Resident Evil 2 is a crash course in speedrunning
Dancing with the Lickers in the pale moonlight
Being a toddler in 1998, I arrived fresh to the Resident Evil 2 remake with bright eyes and principled reservations. I don’t like horror games and I’ve avoided them for most of my life. So when I booted up the newest Resi, I was cast into the deep end of the survival horror pool with no floaties. My first playthrough was fraught with thick Geordie expletives. Yet one of the more puzzling revelations of the game was how it teaches you to face your fears not just by peppering zombies with shotgun shells, but also by speedrunning right past them.
My trembling first attempt, for example, came in at a disgraceful six hours, yet my 2nd Run with Claire came in comfortably under four. By then I was pushing past every Chomp, Lick and Scary like they were inebriated punters at a sold-out gig. You could find me in the lowest level of the sewers, faced with a swamp monster who wants to fill my mouth with poison, doing the very British dance of “Sorry, can I just squeeze past?”
I started to become frightened not of zombies but of wasting time, like when puzzle solutions changed tack, rendering my scrupulous notes worthless. Living on this earth without an unlimited ammo rocket launcher became an ever-approaching reality, and let me tell you, that’s what real fear is. Speedrunning Resi 2 is a joy, and one already noted for RPS by Alan Wen.
To figure out whether the team behind Resident Evil 2 meant for this to be a subconscious crash course in speedrunning, I spoke to its director, Kazunori Kadoi. He's been working on the series for more than 20 years, and was responsible for some of the camera work in the original Resident Evil. While developing the Resident Evil 2 remake, says Kadoi, the team were conscious that the series, and in particular the earlier games, already had speedrunning appeal built-in.
“We were confident it would be fun to speed-run,” he says. “We made the game to allow for experimentation in your play style, so we expected that players would find shortcuts, although of course we can’t predict the kind that use glitches...”
Shortly after release, many players started to figure out how to use the carefully crafted biting animations to their advantage. On staircases, if you kneecap zombies and hug the geometry, you can skip entire sections like the police station and the sewers by being pushed straight through the wall, something Kadoi and the team clearly didn’t account for.
“The level of dedication and excitement the speedrunning community has brought to the game has definitely exceeded my expectations.”
Resident Evil 2’s limited inventory is one point of consideration for many speedrunners. Prioritising pace over health or ammo makes for a risky gauntlet in many areas, especially when key puzzle items start to fill out your pouches.
“You can tell what kind of style someone has by what they take in their spare inventory slots,” Kadoi tells me. “We made it so that you need to take side paths and backtrack in order to find stronger weapons and parts… so you have to balance the item necessity vs taking more time.”
Kadoi notes a particular encounter, the Adult G (the terrible blobby beast in the sewers) as a point where the player is forced to use multiple resources to survive, or face a time loss. This is a clever roadblock that forces a fight or flight response in players who are looking for a perfect run.
The unpredictability of any given game is also part of what makes speedrunning so much fun, and the 2nd Run mode in Resident Evil 2 was a way for the developers to take advantage of that. Charismatic speedrunners may arrive thinking they will breeze through this alternate story, and, yes, many of the bread and butter monster encounters are the same, but tiny tweaks serve to hack away at a player’s confidence.
“If you played Leon first, then went on to Claire in your second run, there are sections that play exactly the same in terms of routes and puzzle solutions,” Kadoi tells me. “I wanted to add a way to change those parts up and bring something fresh to a second run on the same character.”
Tinkering with a player’s memory seems to be something of a theme during the game’s development, and this was part of the philosophy behind recreating the Raccoon City Police Department from the 1998 game.
“I wanted to keep the classic, iconic elements intact as much as possible, while making them more believable within the setting,” Kadoi tells me. “The map design was intended to give players as much freedom as possible, while still balancing the need to allow them to get to where they need to go. ”
That map design results in an environment that is rich with detail but difficult to parse. It offers a frustration that I learned to appreciate. In each of the subsequent runs after my first attempt, I would find myself frantically trying to get back down to the garage area after the game routes you through the sewer. I knew I could get there, but the way wasn’t obvious. After a number of restarts and some more bouts of forgetfulness I was eventually forced to pull out a notepad (a special luxury that you don’t often get with modern games).
This labyrinthine police station and the city's municipal tunnels are begging to be routed by a group of dedicated speedrunners, and sure enough, Resident Evil 2 quickly became a hit with this type of player. It is currently the most popular game on speedrun.com, with 430 active players, eclipsing its nearest neighbour Celeste by the hundreds. One of the brave pioneers who set out to speed past the game’s horrors is “xer1an”, the current world record holder for both Leon and Claire’s standard difficulty runs.
“xer1an” runs in the 120 category, short for 120 FPS. Because the community quickly figured out that Leon and Claire’s knives dish out more damage as the frame rate soars. This surprise revelation resulted in debate and the opening of two distinct categories (a 60 FPS run and 120 FPS run) so that players with less powerful rigs can have a fair playing field. It’s a cute solution to the problem (but will someone please think of the welfare of the poor 120 FPS zombies?)
“xer1an” tells me that Resident Evil 2 is a joy to speedrun due to a careful balance in design philosophy, a sentiment Kadoi and his team also appear to share.
“As a speedrunner, I have to enjoy the game I run, and Resident Evil 2 has a very good balance of RNG and skill,” the speedrunner tells me. “A game based around too much skill naturally gets very optimized, and then it's constant resetting until you get that frame-perfect run.
“A game with a little bit of both [RNG and skill] allows for some consistency but also makes it super fun for the audience.”
In the weeks following its release, “xer1an” estimates that the community spent over 500 hours routing and testing Resident Evil 2.
“We tried every different route from key item to key item, timing each one and picking the best method to build the best route.”
Eventually, they got down to the nitty-gritty, and the community learned to forego extra inventory pouches and weapons in favour of speed, facing dangerous encounters with bullish bravado.
“Someone might not have had enough ammo to stun an enemy, so they just tried to run past it and it would work! So we had to look into seeing if we could make things like that consistent.”
As for "run-killers" - those points of difficulty that, if not handled properly, can ruin a speedrun attempt - “xer1an” echoes the same sentiment as the game’s director.
“Adult Gs are the true run-killers. Getting past the first one is great, but the second one can either grab you as you are passing or just not dive [into the water] when you shoot him. That’s an immediate 5 second time loss, easily more if you don’t react properly.”
I imagine Kazunori Kadoi in an office in Osaka, rubbing his hands together.
“xer1an” dishes out a teeth-kissing anecdote about a promising run some 10 hours into his Twitch stream, where, in a bout of unpredictability, William Birkin’s third abominable evolution decided not to transform as usual but to attack the speedrunner instead, slowing him down and ruining his attempt. Yet, lo and behold, six hours later, "xer1an" would go on to post the world record, wrapping up in astonishing time at just under 54 minutes. At time of writing, his record sits at an even more healthy 53 minutes and 47 seconds. Still, he endorses new blood who want to join in and take a shot at his title.
“The RE2 community is like one big family. Most of the top runners are streamers who are super helpful and would love for new runners to enter the community, so don’t be afraid to ask!”
I’m an avid watcher of Awesome Games Done Quick and deeply enjoy the absurd unpredictability of a good speedrun. Yet, until Resi 2, I never really thought of myself as capable of taking one on. It’s only through the game’s subconscious coaxing that it became an attractive proposition. And sure enough, here I am, willfully taking haymakers from Mr. X to get to my destination quicker, fighting my fear of horror games in the process.