As the basis for the survival horror genre in gaming, the Resident Evil franchise has carried high expectations. In the first game, the player was required to choose to play as one or the other of two available characters: Jill Valentine or Chris Redfield. The game limited ammo, and set the character down narrow and restrictive hallways with fixed camera angles and no way to scout around corners or step back from opening doors. The game’s ultimate prize was getting out alive: surviving the mansion and its undead inhabitants.
The later games moved to empower the player more within the space. While games maintained their focus on Umbrella and their bio-organic weapons, the worlds opened up and provided more space and a greater sense of control. Games could include more checklists of tasks, or were on-rails shooters. While Resident Evil: Revelations narrowed the space of play and Resident Evil 4 used a close, over-the-shoulder camera movement to invoke a greater sense of limitation and enclosure, the movement in Resident Evil 5 and 6 was more into action-gaming and dramatic horror and less in the sense of desperation and survival. The characters were powerful in the face of the threats, instead of the feeling of near helplessness in the original game.
Other game franchises, like Silent Hill, also took up the mantle of survival horror and helped build the genre into greater popularity. Just as Resident Evil led to numerous games and a movie series, Silent Hill spawned a dozen games for different platforms and two film adaptations. Most notable is the recent promise of a new game, Silent Hills, which was teased with the Playstation’s 4’s P.T., or playable teaser. The project was set to bring Guillermo del Torro together with Hideo Kojima, and starred Norman Redus. The game-play was first-person, in a small, cramped house space, as the player was caught in a loop, moving through the same hallway over and over with minor changes happening each time, revealing more about the horror of the space. When the project was cancelled in 2015, there was an internet outcry at the loss of such an appealing game-space.
The reaction to P.T. demonstrated the craving for this genre in gaming. P.T. was released on August 12th, 2014, and by September 1st, 2014, had been downloaded over 1 million times,1 and viewed online many millions more than that. The trailer was an effective tool of viral marketing and appealed to a market that enjoyed the jump-scare horror of Dead Space2 and the ominous threats of Alien: Isolation3 or Amnesia: Dark Descent.4
Resident Evil 7, while a different studio and different series, has captured aspects of what made P.T. so enthralling, as the game has benefited from a recent invigoration of interest in the survival horror. Echoing the first-person camera, the close hallways, and the subtle, off-camera audio cuing, Resident Evil 7 really appears at first a successor to P.T. more than it does a sequel to Resident Evil 6. The important aspects of survival horror have been lost in recent Resident Evil games, as the characters have become too powerful for the threat they face to feel truly overwhelming.
Resident Evil 7: Biohazard has recaptured that sense of desperation, as the player is not a highly trained S.T.A.R.S. operative, police officer, or even a skilled fighter. The player is situated in the avatar-body of Ethan Winters, a regular civilian trying to find his missing wife. He lost contact with her three years before and is prompted to visit a derelict home in Louisiana after getting the location from an email sent, ostensibly, from Mia. Immediately, the sense of desperation and near helplessness is established with that premise. Ethan is clinging to hope, willing to go to any distance or extreme to recover his wife. This positioning of the task as one of love, of personal significance, means that the player facing the threats of horror space is not a job or choice. The motivation already sets apart the experience and invests the player in the space.
From the outset, the space has to borrow a phrase from Diana Wynne Jones, a “reek of wrongness.”5 The player is prepared for the dilapidation and threat, as she is playing a Resident Evil game. The game, after setting up the mysterious and dark nature of the story with two video clips of Mia, has the player drive up to the entrance of the Baker Ranch in Dulvey, Louisiana. Ethan leaves the car and walks to the front gate, which he finds locked, and needs to circle around back to access the house. After going through the broken patch of gate and circling around, the player sees someone walking up ahead, crossing her path. No matter how quickly she runs, she will not catch another glimpse of that figure, as it disappears ahead of her. The walk to the house sets up the sense of discomfort, as the player walks under animal parts strung up in a talismanic net over the path and past the charred remains of Ethan’s wife’s belongings. The isolation and threat are built up before the player enters the house, creating the craving to turn back and the moment’s hesitation before facing what is an ominous space.
The settings get darker and more discomforting as the game goes on, as the main house is corrupted with mold growths that infest the space and peel off the walls and floors in animated, anthropomorphic toothy monsters. The house, and its rot, literally attacks Ethan. The world around the player is oppressive, powerful, and threatening.
The tonal horror of the space is more effective than previous games, as the powerlessness of the avatar is highlighted. As the avatar is an everyman, he has no special skills or tools at the beginning of the game. He cannot open a padlock at the front gate and must go around. At the start of the game, the only action Ethan can perform, other than walking, is to shield himself with his bare hands, an almost pitiful gesture. Going into the game unarmed heightens the player’s discomfort, as she doesn’t know what she will be facing. The game plays with this sense of the unexpected, as the player sees someone walking up ahead when she goes around the house. So, while the guesthouse the player explores appears empty, there is threat of the unknown, a threat of the unseen.
Limiting the player’s view by setting the game in a first-person view heightens this sense of threats just out of view. The first game to restrict player-perspective to a first-person view, Resident Evil 7 uses the limited view to bring the player into the small spaces and tight, confining passages to create a properly claustrophobic experience. The player moves right up to doors to open them, needs to swivel back and forth when entering a room or hallway and must turn fully around to survey the room. These movements are slower than a camera-swivel, as a quick pan of the room is not as easy as most shooters’ mechanics. It echoes the limited camera-movement found in Resident Evil 4, where the player could ‘shoulder check’ in-game, rather than panning the camera. The restriction of visible range meant the audio-cues off-screen required an avatar-movement, not just a quick camera-scan, which Resident Evil 7 echoes.
The gradual granting of tools and weapons builds the player’s anxiety. Previous games have the player engaging with the world as a trained operative: a powerful person facing a dangerous threat. In Resident Evil 7, the player lacks that power. He is a man seeking his lost love, so he doesn’t come with a gun, a tactical knife, or a lot of cargo-pockets. He has nothing, and must scrounge for everything he uses. The player can gradually discover lock-picks, pieces of the various puzzles, weapons, ammo and medical treatments; however, the inventory space is only eight slots plus four quick-draw items. This fills quickly, as puzzles to unlock doors can be three or four pieces, taking up three or four inventory slots in the process. This can inhibit the player’s ability to pick up health, ammo, or even critical weapons in a combat situation. This limitation of tools and space is a simple way that the game can heighten tension and create the sensation of physical limitation in the game-space.
The survival element of the survival horror also builds the anxiety of the game. While many games have a death-component, the slow-build of death and the lack of precise health-bar makes the experience of combat a more clear threat. The player’s vision will be obscured by blood-spatter around the edges of the screen, with the blood becoming more pronounced as Ethan is more injured. He also wears a monitor on his wrist, which tracks his heartbeat in green, yellow, and red depending on his relative health. The inexact nature of the health tracking means the player can’t gauge the number of hits Ethan can face. Instead, death is constantly a threat, an ever-possible eventuality that hangs over the player’s exploration. There are dramatic scenes of dismemberment, in which Ethan loses limbs, but there are ways of repairing and fixing that grievous bodily harm. Ethan does not die easily or quickly, but struggles against that, making death sequences both drawn out and horrific. Death in itself in video games is not inherently frightening: Mario dies frequently, but there is no fear in that. Death in the game is a sword of Damocles; the threat of death and its near presence is far worse than dying quickly or frequently. Instead, Ethan’s survival despite impossible injury adds to the horrific elements of the game.
The first person you meet in the house is the focus of the game’s goal: Mia. She is locked in a cell below the guesthouse and Ethan is able to free her, but with the immediate discovery that she is not completely the woman she was. She has lost track of time, doesn’t remember sending the email, and is disoriented when leaving her cell. These sorts of mental disruptions are understandable for someone under forced confinement, but very soon after letting her out, the player sees another change in Mia: She crawls up the basement stairs before her face snaps up and fills the field of view. The scene is wordless: She snarls and rasps, before throwing Ethan across the hall and attacking him with a knife. The lack of weapon or meaningful way of fighting back makes this exchange overwhelming; the player can only press a button to “resist.” Mia’s eyes clear, and she returns to herself again, before knocking herself out against the wall; Ethan asks the question every player is asking: “What the fuck are you, Mia?”
The game plays on the emotional investment of Ethan and the horror film tropes of the abandoned house and the unknown threat. Mia is the initial goal, but she is also the first antagonist. She is the first jump-scare of the game, lunging out with a screwdriver to pin Ethan’s hand to the wall before cutting through his arm with a chainsaw. The brutality of her actions are shocking, and the first truly gory exchange in the game; Ethan fights off her knife attacks, uses an axe to defend himself and then attempt to kill her, and then loses his arm to her chainsaw attack. Their final face-off is between Ethan armed with a gun and Mia with a chainsaw. The fight is bloody and hard-fought and ends with Ethan killing Mia. She is at once familiar and foreign, friendly and horrific: as Ethan’s wife and the set-up at the beginning of the game, she is established as the emotional driver of the game. Yet, her revelation as the first monster and first threat disrupts that emotional tie. The player, as Ethan, is forced to kill the person he sought to save. The desperation of the act at the end of the first game sequence enforces the sense of hopelessness and the price of survival.
The game’s genre of survival horror focuses on just that: survival and horror. To survive, Ethan must kill his wife, must escape the Baker family, and must kill a child. All these acts and scenarios are horrific, challenging the player who is embodied in the avatar. Through the game’s visual framing, inventory limitations, character spaces, and slow-story reveal, the game creates an immersive and effective horror story that the player must fight to survive.
1. See IGN article “Playstation 4’s PT Silent Hills Demo Downloaded 1+ Million Times,” dated 1 September, 2014.
2. A game series set in an adrift mining spaceship where the player controls Isaac Clarke in his fight against Necromorphs: alien creatures that consume and corrupt thel ife forms on the ship. While described as survival horror, Dead Space and Dead Space 2 are much more action-shooter, however the ship-exploration provide an atmosphere of horror and anticipation.
3. A game with a single protagonist and a single alien, Alien Isolation is a survival and stealth-based game with provides the player with weapons, but limits the ammo and focuses more on escape and concealment than fighting.
4. A first-person exploration of a castle to solve the puzzles and unlock the character’s memory. The game is truly a survival game in that the player has no weapons or way or defending herself: she can only solve puzzles and avoid the threats.
5. Wynne Jones, Diana. The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land. London: Gollancz, 1996. 167.