The Heavy Footsteps of Resident Evil 2’s Mr. X

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  • It starts with a face to face meeting.

    When you put out the fire of the crashed helicopter at the police station, Mr. X appears from behind it, brushing it aside like it was made of tin foil. An evolved form of the Tyrant from the first Resident Evil, Mr. X is the most normal-looking of the monsters you face, as he has the appearance of a tall, burly man with a trench coat and fedora. There is no hint of the body horror of his counterpart, William Birkin, who serves as co-antagonist with him in Resident Evil 2. He’s merely an imposing figure who instantly gives off an unstoppable aura, the kind that you instinctively know you need to run away from. But this isn’t why Mr. X is the scariest aspect of the new Resident Evil 2 remake. In fact, his physical presence has nothing to do with why he’s so scary. The whiff of threat of him is enough to completely change the game you’re playing, warping your entire awareness around the possibility of him. Most of all, though, it’s the footsteps. The damned, constant footsteps that heralds something hunting you, pursuing you, drawing ever closer.

    And pursue you he will. From the moment you’re introduced to Mr. X, he will be hunting you wherever you go. In the original Resident Evil 2, Mr. X would appear in the second playthrough featuring whatever character you didn’t choose for the first. He would appear in once-familiar spaces and just generally wreak havoc trying to kill you. And while it did feel like he was pursuing you, you quickly came to realize that each of his appearances are scripted setpieces meant to evoke pursuit without actually pursuing you. It worked, but you got the sense that the concept could be made more literal if they actually made a roaming monster that kept tracking you as you played through the game. You can see this come to fruition more with Resident Evil 3’s Nemesis monster, which still appeared at specific times in the game, but actually chased you for longer stretches, which when combined with the more open-feeling level design, made you feel like you were being constantly chased.

    This same concept is expanded in the Resident Evil 2 remake. Now instead of relying on set pieces to give the illusion of the hunt, Mr. X can roam most of the police station looking for you. Suddenly, you begin to take roundabout routes to your destination lest you run into him and have to hoof it again. And it’s not like Mr. X teleports to your location at the most inconvenient times. You actually buy into the fact that he has to navigate the space to get to you, which makes his presence that much more menacing. Opening doors has never been this frightening thanks to the ever-looming threat that he’ll be behind one.

    But all that does is provide the groundwork for the thing that does the actual heavy lifting in making Mr. X terrifying: sound design. More specifically, his footsteps are the entire reason he works as well as he does. Whenever he’s on the hunt, his footsteps echo throughout the building, signaling to you that he’s looking for you. Every so often, you’ll hear a door open as he enters a new room. When he’s in the same room as you, the tone of his footsteps changes, turning into a more metallic clang. And that’s really all that’s required. Three simple components can make you feel a rush of emotions, putting stress on you until you’re terrified.

    The constant footsteps serves as a reminder that you are actively being hunted down, setting you on edge for the entire time. The scant few safe rooms will feel like cages that you’ll want to keep yourself in lest you run afoul of Mr. X. The door opening sounds will make you jump out of your seat if you’re not constantly watching the door, as for a moment, you wonder if Mr. X actually did find you and busted into the room. You begin to become paranoid even in the rooms where he will not enter, wondering if it’s just a stroke of luck that he hasn’t busted down the door to your room yet. And when the footsteps give way to the heavier, metallic ones, panic fully sets in and you’re left with no choice but to run in a direction, any direction, as long as it’s away from him. Then, as you turn a corner, you might see himdown the hall and panic again as you realize you chose the wrong direction for your escape.

    That’s the other brilliant thing about the sound design of Mr. X: it’s wonderfully non-specific. Resident Evil 2’s remake is very much a modern game with some of the sensibilities of the original, but these three sound patterns lack the subtlety of the rest of the game’s audiovisual presentation. While that sounds inconsistent on paper, it also doesn’t let you ever pinpoint his location, or even if he’s getting close. All you have to go on is the heavier footsteps if he’s in the same room. Again, it’s as subtle as a sledgehammer, but the three phases of sounds mirrors the range of emotions you go through, from stress to paranoia to panic.

    Resident Evil 2 is all about the stress of running out of resources, of being overwhelmed by enemies, of always needing to be on top of your game with very little time to relax. That Mr. X can set players on edge without even being in the room thanks to some clever sound design is a huge testament to the power of sound in horror.