The Horror of ‘Resident Evil’ is Baked Right Into its Level Design [Resident Evil at 25]

Horror is so often defined by a sense of place. It’s the first thing that sets the tone for a game, before you run into any creatures or puzzles. The first Resident Evil struck a chord with many due to its impressive and imposing setting, and since then the series has brought us to many horrifying locations. Resident Evil games are also known for backing up their iconic settings with excellent level design that reinforces the theme and rewards mastery for the player. 

The Spencer Mansion kicked off the series by dropping players in a classic haunted house-style mansion, complete with secret passages and hidden horrors around every corner. We’re all familiar with this type of house from decades of film and novels, so players are instantly put in a state of unease by their association with other pieces of media. Doors are locked with bizarre methods like thematic keys and crests, furthering the strange atmosphere of the house without having to show you any hideous monsters. 

These various gating methods not only made things feel off-kilter, but were an important aspect of the level design of the game. While you are dropped in without any clear indication of where you have to go to progress, the game naturally funnels you into specific areas by locking away large parts of the house to you until you explore enough to find the pieces needed to progress. There’s a long-standing principle of level design saying that you should never give the player a key before you show them the lock, and Resident Evil always did a good job of telling players exactly what types of keys they should be looking for before sending them off to find them. 

This ever-expanding nature of the location gave the player a great feeling of discovery and mastery. Many times when a new path would be unlocked, it would cleverly loop back around to a previously explored area, making the level feel big, but never requiring a massive amount of time to backtrack from one place to another. A strong use of visual landmarks, like the iconic entryway of the mansion, helps ground the player and prevent them from getting turned around easily. You’re forced to become familiar with areas because resources in the game are often very tight, so you need to look in every nook and cranny to make sure you find all the bullets or green herbs that are lying around. 

Resident Evil 2, most notably the remake, takes these principles and refines them masterfully with the police station portion of the game. Rather than using a traditional horror setting, it infuses the haunted house feeling into a place that’s meant to feel safe. We’ve already walked through hordes of zombies to get to a supposedly secure location, but even that is overrun and in shambles. It’s a smart way to show just how much higher the stakes are in this game and really ups the ante. 

While all the strange keys and passageways feel at home in a spooky old mansion, seeing them in a police station goes a long way to further throw off the player. If this place has stuff like that going on, something must be seriously wrong here. Using that juxtaposition really helps bring the lore of this area alive. The history of the police station and what happened there is also brought to life through notes left throughout the level, giving players more incentive to scour the area in search of tidbits of information that not only enrich the story, but may give clues to how to find secrets hidden throughout. 

The threat of Mr. X in the Resident Evil 2 Remake gives the player an additional mastery reward for becoming familiar with their surroundings. Once he shows up and starts stalking the player, you have to get creative in how you get around as Mr. X can show up anywhere and cut off your route. By the time he shows up, you’ve unlocked several different routes through the station, so the better you know the place the more effectively you can think on your feet to get around him in a panic. 

Despite being in a setting that was completely different than any other Resident Evil game before it, Resident Evil 7 wisely used many of these same techniques to make the Baker Family House feel like it belonged in the series. Using a similar structure in a much more natural feeling environment made a swampy family residence feel just as imposing and threatening as the original Spencer Mansion. 

Unlocking sections as you go also makes a relatively small space feel massive and rewarding by forcing you to loop around it in different ways to backtrack and find things. Being that it’s a family home, you get a lot of character development from the layout and contents of their rooms, giving you a glimpse of what the Baker Family was like before tragedy struck them, turning them into the monsters you encounter. It both feels like a real place, but is perfectly built as a video game level. 

I’m hoping that Resident Evil: Village is able to maintain the high quality of level design seen in RE7 and RE2: Remake. The modern games have always worked best when they find the core of what worked in earlier games and amplify them with an immaculate level of polish. The setting definitely evokes those seen in RE4, so hopefully they can echo what made that game special while still making something unique and modern.