Horror, Not Terror: Resident Evil 7 and REmake

Much like the rest of its franchise, Resident Evil 7 is an incredibly inconsistent experience.  It’s first few hours are barely interactive walking sections that morph into jump scare and terror-filled stealth reminiscent of Amnesia and Outlast.  The middle sections reach their peak during wonderfully paced exploration moments that emulate the first three entries in its series.  And the final hours slowly fall apart, ending with a climax so shamelessly indulgent that it wouldn’t have felt out of place in the over-the-top, cringe-filled bombast of Resident Evil 6.  But, the loss of focus and awkward plot indulgences of the game’s final section aren’t as interesting to me as the careful design of the game’s core, and, despite containing many fiercely contemporary design choices, that core is surprisingly similar to what makes Resident Evil 1: Remake (REmake) such a definitive piece of design.  Because, even though REmake literally invented survival horror (both the genre and the term), its enduring legacy, now that its attempts at genuine scares have aged so poorly, is the brilliance of its level design mixed with its commanding mastery over a tone that stayed strictly in the realm of psychological horror, instead of terror.

Despite it being over twenty years old and thus barely qualifying as 3D, REmake remains one of the most intricate and finely-crafted pieces of 3D level design in the medium.  The voice acting and scripted story events are hilariously terrible to the point of cringe worthiness, which makes it unsurprising to learn that the designers had actively protested against including them at all.  Still, the core of REmake is much easier to reach and understand than Resident Evil 7 (RE7), and that core is a mansion-sized Escape Room with zombies.  The player slowly unlocks more rooms in a puzzle box mansion, solving light, adventure game-style puzzles and finding keys that unlock different sections of the house.  They search for hidden items, find new maps and upgrades, and generally try to explore the entirety of the mansion.  Along the way, they will fight their way past zombies with combat that isn’t particularly deep or complex, but is incredibly effective at ratcheting up the tension and putting some pressure on resource management.  Like I mentioned earlier, REmake’s most effective sequences weren’t trying to terrify the player with jump scares or gross them out with body horror, though there are a few moments of 2749718-residentevil_1204_01that scattered throughout.  Instead, the game wants to create a thick atmosphere that unsettles the player.  When playing REmake, the player is rarely scared in the same way they might be when watching a haunted house horror film.  This makes the totality of REmake’s experience much more consistent than RE7’s, and since the player isn’t expecting jump scares around every corner, they feel free to explore each new area.

Despite these strengths, REmake isn’t quite as beloved or replayed as other games that came out around the same time, and that is largely because of two elements that make it relatively inaccessible to modern audiences: fixed camera angles and tank controls.  This isn’t actually as frustrating as it seems at first, but it definitely is a barrier for entry to players who didn’t grow up using that control scheme.  The controller’s analog stick turns the character based on their position to the camera, so, pressing forward on the stick makes the character run away from the camera, not forward in the direction they are facing.  Coupled with an inability to turn and move at the same time, this will feel foreign and confusing to audiences playing the game today.  Additionally, because the game used pre-rendered 2D backgrounds instead of fully modeled 3D environments, the camera is locked in a specific position for every screen, making sure movement never feels elegant.  However, the awkwardness and unreliability of the controls adds a great deal of tension to the combat, in a way that the intuitive design of contemporary control schemes really couldn’t.  Thus, REmake seemed to provide ample possibilities for a graphically superior successor, using the advantages of full 3D to let the player more completely engage with the environments.  However, later Resident Evil games never explored this possibility, and instead switched genres from the survival horror it created to a grindhouse-inspired action focus.  And as publishers moved further away from survival horror, the prospect of a sequel that would use REmake’s design as a foundation and expanded upon it seemed incredibly unlikely.

Then Resident Evil 7 came out.  The demo might give the impression that it was attempting to be another AAA appropriation of the jump-scare-fueled indie horror boom of the late 2000s, like Creative Assembly’s Alien: Isolation, and RE7’s opening doesn’t do much to subvert this expectation.  It begins with beautifully animated characters acting believably terrified inside a lavishly detailed haunted house, filled with jump scares and body horror that is legitimately unnerving.  However, a trip to the map screen will show players that RE7 is not simply “Amnesia, but it’s RE and with better graphics,” but actually a successor to REmake.  RE7’s haunted house isn’t just packed with jump scares, but also puzzles and items that require a healthy amount of backtracking as you learn the levels.  It’s core gameplay loops follow REmake’s Metroidvania-style level design, encouraging player-created paths through the levels that are regularly interrupted by a wandering AI that will dynamically hunt the player.  The game regularly uses elements from contemporary gaming to enhance the classic experience of REmake, never quite giving in to the design trappings of contemporary releases.  Take the psychostimulants, res7_hallwhich perform the increasingly common function of highlighting all hidden items in the environment like the Arkham series’ detective vision.  Instead of feeling like a gimmick that ruined organic exploration, it created an engaging second pass through an already-explored area, making quick bursts of progress that would have taken minutes of searching earlier.  Each area feels unique, and unlocking them brings a rush of excitement as you wonder what items, monsters, or areas could be waiting inside them.

For as much as RE7 pulls from its predecessor, it also expands upon its design in a way that the original simply could not: gorgeous environmental design.  The areas in RE7 are incredibly impressive on a technical and artistic level, with highly-detailed textures and beautiful lighting tech that makes just being in the space both exciting and unnerving.  Saying, “this is the best-looking game I’ve ever seen” means very little when graphics advance substantially every year, but Resident Evil 7 is nonetheless the best-looking game I’ve ever seen.  Kojima Productions’ PT worked as horror partially because of how the hyperreality of the environment meshed with the surreality of the horror, and Resident Evil 7, as it borrows a great deal from PT, also borrows this approach to horror through environmental design.  While it regularly uses its realism to enhance gross-out body horror, it often uses it to instill a sense of the uncanny.  On the surface, the mansion is just an old, broken down house, with trash littering the environments and collapsed walls and staircases making navigation difficult.  This makes the descent into the main house’s basement, which is filled with black tar creatures and twisted experiments, feel more basementdoorunsettling by comparison, and the dramatically-lit entrance feel more like crossing a threshold.  The result is a game that uses realism in a way that enhances the experience thematically and ludically, instead of chasing photorealism for the sake of marketing alone.

In addition to that added fidelity, the game also uses the first-person perspective to expand upon some of the core tenants of REmake.  In REmake, the player spent a lot of time poking around maps, looking for hidden items in rooms that were marked as having items remaining.  In RE7, the player pokes around individual rooms, without that map marker saying the room was empty, so the scale of the exploration is smaller.  Instead of checking the room as a whole, the player is looking behind environmental clutter to find new items.  Additionally, the first-person perspective is used to great effect to enhance the game’s horror.  Yes, it has the aforementioned Outlast-inspired stealth sections, which are great in their own right (especially with how well the player comes to know the environments), but just the eerie resident_evil_7bpresence of being in this haunted house is enhanced.  In REmake, there wasn’t much of a sense of presence as the character, and the tank controls and fixed camera angles, while good for the time, weren’t entirely effective at accomplishing these goals.  RE7 manages to use the first-person perspective to enhance immersion, while keeping the gunplay awkward enough to feel unpredictable and clunky.  But perhaps the greatest success of RE7’s use of the first-person perspective is how it affects REmake’s emotional peaks: the safe rooms.

REmake’s safe rooms are a culmination of nearly every system in the game and the tension they build up.  Resource management and combat were both incredibly stressful, but the game’s save system is what really retched up the tension.  Instead of automatically saving the game at periodic intervals for the player, or giving them specific spaces to infinitely save their game, REmake would let the player find typewriter rolls which were used as save tokens at the typewriters scattered throughout the game.  This meant that every save cost the player a precious resource, and choosing to save was betting the worth of that token against the progress the player had made.  If the player had just made an hour of progress, and decided not to save because they were running low on save tokens, they could die in an unlucky zombie encounter and lose that hour of progress.  This, almost single-handedly, took REmake from feeling like an awkward experience to a nail-bitingly tense one.  The result of this save system alone would have made the player feel relieved when reaching a safe room, but it also provided an opportunity for the developer to expand upon this feeling created by the systems.  Fortunately, they expanded upon it wonderfully.  The rooms are cut off from any enemies, making this one of the only moments in the game where the player knows that they are safe.  The rooms are softly lit, evoking the atmosphere of a cozy sanctuary, an unusual choice in a horror game.  The rooms contain a save station, and an item chest that syncs its contents with all other chests in the game, so the player has a chance to save the game, pick the items they want

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to carry, save the ones they want banked, and decide where on the map they want to explore next.  This is finished off with a beautiful bit of calming music that is just slightly uneasy, never letting the player get completely comfortable, but giving them a moment to breathe.  The safe rooms, in my opinion, are REmake’s greatest achievement, both from the mastery in the construction of the rooms themselves, and from the culmination of the game’s other systems creating this experience.

Later RE games didn’t have this same effect, as they did away with the limited save tokens and safe rooms in favor of a more bombastic, action-focused approach.  But, like how it approaches the rest of the REmake formula, RE7 replicates and enhances the original.  Safe rooms follow the same rules: a location where enemies will never show up, with an item chest and a save station, soft lighting, and eerily calming music.  The first-person perspective makes this feeling of safety even more powerful, as, instead of watching Jill or Chris stand in the room, you are standing in the room, feeling the unease and security in equal measure.  The game even copies the limited save system in its unlockable Madhouse difficulty, further enhancing the tension, but it works well enough even with the autosaving of Normal mode.  The emotional experience of REmakes safe rooms served as the culmination of all its systems and artistic flourishes, and RE7’s successful evocation of those emotions cements its role as a successor that takes the potential that the first game suggested and fulfills it.  While I still wholeheartedly recommend that any horror game fan play REmake, I think they can gain a reasonable understanding of its design aesthetic if they play RE7 instead.  Just, skip the game’s last few hours.

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