distance, use explosives or stealth. The design structure almost always foreshadows where you’re heading. Through gaps in the walls, or by looking a little further out, you see things such as doors, walkways, clusters of enemies, which continually signal that danger and opportunity are ahead. Resident Evil 4 is designed like a crime novel, each chapter ending on a cliffhanger and therefore constantly demanding.
The combat is also designed to keep us alert and thinking. Every interaction with an enemy is different but readable – they have varied skills, weapons and behaviours, which they almost always clearly signpost, and their environments guide their approaches in interesting ways. On top of this, you basically have three interconnected fighting styles – melee, knife and gun – which you need to fluidly switch between depending on the proximity and location of the enemy. Once you get the rhythm down, you enter the zone, masterfully picking off hordes of monsters. Sure, lots of other games do these things, but in Resi 4, the animation, architecture and challenge are balanced so perfectly that you find yourself absolutely stuck in a perfectly choreographed compulsion loop of movement, discovery and engagement.
As much as I love open world games, they don’t achieve this in the same way. The Assassin’s Creed titles, for example, constantly bombard the player with decisions – you get main quests, side quests and optional tasks and missions, and everything is served up at once like some sort of digital buffet. Even Elden Ring, which combines freedom and narrative in interesting ways, essentially provides so much space and time that true flow moments are fleeting. Flow is as much about restraint as it is about skill and action.
This is why, in our era of vast explorable universes, the linear narrative game will always have a place. Resident Evil 4 is a masterpiece of image, constraint and semiotics. Like Super Mario it teaches you the rules gradually, it tests your learning, and then it lets you master what you have picked up by pitching you against improbable monsters. The possibilities inherent in its gruelling, fetid spaces are narrow, but they’re what keep you moving. One of the most wonderful things about video games is the feeling that you are at one with a set of difficult systems, that challenge is in fact opportunity, and that you have mastery over a limited set of options.
It will be interesting to see how this year’s big open world games – the likes of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom and Starfield – will seek to bring us back into the fold. For now, Resi 4 reminds us that the crafting of moments – through excellent combat controls, restrained set-piece encounters and excellent environmental storytelling – is worth many square miles of explorable terrain. Sometimes, you just have to go with the flow.
What to play
As horror games are in vogue at the moment, I recommend you play Year Walk, by the brilliant Malmö-based studio Simogo. It’s available on PC and Wii U, but I like the iPhone version (£3.99 on the App Store). It’s a surreal rural horror adventure based around the Swedish folk practice of walking into the woods on specific nights of the year to meet supernatural beings and learn about the future. The visuals are beautiful and the eerie atmosphere is all-encompassing.
Available on: PC, Mac, Nintendo Wii U, iOS
Estimated playtime: 10-plus hours
What to read
Strange news from the world of movie/game tie-ins: according to Variety, the online team-based horror title Dead By Daylight (above) is being adapted into a movie by Blumhouse (Malignant, Paranormal Activity and Annabelle) and Atomic Monster (The Conjuring, M3gan). Dead By Daylight is a pastiche of slasher film tropes and features several cinematic slayers including Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers. So it’s a film of a game constructed from many films – what could possibly go wrong?
Television critics are getting involved in the discourse around the smash hit Last of Us finale, 10 years after the original game sent a paroxysm of grief, shock and anger through the PlayStation community. We’re going to be seeing a lot more interplay between TV and games, so now is a great time to revisit Wired’s historical look at the transmedia concept.
IGN has the transcript of an interesting discussion between veteran game designers Hironobu Sakaguchi and Koji Igarashi. It’s about the fall and rise of Japanese games, and how they contrast with western titles.
Nintendo is shutting its 3DS and Wii U online stores at the end of this month, so you need to get in fast to secure some wonderful games before they’re potentially gone for good. Polygon has a guide on how to use the stores, and Kotaku has a list of titles you should grab. Mario and Donkey Kong: Minis on the Move and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Dual Destinies are essentials!
What to click
This week, Matt Francis on Twitter asked:
“With stories in games so much more of a thing, should [we really be able] to skip hard sections of games to enable you to experience the rest? Books, TV and films don’t stop halfway through unless you can pass a quiz to continue. What percentage of games go unseen by a lot of players?”
Dara Ó Briain made this very point in a standup routine a few years ago, comparing video game difficulty to a movie stopping halfway through and testing viewers on whether they had understood the themes before they were allowed to continue watching. Of course games are not linear media – whatever narrative content they contain they are games first. It’s certainly true that only a fraction of players make it through to the end of a challenging title. A report by CNN five years ago suggested that only 10% of players complete games, but the figures I’ve seen are closer to 20%, which is still a minority.
A lot of games now offer dynamic difficulty settings, which respond to player behaviours. And the Uncharted series started a trend for having non-player characters offering hints to the player when they spent too long solving a puzzle – although a lot of people find that intrusive. As the industry gets better at accessibility in general, ways should be found to support players who can’t or don’t want to spend ages beating a seemingly indestructible boss battle. I love the fact that the Resident Evil 4 remake has what would be traditionally called “easy mode”, but which the developers have termed “assisted mode” – here, there’s an auto-aim function, enemies are much easier to dispatch and there are a lot of extra ammo and health drops, but crucially, the ludic element is maintained. It’s a subtle shift in language but it carries with it a change in attitude and philosophy by recognising that challenge is subjective and everyone deserves to have an enjoyable experience.
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