words Sam Jacob
The normal hierarchies of architecture are dissolved in the latest deeply gothic instalment of the Resident Evil saga.
Automated crossbow traps, giant balls of rock rolling down tunnels, statues with lasers for eyes: there are certain 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 & Dragons and on Hollywood sound stages. Despite being imaginary, they feel as familiar as the clunk of a car door, the click of a 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 troops are heading towards Raccoon 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 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. It’s 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. Resident Evil, from the moment the first zombie lurches towards you, is all about atmosphere, all rendered darkly beautiful in a fixed-camera cinematic style by the GameCube’s graphic engine.
All of this atmosphere and scenario is arranged around 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 it’s supposed to be: the dining room, kitchen, library become scenarios in which to play out the action. The house has been entirely de-programmed – the opposite of form following function.
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 continuous ribbon of Victorian mansion, mineshafts, lab complex, and giant shark tank. The landscape dissolves the normal hierarchies of architecture. Bedrooms and graveyards, caves and kitchens, conservatories and sewers, sheds and mortuaries all 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 Architects and Lutyens.
Throughout the game, there is real attention to detail to make things look old, dirty and broken: each footstep across a carpet sends up a plume of dust; the paint is blistered. 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, and 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 game’s concluding cut scene shows the mansion blowing up. Massive destruction as an accelerated picturesque – a building fast-forwarded to ruin.
Resident Evil is deeply gothic. The relationship of technology to the body is at heart. The T-virus which causes genetic mutation; the bio experiments; the rooms carpeted with teeming, 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.
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 an 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 be assembled and reanimated.
Resident Evil Zero is available for the GameCube