We take a look at the anxiety-inducing video game music subgenre 'Resi save room music', with its idiosyncrasies and typical instrumentation.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
Warning: possible blog series incoming. Although the broad umbrella ‘video game music’ (VGM) covers many different genres, there are recognisable trends that cut across titles, for instance, themes for boss fights; JRPG world map traversal; being undiscovered during stealth gameplay; eery 1920’s & 30’s jazz songs (Fallout 3, BioShock etc.) and so on.
Arguably, one such subgenre comprises certain mood-setting pieces found in Resident Evil games (as well as other titles). I realise I’m not the first the write this particular piece, but I’ll try to add some depth to procedings.
The venerable, 21-year-old Resident Evil series (AKA ‘Resi’ among bantering gamers AKA Biohazard [in Japan]) is possibly the only place where you’ll find an association between zombies, chess pieces and typewriter ribbons. Within most games in the series, there are little oases of calm known as ‘save-’ or ‘safe rooms’ — sanctuaries where the player can breathe easier, reorganise their inventories and take stock.
For game music fans, one of the most recognisable types of track are those associated with these sheltered spaces. Remarkably, the multiple composers that have worked on the series have more or less managed to maintain a high level of quality and consistency of tone across respective save room cues.
Most of the classic Resi save room themes only feature two or three chords under a looping, simple melody. Yet their production and the thickly layered minor chords are highly evocative and memorable — as effective as anything I’ve heard in game music at conveying a given mood.
It began in 1996 with the launch of the series on the original PlayStation. I remember my Dad picking us up the console at Electronics Boutique with a couple of games: WipEout, and a second hand copy of a horror game with the most bizarre cover art.
Being around 11 years old I was too cowardly to actually play the game for long (it was rated 15 after all) but it was pretty funny when, one day, I went downstairs to get a drink and heard my older brother and a mate scream “SHIIIIT!!” from upstairs when those dogs burst through those windows.
Resident Evil’s oodles of atmosphere and general aesthetics during the Spencer mansion portion of the story caught my young imagination — especially the anxious calm of the game’s first save room.
Here is the looped save room track from the original Resident Evil, composed by one of (or some combination of) Makoto Tomozawa, Koichi Hiroki and Masami Ueda. What sounds like a acousto-electric guitar (but is actually synthesised) plays shifting arpeggios over a held keyboard chord, accompanied by a distant whistling sound that woozily slides around in terms of tuning:
Unfortunately, the equivalent track from the Resident Evil: Director’s Cut doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor or ancestors, whereas the 2002 Resident Evil remake features a more delicate, classy-sounding update of the original cue.
To Raccoon City and beyond
The Raccoon City police department building that lies at the heart of Resident Evil 2 serves a similar purpose to the Spencer mansion in the first title. It also has a musical signature of sorts: the use of the piano as a lead instrument in various soundtrack cues.
Credited to composer Masami Ueda, Resident Evil 2’s save room theme Secure Place is similarly structured to that from the first game: a held synthesiser pad underpins moving synth strings chords, whilst a simple piano melody plays (with a hint of delay). When the pattern loops the first time round, commanding piano bass octaves punctuate the return to the minor root chord.
The equivalent piece by Saori Maeda from Resident Evil 3: Nemesis — a game which revisits and remixes locations including the police department — is very similar to Resident Evil 2’s save room theme: a held synth pad, synth strings and simple piano melody. Prequel Resident Evil 0’s is a lighter, less notable affair, whilst Resident Evil – Code: Veronica features a much more hopeful, sentimental piano-led piece:
A Plaga o’ both your houses
A straw poll by Giant Bomb forum users found Resident Evil 2’s save room theme to be the favourite. It’s closely followed by that from Resident Evil 4, which sticks to the same musical template as previous entries whilst slightly tweaks the instrumentation, this time including synth choir chords, a thwacky double bass, simple harp melody and some extra atmospherics:
But Resident Evil 4 also sports a second, weirder piece in the same vein. Embracing a more ambient vibe through warped synthesiser sounds that sound a bit like whale song, Serenity is a glorious addition in the Resi save room music cannon and somehow sounds more modern:
Fast forward to the most recent entry, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, and Capcom’s Miwako Chinone has composed something arguably more background-y with Saferoom. In keeping with the Louisiana, USA setting, she employs a distorted banjo as the lead instrument (also run through a tremolo, creating a similar sound to some of Gustavo Santaolalla’s guitar work for The Last of Us). But, as ever, it sits atop unsettling, pulsating held synth chords which gnaw at the listener, increasing anxiety:
As I conceive of it, this subgenre extends beyond just the one franchise. Capcom’s Dino Crisis series — still spiritually within the Resident Evil family — also features save room music, with Dino Crisis 2 often getting a shout out as a fan favourite:
Disappointingly, 2014’s The Evil Within — directed by Resident Evil series founder Shinji Mikami — opts for the BioShock/Fallout 3 trick of using an older piece of real world music which sounds as if it’s being played on a particularly scratchy old gramophone.
Perhaps the most notable example of a piece of ‘Resi save game music’ not actually in a Resident Evil-affiliated game is Motoi Sakuraba’s menu music for Dark Souls. It features very similar instrumentation and mood to the Resident Evil 4 save room theme, albeit with a more varied chord structure and punctuated by string swells:
Finally, you may have caught Never the Same by Daniel Aaron Martinez from touching First World War point-and-click adventure, Valiant Hearts: The Great War. This piece evokes the piano-led Resident Evil 2 save room theme:
Games writer Andy Corrigan also expounded on his love of Resi save room music in our multi-contributor piece, “Remember me: Favourite game music moments of the VGM community”.
We’d love to hear from you if you’ve also come across a piece of ‘Resi save room music’ elsewhere in your game music listening experiences: