In a recent interview with Archipel, Shinji Mikami stated that horror games are about having negative experiences with periodic injections of neutrality and calm, while most other games are about the opposite: having bursts of positive ones. Looking back at the earlier Resident Evil titles, this makes sense. We’re always placed in uncomfortable situations with our goal being to get back to ‘zero’, to neutral, and to comfort.
In 2010, Frictional Games managed to take those negative experiences to the extreme with Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It spawned a kind of cultural zeitgeist in the internet gaming community. People who boasted of their immunity to the hauntings of the horror genre were posting memes about their sleepless nights. Youtubers, many of which have launched successful careers because of the game, were screaming like dying clowns on camera. It was a game that advanced horror to another level, and inspired many in the ensuing decade.
What made it so scary though? Well, if you haven’t played it, ask someone. I guarantee you that the first thing they’ll say is that the game doesn’t give you a weapon. Frictional Games co-founder Thomas Grip said in an interview with Ars Technica that a lot of contemporary horror games back then had “standard gameplay wrapped in horror”. He went on to explain that these games all had a ‘spooky atmosphere,’ but allowed players to solve problems the same way they would in an action game: by blowing stuff up. And while it’s very much possible to create effective horror while putting the player in a position of power, there is something to be said about putting the player in a position where they have virtually no power at all.
Amnesia is a game that thrusts us into the darkness. In a world without fire or life. Where we’re alone, with no one to help us, and nothing to protect ourselves with. We’re exposed to a world that’s uncaring at best, and malicious at worst. When Frictional Games did something as elegant as taking away our weapon in a violent world, the dynamics changed. We became the hunted. When an enemy comes around the corner, something primal activates. Like we’ve been sent back beyond the Stone Age. Something about running and hiding behind rocks in the dark is infinitely more terrifying and existentially unpleasant than blowing away a hideous creature with a 12-gauge.
This was an evolution of the genre. A game that used technology to its fullest potential in a way that just wasn’t possible when the first Resident Evil came out in 1996. Features that we take for granted now like dynamic 3D environments, lighting, immersive sound design, and a first-person perspective — they’re responsible for immersing us in an experience. One in which we’re the ones in danger, not just another video game character. When the protagonist in Amnesia, Daniel, is running away from some lumbering creature, it feels like we’re running away. When Daniel is hiding in a cupboard, praying to anything that is holy that he’s not found, we’re the ones praying.
In 2017, Resident Evil 7 managed to take the design lessons learned from Amnesia and incorporate it into itself. (Funny, considering Frictional Games was heavily inspired by titles influenced by the original RE. I guess inspiration is cyclical, in a way). It’s deeply atmospheric. Lighting is used to its fullest effect. The texture work and environmental art is incredibly detailed. The first-person perspective is immersive. Level design is confined and awkward. Sound design is paranoia inducing.
What results is a Resident Evil that’s more terrifying than it’s ever been. Take an early game moment watching a video tape. You watch three dudes walk into a dimly lit dilapidated house and die horribly for unknown reasons. Then, you go into that same house, with no weapon in hand. Or take an end game moment holding a gun with no ammo. This section sees you sneaking around dark corridors with this game’s equivalent of the lickers from Resident Evil 2 prowling around every corner. As they catch wind of you, you can hear the quickening pit-pat-pit-pat of their warped hands and feet. If that’s not scary, I don’t know what is. The most important evolution of the genre, however, the dynamic between the player and the environment — namely, its scary ghosts — is handled a bit differently.
Since the beginning of time, Resident Evil has played with controlling player power. For example, ammunition is pretty hard to come by in these games. Depending on how much you have, the situation changes. When you have a surplus, zombies are simply a nuisance to be dispatched. When you have a deficit, those zombies become a dangerous threat. Similarly, when Big Man On Campus Mr. X or Nemesis bust through the wall, you kind of have to avoid them too. When you think about it for a bit, you might begin to realize that these moments are essentially creating the same type of horror Amnesia creates. The only difference is when they happen. In Amnesia, the relationship between the player and their enemies is static. In Resident Evil 7, it’s dynamic.
This is interesting. It’s a core part of a design philosophy that’s embodied the series from the start. It creates a strange dichotomy in the game experience. On one side is the oppressive horror: the periods of palm sweating defenseless terror that sees players hiding behind furniture and cringing around corners. On the other: the moments of rebellious, triumphant action that retains the series’ flavor. The bloody shotgun blasts that send zombie brains sticking to the walls.
If we go by Shinji Mikami’s word – that survival horror genre is about having negative experiences with our goal being to get back to ‘zero’ or to neutral – wouldn’t that mean creating a game that gives players moments where they can fight back, such as Resident Evil 7, actively subtract from those negative experiences that these games so great? In some respects, I’d agree? To me, Amnesia is the quintessential survival horror video game. If it’s possible to quantify ‘how scary’ a game is, Frictional Games reached another level. However, by introducing a dynamic flow to the experience, Resident Evil 7 gains something unique. Something that’s true to the original flavor of the series.
The dichotomy in the game isn’t contradictory, but instead creates a kind of yin-yang nature that comprises both sides of the play experience. Without one mode of play, the other can’t exist. Both of them benefit from the other; one mode of play enunciates the other. Long periods of time spent cowering in fear are punctuated by bursts of action against your oppressors. Moments spent mowing down decaying freaks are subverted by creatures that don’t go down so easily. It creates a kind of contrast that a wine glass swirling video game connoisseur would call good pacing. Additionally, and more importantly, the player perceives these moments as emotional climaxes. How much ammo a person has changes the relationship between the player and the environment. Picking up a box of 9mm bullets, after fumbling around in the dark on an empty magazine for half an hour with groans of the undead reverberating off the walls, is absolutely liberating. Conversely, firing your last bullet whilst being encircled by a pack of zombies feels tantamount to getting your soul sucked out through every pore on your body. If we want to go beyond the boring ammunition example, we could talk about Jack Baker, whose role is functionally similar to Mr. X. In the most Amnesia-like fashion imaginable, we spend time sneaking around a house collecting pieces to a puzzle (in the most RE-like fashion) while listening, with bated breath, for Jack Baker’s footsteps bounding around the corner. Later, when we’re finally given the tool needed to fight back against him, a crescendo occurs. An emotional climax. And it’s only as potent as it is because of all the time spent crouching behind desks and sofas with a, quite frankly, unhealthily high BPM. Both modes of play, being the hunter versus being the hunted, would be substantially less impactful without the other. When looking at it from a certain angle, it’s easy to see how this kind of play experience might have emerged when taking into account the modern design philosophies popularized by Amnesia and its contemporaries.
In 2010, Amnesia: The Dark Descent painted the picture of some monstrosity of the night chasing you with an ice pick to your house, only to find your door locked tight and your keys lost. In 2017, Resident Evil 7 painted the same picture, but left a Glock under your doormat.