September 28th, 1998. With Brad dead and the Nemesis charging after her, Jill Valentine throws herself through the double doors of the RPD entrance lobby. Except for a few uniformed zombies lurching around the hallways, the place is deserted; a dead precinct littered by boarded up doorways, bloodstained floors and walls pockmarked with gunfire. A few days earlier, when Leon and Claire had come here looking for help, the RPD building had been much livelier. Dozens of T-virus monsters prowled the offices and corridors, sharpening their claws in anticipation of finding the last few survivors. But long before that, all the way back in 1997, the RPD headquarters had been something else entirely.
With Resident Evil shuffling its way up the PS1 bestseller list, Shinji Mikami and Hideki Kamiya were already most-way through a sequel. Set within the confines of a modern police station, Resident Evil 2 was fronted by two characters – Leon Kennedy, a young, inexperienced cop, and Elza Walker, a spunky co-ed with a passion for motorbikes. Some small changes aside, this sounds pretty much like the game that went to retail; the framework for Claire Redfield is there, as are the blueprints for recognisable environments and scenarios. But with the game almost 80 percent finished, and the March ’97 release date drawing near, Shinji Mikami abruptly decided to pull the plug on Resi 2 and start from scratch. Calling Kamiya’s work “dull and boring” he brought in reams of new technical staff and screenwriters to get the game up to standard. “Resident Evil 1.5”, as it’s since become known, was left at the wayside, surviving only through some blurry gameplay clips and scattered concept art.
These small artefacts illustrate a much lesser game. The sterile, whitewashed RPD building of Resi 1.5 is sleek and electronic: security cameras and metal shutters keep the zombies at bay while you stroll along well-lit corridors. Without the gothic architecture, the darkened corners, the browning walls and the rusting sculptures, the RPD building of 1.5 has nothing in common with Resident Evil’s survival horror. Where the Spencer estate was too far in one direction, a shlocky haunted house with no relative character, the 1.5 precinct is the total opposite; too real, too contemporary. From Wesker’s Matrix-y jujitsu to the gross mutations of William Birkin, the Resident Evil series is mostly fantasy. Without the artistic license – incongruous puzzles, antique furniture, archaic brickwork – Resident Evil 1.5 makes too much sense. It’s a normal police station, negotiable, comprehensible and safe. With the surreal thrown back into the mix, Resident Evil 2’s RPD building is far less empowering; a dilapidated relic of winding corridors and eerie décor, partly illuminated by flickering emergency lights. Like the T-virus lickers, the RE2 police station is the perfect hybrid: part real-world markers, part nightmare logic.
Making your way from room to room feels like a walking tour of the RKO back lot. There’s the library, with its creaking floorboards and crumbling books, which seeps into a damp, woodworm eaten clock tower. Later there’s the chief’s office, embroidered with glaring stuffed animals, and the autopsy room, lazy with twitching corpses. 1.5 on the other hand is a masterpiece of modern design; copy/paste office cubicles and uniform beige veneers. The idea is obvious: lure players into a comfort zone then pull it down. It’s the same logic behind Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, or 28 Days Later – take something familiar and turn it upside down, to horrifying effect. But even without the workplace backdrop, Resident Evil 2 pulls off the same trick and in much shorter time. The opening slog from the wrecked car to the PD entrance is the perfect grisly safari of a city that was. By starting the game with a destroyed every-town, Mikami paints the colour of 1.5 over Resident Evil 2.
Good survival horror thrives on the abstract. Like Silent Hill, morphing from eerie suburban daytime to illogic, hellish darkness, Mikami took Resident Evil 1.5’s weekday setting and twisted it into something obscene. An ideal blend of the Spencer estate’s ludicrousness and 1.5’s Ikea normality, Resident Evil 2’s RPD building is a subtle catalyst for powerful terror. Labyrinthine, puzzling, dark, dank and foreboding, the police station does half the game’s work. Its strange mechanisms and misplaced contours keep you permanently on the wrong-foot. Never sure what to expect, you’re filled with all the right emotions; confusion, apprehension, disorientation and fear.