For several years of this website's existence, our most-read post was my short, hasty, freeform, crude, drunken poem lamenting videogames' excessive use of locked doors to gate progress or pretend that an area is larger than it really is. I'm not proud, not even slightly. But it is a universal frustration, which is why the piece took off as it did. So very often, we play as action heroes capable of amazing feats of strength, skill and survival, but give 'em a wooden door or chainlink fence and they're totally confounded.
Resident Evil 7 [official site] is my favourite new game of January, a master-crafted slice of tension and gross-out excess, yet its over-reliance on evidently flimsy yet entirely impassable obstacles is very nearly its undoing.
To be clear, I'm not wailing 'but why are there even doors?' here. Structurally, the entire game depends on being locked into specific areas - in terms of design, your ongoing challenge is to find a way out, though in the latter half of the game it's more about finding a way into hitherto inaccessible areas. This is an escape room writ large in some respects, and devising how to make your way through it and eventually, maybe, out of it, is absolutely fundamental to its being.
In terms of tone, the overwhelming menace and shivery anxiety of never knowing where a threat will appear from next - but being quite certain that you cannot simply flee far from it - also depends on fences being insurmountable and doors being indestructible. And, without wishing to spoil plot (Resi 7's other weak link), later on the player-character is also given certain reasons why he wouldn't want to simply run for the hills too.
I get it. I understand why Resident Evil 7 effectively depends on locked door syndrome. I simply wish that it wasn't so damned obvious about it. This is a game that excels at environmental subtlety even when it's simultaneously being the exact opposite of subtle - this is how it builds its masterful atmosphere of dread and paranoia. Yet its great efforts at coherence and consistency seem to stumble when it comes to barriers.
Early on, the lead character, Ethan, begs someone on the other side of a window to help them get out of this house of uncertain horrors. Ethan has already experienced and survived tumultuous events by this point, but either cannot bring himself to or does not even think to try smashing said window. Not even when he obtains a knife strong and sharp enough to kill a man moments later. The knife can swipe and stab at that glass to precisely no effect. Instead, though desperate to escape, Ethan is willingly threaded through a maze of vicious horror instead, suffering terrible injury in the process. Far more so than had he just punched a window.
Later, part of the house is dramatically remodelled during a fight. Ethan's own body quite literally knocks down a wall. But he will not try to smash that window, or kick down the front door.
Later, in the garden, simple and clearly rickety picket fences prevent him escaping entirely and going in search of the help he desperately needs. He could push that fence over. It would require a kick, at worst. He does not. He cannot. Instead, he walks through the one gate that will open, on to another part of the house, and into fresh hell.
Later, he obtains a chainsaw. He uses it on one lock, and one specific lock only, before discarding it. No other lock can be cut.
Later, he obtains a flamethrower, and a grenade launcher. He tries the lock on a series of standard wooden interior doors and is told that there is no way to open them without the correct key. That flamethrower could spurt fire for an eternity without effect.
He finds plastic lunchboxes and fragile desk drawers that can only be opened with few-and-far-between lockpicks. He finds tree stumps he cannot step over, short stretches of water he cannot paddle through, locks that require hanging a specific item on a pair of scales rather than attempt to place random objects of similar weight, and so much wood and so much glass and yet no entry, no exit, no progress until exactly this requirement is labouriously met.
The game works. This broken and arbitrary internal logic can of course be accepted (because we have accepted it so many times before), disbelief can be suspended, and it can be understood that certain things must be done, because the experience of trying to survive in this hideous house is so darkly delectable. But I wish they'd simply tried a little harder to disguise their working.
Make those doors iron and a foot thick. Make that fence three times as high and electrified. Barricade those windows to the point of absurdity. Make those lunch boxes into steel safes. Put barbed wire and broken glass and iron bars and gas traps and live wires everywhere. The family who live in this place don't want anyone getting out - we would understand if it was made obvious that they'd gone to great lengths to ensure that was the case.
I suppose it would disrupt the festering hillbilly house aesthetic. The fantasy depends, to some extent, on the place looking run-down to the point of abandonment, not a fortress. And the family believe that they themselves are all the security that is required. But when the result is a protagonist that does not, cannot, will not even try to break down barriers an eight-year-old could defeat, credibility flounders.
Resident Evil 7 is the most effective horror game I've played in quite some time. It's horrific where it needs to be, and it's hilarious where it needs to be. I only wish it had a little more interest in internal logic.
Or: maybe don't give the player a flamethrower if your game's setting is primarily wooden.