When wielded properly, light can be as transformative to an image as a chisel is to stone. It accentuates the properties of an image, and is ultimately the thing that allows a three-dimensional space to exist on screen in the first place. During my run through Capcom’s recent remake of “Resident Evil 2,” I found myself slack-jawed in awe of the game’s lighting artistry, composed by Yuka Chi, and how it adhered to a great number of techniques employed by computer animation titan Pixar. While Pixar’s films and Capcom’s “Resident Evil 2” are worlds apart thematically, both have outstanding respect for the power of lighting and its ability to progress story and establish moods.
It’s one thing to render a source of light within a fixed space, but another entirely to give a viewer control of that effect. When trudging through the dark bloodstained halls of “Resident Evil 2′” Raccoon City Police Department, the primary source of light comes from the player’s flashlight. This forced limitation on the player’s vision is a powerful mechanic, one that induces an onslaught of claustrophobic uncertainty. Much like the scene in “Monsters University” where Mike and Sulley are forced to terrorize a group of rangers in a log cabin in order to get home, the use of a flashlight as a primary light source creates sharp shadows and limited visibility as both monsters employ everything they’ve learned in the art of fear. From clawed walls to an unmanned record player, the object of the rangers’ terror becomes a primary focus, encapsulated by unyielding darkness that strips away the viewer’s ability to look elsewhere.
When playing as Leon or Claire in “Resident Evil 2”, the same level of forced perspective condemns the player’s eye to the blood-caked maws of the aimless undead, eradicating all else outside the confines of their light. Even without ravenous flesh-eaters or brain-faced KISS enthusiasts charging at them, the light that guides the player from one hallway to the next has the potential to become an antagonist. So sharp are contrasting shadows that illuminating one thing can mean concealing another, which can make something as simple as turning a corner more terrifying than facing an enemy.
On more than one occasion players may find themselves reeling from the movement of shadows the protagonist was casting. Never before have I experienced a lighting mechanic so dynamic in respect to the boundaries of real-world physics. As Danielle Feinberg, the director of photography for lighting at Pixar, once said, “…we tether ourselves with science. We use science and the world we know as a backbone, to ground ourselves in something relatable and recognizable.” But, as “Resident Evil 2” is still very much a video game, it is by no means beholden to those institutions of reality. While abiding the reactions of light in a physical sense, the game still finds room to flex an exemplary display of ambiance that offers a surreal environment for players to explore.
Though rare they are, moments of respite exist within the game that grant the player a fleeting solace, despite being in the thrall of an apocalyptic nightmare. These moments occur within infamous safe rooms, but more notably in the front hall of the Raccoon City Police Department, a massive space composed of marble columns and wooden banisters, all pronounced by the soft light of various wall sconces.
The warmth exuding from these light sources is highly reminiscent of the motivated lighting found in a particular scene in “Incredibles 2,” in which Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl find themselves discussing their future in a motel room after the destruction of their home in the first movie. The two lamps resting at each character’s side creates a microcosm of security, a temporary enclosure of warmth that fights back the imposing darkness of their surroundings, the same way that Raccoon City Police Department’s front hall pushes back against the labyrinthian layout of dilapidated offices and sequestered mysteries beyond. Arguably, it can be seen as a caustic misdirection, but that’s for the uninitiated to discover.
After forgoing the sanctity of comfort, players will quickly discover that “Resident Evil 2” has no problem abandoning the sedated pace of fearful exploration in lieu of chaotic maelstroms, forcing unwanted encounters that have clenched many a jaw. One encounter, in particular, sees the player facing off against a mutated William Birkin, the scientist behind the coveted G-virus. As one of the more potent enemies throughout the game, it made sense to situate the encounter in a steamy machinery room, affording little to no mobility with tight corridors and low visibility. This hulking, fleshy behemoth with a wandering shoulder-eye also sports a terrifying claw, which ignites sparks along the metal frames and various machines outlining the space of the fight whenever he attacks. The sharp bursts of light, along with the consistent hammering of the player’s muzzle flash from their weapons, serve as a tumultuous source of illumination that practically punches the senses in their eccentric bursts, a distinct method that can also be found in “Ratatouille.”
Within that heartwarming film lies what I believe to be one of the most morbid displays of foreboding in both live-action and animation. As Remy revels in his newfound position as a chef among humans, his father Django wishes to impart a disillusioning revelation in the hopes of reeling him back to reality. In the cover of night, he escorts Remy to the front of an unspecified shop, the contents of its display window obscured by darkness. Before Remy can question his father about the purpose of the journey, headlights from passing cars unveil a rack of dead rats, slung in a line to promote the traps and chemicals used to eradicate them. A series of close-up shots details the store’s contents in quick succession, each one briefly lit by the passing of an oncoming vehicle. It’s a harrowing display, made tenser by the quick succession of light bursts, suffrage gifted to those brave enough to fight mutated scientists in secret basements.
Players are lucky to experience the remastered version of a title that gave so many pause whenever venturing into dark places as a child, but they’re even luckier to see a growing medium adopting renowned visual techniques and making them interactive.