Return to Racoon City: Revisiting my Boyhood Trauma

As soon as I was clear of the crash, I started running. Broken humanoid figures – zombies, though the word seems utterly inadequate – lurched toward me from all sides, reaching out to grab me with their putrifying hands as I scrambled to escape. Somehow I managed to weave around them and make my way toward the end of the street before ducking into a nearby gun shop for cover. I found some bullets behind the counter, but before I could even get them into my gun the ravenous horde crashed through the front window of the shop and came for me. Hammering the trigger, I pumped round after ineffectual round into their limping corpses as they stumbled ever closer. Sure enough, they got to me before I could take even a single one of them down, and after a few seconds of struggling they overpowered me and began to rip my organs out. Blood splattered across my vision, the world around me faded into nothingness, and I was left sitting on the couch, shaking in terror and on the verge of tears. I was gripped by an unshakeable fear so profound that for five years hence I was unable to sleep in darkness.

DEAD

This might seem like a rather strong response to a simple video game, but in my defense, I was six at the time, and this night was my first experience with a Playstation, in addition to being the first time I’d ever had dinner at a friend’s place without my parents. I’d spent the evening prior in a state of mounting fear, kicked off when I was devoured by a tiger in Tomb Raider and then heightened as I was repeatedly gunned down by terrorists in Syphon Filter. In need of respite, I asked to play Medievil, a fun-looking cartoony game I’d seen in a magazine, but far from a breaking the tension, this request pushed it into a cacophonous crescendo. Having misheard me, my friend planted Resident Evil 2 in the disk tray, and from that seed took root a gaming obsession that has consumed my life. Even as it scarred my psyche, the game impressed upon me the raw emotional power of videogames in ways no “safe” play could ever manage. I’ve been playing ever since.

But now I’m getting ahead of myself. As I was booted to the title screen, my friend prompted me to try again. I declined as politely as possible, by which I mean I shook my head violently and tossed the controller away as though I’d suddenly realized it was a live spider. Iv’e stuck to my guns on that point. In the 13 long years since that night, despite playing games religiously and owning every current console under the sun (starting with a used Playstation that was given to me by the same friends mother as an apology), I’ve never gone back to Raccoon City. Tonight, that changes.

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As I write these words, I’m watching the opening cutscene of Resident Evil 2 play out, rendered in stunning standard definition through the power of my PS3. I’m playing at midnight, right before I have to go to bed, with the lights off, so it’s sure to have maximum impact. In short, now equipped with the skills necessary to handle it, I’m going to try to conquer the game that so thoroughly traumatized me as a child, and I’m doing it under the most harrowing conditions possible. For the sake of brevity, I’m aiming for the first save point or bust. Even though I’ll be done by the time you read this, I’d appreciate it if you would retroactively wish me luck.

*crossfade into next paragraph*

I stumble, disoriented, from the flaming wreck of my car, trying to get my bearings as a zombie, unfazed by the flames that engulf his body, stumbles out of the wreckage toward me. Before I can figure out which way is forward, he’s on me, and by the time I shake him off and start moving, there’s a wall of zombies between me and the end of the street. Though I fight valiantly, I slowly run out of stamina as they gnaw at me, and in less than a minute I succumb to my injuries and fatigue. I collapse, and they begin to dine on my fresh corpse. “YOU DIED.” Now I’m back at the title screen. This is not a game that fucks around.

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Even skipping the intros, its a solid minute of loading before I’m back to where I started. I can see that getting annoying, especially for a game with controls as intentionally clumsy as this one. Here’s hoping I don’t die too much before the checkpoint. Anywho

Now that I’ve got my bearings, I’m once again able to weave around the shambling corpses that dot the street. I’m also able to take a closer look at my surroundings, now that I’m not so concerned with figuring out how to run. I’m impressed with how well I remember this area after 13 years away. Admittedly, it looks a lot uglier than it did at the height of the PS1 era, but urban decay is really a constant concern. I cut into a side street and head for the gun shop, and while a zombie manages to grab me in the tight alleyway, I’m able to shake him off and make a b-line for my goal.

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Entering the shop, I’m caught by surprise as I run across the owner brandishing a shotgun. Somehow, I’d forgotten about him, and made the game experience more terrifying and solitary in my mind than it had ever actually been. Though he talks with a strange accent (he hails from the land of terrible voice actors) and is very obviously already infected, for the moment I’m grateful to have a companion. It doesn’t last long. As I hop behind the counter to grab some ammo, the zombies crash through the window and devour my new friend before turning their hungry eyes on me. This time, I’m ready for them. Standing my ground behind the counter I plug away at them with my pistol, taking the last of them out with just a few rounds left in the chamber. Then I run over to my ex-friend and grab his shotgun before running out the back door.

From here, its a long run to the first save spot, and mostly uneventful. Most of the zombie kills blend together into a blur of blood and guts, with the exception of a stint where I stand on top of a dumpster and stab down at four zombies for a good three minutes with my laughably weak knife. Things get a little hairy toward the end, when I run out of ammo and am left with no choice but to make a mad dash for the police station, but somehow I make it in one piece. I even manage to grab a healing herb along the way in, using it to bring myself back from the brink of death.

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In the station lobby, I find a typewriter, and on it I record the harrowing details of my ordeal. I heave a sigh of relief and turn the system off. I finally have closure, but a strange feeling washes over me: I want to play more. I want to see what happens next. Reflecting back, this game, which I’ve spent the last thirteen years fearing, is actually a lot of fun. It’s punchy, exciting, and even after 13 years, genuinely frightening. Some things – like its clunky controls, simplistic graphics, and laughable sound design – have not aged well, but it still evokes primal emotions and stimulates my imagination in ways that few modern horror titles can manage.

I realize now that for years I’ve lived with the niggling doubt that the game only left such an impact on me because I was young. Going back to it, I’m almost relieved to say that it really is as scary as I remember, and now that I’m old enough to handle it, I can also appreciate the artistry in its design. It’s a fantastic game, and I’m glad that I finally worked up the courage to wipe the blood from the screen and revisit Raccoon City.