Resident Evil 2 and the Little Corridor of Horrors

There’s a little corridor in Resident Evil 2 which has stuck in my mind for what must be going on for fifteen years. The last time I saw it was probably a decade ago but I can still (and will) list off its most minute features. It is somewhere under the police station and makes up part of - I’m assuming but can’t remember any details - the needlessly sinuous route from Raccoon City’s claustrophobic streets to its even more claustrophobic subterranean realm. It’s a bit out of the way really, located as it is at the foot of a ladder down the end of a recessed, open-air space which snakes around the back of the municipal building's basement. Upon first approaching it you’re set upon by dogs; enemies so fierce that I can still remember their throaty, digitally processed barks and the relentlessness of their enthusiastically murderous, seemingly nonsensical galloping. Perhaps running this gauntlet is one of the reasons I so vividly remember what comes after it. 

The corridor in question is bedecked in thick polythene cascading from its concrete ceiling, which ripples down the walls and gives the place the same unsettling atmosphere of recently cleaned up violence that I associate with crime scene tents. Leaning up against these undulating surfaces (I’m sure they weren’t actually animated, but there’s a lot to be said for the human imagination) is a collection of tools, cones and other construction doodads. It’s lit dimly at one end by cold fluorescent bulbs, the light from which plays off the scaffold beams that support everything - the police station, the streets, the chaos - that I’ve already trudged through. At the far end is a solid looking wall about seven foot tall (we insist on saying foot not feet in Yorkshire) which falls a little short of properly reaching the ceiling. Flush with this barrier, though spanning the full height of the passage, is a chain link fence with a little tear in its upper right-hand corner. Peeking through this, just above the top of the wall, is the moon, sitting peacefully in the black, starless skies above the city.
That is my memory of the place, anyway. Below is the actuality:

Not a bad effort, I reckon, though maybe I’ve romanticised and embellished upon the place a little in the intervening years, what did I say about that ol’ imagination, ey? What is important though, is how I felt and continue to feel about this place. The unnecessarily strong affinity I have for a pretty inconsequential corner of a sprawling game comprised of its fair share of corridors. (As an aside: I always thought it strange that, from a silly grounded in reality vs. game design standpoint, each of the major areas of the police station all had wildly different aesthetic and even architectural styles. Of course bits need to be memorable enough to the player, but the formal differences throughout the building are garishly abrasive.) I digress. The whole crux of that corridor’s power lies in the foot or so gap between the top of the wall and where the ceiling begins. Therein lies the video game embodiment of melancholy; the closest I’ve ever come to feeling desperately, but not conventionally, sad whilst partaking in play.    

Raccoon City is an oppressive place. Its streets are narrow, always flanked by two, three and four storey buildings with warren-like alleys running around and in between. This discomfort is made all the worse by the detritus left to clog the already constricted byways. Crashed vehicles, impotent barriers and lots of stuff on fire all conspire to make the traversal from one street to the next a war of slaloming, uncertain attrition. Once these have been negotiated there’s the police station, then the rest of the game is pretty much set underground. Welcoming is not a word easily associated with Resident Evil 2 or its locales. What feeds this confinement is the way many of these already tight spaces are shown to the player. Rather than looking at the world from the more modern third-person perspective, where the player views the game from behind the shoulder of the protagonist, we’re forced to survey each area from a fixed, second-person viewpoint. For a lovely examination of the perspective please look to this by Stephen Beirne.

In an attempt to not repeat those who have gone before me, I’ll simply say that by dictating exactly how the player views each of its areas, the game fundamentally shapes our understanding of them. For instance, out on the city streets - which are, as I’ve said, among the roomier of the game’s locations - we’re regularly shown things from quite narrow medium and high-angle shots. This not only acts as a disorientating force - they are often uncomfortably skewed, tight or move disconcertingly to follow the protagonist - but it further condenses our sense of space, channeling our eye into, rather than across, a particular scene. What were already oppressively cramped tracts of land are constricted even further, effectively to choking point: compelling the player, through sheer discomfort, to rush through the game’s precious few open environments and into the mirage of safety lying behind the police station’s door. In this way we’re coerced into running up the stairs instead of out the front door, provoked, through fear, into immediate action which ensures that we bowl headlong into our own oblivion, not away from it.

Which brings us back to the corridor. It’s one of the few places in the game where we can see any meaningful distance without our view being interrupted by a wall. It’s also one of the rare occasions where we can see the sky, with the exception, to my memory, of the approach to the police station (used to show the building’s vast size) and another lovely ‘shot’ of the moon as one exits the factory late in the story. Finally, it’s also an area entirely devoid of enemy encounters, which, combined with the heavily artificial light and the plastic on the walls, makes the corridor’s safety feel inviting in an eerily loaded way. In the world of Resident Evil 2 this small subterranean passageway represents the safest and calmest place it is possible for us to find our way into. It also provides us with a tantalising glimpse at an unattainable escape: the thought that if our character was lithe enough we could have them through the gap in the fence and out into the shimmering moonlight, running full-pelt through the fields and the hell away from Raccoon City. My corridor is a false promise: safety -but to no end. It is the stinging reminder that inaction is often more dangerous than its alternatives. That we’re already in far too deep to simply walk away, or even stay put, despite all the reasonable-to-assume dire consequences we’ll bring upon ourselves. That realisation of inescapable finality, as a metaphor for pretty much all aspects of life, upset my still-optimistic child self. It kind of still does.

There’s just one slight problem.

There appears, you see, to have been a wee misunderstanding between myself and Resident Evil 2, one which has coloured my opinions and memories of my corridor for years, which has made me completely wrong about everything. There is no moon hanging watchful in the sky. There is no melancholic promise of an unachievable absconsion. There’s not even anything remotely interesting beyond that two foot gap between ceiling and wall. There’s just another corridor.

You are, I suppose, meant to play the game twice to really get the whole story. Much like its progenitor it has two heroes running around inside it, in this case a rookie cop called Leon “Rookie Cop” S. Kennedy and Claire “Sister of Chris from the First One” Redfield. Their stories are very much their own, largely self-contained things, where they each run around the same locations conveniently missing one another in largely the same way as Shrek 2 used to justify its abysmally lazy existence. So while these two adventures do present somewhat different experiences, they weren’t offering little me enough diversity back in the year two thousand, so I ended up just playing the Leon campaign. Which is kind of where I went wrong, I reckon.

If I had been bothered to play as both characters I’d’ve seen the corridor for what it is: just a corridor. And not even a good one really, seeing as how its end wall - what up until writing this I thought of as a harbinger of my emotional awakening - acts as an annoying and very video gamey barrier, arbitrarily dividing two adjacent spaces for seemingly no logical reason and necessitating lots of dicking about in order to circumvent. If I had played all the game I wouldn’t have seen a beautifully evocative vista embodying sorrow, hope, longing and learned resignation, I’d’ve seen this:

a wall at the end of a corridor which separates it from another corridor, both of which are lit by a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling - of a corridor. A pointless corridor that never had anything near as interesting to say as the things I ascribed to it. A place that doesn’t actually embody anything more meaningful than the deliberately awkward design philosophies of a load of people working almost twenty years ago, people who thought making a player traipse back and forth picking stuff up and putting stuff down and walking for twenty minutes to get around a wall that in the real world wouldn’t even exist because it doing so doesn’t make sense was a fair enough deal. I used to think my corridor meant something - but it doesn’t; it never did. However, finding out that it doesn’t mean anything actually makes me feel the same emotions about it as I did when I thought that it did, indeed, mean something. So in the end I’m not sure if it ever really matters if the things we see in, and in turn feel about, games actually exist or not. It’s more our articulation of them, our ability to talk others through our experiences and, ultimately, make a convincing enough tale out of it. If people - ourselves included - listen and believe, it doesn’t really matter if any of it happened in the first place. So while my corridor probably isn’t, as I once assumed, a metaphor for any sort of childhood self-realisation, it - and by extension my long relationship with it - maybe is convincingly a metaphor for something: criticism. 


The above prose is proud to be associated with Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table, an initiative which seeks to bring the diverse voices of video game criticism together about the person of a once again monthly topic. I think it's dead good, and so do these lovely individuals:

I’m going to make it my life’s work to tear down all the walls (man) that we don’t need in video games. It’s going to be a costly endeavor, so maybe consider supporting me via the Patreon. It’s probably only a little bit less worthy a cause than whatever you usually spend your money on and it resides here: Chrz.