There was a time when all the horror genre was doing was throwing as much gore and violence in our faces as possible. Tension, and a sense of fright, were replaced with piles of blood and guts, along with cheesy jump scares. And while these are tropes we’ve seen throughout horror cinema, they have also become quite common in horror video games. So it’s with a gigantic breath of fresh air that we can say last year’s Resident Evil 7: Biohazard was an amazing return to form for survival horror video games, and a testament for how to create fear and unease within games.
The Legacy of Resident Evil: Survival Horror To Bland Action & Back Again
When it was released back in 1996 on the original Playstation, Resident Evil made a major impact on the gaming market. Horror video games had been around for years, but Resident Evil took everything those other titles were doing, amplifying the suspense, violence, and horror.
In the first game of the series, you took control of a character sent with a team to investigate a creepy mansion. As your journey progressed, you found out the place was infested with zombies. You roamed about the mansion, checking every hidden room, figuring out each mysterious puzzle, while unaware of what was to come next. One mechanic that created tension in the game was the fixed camera angle; your sight was limited in what you could view depending on where you stood. There was always a chance of a zombie popping out and making its way to attack from behind, keeping you on edge.
The atmosphere of Resident Evil was also a major plus, with the air of the mansion lingering with dread and anxiety. Having set the game in a single location brought a feeling of isolation and discomfort, knowing you were locked away with numerous threats in your vicinity. Everything from the creatures, the gameplay mechanics, and the atmosphere, helped to make Resident Evil a remarkable title that would go on to change the genre and inspire other games.
Resident Evil 2 & 3 followed a similar structure, while expanding upon their environments and enemy types. It was upon the release of Resident Evil 4 where the series would take on its first significant shift.
The game switched up its camera angle (now positioned over the controlled character’s shoulder), got rid of zombies (replacing them with a new kind of infected enemy), and made the gameplay much more action oriented. There was a lot more ammo to use this time around, with the player having more mobility to keep up with the faster enemies. In the end this worked out well for Resident Evil 4, given that the story was engaging and came with plenty of thrilling moments.
This cannot be said for entries that came afterwards, such as Resident Evil 5 & 6 (along with most of the numerous spin-offs). In regards to sales, Resident Evil 5 & 6 did well; however, these games just weren’t scary. That sense of unease and adrenaline in approaching the unknown was all gone. The sense of isolation that was found in the first few Resident Evil games was a thing of the past, with these newer titles showing off muscle-bound characters blasting away with fully automatic weapons. There was no reason to be afraid, and the series had just become another mindless action packed adventure.
Then came Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, where the series would make its grand return to authentic survival horror.
Creating Fear And Tension: The Mechanics, Story, & Characters Of Resident Evil 7
The game starts with our protagonist Ethan on his way to a house where his wife Mia is believed to be. Both you and Ethan don’t know the full details beyond the mysterious video Mia sent Ethan; while on a trip, she records herself speaking to him, stating to not come and find her. When you show up to the plantation where the house is located, you notice the murky swampland, and how the wood of the house appears to be rotting.
You make your way inside, eventually finding Mia. You and Mia make an attempt to escape, but all of a sudden she attacks you. Her eyes take on a deep black, her skin turning gray. She cuts off one of Ethan’s hands, and after the confrontation with her ends, an unknown assailant attacks you. Waking up at a dinner table, you find yourself surrounded by the Baker family.
Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (RE7) flies by the exposition and immediately immerses the player into the story. There is no clear understanding of what to expect, nor no strong understanding of what you can do to help yourself in this situation. You have no gun right away, you have no map, and your screen is devoid of any direction.
These elements of minimalism are why RE7 works so efficiently at keeping the player engaged in their surroundings. Taking on the qualities found in the series’ first game, RE7 goes for disturbing ambience, rather than bombard you with constant action in your face. The game spaces out the action packed moments to create a true anxiety and adrenaline when they appear. There’s a lot of exploration to do on the Baker plantation, which in itself is a masterpiece of tension and discomfort.
Since the player has more opportunity to explore, the atmosphere of RE7 is one of the greatest aspects of the game. The creators have stated that one influence for the location came from how classic American horror movies would put their characters in isolated settings, with limited options for how they could act. Such films like Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead were used to help create the unsettling vibe of the plantation, and to make the player feel like they were truly alone while roaming the halls.
Then there are the enemies. The Bakers share a strong visual similarity to that of the Sawyer Family from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. While the enemy types within RE7 are lacking, the Bakers more than make up for that in their disturbing actions and dialogue. Composed of Jack as the patriarch, his wife Marguerite, their son Lucas, and an unknown elderly woman, the Bakers act in lude and violent means (towards you and themselves). There’s a part where Lucas is taunting Ethan, and all of a sudden Jack reaches over and chops off his hand. This comes out of nowhere, and provides just a sample of the bizarre experiences the player will come to witness.
Now while there are creatures to fight, the Bakers are your primary concern for the majority of the game. Other than periods where you will fight these creatures, RE7’s biggest encounters are the boss fights with the family. In the beginning, the player starts out confronting Jack. He will appear at random times as you roam about the house, catching you by surprise as he bashes through walls and doors. Much of these moments involve slowing him down with carefully planned attacks, or out running him as to hide (before the main fight where you can finally kill him). The Bakers all have a supernatural element to them, such as how Jack can regenerate parts of his body.
RE7’s use of minimalism, atmosphere, and antagonists, all come together to present a truly terrifying experience. Playing this game in the dark with headphones on will absolutely get you to jump a few times, while also looking over your shoulder. By cutting back on all the extreme action elements, the plantation is able to emit an overwhelming sense of anxiety; old furniture, weird sounds coming out of the walls, and odd trinkets give the house a unique visual aesthetic that reflects such films as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Evil Dead. The Bakers play into the horror by being these murderous stalkers, hunting you down in relentless pursuit.
Thanks to these elements, RE7 was met with great critical reception from critics and fans. The entry has been a superb return to survival horror, presenting a world and experience to put gamers at the edge of their seats.
So given all this praise, what does a game like RE7 say about horror video games and what makes them effective?
The Fear Is In The Shadows: Atmosphere & Storytelling In Horror
Resident Evil may be the most iconic gaming series in horror, but it isn’t the only game to make use of the profound qualities that make the genre captivating. Other titles such as Amnesia and the Outlast games also use the same sort of minimalism and atmosphere to grab hold of their players, keeping them in the dark as to what horrors may lurk around each corner. And these two titles take things further by not letting the player attack or defend themselves at all (with the only option being to hide and outrun enemies).
These games, like RE7, have been met with just as much praise from critics and fans. They exude chills and gruesome imagery, keeping their stories and characters mysterious and intriguing. We use to see these same qualities in older Silent Hill games (another landmark series in the world of horror games). More recent Silent Hill titles, however, have abandoned that feeling of the unknown, and have taken the more action thriller approach to their gameplay and stories. That said, it’s important to note that there are some action-oriented horror games that do stick with us (such as Dead Space). Games like that use remarkable visuals and terrifying moments that send shivers down our spines and twist our stomachs in knots. But there is something to say for the attraction and unique elements found in games like RE7, and why those elements make the horror all the more effective.
The success we’ve seen in games like RE7, Amnesia, and Outlast also reflect the sort of horror films receiving applause today. In recent years, horror films have come to embrace richer atmospheres and storytelling, found in such works as The Babadook, It Follows, and The Witch. These three films all share an unsettling aura in their settings, keeping their characters (and viewers) in the dark as to what to expect. All these pictures may include graphic violence, but there is more of a reason for us to care for the characters, and feel an honest fear for their lives. In a way, these films share the same elements that are found in RE7 and other successful survival horror games. It isn’t the violence we always remember, nor the shock value of these properties, but the fear and emotions they stir within us.
Our culture has access to practically everything thanks to technology. One can go on YouTube and look up real life violence in a second. Nowadays it takes creating something super outrageous and violent to get audiences grossed out. But it’s still possible to scare people through genuine tension and mystery. The horror genre has always been a powerful tool in sharing horrifying stories that use subtly and suspense to grip audiences. There are folks out there itching for truly authentic horror experiences, and these newer games are curing that itch. Creators are still able to represent fear and anxieties through fantastical means, but, by holding back on the barrage of violent imagery, they can allow their audiences to absorb the story and emotions that the work exudes.
The present state of horror (whether it’s films or games) is presenting more intimate stories that don’t rely on nameless bad guys, and are bringing viewers into unique nightmares of dread. And in regards to video games, the stories are also bringing back the aesthetics and practices of classic horror tales. We see how games like RE7 have you play as a regular human being; you aren’t some military guy who carries guns and knows martial arts, you are a regular person who has no understanding of their surroundings, open to many more threats compared to some beefed up video game protagonist.
When we look at a major title like Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, there’s so much potential to explore in future games. And not just for the Resident Evil series, but for horror games in general. There’s the uncomfortable sensation of loneliness and being trapped in an isolated area. That visceral experience of feeling hunted down and constantly looking over your shoulder. Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is a remarkable example of how to keep gamers paranoid and disturbed.
Did you get to play Resident Evil 7: Biohazard? Let us know your thoughts on the game in the comments!
Michael Pementel is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago's Creative Writing Program. When he isn't writing for Film Daddy, he writes full time for Metal Injection and New Noise Magazine. He has also written for Alternative Press, Film Inquiry, and The Curator. He's the Social Media Manager for death metal record label Ultimate Massacre Productions. When not writing, he enjoys a hot cup of black coffee, a good book/video game/film, and to cuddle with his fiancée and cat.
Follow Michael on Twitter @pementelm.