Resident Evil 2 – Level/Puzzle Design Discussion

April 8th, 2010

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I’m a bit stumped on how to discuss Resident Evil 2. Make no mistake, this is a fine game and I’d sure as hell like to probe into the design, however, the most attractive part of this title (the construction of puzzle elements) requires micro-level analysis. That is, analysis of pre-supposed routes, the respective associations of the “puzzle pieces”, the ordering of environmental hints and notes, the positioning of safe and danger zones and how all of these parts work together to guide the player. As you can imagine, for me to deconstruct Resident Evil 2 at this level, I’d basically be reverse engineering large chunks of the game and that’s an enormous undertaking. So instead of printing off maps and scribbling all over them, only to share my esoteric analysis, I’ve decided to just talk generally about the puzzle and level design.

The Spencer Estate and Onions

I wish I had a better memory of Resident Evil 3 because of what I can remember it strayed away from the mansion-orientated design pertinent in Resident Evil 0 through to Resident Evil 2. In Resident Evil, the design of the Spencer estate works like an onion. The player remains in a solitary place, peeling off layers of access (via the solving of cryptic puzzles) until they reach the core. The puzzles are designed around exploiting one iteration of the mansion, peeling back a layer, gaining some new items and mining further into new areas or taking their new-found tools and re-applying them to the newest iteration. (Iterations, for example when you leave the mansion to go to the graveyard and come back in, enemy placement is different and you have new tools to use within the environment).

Resident Evil 0 and 2 diverge from this formula, but only a little. A large section (generally close to half) of each title is spent in an area akin to the Spencer estate (the Umbrella Training Facility and the RPD Police Station). This estate is then connected by a linear path to smaller “estates” with fewer layers of puzzle-solving (sewers, factory, water filtration plant, Umbrella labs). Resident Evil 0 and 2 diverge by the way of chopping up the mansion and spreading it out over several interconnected areas.

Resident Evil 3, if I remember correctly, mostly eschewed this design in place of a very fragmented, linear design on the streets of Racoon City. There were a couple of smaller “estates” (the clock tower and the RPD Police Station), but they were much more open-ended. I might be completely off my mark here, but I remember Resident Evil 3 being far more linear than prior games, substituting this freedom in the form of the run or die choices occasionally presented when faced against Nemesis.

Posing the Question of Playability

A few weeks back, I discussed how the Ecliptic Express section preluding the Research Facility at the start of Resident Evil 0 worked as a good tutorial to ease players into the experience. Besides a brief skip through the Racoon City streets at the beginning of the game (part of the only time you actually experience the city outdoors), Resident Evil 2 begins just as Resident Evil did: by dumping you in a large house with riddles to solve—there is no tutorial. On my first play session of Resident Evil 2 though I played for several hours straight, constantly making progress throughout this time and, in fact, only ended my play session because the hours were rolling past midnight. Contrary to Resident Evil where I was frequently drip-fed on a FAQ. I enjoyed Resident Evil 0 and 2 because they made me feel intelligent without sacrificing challenge, however Resident Evil was simply a lesson in frustration. It constantly made me feel stupid. The strange thing is that Resident Evil and Resident Evil 2 both start off on the same foot, design-wise, so how is it that my play experiences were so radically different?

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To answer the question generally, I think Resident Evil 2 has a much clearer, obvious design than Resident Evil. In Resident Evil 2, the logic puzzles are—surprisingly enough—based on logic. If you have a crank handle, it goes in a hole. If you have a red gem stone, there will only be one spot where putting that gem stone would seem appropriate. If you have materials for explosives, a note will tell you explicitly that if you put those items together you will make a bomb. While not exactly obvious, Resident Evil 2′s puzzles are far from cryptic; they actually give the player a fighting chance at solving the problem for themselves. In Resident Evil, you’re often presented with items which have no context within the areas you’ve just visited (stones, dragon heads) and clues tend to be more confusing than helpful. In contrast, almost every time I found an item in Resident Evil 2, I knew exactly where I could apply that item and if I didn’t, the item was practical enough for me to assume where it could possibly be used later in the game.

Perhaps not even incidentally, Resident Evil and Resident Evil 2 are cryptic and practical, respectively, for good reasons. Resident Evil is cryptic not only because it’s a “remake” of Sweet Home (which had arcane puzzle elements) but also because of the established of George Trevor plot arc. Trevor was intentionally hired to design the mansion on behalf of Umbrella head Ozwell E. Spencer because of his expertise of crafting puzzles, traps and secret doors. Resident Evil 2, on the other hand, is set in a suburban town, so the items available are practical commodity items and the puzzles are thereby more straightforward than the traps Trevor dreamt up.

The other point worth considering is the avenues open to exploration. Both Resident Evil and Resident Evil 2 dump you in a large house and leave you to your own devices. Resident Evil leaves the player stranded with two floors with doorways leading all over the mansion. A gunshot steers the player in the general direction. In the Police Station in Resident Evil 2, access to the higher floors are cut off, there are three doors on the ground floor, one of them is locked and in Leon’s game, a police office lets out a scream which explicitly indicates that the layer best investigate. Once you’ve explored the respective room, you’re locked out, leaving only one other avenue to go down. So it’s very clear where to go next, yet it doesn’t dumb down the experience.

Conclusion

Resident Evil 2 breaks the mansion design into several linearly connected areas and in doing so streamlines the overwhelming nature of the original game. Due to the suburban setting, Resident Evil 2‘s puzzles focus on practicality over arcane mystery and as the crux of the title therefore improves accessibility greatly. Overall then, these factors help make Resident Evil 2 a more user-focused puzzle experience which explain why such a title is so highly regarded.

You know, now that I think about it, if I were a FAQ writer, I probably could have quite easily followed through with my original idea.

  • I think the ingenuity of level design in Resident Evil 2 shines best when you’ve played all four scenarios. It’s amazing how all the scenarios share the basic formula and setting, but have smaller details that make them distinct from each other. I feel it’s certainly a much more polished game than Resident Evil 1 was, but my heart belongs to the first one. This is not the case of nostalgia, either, as I experienced the first game after I had completed the second and the third game. Note that I’m talking about the original PSX version, as I haven’t had a Nintendo console for ages, so I can’t play the remake (as much as I’d really like). Anyway, the original has a much more offbeat graphical style. I mean, in Resident Evil 2 the design of police department is more realistic, both graphically and aesthetically. In Resident Evil 1, however, the colourful wallpapers and conflicting interior designs give it sort of a trippy atmosphere. Resident Evil 2 has darker colours and is more clinical in that way, yet maybe too polished.

    But in the end they are both great games, just have a different style. On a professional level, Resident Evil 2 is certainly a more accomplished product, though. I never just really care about that. 😀

    Resident Evil 3 is sort of a messy work, I must admit. I don’t like RE4 personally that much either, but at least in that case it simply comes down to my preferences alone, as design-wise RE4 is quite a marvel. RE3, not so much.

    Oh, and I write in Estonian on my blog. 🙂

  • I totally agree with you on the point of RE1’s trippy design. I’ve only played the remake and regretfully so as I’m really attracted to that campy vibe you describe of the original. I think it has a totally unique appeal which demands a look. At the same time, I also admire RE2’s unnatural take on realism, like Final Fantasy VII, I find it very iconic of the era.

  • anon

    Can you review halo3 please?