The next revolution in online games is to make Resident Evil’s Mr X a player

By Jeremy Peel
15 June 2020 14:58 GMT

I haven’t seen the sales figures for X Gon’ Give It to Ya, the barnstorming brass number from the dying days of chart gangsta rap, but I imagine they underwent a late and unexpected spike on or around January 2019 – the release month of Resident Evil 2 Remake.

Like all good memes, the videos shared on Twitter at the time followed a simple format: Claire Redfield or Leon Kennedy would step nervously through Raccoon City Police Station, weapon pointed down a dark corridor ahead. Then a door would burst suddenly open, and Mr X would duck beneath its frame, the horns kicking in as DMX barked that familiar refrain: “Knock knock, open up the door, it’s real…”

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The kicker was that it was a different door every time. Mr X, a bioengineered shithouse who radiated bored bouncer energy as he ambled over to punch you in the jaw, was unpredictable and unrelenting. He was an ever present threat, wandering the rooms of the station perpetually – dissuading you from running or shooting lest you draw his blank, grey stare.

Fans returned for Resident Evil 3’s remake expecting an upgrade to this terrifying AI, hoping to be hunted by the fittingly named Nemesis throughout the game. They soon noticed, however, that he showed up in the same spots every time, awaiting his cues like a theatre understudy – albeit a seven foot tall understudy made of melted muscle. And with that realisation, the tension dissipated.

Other games have succeeded in creating the sense of an inescapable hunter tracking the player’s every step – most notably Alien: Isolation, with its single, undying xenomorph. But it’s evidently tough work, rooted in the delicate illusion of intelligence rather than the reality.

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That might change. In a recent Edge interview, Gabe Newell said he expected game AI to reach a point of human-like intelligence within a decade, making single-player games “a lot more interesting”. In the meantime, though, other people are our best bet for a worthy opponent. That’s why Valve moved into multiplayer in the first place.

“It sort of shifted the burden from AI to ‘meat’ intelligence,” Newell said, “where the entertainment value is created by people all over the world rather than by entities running on your computer.”

Initially, that meant Team Fortress and Counter-Strike, games that promised a steady flow of adrenaline-soaked action. But in the wake of the battle royale boom, the trend in online shooters is now to make player contact less frequent and more meaningful.

Human beings are clever, though it may not always seem that way when they have voice chat turned on. Given space to manoeuvre and time to plan, they can surprise you with their cunning. That’s what makes a house raid in Warzone such a wide-eyed event: the occupant may be waiting in the attic, as you expected. Or they might anticipate you creeping up the stairs, vault out of an upstairs window, and catch you from behind.

The knowledge that another person may always be watching, plotting your death, lends the quiet moments in between firefights a palpable sense of dread. And some developers have recognised the power in that unease, taking those moments and stretched them. In Crytek’s Hunt: Showdown, there are a maximum of eleven other players on an enormous map. The majority of your time is spent circumventing or dispatching AI monsters, and in that context, player encounters become rare boss battles. But rather than shooting their weak spots, you’re seeking to outsmart them. Other hunters, then, are the sentient version of Mr X or the xenomorph – a constant, background threat that heightens tension.

My hunch is that online shooters will only push further in that direction. Arkane’s Deathloop – a new game set on an island where two assassins killed each other, over and over, in a bloody Groundhog Day.

There are two things baked into that premise: competition and repetition. It screams multiplayer. And like Crytek, Arkane is a studio which has a history of atmospheric, simulated worlds that embrace quiet and planning.

What’s more, Arkane has sought to splice single-player and multiplayer before. As documented in the excellent Noclip documentary, it spent years working on a doomed game named The Crossing – with a single-player story that would occasionally thrust you into conflict with human enemies over the internet.

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Arkane eventually gave up on The Crossing after a series of gruelling publisher negotiations that would have left the team without a proper budget. But now that the studio has Bethesda’s backing, and an international audience swayed by Prey and Dishonored, I suspect it’s revisiting the concept.

I might be wrong – Deathloop may not be that game. But if Arkane isn’t making it, somebody else will: the AAA shooter that offers a single-player experience haunted by human opponents. And X Gon’ Give It to Ya will be its anthem.

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