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.
The Evil Within
The premise is relatively straightforward. Detective Sebastian Castellanos, his partner Joseph Oda, and junior detective Juli Kidman are called to investigate a violent incident at Beacon Mental Hospital. To call it a “violent incident” is drastic understatement, as the trio arrive to find a bunch of squad cars already parked and deserted out front. Lots of cop cars is bad, lots of cop cars and no cops is worse. Sure enough, they enter the hospital to find the lobby completely wrecked, strewn with corpses and covered in blood. Something amazingly bad happened here in a really short amount of time, and after finding some surveillance footage in which a mysterious scarred man teleports around a lot and wrecks the shit of a SWAT team in the blink of an eye, the trio gets separated. The player follows Castellanos, who awakes in what is essentially the hospital reimagined as a charnel house. There are supply cabinets and tile walls and floors, and a hulking monstrosity butchering a body on a gurney, Castellanos hung up by his ankles alongside other corpses, next for the knife.
And here is where we first get a sense of two of the three major ways The Evil Within differs from Resident Evil. First, the early Resident Evil games built mood and tension slowly. You arrive at the mansion and it’s totally quiet, and you have the time to actually explore a few rooms before you discover a single zombie, hunched over a corpse, and this is your first indication that Bad Shit is going on. And then the magnitude of the threat ramps up gradually. By contrast, The Evil Within pitches you headfirst into complete gonzo batshit territory within the first five minutes. It is zero-to-neck-deep-in-bloody-corpses in no time flat.
Second, The Evil Within, unlike Resident Evil, draws a lot less on traditionally Gothic elements (for the most part - I’ll get to some exceptions in a bit) and more on the aesthetic associated with modern horror films like Saw. Everything’s grimy and decaying and rusted and a little antiquated, with a heavy emphasis on barbed wire. It’s much grittier than even the later Resident Evil games, and much more explicit in the amount of gore thrown around. Again, some of this may be down to technological improvements (blood in games from the mid-90s couldn’t help but look cartoonish), but part of it is also in the detail afforded to dead and mutilated bodies, the overall sense of filthiness and decay, and the way it’s all played with a completely straight face. It feels like just watching someone play this should require a tetanus booster, and that’s a much newer development in horror aesthetics. There’s a definite campiness to the first two or three Resident Evil games that is utterly absent here.
This opening essentially introduces the characters and situation of the game as a whole, and then spends the rest of its time putting Castellanos through his paces in a variety of different settings as he chases after some combination of his partners, the doctor, and the patient, trying to figure out just what the fuck is going on. Castellanos is never again as utterly helpless as he is in the introductory sequence - you’re almost immediately given access to weapons, but in fine Resident Evil tradition, ammunition and healing items are fairly scarce (as is the room to store them), meaning you aren’t able to take on each enemy encounter with force. You’re going to run out of bullets, so you should probably hide and sneak when you can, and only fight when the odds are in your favor (which they rarely are) or when you can isolate single enemies and dispatch them quickly. You’re much more agile than in Resident Evil, and so the pace is faster, but there’s still the sense that you’re doing good just to get from point A to point B without getting mulched. Like Resident Evil, this ameliorates somewhat as the game progresses, moving from an emphasis on evasion and survival in the early game to more straightforward combat in the endgame, but it rarely, if ever, feels like a cakewalk.
As it turns out, there’s a reason for all of that - the bizarre environments (and equally bizarre antagonists) are not just an arbitrary assemblage of horror signifiers. In fact, the explanation for the events of the game and its aesthetic, in contrast to the many departures from the Resident Evil formula detailed above, provides the strongest connection to elements of the original Resident Evil games. The whole thing feels like a nightmare because that is, in essence, exactly what it is. The strangely scarred young man glimpsed in the security camera at the beginning (and as a highly lethal ghost at other intervals during the game) is named Ruvik, and he is two things: First, he is the captive of the mysterious Mobius Corporation, who are experimenting with some kind of consciousness-linking technology. Castellanos, Oda, Kidman, the doctor and his patient are all, along with Ruvik, actually being kept comatose in some kind of Matrix-like setup that allows everyone to essentially travel through the landscape of Ruvik’s psyche.
As it transpires, Ruvik was a creepy little kid with an unhealthy attachment to his sister (oh hey where have we heard that one before) who died in a fire that left Ruvik horribly scarred. So now he’s a creepy deformed kid, kept by his parents in the basement, where he started to experiment on animals to try and figure out a way to hack into consciousness so he could in essence keep his sister alive forever by living...in...his own memories? Science has never been the strong suit of these games. The creepy little kid turned into an even creepier adult, and the Mobius Corporation basically ganked his research, killed him, and made his brain the engine running the whole consciousness-linking thing, called STEM. And now Ruvik has figured out how to essentially transfer his consciousness from his own brain into other people’s brains via the STEM link, and he’s trying to hijack someone else’s body to return to the real world. But it does not stop there, because this does leave open the question of how and why Castellanos, Oda and Kidman were hooked up to the damn thing in the first place. As it turns out, Kidman was a double agent working for the Mobius Corporation and roped them all in for...reasons. It gets more complicated, but I think you’ve got the gist.
So yes, what we’ve got here is basically The Cell meets The Matrix, filtered through the traditional high weirdness of a Resident Evil game - mad scientists, monsters that range from the human to the utterly inhuman, shadowy corporations gunning for world domination, double agents, double and triple-crosses galore - with a thick sheen of Saw’s rust, grime, blood and viscera smeared all over it. It is its own mythology, with a new antagonist and cast of characters, but the form that mythology takes is classic Resident Evil. It is overly-complicated and Gothic in intent if not always in aesthetic. It abandons some of the mechanical considerations of the Resident Evil games, like the slower pacing and safe areas while sharpening others, like resource scarcity and the need to navigate through complex obstacles to progress. In that sense, although the trappings are more modern and far less campy, it is probably the closer of the two to a “traditional” Resident Evil game.
I’m not, however, sure this is necessarily a good thing on balance. The Evil Within benefits from advancements in game technology - the quality of its graphics and the fluidity of movement, primarily - but in terms of how the player experiences the world and the story it tells, it’s not really doing anything the other Resident Evil games haven’t already done. It’s gorier and it’s weirder, but that’s not a new song, it’s just the old song played louder, through more distortion.
Resident Evil VII
The premise essentially hits a reset button on the series’ extended (read: hilariously convoluted) mythology, beginning with just two people - Ethan Winters and his wife, Mia. Mia went missing three years ago, while working as a nanny. And now, out of the blue, Ethan’s received an email from Mia, asking him to please come to a small town in Louisiana to get her. So instead of square-jawed law enforcement types, we’ve got one guy, making the long drive into terra incognita to find his missing wife. It’s a much more personal, grounded story than the original games, at least to start. This more personal approach extends to your perspective - unlike the other games in the series, Resident Evil VII is played from a first-person perspective. This is a more common tack for horror and horror-adjacent games to take now then it was when the Resident Evil series got started, similar to the emergence of found-footage narrative (nods to which in this game I’ll discuss further down) in horror film. Games like Amnesia, SOMA, Alien: Isolation, and Outlast put us directly in the heads of the protagonists, and the constraining of our perspective works there like it does in found-footage films (Outlast and its sequel make this connection explicit by making a video camera a necessary tool for navigating the environment). It’s harder to distance ourselves from what’s happening in the game, just as a found-footage narrative approach makes it harder for us to distance ourselves from a horror film. We’re not an audience anymore, we’re witnesses. When either’s done well, it ratchets up the tension considerably.
It’s a long crawl through this creepy, silent environment before Ethan finds Mia, imprisoned in a cell somewhere underneath the house, and though she’s very much alive she swears she sent Ethan no message and thinks he should flee without her. And then things go completely batshit as Mia’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic and violent as they try to make their escape, culminating in Mia turning on Ethan, her face distorting grotesquely. Mia saws Ethan’s hand off, Ethan kills Mia in self-defense, and is subsequently knocked unconscious.
In this way, the opening sequence of the game sets much of the tone for the rest, and provides the first connection to previous Resident Evil games - its pacing. Where The Evil Within went balls-out with the gore and the monsters within minutes of its opening, starting its pitch at a scream and maintaining that, Resident Evil VII starts very quietly, building the unease gradually and steadily, continuing to twist the screws to the point of shocking violence, before cutting it off dead, then opening again at an even more lunatic pitch. There’s an ebb and flow to the tension in this game that I think serves it much better than the constant pummeling of The Evil Within. There seems to be much more of an emphasis on careful movement through a relatively constrained space as well. As in previous games and The Evil Within, progress is generally still a matter of “do thing that will open the locked door,” but setting the majority of Resident Evil VII in a series of residential interiors against mobile antagonists makes for a more claustrophobic experience than the more conventional approach of The Evil Within, where progress is (with some notable exceptions) largely a matter of figuring out routes around more static enemies. There is very little open space in Resident Evil VII, and for the first half or so of the game at least, your resources are scarce enough that hiding and avoiding is generally better than tackling enemies head-on, and you have very little room in which to do so.
Where Resident Evil VII departs most from the original games, then, is in its story. Not so much in what kind of story it tells as how it tells it. There’s the first-person perspective, which heightens the immediacy, and then this subjectivity is extended through the use of videotapes scattered throughout the game, in a nod to found-footage horror like The Blair Witch Project and V/H/S. You discover these tapes, then find the nearest VCR to play it (even though the game takes place in the current day, the Baker family has multiple VCRs for some reason, but then again, hey, animal doors), and doing so puts you in the shoes of the person holding the camera in the footage you’re watching - you essentially stop playing as Ethan in the present day and start playing as the person on the videotape. Doing so then provides insight into an upcoming encounter or obstacle that you can use in the present day.
Well, for the most part. Resident Evil VII assiduously avoids the high Gothic camp of the earlier games and The Evil Within - it’s not even Southern Gothic, despite taking place in a plantation in a Louisiana swamp, it’s just fucking grimy, gritty, and gross - for the majority of the game. As near as we can tell, this is the story of a guy who went to find his missing wife and got captured by a group of cannibals. Then weird, shambling mold zombies enter the picture. And what is up with the grandmother, who just appears, silent, immobile and watching you, in random locations throughout the house, without warning? (Including one of the safe rooms, which gives kind of a nasty jolt given their function as a place of safety.) Things start off weird, but grounded in sort of a gritty quasi-realism in the style of The Hills Have Eyes. Then comes the monsters. Then the weird science starts creeping in - apparently the Baker family are the way they are because they’ve been infected by the same mold as creates the zombies. This mold makes you homicidal, cannibalistic, and impervious to lasting harm (for the most part -Marguerite appears to go down for the count at the end of some of the most unsettling body horror in the entire series). This means you have to create a mold-killing toxin...from mummified babies...who are apparently early test subjects for the mold? Ooooookay?
So yes, about two-thirds of the way in, the old Resident Evil weirdness starts creeping back in with a vengeance. As it transpires, the mold is the byproduct of an engineered bioweapon. This bioweapon takes the form of a young girl, named Eveline, who was being transported by ship, chaperoned by your wife, Mia. This was her nanny job - to watch over this child, essentially cargo, being transported to a research facility when the ship ran aground on the Louisiana coast during a storm. Eveline can infect people with mind-controlling mold spores. So, no guesses as to what happened to the poor Baker family. Yep, they take Mia and Eveline in, and Eveline does a number on all of them, and the mold starts reproducing on its own, hence the zombies - animate corpses of all the people the Baker family captured in an attempt to...cure themselves? Because Eveline wanted a family of her own? It’s not really clear here. Also, Lucas isn’t really mind-controlled and he’s spying on Eveline for the nameless company who made her, from a laboratory hidden in a nearby salt mine for reasons. Why this necessitates his Saw-style murder room is never made clear, but Lucas apparently also thought it’d be funny as a child to lock a friend in the attic and let him starve to death, so Lucas was never wrapped too tightly to start. So yes, we go from “crazed cannibal backwoods family” to “mysterious corporation creating bioweapons that turn people into zombies” over the course of the game. We start as far away from old-school Resident Evil only to end up right back there at the end, complete with one last weird reveal - the grandmother was really Eveline the whole time, prematurely aged by the bioweapon in her system, and the climactic boss fight has her exploded into a massive mold-creature, spiraling tentacles with a gigantic face at its center.
(There’s actually a nice bit of foreshadowing of this very early in - when you find Mia at the beginning, you can also find a photograph of the “grandmother” with Eveline’s bioweapon designation written on the back. That early in there’s no way to know what it means, but I like that they gave you that information right up front knowing that you wouldn’t know its relevance.)
I have to say, I’m a little disappointed that Resident Evil VII goes right back to “mysterious corporation creating bioweapons and some people are not who they seem” right away, because it’s exactly that sort of overheated nonsense that painted the series into a deeply silly corner the first go-round. Why hit the reset button when you’re just going to make all the same mistakes? All the other holdovers - the resource management, the puzzle-based obstacles, the form the resources themselves took - all worked as links to the past in a new context, nods to people familiar with the series. And the little self-aware asides at the ridiculousness of some of the mechanics made me think they knew where they were going. They even figured out new and interesting ways to tell the story. So why fall into that same trap?
Regardless, it’s interesting to see what each camp has done with the source material. The Evil Within feels like an effort to take the original games and just turn up the volume on all of the original elements - gorier, weirder, less sense of safety. It’s just Resident Evil, but more. Resident Evil VII preserves elements of the original, but it feels like it does so selectively, or finds new ways to express them, or contrasts very traditional elements against a more modern context. It doesn’t stick the landing. but I appreciated the balance of new and old it attempted, and felt it more thoughtful that what The Evil Within brought to the table. A sequel for The Evil Within has been announced (Castellanos has to go back into STEM! But it’s into his long-lost daughter’s mind and not Ruvik’s! Why? Who knows?) and I’d be very surprised if we didn’t see Resident Evil VIII in another year or so. At this point, Resident Evil has firmly established itself as a very particular type of horror game, almost a genre unto itself, and it’ll be interesting to see where it goes from here.