Twenty-five years after it burst onto the original PlayStation—dragging a whole host of undead imitators in its wake—explaining the effect of Capcom’s original Resident Evil remains anything but straightforward. How did a first-time directorial effort–one that reportedly came close to being canceled, and had lead designer Shinji Mikami working solo for its first months of development– end up not only inaugurating the most influential horror franchise of all time, but also naming a whole subgenre, which eventually (if misguidedly) came to stand in for the entirety of video game horror? What was the catalyst that transformed a crude, untested concept about cops clunkily wandering a zombie-filled mansion into an era-defining work?
Truth be told, many of Resident Evil’s oft-cited innovations were borrowed from less enshrined forerunners. Slowly running out of ammo while being crowded by a monstrous horde was part of the appeal in Project Firestart. Sweet Home saw you trapped in a spooky mansion, and harbored a fondness for creaking-door cutscenes. Preset camera angles claustrophobically concealed more of Alone In The Dark’s 3D spaces than they ever revealed. A couple of happy coincidences helped, too. The dust hadn’t quite settled on the bitterest era of the Nintendo-Sega-Sony console wars of the mid-’90s, when Capcom decided to align with its eventual winner by early 1995, after the understaffed studio was forced to focus on either a PlayStation or Saturn version of the game. And zombies were just starting to catch on as a cultural phenomenon—a process no doubt accelerated by the success of both Resident Evil and arcade shooter The House Of The Dead (even if oversimplified accounts tend to exaggerate their role).
Neither contingency nor chemistry, however, fully illuminate the sense of overbearing dread that Mikami’s game could generate, unlike anything experienced in the medium before. Visualize this: You have entered a cramped bedroom where a shambling mound of flesh lurks inside a closet, waiting to ambush you the moment you’ve turned your back and already half-trapped yourself between a desk and adjacent bed. Or perhaps you’ve exited through a passage that leaves you stranded in the middle of a long, narrow corridor where two bestial creatures able to behead you with a single claw-swipe start closing in from opposite directions. Now imagine how rapidly the trepidation at such eventualities dissipates, how quickly the player’s traumatized psyche heals, if they were able to create a pocket of safety by saving their hard-earned progress every time they hesitated outside the closed door to a new area.
Until Resident Evil, horror was something that games alluded to with visual references to cinematic monsters, and the odd creepy-organ tune. But the works bearing those superficial trappings were mostly the same old dungeon crawlers, action adventures, and point-and-clicks—the mood was something external to them, an annotation. Mikami opened the door for actual, visceral horror in gaming by turning a fundamental feature of narrative-driven games—the ability to save progress, to undo mistakes or harm—into a finite resource masked as an unassuming, expendable office accessory: the humble typewriter ink ribbon.
The proto-survival-horror titles that preceded Resident Evil placed few, if any, restrictions on saving progress. In contrast, Resident Evil not only locks the option to save the game to sparingly placed typewriter rooms, but also sadistically limits the number of saves available throughout the game by requiring you to dip into a meagerly dispensed supply of items every time you choose to exercise it. Running out of ammunition is awful in the early Resident Evils, but running out of ink ribbons is where the real nightmare sets in.
More specifically, there are 18 to 27 ink ribbons (depending on whether you’re playing as protagonist Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine) in every game of Resident Evil, a play-through that takes roughly six to eight hours. To put this in perspective, you need, on average, to survive a 20-minute gauntlet that typically entails being ganged up on by bloodthirsty zombies, evading one-shot decapitations, outrunning rabid hellhounds, fighting off the occasional boss, etc., in order to breathe that short-lived sigh of relief. But even that nightmarish algebra rests on two rather generous assumptions: first, that you will manage to locate all ribbons in the game—fail to find a couple buried under a ton of art paraphernalia or another hidden inside the pockets of a lab coat, and the counter rises accordingly; and second, that you have a vague idea of how long the whole ordeal is going to take. Which, of course, first-time players of the game back in 1996 didn’t.
It’s deep in the imaginary spaces conjured by said uncertainty that Resident Evil’s perpetual anxiety machine keeps turning, Mikami’s supreme instrument of torture. The decision to expend an ink ribbon is nothing like persevering through a long, punishing level to reach a checkpoint in a traditional action game. Checkpoints are inherently reassuring things, put there by someone who, unlike the player, is fully aware of what’s coming next. Informed by that knowledge, they confidently declare both that your current position is safe, and so, too, are your prospects of a successful play-through. They’re the omniscient designer’s benevolent hand patting you on the back and whispering, “You can do this.”
But there are no such signs of divine providence during your first tour of Resident Evil’s Spencer Mansion, and clueless players are just as prone to author their own doom as to ensure their salvation. Will your diminishing ribbon supply last until you find a new batch? Do the unknown dangers ahead necessitate saving now, or should you risk pressing forward? With uncertainty weighing the decision for every ribbon spent, Resident Evil inaugurates the era of survival horror by transforming a hitherto unambiguous source of reprieve into an agonizing dilemma: to save or not to save?
In literary theory, the term “implied reader” describes an idealized member of the audience to whom the work is addressed. What, then, does Mikami’s “implied player” look like? Is it someone who presses on recklessly, burning through ammo packs and health kits, saving with little hesitation, and fully embracing the possibility that there may come a moment, four or five hours in, when they’ve locked themselves out of the possibility of winning and need to start anew? Is it someone who repeats every section obsessively, like a broken record, saving only after clearing what they deem an acceptable chunk of space while wasting a minimum amount of resources? Or perhaps someone that rejects such linear temporalities and—in what’s probably the more practical, if less intuitive approach—splits their saves between safe and risky ones, using the latter as platforms to discover what lies ahead and devise a plan, then resuming from an earlier point for a better-informed, already well-rehearsed performance?
For franchise veterans, it’s easy to overlook the earth-shattering impact of turning the act of recording progress itself into an expendable resource. Mikami’s brilliant subversion works only the first time you play the game, unaware of the task that lie ahead—and may even fizzle with new players who’ve spent years seeing every aspect of the original dissected into dust. But 25 years ago, when Resident Evil was first unleashed on unsuspecting audiences, the scariest thing about this new template of survival horror was neither zombies nor hellhounds. It was running out of ink ribbons.