The Evolution of Horror Games: A Resident Evil Retrospective

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Written by Arya Damavandy

The first Resident Evil (1996) was a pioneer of the survival horror game genre. In many ways the first of its kind and, compounded with a stellar sequel in 1998, the game impacted the entirety of horror gaming in one way or another for the 20 years following its release.

As the series progressed, it lost much of its original identity in favour of action-oriented atmosphere and playstyles. The changes in game design not only illustrate the evolution of the series, but can shed light on the developing direction of horror games as a whole.

Resident Evil: The survival horror pioneer

The key elements of survival horror are vulnerability, isolation and uncertainty. The core mechanics of Resident Evil were designed around these three tenets. The player can only cope with a few hits of damage and has limited ammo, bad auto-aim and few inventory slots for support, with supplies scattered few and far between.

Combined with the infamous tank-like controls, this vulnerability raises the stakes so that even running away from or dodging a monster is difficult. There is never a point in the game where the player isn’t worried about being attacked, or feels confident in tackling forthcoming obstacles. Comfort is rare and lip-gnawing anxiety constant, leaving the player ripe for the scaring when a boarded-up window is broken or a mutated dog barks in the distance.

The iconic fixed camera means the player is always uncertain of what is around the corner, building suspense and letting the imagination run wild.

These techniques are used by Silent Hill (1998) and its sequels to similar effect. In fact, such gameplay has persisted in horror games throughout the past two decades. Dead Space (2009) and DreadOut (2014) make excellent use of isolation, while Amnesia (2010) and Outlast (2014) remove monster fighting entirely and take player vulnerability to the extreme.

Resident Evil 2 and 3: Bigger, better, scarier

Much-anticipated sequel Resident Evil 2 (1998) saw great use of more pillars of survival horror, namely despair and futility. Raccoon City has been overrun by zombies, meaning the chances of escape are far slimmer than in the previous game.  The number of monsters to face is far greater, and the sense of isolation is more overwhelming than ever. The classic helicopter crash scene is symbolic of the ways hope is frequently given and then snatched away in Resi 2, shredding nerves and making the player all the more afraid of events to come.

The cliche spooky mansion setting of the first game is replaced with modern and realistic city streets and buildings, making the horror more visceral and less cartoonish. While the gameplay and controls are mostly similar, Resident Evil 2 is an example of how a few changes to setting and atmosphere can foster greater horror. It foreshadows the evolution of horror gaming towards grittier, realer experiences, such as the admittedly goofy Dead Rising (2006) and Left 4 Dead (2008).

Resident Evil 3 (1999) introduced Nemesis, a monster created specifically to hunt and kill the player, ramping up the vulnerability and uncertainty.  Nemesis is far stronger than the player character, has better AI than zombies, and attacks with no warning, all which making Resi 3 is a jumpscare classic. Nemesis’ presence as a super-strong, somewhat intelligent, recurring monster bears similarity to slasher film series such as Halloween and Friday the 13th, and similar monsters even appear in modern horror games like Outlast.

The pacing of RE3 is quicker than its predecessor, moving the player along, arguably keeping tensions high by giving them far less time to collect themselves before the next high-strung set piece. The player also gets to see more of the destroyed city than in RE2, the abandoned police station which is similar to the mansion from the first game is focused on less, increasing fear by putting the player in an environment which is constantly crumbling around them, and allowing them to take in the scale of the destruction more.

RE3 also introduces a rudimentary dodge function and 180 degree turn, making control easier and enemies a bit less dangerous, but this is mitigated with more zombies than before and arguably some more difficult combat situations. There are also instances in the game when the player has to make a decision between two options at a critical moment, affecting the following gameplay in a unique way (for the time) and raising tension by suddenly putting the player on the spot.

Revamping the formula, opening the floodgates

Resident Evil: Code Veronica (2000) and Resident Evil Zero (2002) had some unique gameplay developments, but ultimately took the series away from horror and towards action. Features like the 180 degree turn and the ability to run improved control but made the games less scary. Nevertheless, Code Veronica did introduce fully 3D environments instead of the previous pre-rendered backgrounds, greatly increasing realism.

By 2005, the formula had gotten stale. Just in time, Resident Evil 4 changed things completely by being a shooter with an over the shoulder perspective, and successfully managed to still be a fantastically scary game. Frustratingly however, characters cannot run and shoot simultaneously, and this static aim-and-shoot mechanic caused great anxiety as enemies advanced, with picking them off one by one making panic levels skyrocket.

Resi 4 also brought better enemy AI in the crazed cult members, providing a different kind of horror to shambling corpses. They are faster, can group together, communicate and use weapons, all of which cause a more frantic kind of fear when they attack.

It showed the series’ ability to modernise without losing its core purpose of survival horror. It pioneered the over-the-shoulder camera which would be used in many games in years to come.  It also showed that you could have fun combat in a horror game if done right, and mechanics like shooting different body parts to make enemies trip or drop their weapons reappeared in other games like the Dead Space franchise. The game looked set to usher in a new age of survival horror. Despite this, it also opened the floodgates for horror to be sucked into action games.

Resident Evil 5 and 6: The death of horror?

Multiplayer co-op does not a horror game make. These two games basically marked the series complete departure from horror: abundant ammo and health packs; fighting off hordes of zombies over and over with no weight or significance; frequent quick-time events; crazy finishing moves; Wesker teleporting; dodging bullets like Neo from The Matrix; and don’t forget the boulder punching (YouTube it, it’s hilarious).

In terms of survival horror, these were the years that Resident Evil dropped the ball. Fans of the genre were forced to look elsewhere for their fear fix.

Considering the clumsy Dead Space 3 (2013) and the action heavy Silent Hill: Homecoming (2008), it’s perhaps the death of horror left by these big budget franchises during this time which led to the innovation of games like Penumbra (2007) and Amnesia. These emphasise avoiding most if not all enemies entirely and playing as a lone character in very dark locales. The games fostered an atmosphere of vulnerability, isolation and uncertainty, much like the earlier Resident Evil entries. Amnesia in particular set the standard for modern horror games, as shown by the explosion of indie titles capitalising on its success. It would seem that the evolution of horror games had finally left Resident Evil behind, and the modern horror gaming canon had no room for what had become a goofy, bloated and altogether mediocre action series.

Resident Evil 7: Adapting to modern survival horror, going back to the roots

Fast-forward a few years and horror gaming is well into its renaissance. Outlast, Alien: Isolation (2014) and P.T. (2014) all make brilliant use of first-person cameras to immerse the player, creating a horror which attacks them directly. These games also effectively use darkness, low visibility, ambient sound and stealth gameplay to build suspense.

Now that the industry trend for horror games emphasises tone and tension more so than any other aspect, enter this year’s Resident Evil 7: Biohazard. The franchise officially has its mojo back, but now it’s design is informed by other games, rather than being the pioneer itself.

Resi 7 scales back the setting to a seemingly abandoned plantation in the middle of nowhere. There are plenty of encounters with unkillable enemies, and the first person perspective limits the player’s peripheral vision. Combat in boss fights is frantic, in-your-face and all-round terrifying, while action-heavy set pieces are used to maximise panic rather than spectacle. The game makes use of its big budget to create beautifully detailed environments and character models, increasing immersion and making the horror very visceral and real. Environments are tight and claustrophobic, harking back to the corridor-like design of older games and mitigating the evasiveness of the player character. The game is basically a reboot of the franchise complete with all new gameplay, demonstrating a newfound willingness to stay fresh and not stagnate. It even has PlayStation VR support, for an extra level of bone chilling immersion.

Resident Evil has been a 20 year long rollercoaster of revolution and evolution. While its fall from grace was reflected in the rest of the industry, this fall arguably made room for newer, better titles to take the lead and guide the genre into new territory. This innovation has given Resident Evil the inspiration it needed to revive itself, and horror gaming is better off for it.

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