Mostly I like to write about horror films, occasionally horror on television (for as rarely and briefly as it remains good), but more and more I’m thinking about games as visual media as ripe for examination as more passive forms of viewing. As I’ve said before, I’m a coward when it comes to playing scary video games, but the existence of broadcast playthroughs of games mean I can watch them like I would any other film or television story, and somehow that remove, the subtraction of agency, takes a lot of the sting out for me. The first indication that this might be worth looking into was the game SOMA, which was simultaneously as scary and thematically rich as some of my favorite horror films of the last few years, enough that I said to myself “holy shit, I have to write about this.” If it had been a movie, it would have been amazing, but the degree it used player agency as part of the story added a certain something that really you can’t get outside of active interaction with a narrative.
I don’t really find either The Evil Within or Resident Evil VII up to that standard, necessarily, but as relatively recent iterations on a long-running series of horror games, I think they’re worth examining in comparison. They’re both reasonably scary, though I’m not sure I’d really call either one of them thematically rich. But as artifacts, as different takes on what gets carried forward in a medium where sequels and remakes are pretty much as common as horror film, I’ve been thinking a lot about both of them lately. And the Resident Evil series is extensive and long-running enough to essentially have created its own aesthetic, so it’s worth seeing how that aesthetic changes and gets remixed over time.
Much of the horror associated with the original game lies in both its core gameplay mechanics and its narrative. Mechanically, there’s a strong emphasis on helplessness and disempowerment. You’re a cop, and you have weaponry, but ammunition is scarce relative to the number and durability of zombies you encounter, so every situation becomes a choice between using what few resources you have and running away. Inventory space is very limited, so you routinely have to make difficult choices about what kinds of equipment you’re going to keep on you at any given point, and you’re more likely than not going to miss what you leave behind. Running away is made more difficult by the slow, clumsy movement mechanic, which is probably more a limitation of the technology than a deliberate design choice. Nevertheless, it adds tension because running becomes no guarantee of survival against enemies who, in fine zombie tradition, are slow but never, ever stop. You try to run, but they’re always there. It recalls the common nightmare feeling of being pursued by a monster but feeling yourself robbed of all energy and forward momentum.
The Thing so unsettling. And as environment and antagonist shift, so do our allegiances, as members of your team are revealed to be double agents working for the sinister corporation behind all of this experimentation - a pharmaceutical company called Umbrella.
So...yes. To recap: You are a member of the small-town equivalent of a SWAT team sent to a mansion in the middle of the woods, where you find monsters created by a pharmaceutical company in a bid for world domination.
It’s all a little silly.
It’s all a little silly, but when you’re in the middle of it, it’s actually pretty tense and engaging because you’re struggling to stay alive (for the most part - resources are far less strained in the endgame than at the start) as things around you keep getting more and more batshit. You’re a in a mansion, then you’re in a secret lab, then you’re taking a submarine (accessed, if I remember correctly - it’s been about 18 years since I played the first game - by unlocking access to it with a marble plaque of a ship’s steering wheel because of course) to yet another underwater secret lab which leads to another even larger lab complex, and you go from zombies to giant plants and lizards and arachnids to things that aren’t even really life as we recognize it anymore and oh yeah, this is all part of a vast conspiracy engineered by a company that makes cold medicine. The what-the-fuck factor is off the charts, and this is important to note because it’s going to come up later.
This, mind you, is just the first game. A quick Wikipedia check tells me that counting sequels and offshoots and remakes, we are currently looking at twenty-seven games either complete or in development between 1996 and 2017. I am not going to discuss every one of these games, but I do want to quickly hit the highlights because it’s going to be important to set up the recurring elements in the series and how they play out in the newest iteration of the series proper (Resident Evil VII) and what I’m arguing is a spiritual sequel (The Evil Within) and how the two are both similar and different. So the first game really establishes a lot of things that persist throughout subsequent entries to the series, most notably the following six elements:
1. A Fixed Cast of Characters
The first Resident Evil game introduces us to a basic cast of characters, who persist throughout the series. New faces get added along the way, but in general we end up with the sort of consistent rotating cast you’d expect to find in any soap opera or, say, the Saw franchise. Nobody exists in this narrative world who doesn’t have some tie to the protagonists or antagonists, and they tend to keep popping up, with plenty of shifting allegiances, double agents, triple agents, antiheroes, the whole lot. We will see the same names and faces again and again, even if their roles do change.
2. Scarcity and Safety
3. Puzzle-Solving For Progression
4. Weirdness, Science, and Weird Science
5. Insanely Powerful Evil Corporations
6. The Further You Go, The Less Human Everything Gets
These don’t always appear to the same degree in any given individual installment (the final antagonist in Resident Evil is mostly recognizable as human, for example, and the Gothic elements are pretty much entirely stripped out of Resident Evil 6), but they’re consistent enough to make up what I see as the core of the Resident Evil aesthetic. So, all of that ground laid, I want to take a look at the two most recent expressions of that aesthetic. And yeah, there are going to be spoilers for both Resident Evil VII and The Evil Within, so forewarned, forearmed, etc.