Resident Evil 7 Part 1: The Catharsis of Horror

For the next few days, I’m going to be livestreaming Resident Evil 7 every day and writing my impressions and thoughts as I go. Obviously, what I write will be affected by the gameplay of the day, but I’ll also expand the scope of my writing from time to time as needed. For this introduction and first piece, it is clearly such a time. 

(For those who somehow don’t know: Resident Evil is a series of horror or action games [or B movies]. You fight enemies, but the point is not necessarily to defeat them, but to survive. Far more important than combat is efficient health, ammo, and inventory management, as well as exploring the environment thoroughly.)

I have a weird relationship with the Resident Evil series. I started with Resident Evil 4 on the Wii in middle school, at a time when I was definitely unprepared for the ceaseless tension and difficulty in the gameplay. Yet, despite leaving every play session as an emotionally exhausted husk, despite having to pause the game and organize the inventory every few seconds to give myself time to breathe, there was something perversely compelling about the experience. It quickly became a game my friends and I would play and watch each other struggle with, getting through large chunks and then putting it down for a few months or so when it became too intense (that invisible bug section—fuck, man). Actually, scratch that, it was a game *I* played while my friends watched and refused to play themselves. Most of them have still never finished or even touched the thing. Bastards. Therefore, between Resident Evil 4 and games like Bioshock, I found myself becoming accustomed to games with tense atmospheres. More than that, I started to love it. There was something about just a touch of fear or discomfort that made the game worlds feel so immediate, so tangible. (We’ll touch on this point later.) Years later, I’ve played every version of the game I can get my hands on with the hardest difficulty, and even do weird little challenge runs for myself for fun (first weapons only, carry a fish through the whole game, etc.) I learn something new about it every time I play, even now. It’s a brilliant damn game, and my favorite Resident Evil by far.

Now why did I go on so long about my first experience with a game pretty much everyone and their mother has played? Well, it’s not narcissism—not a lot, anyway. I only gave this background so that the next statement is a little less shocking: I find Resident Evil 4 calming.

The Resident Evil series isn’t exactly what most would consider a “calming” experience. Over the years it has gone from terrifying, to tense, to silly, to becoming a straight up tire fire, (I’m looking at you 6,) but it has always been considered a horror or action series. Yet, even before I became intimately familiar with it, 4 had and still has a grounding effect for me. Yes, you always have to be alert, but despite the challenges, any enemy or situation can be overcome. And that knowledge, oddly, makes any game of this ilk calming. See that screaming monstrosity over there? It can be put down with one well aimed rifle shot. What about the seemingly invincible Right Hand boss fight, where you can only slow this monster down or run away from it as you wait for an elevator to arrive? Well, you can actually kill it with one rocket after you’ve frozen it with an ice canister. Nothing is insurmountable. Anything is possible.

That’s actually a rather profound lesson for life. Of course, this is by design, but it’s one of my favorite parts of video games in general, and it feels especially prominent in RE4.

Which brings us to Resident Evil 7. I’m trying this out way past its time in the zeitgeist, but hey, what else can you do when you’re stuck in England away from your computer for the year? Coming into it, I only knew a few things: it is a return to more traditional survival horror roots, with less focus on combat than 4, 5, and 6; 7 now also has a first-person camera and some enemies you have to hide from, in a move that could either be a natural innovation for the series or a cynical move for that sweet Amnesia money. I can’t tell yet, two hours in.

You play as Ethan, a man with a nondescript white guy voice (ala Jason Brody in Far Cry 3) searching for his wife Mia on a dilapidated Bayou property in the middle of nowhere. Quickly, things go awry as you find a tape showing that others have come here and been killed. Not only that, but Mia, after being rescued, is having schizophrenic fits of TRYING TO MURDER YOU WITH A KNIFE OR CHAINSAW. After disturbingly, apparently murdering his wife—twice—Ethan is captured by the crazy redneck family that owns this place, and Mia somehow comes back to life again. Plus, your antagonists are just as prone to the whole revival thing. Clearly, you’re in a shitty situation.

After some early sequences of hiding around, ill-equipped, the game settles into the familiar rhythm of Resident Evil—exploring, scrounging for ammo and health, managing your inventory, and backtracking to previous environments once you have the proper equipment or key. The inventory is smaller than 4, which I appreciate from a “hardcore” difficulty perspective, I suppose, though I miss the granular Tetris-style control over it. I only have a pistol and shotgun as opposed to the early arsenal of 4 (pistol, shotgun, TMP, rifle). I also appreciate the crafting system, whose shared resources for the recipes of health and ammo forces the player to choose one or the other at any given moment. The proud part of me kept wanting to craft ammo, as clearly, I was good enough not to get hit, right? I ended up crafting health 90% of the time.

Once all these systems kicked in, however, a nagging feeling at the back of my brain came to the forefront: I was not scared. I was engaged; I was having a great time—but I was as calm as in any session of RE4. After a life or death struggle with the patriarch of the Baker family, I found myself immediately thinking, not “phew,” but “I could have only used the knife there at the right time and saved so much pistol ammo.” Old habits die hard, I suppose, but I also feel like a little bit of a sociopath for engaging with the game in this manner. Did my young experience with RE4 scar me that much, leaving me numb to any future horror game? Probably not. Any horror game by Friction Games will still scare the bejeezus out of me. Then it dawned on me—it’s all about the core gameplay loop.

The core gameplay of Resident Evil is its greatest strength and also why I end up so damn Zen any time I play it. Every system feeds into every other system—use too much ammo, and you might run out later, but use too little, and you might get hurt in combat more, forcing you to use more health items. Do you want to explore this dangerous area for a potential weapon upgrade earlier in the game, at the potential expense of health or ammo? It all constantly engages the player and makes them think in gameplay relevant terms while still having an emotional immediacy, if that makes sense. The horror trappings aid this. It’s not just, “should I heal right now,” it’s “OH GOD THAT MAN JUST HIT ME WITH A PAINTROLLER WITH SPIKES AND I’M ABOUT TO DIE I NEED TO HEAL AND THEN RUN.” But because of my experience with 4, I just see the system. I find this style of game more engaging than other hoarding or survival games, so the horror aesthetic must be getting me emotionally, just not in the way any normal person would expect.

Remember when I said we’d talk more about the immediacy of horror games? Yeah, that’s now. The best, most surefire way to immerse a player in a game is to get them to think as the character would or create a mental model of the game world in their own head to predict possible outcomes. Resident Evil has both in spades. The horror genre, the instinctual fight or flight response wired in all of our DNA, gets us to immediately think like the character of the game if we’re powerless and forced to hide from a frightening foe. We don’t need to be coerced or pushed into doing what the game wants—we’ll run from the crazy lady with a chainsaw on our own initiative, thankyouverymuch. And the constant struggle to maintain ammo and health forces the player to create a mental model in their head for possible outcomes as they choose to use resources or not, while also still being in the context of the world and situation of survival. This, with the lack of pausing, keeps us squarely in the game world. This is why survival horror games are so immediate and tangible to me, or anyone, honestly.

The gameplay is well-executed, just not in the terms of crisp response time we expect from most shooters. The slow speed at which you can fire your weapon while keeping a steady aim isn’t necessarily great for immediate player enjoyment, but it does put them in a methodical, tense mindset where they feel underpowered in the face of their threat. Therefore, it works. It’s the same reason that not being able to move while aiming, or the zoomed in view without peripheral vision worked so well for Resident Evil 4. It increased tension.

So why am I so calm through all this? Well, like I said earlier—the designers created this to all be achievable. The situation presented is dire, but I, as the player, know I am more than equal to the challenge presented. It’s not that I’m numb to the fright or the fight/flight reaction; no, I definitely have that. It’s that even with all of that at the same time, I can still succeed—and that makes these sorts of games a calming, even pleasant experience for me. It just wouldn’t be as fun without the stakes or the frightening scenarios—like any good story, a game in this vein is only as cathartic as its lowest moment is bleak. You can flail at me or shout “Boo!” as much as you like, Resident Evil 7. I’m still having a good time, for reasons that—for me, at least—are deeply profound. It's why even in some of my *absolute worst* times, I have gone back to Resident Evil 4 for comfort.

Back to 7. I’m still not sure how I feel about the more Amensia-y elements of the game, the hiding from invincible foes, I mean. It’s scary, sure, but not in the Resident Evil way. The Resident Evil way is, “Wait, you expect me to beat that? How?” Whereas with this hidey-hidey crap, I know exactly what is expected. To hide in that one corner and then slip through the enemy’s patrol route. Yawn. It also doesn’t mesh very cleanly with the combat-based survival horror elements. I see the designers jumping through story hoops and doing all kinds of gymnastics to justify the premise. “They come back to life, so you can shoot them for a temporary reprieve, but they’ll be back!” “Oh at this part it’s gone,” “OH WAIT NOW IT’S BACK!” And then these encounters are put smack dab right next to environments with total cannon fodder black goo bullet sponge monsters. It gets even messier considering that you will eventually fight these “un-kill-able” foes in boss fights where you do vanquish them, case in point today, Jack. There’s some real hand of the writer shit going on here, and I don’t like it.

Speaking of hand of the writer, modern cinematic sensibilities and railroading of the player’s progress doesn’t fit with the exploratory nature of the game. Part of the contract you sign with the player when you make an interconnected, large environment like this to explore is that everything they need to progress is right there—they only need to find the right tool. Take Myst, for example. Yes, it’s incredibly (some would say needlessly) complicated, but everything you need is there. Here, though, there were a couple of parts where I got stuck searching for a tool—in this case a knife—only to realize I needed to walk over to a window where a cutscene of a cop giving me a knife ensued. Thanks, buddy? There are too many moments without clear forward momentum until the Hand of the Writer graciously swoops in and gives us exactly the tool we need. Another example: near the beginning you are trapped in a hallway and forced to backtrack so that a SCARY MOMENT may happen and an enemy throws you through the wall. Lame. Now I’m not saying cinematic stuff can’t happen. Used properly, it’s quite effective. I’m just saying don’t rob the player of a sense of agency at the same time, even if it’s all smoke and mirrors. Have your SCARY MOMENT just before the player is going forward in the next step of their quest, not as they’re forced to aimlessly meander back for your scripting. This comes back to the mental model point—if the player constantly feels like they are making forward progress, then they’re immersed and in the world of the game. The moment they have to figure out scripting like this it takes them out. They are no longer Ethan, trying to escape the Baker family and rescue his wife Mia. They’re Joe Gamer, trying to figure out how to get to the next section of the game they’re playing.

These qualms aside, I have enjoyed my time with Resident Evil 7 thus far. It might have a couple of ill-thought-out design moments, but it’s one of the most engaging horror games in a while, and definitely the best Resident Evil since 4. And again—weirdly pleasant and calming for me. The whole time.

See you tomorrow. (And remember, you can find my streams at 6 PM PST here.)