The importance of good world building – or, how Resident Evil 7 won me over

Not so long ago, I watched some Let’s Plays of Resident Evil 7, and wanted to write about being surprised that, for the first time in my life, I found myself actually giving a shit about a Resident Evil game. I’ve also watched the DLC stuff — in fact, recently, I watched some of the second DLC package, in particular the “Daughters” segment.

You be quiet, you little demon spawn!
You be quiet, you little demon spawn!

Now I feel like I have a handle on what I actually want to talk about, which is what made me suddenly give a shit about Resident Evil. It’s not just the masterfully creepy suspense that I think almost everyone agrees is done to damn near perfection. It’s also the keen sense of world-building and history that went into crafting the story.

Because, on the surface, Resident Evil 7 sounds like any survival horror game: you’re trapped in a confined location, monsters are out to get you, and you have to survive while the game does everything in its power to dick you over. Monsters will jump out when you least expect it; you’re always running out of space in your inventory; you’ve never got enough bullets in your gun to take down even the puniest of enemies.

Even story-wise, at least on paper, it sounds kind of hokey. A rural family in Louisiana has gone batshit insane, apparently taking your wife hostage, and your first instinct is to just go in there after her, instead of doing something sensible, like call the police or, at the very least, bring a fucking gun.

Luckily, the Baker family anticipated your arrival and kindly left some out for you to kick their asses with.
Luckily, the Baker family anticipated your arrival and kindly left some out for you to kick their asses with.

There’s more going on here than what’s just at the surface, though. So I want to dive into that for a bit, but first:

Huge, dinosauric spoiler warning. If you haven’t played Resident Evil 7 yourself, and you intend to at some point in your life, you might want to find something else to read.

For starters, what Resident Evil 7 does right for me is hit the big ol’ reset button. No longer are we playing catch-up with whatever dumbass idea the Umbrella Corp. has gotten into their minds this time about zombies being a neat idea. Instead, we’re just playing a dude named Ethan who wants to get his wife, Mia, back from what initially appears to be some dumbfuck rednecks who have been watching too many reruns of Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

This is, of course, very far from the truth, and when the secret-government-conspiracy-to-create-biological-weapons-out-of-genetically-engineered-children plot eventually unfolds (told you there’d be spoilers), it comes very, very late in the game, and it feels earned somehow.

The second great thing it does is not having zombies in it at all. I don’t know about you, but I’m fucking sick of zombies. I was sick of zombies when the first Resident Evil came out in 1996, and I’m sick of them today.

Shut up. Go have a biscuit.
Shut up. Go have a biscuit.

The antagonists in Resident Evil 7 are not zombies. The Baker family are still (technically) human, and they still have all their faculties about them — they can walk, they can talk, they can deduce. They have just been warped, both mentally and physically, by an external force that has seeped into their being, slowly eroding them from within, picking away at their humanity and driving them insane, until they are completely at the mercy of it.

What this game does well is give you glimpses of what life was like before the infection hit. That this was just a more or less normal, swamp-dwelling family until something turned them into this.

Gosh, you've never looked better.
Gosh, you’ve never looked better. Have you been working out?

But what the game does best of all is give you an expansive timeframe where you are only privy to certain bits of information, leaving your mind to fill in the horrific blanks. The Baker family have been infected for years — at the start of the game, I believe they’re going on four years? Something like that. Four years of being out of their minds, cutting off their limbs and regenerating them into exciting new appendages, spitting up bugs, and kidnapping random people to turn into playthings for the source of their sickness, Evelyn — who, of course, takes the form of a little girl with long hair wearing a black dress. (Some clichés still work.)

While the main game itself does an admirable job of slowly unveiling the truth of why the Baker family turned into the seemingly immortal insano-pods that they are, it is the downloadable content (released as “Banned Footage” volumes) that fully unveils the scope of their tragic story.

Because, yes, the real tragedy in Resident Evil 7 is not that the protagonist, Ethan, has lost his wife to the insane-train of the bayou. It’s not even that Evelyn was born in a lab to be used as a biological weapon that, quelle surprise, got way out of hand because someone made the mistake of explaining the concept of “family” to her.

The real tragedy is the Baker family itself — innocent, as it were, now infected, now condemned to spend the remainder of their lives as inhuman shells hell-bent on servicing the interloper of their minds and souls in absurdly sadistic ways.

The second DLC has the mini-story “Daughters,” which shows the Baker household before the infection from the viewpoint of their daughter, Zoe (who, in the main game, acts as Ethan’s plot-progression mechanic). You probably know what happens already, as I have already warned about spoilers.

This girl just CANNOT. CATCH. A. BREAK.
This girl just CANNOT. CATCH. A. BREAK.

This DLC mini-story was a real opportunity for Capcom to show the full tragic horror of the Baker family. We see them as a comparatively normal family who take in two shipwrecked strangers — Evelyn and Mia. Things seem fine for a bit, but then mommy starts behaving oddly. Specifically, shortly after checking on Evelyn, she starts spitting bugs in Zoe’s face, and that’s a far cry from what I assume her usual party trick is.

Sadly, it’s also a bit of a missed opportunity, because the whole thing feels very rushed. We know from the full game that Zoe goes into hiding once her parents fall under the spell of Evelyn, and eventually help out Ethan through a series of conspicuously well-placed phone calls.

However, this was an opportunity to show how the descent of madness brought on by Eve’s presence tore the family apart, and it fails in a spectacularly ham-fisted fashion. Instead of showing the gradual effects of infection, Mom and Dad simply go from zero to full-on batshit in the span of five minutes. Maybe they were just easily susceptible. But that just raises more questions than answers.

Why were Jack and Marguerite so quickly and easily overtaken — essentially going from normal, everyday folks to drooling monsters in less time than it takes to have a piss — but Zoe, apparently also infected, is able to keep it together and guide Ethan on a quest to find the vaccine, several fucking years later?

A simpler time, before everything went to gooey shit.

The parts of the story that are the most interesting to me is actually what happens in between the “Daughters” DLC and the full game. We’re told that, as the years go by, Jack and Marguerite start kidnapping people for Evelyn to turn into the walking goo-monsters known as the Molded. All while Zoe is in hiding and Lucas took up a hobby of wiring up explosive devices for his own amusement.

My point of all this is: Because there’s such a huge timespan between how it all began (“Daughters”) and how it all ends (the full game), the world building in this game feels expansive and immense. There’s room for so many stories to be told. You could conceivably have a full series of games that just told stories of hapless people ending up in the clutches of the Bakers, desperately trying to escape with their lives (and inevitably failing), all while uncovering little bits and pieces of the Baker family history.

There’s so much to build upon. And, while that has yet to come to fruition, at least at current time of writing, the simple prospect of having a universe this rich in such a confined space is why I think Resident Evil 7 is not just a masterpiece of horror (because, hot damn, it is creepy as all fuck), but also a masterpiece of world-building.

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