Retro Echoes: The Soundtrack of Resident Evil 2

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By Josh Nichols on March 29th, 2021

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PlayStation graphics were able to communicate more information to players than earlier game systems, like the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, but textures, lighting, and resolution were still too limited in terms of detail and essence. We could make out what things were supposed to look like now and had a vague idea of the world we were inhabiting. The PlayStation wasn’t delivering realism but Sony’s launch console made it easier to suspend our disbelief. Vivid immersion was now viable with the PlayStation’s hardware, as long as developers understood the system’s limitations and worked around them instead of against them.

Instruction manuals and box art were used to fill in the missing details to connect the pixels in our minds. Flipping through manuals and occasionally studying the box when turning off the console for the night kept the intended depictions of characters and settings with us while we played through games. Box art still aided in this to an extent on the PlayStation but it wasn’t as necessary with most games. Full Motion Video (FMVs) were present in a lot of PlayStation games, which are pre-rendered video files that feature much more detail. These cutscenes aren’t processed like 3D models and vectors so they are able to surpass the appearance of gameplay content. Additional information, including more complex facial expressions, is possible with the sacrifice of variables and forsaking player input. Developers typically interspersed FMVs throughout their games to enhance storytelling and character development. The video sequences took up more space but developers had 660 megabytes available with the PlayStation’s CD-ROM media format. It may not sound like much now but it was unprecedented at the time and drastically larger than the Nintendo 64’s game pak format, which had a maximum of 64 megabytes.

PlayStation Plus, Volume 1, Issue 1 / October 1995

The CD-ROM technology and SPU (Sound Processing Unit) also unlocked a new level of potential for music and sound effects. The system supported up to 24 channels of audio, which was a leap above the 8 channels available on the Super Nintendo in the previous generation. The SPU’s capabilities amalgamated with the CD storage capacity to produce expressive music and distinctive sound effects that complete the viewed rendering of the world and characters. A cinematic experience with incandescent storytelling was possible on PlayStation and at last part of interactive media.

“You’re right. this is just the beginning.”

Capcom expected to sell two million copies of Resident Evil 2, which was a safe target since the first game quickly became one of the highest-selling games available on PlayStation. This didn’t diminish the ambitious development process or passion of director Hideki Kamiya. The demand for a sequel somehow better than the first game, which was an instant classic, was pervasive throughout the development process. Kamiya and his forty-five person team were dead set on designing an unparalleled experience. Producer Shinji Mikami forged plot points and story structure with professional screenwriter Noboru Sugimura while harnessing the Hollywood-style presentation Kamiya sought after. This level of attention and desire for a cinematic experience was shared by composers Masami Ueda, Shusaku Uchiyama, and Syun Nishgaki when dreaming up the game’s music, which completed the nightmare of Resident Evil 2.

GamePro, Issue 113 / February 1998

In an interview, Shusaku Uchiyama remarked, “The first game was great as horror, but the music didn’t make any kind of lasting impression. With Resident Evil 2, we combined Mr. Ueda’s memorable motifs with influences from the latest blockbuster movies, and it turned out wonderfully.”

The music of Resident Evil 2 is iconic at this point but it was a departure in some ways at the time. The second entry’s soundtrack was a character of Raccoon City, much like Leon Kennedy and Claire Redfield. It was present and involved with the scenes as Leon and Claire investigated their surroundings, trying to stay alive and escape from the death, destruction, and suffering injected into the city by Umbrella Corporation. A company engaged in researching and creating bio-organic weapons to indulge their insatiable thirst for power and control. In the public light Umbrella is an international pharmaceutical company that’s also involved in other industries, like cosmetics and consumer foods. The company has recently had corporate espionage, hubris, and lack of external oversight cause a citywide outbreak of a virus that’s led to zombies, chaos, and a city shrouded in turmoil and death.

“Hey, I’m not going anywhere. I’m the only cop left alive in this building!”

This all culminates into a horrifying survival-horror action-adventure featuring two people determined to unravel the mysteries before them while staying alive and escaping the city, despite the insurmountable odds they face. The game features sharp commentary on the dangers of unchecked capitalism as the characters learn about Umbrella Corporation. Resident Evil 2 is a tapestry interwoven with the capabilities of what’s possible when seemingly average people grapple with their own limits to survive. And they do so without losing sight of who they are or succumbing to fear or the temptation to abandon empathy in an attempt to more easily escape death. They not only survive the horrors of Raccoon City with their lives but also with their souls intact as well.

And the game’s original score chronicles and narrates the experience, while existing as a witness to every scene and action.

The game’s ‘Prologue’ track possesses depth in its space while communicating the lurking evil with ominous piano notes. Its triumphant horns signal the distant hope that’s just within reach in light of Leon Kennedy and Claire Redfield’s imminent arrival to Raccoon City. The music communicates tension and the road ahead while also keeping a faint line of optimism running throughout the track. The player can get a sense of struggle while also taking heart and knowing with enough struggle and determination, they can do this. They can escape the city. They can expose the shadows of Umbrella Corporation. They can thwart the evils of humankind while also escaping the clutches of the undead. The notes convey the ominous dread while also leaving trace amounts of optimism for the player to latch onto — because they will need it. (Also available on other streaming platforms and YouTube.)

Raccoon City features similar emotions and movements, while also increasing the scope and size of everything. It’s more open and as if the music has arrived in the city limits, just as Leon and Claire have entered and started to take in the situation.

There are even more action-oriented motifs, driven forward by drums that feel like they’re fired out of the weapons wielded by the leading characters. This city is burning but it’s not fading away quietly. It’s erupting and time is ticking against anyone hoping to make it out alive. (YouTube)

Once Leon and Claire arrive at the police station there’s a moment to breathe and take the situation in. Things are just getting started in terms of horror and gameplay but there’s time to breathe and give thought to circumstances for both the characters and the player. The police station immediately looks like much more than a regular police station. Nothing is how you’d expect to find it. Everything just feels different and surreal. Finding a sense of familiarity or comfort is almost impossible.

“What’s going on? I arrived in town and the whole place went insane…”

‘The Front Hall’ expresses this while also imparting notes of hope. The lower notes hint at horror while the piano motifs comment on the need to persevere and push forward in spite of the difficult journey ahead.

The track loops around between optimistic and unsettling while bordering on the horrors just beyond the room. There’s also a sense of scope and size. It feels big but also empty. This police station isn’t a normal police station. This isn’t a normal night. None of this is right — and the music helps apply those strokes of color across the canvas of the character and player’s arrival to the Raccoon City Police Department. (YouTube)

As the player continues to explore and unravel the night’s events, the circumstances set in more and the horrors become more clear. Leon and Claire discover most of the police force has been killed. Help isn’t on the way. It’s just them. They can give in to the fear of dying and accept death. Or they can continue, solve the uncertainties and make their way out.

It hits different seeing this unfold and having some of the worst atrocities happen in the Raccoon City Police Department. It’s a constant indication that you’re all you’ve got. There’s no help coming. It’s also a clue to how bad things are. Walking through bloody and vacant hallways in a police station communicates the threats ahead so well. It’s almost scarier when you’re alone and not in immediate danger because you can’t see the evils and danger that you know are somewhere around the corner.

‘The First Floor’ crawls up your back, circles your shoulders, and creeps right into your ears as you step quietly through the nightmares from earlier in the night. The piano motifs deliver hope but they’re also laced with some uncertainty.

Escaping alive doesn’t feel as likely as the track plays and as Leon and Claire learn more about what they’re up against. The music is so atmospheric and delivers. It’s almost worse if you’ve already played the game because it’s foreshadowing what you know is ahead. It’s like the music is alive and omniscient. It knows what’s ahead but it doesn’t want to give away too much. Atmosphere and notes of hope take precedence over the foreboding darkness ahead. (YouTube)

Resident Evil 2 (1998) / Capcom

‘The Second Floor’ isn’t subtle. It conveys the truth of the situation without holding back. The player knows things are horrendous. Leon and Claire have discovered enough to realize just how grim everything really is at this point. The track is thick with a nightmarish haze that’s light enough to float to the top of every room, covering everything in its frightening and bloodcurdling tones. It’s so unsettling. It’s one of the finest compositions in the soundtrack, and that’s really saying something since it’s all put together so well.

“Still in one piece.”

It evokes a sense of uneasiness and there’s no hope present. It’s just darkness converted into sound. It’s fear transposed into auditory agony. Optimism is nowhere to be found in this tune. There’s nothing to hold onto like in some of the other music. The player, Leon, and Claire are alone and on their own. (YouTube)

‘Secure Place’ is perhaps the most esteemed and recognizable composition from Resident Evil 2. It’s more commonly referred to as the ‘Save Room’ music. It plays when Leon and Claire enter a room with a typewriter that allows the player to save their progress. It’s a relief for the in-game characters and the player. It’s a reprieve and chance to breathe. It’s the most comfortable form of isolation available in the game. You’re alone but safe.

Hope is at the front of this track, driving forward with notes of inspiration and determination. It’s invigorating and serves as a reminder that you can do this. It’s not over yet but now is the time to reflect and let out a sigh of relief. Even if you choose not to save your game, you know you’re safe and can take a second to collect your thoughts. (YouTube)

Resident Evil 2 gets many things right. The development team understood how all of the pieces fit together and made sure everything worked toward the common purpose of communicating fear, hope, action, and reflection throughout the journey. It’s a cinematic nightmare wrapped in optimism and dread. The pacing is almost unparalleled and it serves as an example of how you can set a metronome to fear. It’s important to know when to let the player breathe and when to make their heart race. Capcom understood this and it’s why Resident Evil 2 is such a classic experience.

“So it’s finally over?”

The 2019 remake featured new music, perhaps in part from technology advancing enough to feature more atmosphere and storytelling in voice acting, lighting, and shadows, but Capcom knew the impact of the original soundtrack and included it as an unlockable so players can still experience it. I personally select the old soundtrack when I replay the 2019 remake for most of my playthrough. The new soundtrack is remarkable. It still delivers atmosphere but the original soundtrack is equally horrific and beautiful simultaneously. The original PlayStation was built for horror and thankfully Capcom recognized this and gave us the disturbing but perfectly balanced night in Raccoon City.

Josh really likes video games. Horror is their favorite but they also like other stuff.

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