(This may become apparent upon reading, but this post is my entry in Colette's Survival Horror contest. It's long and there aren't any pictures, so the TL;DR crowd might want to save themselves some time and get out now.)
I was thirteen in 1997. Up till then I'd been pretty much a chicken when it came to anything horror related - If somebody put on a scary movie I'd go hide in my bedroom and crank up the volume on Super Mario RPG or something. I'd even duck out on non-horror movies with scary scenes in them - if anybody put on Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, I knew to leave the room well before the Large Marge scene.
But by age thirteen I was starting to dip my toes in the world of horror. I'd soldiered through my first Steven King novel (The Shining, still one of his best) and managed to sit through Night of the Living Dead, Alien, and Evil Dead. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that, once I didn't totally wuss out, I actually enjoyed
being scared vicariously – whether it was on celluloid or the written word, I became a horror junkie.
So naturally, as a gamer I began to look into the recently-created survival-horror genre. I'd heard tell of Resident Evil from my Uncle Brian, who told stories of watching a guy he worked with play it. Just hearing him tell about the dogs crashing through the window, or the cold reptilian breathing of a Hunter on the prowl, sent chills down my spine (Uncle Brian's a very good storyteller). I’d been fascinated by the battle scenes in Night of the Living Dead – desperate good guys with a quickly-dwindling supply of ammunition fighting off a seemingly endless stream of staggering living corpses – and this Resident Evil game seemed like the perfect way to experience that feeling for myself.
When I brought it up with my parents, my Mom strictly forbade me from buying or even playing such an awful game. Usually Mom and Dad were pretty lenient with letting us kids watch R-rated movies (after all, they’d let me watch Evil Dead, etc) but the fact that you controlled the character caught in that horrifying situation somehow made it much, much worse in her mind. She was convinced that if I played a violent horror game I’d either A) be traumatized beyond all belief, or B) be inspired to commit violent acts in real life.
At first I was pretty bummed. I thought about trying to sneak it home past them somehow, but they had a habit of popping in my room every so often to see what I was up to. Not that they didn’t trust me, they were actually genuinely interested in the video games that so captured my heart and mind. Besides, I was the kind of kid who pretty much followed what they said – if they told me not to play it, I thought I’d better not play it.
But that didn’t mean I couldn’t sneakily bend the rules a little bit. A few months later, my new issues of EGM and PSM started talking about Resident Evil 2 – bigger, better, and best of all, scarier. And while Resident Evil was off-limits, my parents had no idea a sequel was coming, and I wasn’t stupid enough to tell them about it. What they don’t know, I reasoned with a pre-teen’s logic, they can’t forbid me to play.
So the question became how to get my hands on it. As the youngest kid in a poor family I never had an allowance, and middle-schoolers in rural Kentucky don’t have a lot of options as far as raising some cash goes. Christmas was past and my birthday was still ages away, and either of those still would have forced me to admit the game’s existence to my folks. The game’s release date, January 21, 1998, came and went, and I was no closer to getting a copy than I’d been three months before.
Usually, if I wanted to play a new game I had to either rent it or borrow it. On the way to our local video rental place, I concocted an elaborate scheme that would, if executed properly, result in my walking out with a copy of Resident Evil 2, my parents none the wiser. The plan was far too complex and doubtlessly would have failed regardless, but it became a moot point when I saw that the mom-and-pop place we rented at didn’t even have a copy on the shelf. “Title” Wave (written just like that on the sign, quotes and everything) had a pretty respectable PlayStation selection, thanks to the idiosyncratic tastes of the proprietor’s son – it’s thanks to him I discovered games like Symphony of the Night, Tail of the Sun, and Revelations: Persona – but apparently his interests didn’t extend to zombie epics.
So I realized that if I was ever going to get to play the game, I was going to have to do it at a friend’s house. Only three of my buddies had PlayStations (almost everyone I knew had remained loyal to the house of Mario’s 64-bit wonder), and I approached them each in turn with a plan for a weekend-long sleepover, a 48-hour Resident Evil 2 marathon. I became more and more disheartened as each one shot me down.
One of them, like me, was frothing at the mouth to get his hands on it, but had a mother way more overbearing than my own; she’d no sooner let her son play such a game as she would streak her frequently-attended church. The next guy did invite me over, but insisted he had no interest in anything horror; his suggestion for activities (a Pauly Shore marathon) caused me to suddenly “remember” that I had a project due on Monday, so sorry, maybe next time. With more than a little desperation I laid out my plan for the third guy. I can only imagine how hard my face fell when I heard him say “Dude, I already played that game. It totally sucks.”
I was out of ideas. Like a beaten dog, I hung my head and resigned myself to a future completely devoid of apocalyptic undead survival scenarios.
More time passed, and life went on. May saw the end of my eighth grade school year, and a three-month vacation stretched out in front of me. Summer camp was out of the realm of financial possibility, so I passed the days like I had many summers before: alternately hanging out at home and going with my parents to work. Mom and Dad were both self-employed (Mom cleaned houses, Dad ran his own little construction company) so sometimes they’d take me and my sister with them rather than worrying about what kind of trouble we were getting into at home by ourselves.
I can’t remember where my sister was, only that she wasn’t there the day Mom took me with her to the Ford’s house. I liked their house the best of all the ones Mom worked at – their two sons were pretty cool, and when they weren’t home I was given free reign of their extensive video game collections. The younger son, Andrew, had an N64 in his upstairs bedroom, and I’d spent many hours there dogfighting with Star Wolf or guiding Dash Rendar through the battle of Hoth. That day, though, my immediate destination was the basement. This served as a bedroom to their older son Neil, but more importantly, housed his PlayStation. Neil was a hardcore gamer and could be counted on to own the newest games; it was inevitable, I feverishly tried to convince myself, that he had a copy of Resident Evil 2.
I took the rickety wooden steps two at a time as my heart thumped. The basement was pretty standard, cold concrete on all sides, but with some thrift store furniture and blankets hung for privacy nineteen-year-old Neil had made it into an awesome (well, to a thirteen-year-old, anyway) hang-out spot. I made a beeline for his shelf of games, scanning the titles for the one I so desperately wanted to see. I looked through them so quickly that when I’d reached the end without seeing it, I convinced myself I’d overlooked it in my haste. A second, more thorough search confirmed my fears: there wasn’t a copy of Resident Evil 2 in sight.
Intellectually, I understood that this wasn’t such a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but that didn’t change how disappointed I felt. I’d so completely convinced myself that he would have it that I hadn’t stopped to think how I’d react if he didn’t. Knowing me, I was probably blinking back tears as I went through his collection a third time, looking for something to play to take my mind off the crushing let-down. Eventually I pulled out his copy of FF7, took out disc 1, and walked over to put it in the system.
When I popped the disc tray open, Leon Kennedy stared back at me. I froze. I rubbed my eyes, sure they were playing tricks on me – but it was real. After what seemed like an eternity, I had six hours ahead of me with nothing to do but play Resident Evil 2.
I powered up the system (pausing only to very carefully replace the FF7 disc) and savored every second of the start-up screens. I stared in awe as the teaser cinematic quickly flashed shots of action and horror, ending on a huge reptilian eye staring back at me. When I pressed start at the main menu and heard a deep voice growl “Resident Evil…2”, I got chills. The opening cinematic drew me in with a level of visual realism I’d never seen before. I grew more and more excited as Leon met Claire, gasped in horror as I realized the trucker was going to turn undead, jumped and shouted when a zombie popped out of the backseat. Then the cinematic was over, and suddenly Leon was under my control.
The burning tanker loomed large in the background, and zombies converged from every direction. I sought to make a quick escape and pressed Down to run toward the camera, toward safety. Confusion set in as I saw Leon back up, closer to danger on all sides. He exclaimed in pain as he stepped into the flames, and I became panicked as the undead grabbed him and pulled him down. Frantic button-mashing did nothing to stop the horror, and before I knew it, blood spatters on the screen told me in no uncertain terms: You Died.
A quick search uncovered the game’s case under a shirt on the table, and I scoured the instruction manual for some kind of answer to the game’s seemingly backwards controls. Once I’d read enough to understand the game’s infamous tank-style control system, I restarted, somewhat embarrassed by my incredibly poor initial performance.
The next six hours passed in a terrifying, yet indescribably joyful blur. All I really remember from that first extended playthrough are little moments, scenes that imprinted themselves instantly into my memory. The gun shop owner, eaten as I stood watching. Three zombies falling as I unloaded the sawed-off pump action I took off the poor man’s corpse. The haunting silence that covered the empty Police Station lobby like a blanket. The doomed cop, handing off a keycard at gunpoint. The quick snatches of movement outside a window that foreshadowed the pants-wetting reveal of the Licker, in all its skinless glory.
I don’t remember how far through the game I made it in that first day. I don’t remember dying at any point past that first shameful attempt (though that could be my memory playing tricks) but I didn’t beat the game, either. I do remember the sinking feeling I got when Mom shouted down the stairs that it was time to go home. I rode home in silence, replaying the day’s events in my head.
Over the course of that summer, I played through Leon’s quest, then Claire’s, in Neil’s dank basement bedroom. I struggled through difficult sections, like the pulse-pounding boss fight against the giant sewer alligator (having not seen Jaws, I didn’t guess the gimmick solution to that fight until my fifth try). I laughed out loud at the sheer awesomeness of Ben the reporter getting torn in half, length-wise. When Mr. X’s giant trench-coated frame crashed through a brick wall, I screamed so loud that my Mom came down to investigate, and I only just managed to shut the TV off and pick up a book before she saw what I was playing. By the time fall set in I had managed to see Leon, Claire, and Sherry to safety, after a dramatic train escape from the exploding laboratory under the Raccoon City Police precinct. I’d become a survival horror fanatic and a Resident Evil fan for life.
When I strode into school on the first day of my freshman year, I held my head high. After all, what scares could high school possibly hold once you’ve single-handedly survived the zombie apocalypse?
LOOK WHO CAME: