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Claire Redfield aims a flashlight at two zombies in a screenshot from Capcom’s Resident Evil 2 remake.

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How Capcom updated Resident Evil 2 for 2019

Capcom producer Tsuyoshi Kanda explains the challenges of making zombies scary, and defends the action-heavy entries of the franchise

Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 and is now editor-in-chief. He co-hosts The Besties, is a board member of the Frida Cinema, and created NYU’s first games journalism course.

If you have the patience to dig up a copy of Resident Evil 2 on the original PlayStation, you’ll find a landmark zombie game marred by all the familiar headaches of video games circa 1998. The camera is static; the controls, frustrating; and the story, repetitive. No wonder publisher Capcom recently opted to remake the game rather than rush another high-def remaster.

The remake project, simply (albeit confusingly) titled Resident Evil 2, features a number of revisions intended to make the game more accessible, particularly for people accustomed to the amenities of modern games. At Tokyo Game Show 2018, we spoke with producer Tsuyoshi Kanda about the specifics of those edits. From tacky shoulder pads to laughable zombies, Kanda enumerated the many aspects of the original game that needed to be revised, replaced or cut altogether. And he made a surprising defense of the franchise’s later action-heavy entries, broadly seen as departures from what made the early Resident Evil games special.

[Ed. note: This interview was conducted with a translator provided by Capcom. The transcript has been edited for clarity and concision.]

Polygon: It must be challenging and maybe exciting to produce a remake when nobody agrees on what a remake should be. There’s a spectrum between the ultra-loyal remasters, like the work being done by Sega and Capcom on their retro game collections, and projects that take a more liberal approach, like the recent remake of Shadow of the Colossus, which tweaked the art style and improved the controls. Resident Evil 2 seems to go even further with its change: The entire story structure is being streamlined.

When you began the project, knowing you had a good deal of creative freedom, what were some of the things from Resident Evil 2 that you felt had to stay? And what things from the original game did you decide, to be remade in 2018, had to be completely changed to be appealing in 2019?

Tsuyoshi Kanda: This is definitely based on the original and we’re respecting it as much as we can. There’s a legacy of the series following the same key beats. Not radically, completely changing it. But when we bring it to this kind of level of photorealism using the RE Engine, you’d have to bring some groundedness to certain aspects.

It’s not so much that the times have changed, but when the game looks this real, certain things stand out as being very nonbelievable, kind of pulling you out of the experience. That applies to all kinds of gameplay elements — even something as simple as the costumes the characters are wearing. We keep the feel of the originals and what the [originals] represent.

So Leon being a rookie cop, he has to wear a policeman’s uniform. But, like, the huge shoulder pads he had in the original are not something that — they’re a symbolic design in a low-polygon look. But when you make his outfit realistic, you need to make him [nondescript]. Like, you wouldn’t look at him twice on the street, because what he’s wearing ... it’s realistic for a cop to wear that.

That’s the kind of design choices we have to make ... in order to ground the story for players today. They expect to have that certain movie-like quality of “this could really happen,” and all kinds of decisions like that get made down the chain.

Resident Evil 2 remake - Leon Kennedy and Ada Wong Capcom

Has this applied to gameplay, too? Twenty years ago, players sort of lived with fussy controls and frustrating save systems. Do you feel the need to make a version of Resident Evil 2 that’s more accessible and accommodating for an audience that’s so much bigger now than it was in the mid-’90s?

Yeah. We’ve had to update it in a way that makes sense to modern game players in terms of accessibility. People have certain standards they expect today, whether it’s ease of moving the character, aiming, controlling the camera. These are all kind of just basics you have to hit.

Within that context, we can still add difficulty. This isn’t a shooter where you can aim exactly where you want to all the time. We can bring a certain weight to the controls to make it challenging. You still panic in the moment to pick up your gun and shoot a certain part of the zombie. That feeds into the horror part.

Just by making a modern, accessible game doesn’t mean you have to make a quick action game. You can make an accessible game and still make decisions that put it firmly in the survival horror camp. We’ve had reference to Resident Evil 7 in that sense, because it’s also a very horror-focused game. And although the camera system in [the Resident Evil 2 remake] is different — compared to Resident Evil 7, it’s not first-person — we still have a certain claustrophobia to the camera angle. It’s third-person, but it isn’t a zoomed-out view of the whole world. It’s very up close and personal with the characters on screen, and I think we’ve been able to translate that into something that feels natural and pick-up-and-playable to modern gamers, but it doesn’t lose that sense of claustrophobic horror that fans expect from the original game.

A Licker enemy attacks a knife-wielding Claire Redfield in a screenshot of the Resident Evil 2 remake. Capcom

On that topic of the camera, camera angles are so central to how horror works. A close-up can conceal the killer hiding just off frame. When I think of Resident Evil 2, I picture all these iconic static camera angles that hang close to the characters. They often obscure zombies in a room’s hidden corners. How has giving control of the camera to players changed the game’s feel? Has it changed how certain sequences played out or how you, as a designer, put scares into a scene?

Because we changed the camera angle, we did lose the ability to do certain tricks, like a forced frame angle that conceals things — even though you’re in the same room as something, you can’t see it yet. We can’t get away with that in third-person. But just because you have the freedom to move the camera doesn’t mean that we can’t hide anything. That still comes down to level design, visual design and atmospheric design.

So you can be walking down the corridor of the police station. You’ve got just the flashlight beam or you’ve got darkness ahead. There’s smoke, the corridor twists, and you still can’t see ahead, even with the third-person camera. We can definitely create an atmosphere of unease, where you still don’t know what’s coming around the next corner, without having to literally lock off your view to achieve surprise or jump scares.

It’s also not just visual. We’ve got this great approach, what we’re calling wetness and darkness. They’re our keywords. They have a great sense of dark and light interplay. Also sort of a glistening wetness to the gore of the zombies and the water on the floor. That kind of thing.

Sound is really important too. With a fixed camera, surround sound doesn’t really make sense because of the context of where you’re standing — what you can and can’t see — doesn’t really work with a series of zoomed-out fixed camera angles. In [the original Resident Evil 2], the camera angle changes constantly. And what are you going to do to change the relative sound of surround sound moment by moment? It wouldn’t work.

The benefit of having an over-the-shoulder camera is we’ve got an amazing 360-degree aural experience. And not just for people who have fancy surround sound equipment. We’ve really pushed binaural technology in this game. Even in a stereo headphone presentation, you get a real sense of the directionality of a zombie moan or a creature scream. And that kind of brings the horror atmosphere to a level we couldn’t do on a fixed camera. It’s making up for — and then some — for some of the things you lose by not having fixed cameras.

Resident Evil 2 remake - Leon Kennedy and Ada Wong outside on a rainy street Capcom

Are you investing resources in binaural audio because more and more gamers are playing with headphones on these days?

Yeah. When we imagine someone playing a horror game like this, we think they’re probably going to want to play at night, when it’s dark out. That might naturally mean people are in a situation where they need to put headphones on, because it’s late at night and they’ve got neighbors or people in the house or whatever. It’s quite natural to immerse yourself fully by, you know, putting your headphones on in the living room and darkening the room — that kind of thing. So we thought [binaural audio] would be a really great way to support the play style. And it’s one of the best ways to play the game.

The original Resident Evil and Resident Evil 2 were heavily influenced by George Romero and the old-school zombie film directors. But when I had the opportunity to talk with the director of Resident Evil 7, he talked about how he required everybody on his team to watch The Evil Dead and Army of Darkness, which is a very modern tonal shift. With the Resident Evil 2 remake, were newer works of zombie fiction, film or games shown to the team to influence how zombies are portrayed this time around?

I don’t think we’ve specifically referenced modern zombie movies as such. The original games definitely had the George Romero influence. We’ve kind of tried to keep that going, but we can’t directly reference that style anymore because the way the [Romero] zombie looks now isn’t that scary anymore. They seem a bit silly.

Leon Kennedy decapitates a zombie with a shotgun in a screenshot of the Resident Evil 2 remake. Capcom

The original games existed in a context where zombies were not very common in fiction. At that time period, Romero films had come and gone, and were consigned to B-movie history. Then, with the original games [in the 1990s], we brought zombies back to video games. They were really refreshing and scary because it was so unusual to be fighting them.

The problem we have to face with the remake is that [the ’90s] zombies have become so standard across all genres of fiction and media, like movies, games and TV. We’ve kind of hit peak zombie, and it’s also come and gone. You can’t just show zombies onscreen and be like, “OK, be scared.” People are used to them, and they’re kind of the low-level enemy in the video game enemy hierarchy. They’re no longer the enemy that you feel scared by.

So we wanted to make you feel with the remake’s zombies the way you would have felt seeing the original Resident Evil 1 and 2 zombies — but updating that visually. We want you to feel that zombies are scary again. They’re not just a bullet sponge you have to deal with to get through the game.

We’ve really worked hard on the visuals and the physics of them. We let you aim for specific parts of their body. We have realistic, real-time bullet damage to specific parts of them. They can be dismembered. You can shoot off a leg to disable them or shoot off an arm so they can’t grab you.

And when they come up close and grab you, the camera swings in for this really intense claustrophobic feel. Even if you think zombies are kind of passé, you’ll definitely find them scary all over again in this game.

Claire Redfield holds off a hungry zombie in a screenshot of the Resident Evil 2 remake. Image: Capcom

Yeah, it feels like Capcom publicly grappled with the problem that you just described with both Resident Evil 5 and Resident Evil 6. To make zombies scarier, the games became more and more action-oriented. The threat became bigger. Monsters were taking over cities. There was the volcano. Then the main series took a break until we got Resident Evil 7 last year. And it felt like such a throwback to the original philosophy.

Now we’re getting this remake of Resident Evil 2. I’m curious if a decision was made to return to the more methodical horror approach of the early games. And what lessons were learned from that action-heavy period, when the games were not as well-loved by critics and fans.

Well, for each game in the series, you know, the director of the team has really decided the approach. Even for the games that are more action-oriented, we feel like they all still have horror as a base of them. That’s the theme of the game and the general atmosphere. And then each has been able to choose whether they’re going to lean it toward a more-action experience or a less-action experience. I think there’s definitely room for both in the series, because it’s such a huge franchise now that we can’t say one size fits all — that this is what Resident Evil is and you have to like that.

We know there are fans of both styles. Some people got into the series during the 4, 5 and 6 period of having more action-focused games. They love that. Some others got into the classic series, and that’s what Resident Evil means to them. It means different things to different people.

So we don’t necessarily have to stick to one template. You mentioned zombies. Not having zombies in the game doesn’t mean you’re no longer a horror game. Resident Evil 7 was an amazing, intense horror experience without a zombie in it; it focused on the Baker family. That’s one approach to having a zombie-free, horror-focused game.

That’s just a decision that’s made for each game on its own. I think we don’t need to set one creative path where we say “Resident Evil is this now” and it’s going to be that going forward. Each team will look at its title and decide what it wants to do with the concept, to decide the approach they want to take. That’s how we approach the creative throughout the series.