Automated crossbow traps, giant balls of rock rolling down tunnels, statues with lasers for eyes: There are certain kinds of things that are only ever seen on the covers of sci-fi books, in the plastic models on shelves of fantasy stores, in the complex bureaucracy of Dungeons and Dragons, and on Hollywood sound stages. Despite being imaginary, they feel as familiar as the clunk of a car door, the click of charger being plugged into a mobile phone or the dull pop of puncturing the sta-fresh seal on a new jar of instant coffee.
Resident Evil Zero is an entire landscape of this Inigo Jones meets Indiana Jones mechanised-historicism. It’s the prequel to the Resident Evil series that began seven years ago on the Playstation. This is its latest incarnation, exclusive to the GameCube.
Here is the scenario: A crack team of SAS style troupers are heading towards Racoon City to investigate reports of a series of bizarre deaths. Their helicopter crashes in a forest, where they find an overturned truck, and dead soldiers. Investigating the crash site, you find a derelict train that’s right out of Agatha Christie, apart from the Day of the Dead Zombies. After killing the zombies, the train crashes in a tunnel, where you escape through a sewer then climb up a ladder into the hall of a mansion that’s part Psycho, part Phantom Manor and part Miss Haversham.
The game doesn’t really have a plot, more a great big heap of non-contextual scenarios: bio-tech gone wrong, zombies, giant centipedes, graveyards, guns, knives, napalm grenade launchers, fountains, and crazy monkeys. Like a shredded copy of the Greatest Hits of Horror squashed into a dense lump of concentrated Super Scenario.
In a game like this the plot doesn’t matter. Its atmosphere which is where Resident Evil excels from the moment the first Zombie lurches towards you. All rendered darkly beautiful in a fixed camera cinematic style by the Gamecubes graphic engine.
All of this atmosphere and scenario is arranged as a sprawling architecture – a house and its grounds. It looks like a normal bit of spooky mansion architecture, but really it’s something different. Everything is divorced from what its supposed to be: the dining room, kitchen, library become scenarios to play out the action, not places to eat, cook or read. The house has been entirely de-programmed – the opposite of modernist Form Follows Function. Resident Evil reveals an extended idea of function spiralling over the horizon to a fantastical resolution.
The narrative and the media drag the plan into all kinds of unusual situations: from Victorian hall to electrical torture chamber via a secret door, taking a lift from a graveyard to an underground library, through a hole in the ceiling to a laboratory, down a gantry to a cablecar. The architecture is unravelled into a single smooth and continuos ribbon of Victorian mansion, mineshafts, lab complex, giant shark tank. A landscape which dissolves the normal hierarchies of architecture. Bedrooms and graveyards, caves and kitchens, conservatories and sewers, sheds and mortuaries become equivalent – you’re as likely to sleep in a graveyard as bury a body in the kitchen; cook in the sewer and shit in the kitchen.
The logic of the game design makes this feel normal and natural, when objectively it’s as freakish as a collaboration between Foreign Office and Lutyens.
Throughout the game, there is real attention to detail to make things look old, dirty, broken. Each footstep across a carpet sends up a plume of dust, the paint is blistered, the concrete. But it’s a beautiful dirt – a kind of sickly picturesque. Ruskin identified picturesque as the passing of time on an object. In Resident Evil the plants encroach, staircases have collapsed, pipes have burst, insects crawl. Everything is on the cusp of becoming a ruin , dying, or undead. It evokes the architecture-as-landscape of Superstudio through the eyes of a macabre romantic. The game shows us a new kind of picturesque which recognises the romance of a train crash and has empathy with the sewer. The games concluding cut scene shows the mansion blowing up. Massive destruction as an accelerated picturesque – a building fast forwarded to ruin. Like Vin Diesel starring in a James Cameron remake of Michael Landy s ‘Break Down’.
Resident Evils gothicness runs deep. The relationship of technology to the body is at heart. The t-virus which causes genetic mutation, the bio experiments, the rooms carpeted with seething, crawling leeches, the machines that are part of the architecture. The whole place is assembled as a kind of Frankenstein architecture. It is a gothic reworking of the house as a machine for living in – where the distinction between what is living and what is a machine is blurred. It recalls OMAs Bordeaux house, or at least Crimsons Wouter Vanstiphouts description of it: “Rem Koolhaas feverishly imagined architectural potential in this particular family life. He saw the limp lower body of the husband, being supported by a whole arsenal of trusses, carts, belts, diapers as architecture. He extrapolated this in a single huge heavy-duty contraption that provides the man with a way of moving throughout the house. Subsequently this contraption was made into the houses organisational core”.
Resident Evil says that everything is connected – not just space, but time too. A continuum of history and the future that’s all the same place, an English Heritage Futurism. Somewhere in Resident Evil, the fear of the past disappearing and the terror of anti-humanist future meet. It’s a place where Prince Charles and Marinetti could scheme together. Like the genetic research that has gone so horribly wrong in Resident Evil, the game suggests that there might be zombie architectural ideologies just waiting to assembled and reanimated.
First Published in Icon