Surviving Horror: Resident Evil
This series of articles will look throughout videogame history at those that inspired, were inspired by, or part of, the survival horror genre. We will stare deep into the abyss until it stares back at us.
Few games in recent years have been as polarizing as Resident Evil 6. A big budget, convoluted mess of a game. It may be functional but its direction and focus are awry, quick time events littering any moment of over-the-top action, unsatisfying and counterintuitive gunplay occupying the rest. It’s a game rightfully discounted by many critics and fans alike, and yet there still exists a vocal audience completely happy with the direction the once-transcendent franchise has taken. If these are diehard fans of the series willing to defend any old tripe Capcom puts out, I struggle to understand why. If you love Resident Evil, harkening all the way back to its roots, how can you feel anything other than disappointment for the way Capcom has handled one of its most beloved franchises?
The first Resident Evil is a seminal masterpiece. While Resident Evil 6 opts for large scale, all-out warfare, the series’ roots lie in a singular location, trapping you inside an ominous mansion with no escape. This intricately designed abode, filled with enjoyably thoughtful puzzles and terrifying enemies, was constructed for one thing: horror. With its tight, winding corridors and restrictive camera angles, precautionary steps were necessary to survive. Sure, it relied on jump scares on occasion, but after that initial freight the horror still remained. Ammunition is scarce and your health is minimal; as each rotting corpse stumbles ever closer you feel vulnerable – each encounter is significant. Some of this can be attributed to the tank-like controls, but the oppressive nature of its atmosphere takes precedence.
Consider the simple act of saving, a function we now take for granted. In Resident Evil you could only save your game at specific typewriters located across the mansion, and only once you had found a one-time-use ink ribbon. This meant you could go hours without saving, exponentially heightening the tension and your constant sense of peril as you edge ever closer to the precipice of death. Not only were you scared of what was hiding around each corner, but the fear of dying created a situation that was almost unbearable.
One of the few contemporary games to evoke these same emotions is Amnesia: The Dark Descent. An altogether different game than Resident Evil, but one that expertly captures everything we love about survival horror: vulnerability, helplessness and a constant sense of dread and fear. It accomplishes all of these things with a combination of atmosphere, level design and gameplay systems that limit what you can do down to a few base actions. It makes you feel like a human. Cowering in a corner is your only defence against the evil that stalks the corridors and your own penchant for insanity. Resident Evil may give you a gun to defend yourself, but the other systems in place create that same frailty and panic to make you tremble.
Modern triple A games have lost this. Dead Space has the foreboding atmosphere and unnerving enemies but then it gives you an explosive arsenal of weaponry for dealing with the waves of grotesque beasts it throws at you. You feel empowered rather than helpless and scared; the series’ current co-operative direction edging even further away from horror and into all-out action.
It’s telling, however, that Dead Space’s inspiration was undoubtedly a Resident Evil game. The over-the-shoulder view is something Resident Evil 4 popularised; it’s now become a staple of third-person action games. But Resident Evil 4 isn’t as action oriented as it may look on the surface. It was the first game in the series to significantly change the direction of the franchise away from fixed camera angles and even zombies, but its key survival horror elements remain intact. Ammo management is a requisite, and you’re still susceptible to death in a way that makes each enemy encounter a tense affair. Crowds surround you, forcing tactical use of your environment and a careful concentration of shots to survive; the foreboding atmosphere eating away at you, each exalted element inciting panic and creating suspense from an unbounded intensity.
And yet one game later, those same survival horror values were almost non-existent as Resident Evil 5 introduced a worrying trend for the series. The over-the-shoulder view and character movement may have given the illusion it was a similar game to Resident Evil 4, but everything else said otherwise. Bright sunny environments, a co-op partner, turret sections, waves upon waves of enemies and enough ammunition to hold out for World War III.
The established action elements of Resident Evil 4 had become the focus of an entire game. Enemies are constant and numerous, weapons and ammunition plentiful. Where running away was once the only viable solution, Resident Evil 5 makes it easy to shoot your way out of any situation. The addition of co-op removing any sense of fear, whether it’s a human partner or otherwise. Any shred of tension is absent; the suspenseful combat of Resident Evil 4 and its portentous atmosphere replaced with explosions and gargantuan enemies wielding mini-guns. And lets not forget that cover system.
In trying to appease Western audiences, Capcom had developed an action game just like any other instead of staying faithful to what fans actually want out of a Resident Evil game. There’s an argument to be made for a long-running series like Resident Evil adapting, iterating and trying something different to adhere to modern audiences, but Resident Evil 5‘s approach is the wrong way to do it. Abandoning the staples of survival horror in favour of being just another generic action game is truly disheartening.
And Resident Evil 6 is the icing on an abhorrent cake. A barrage of abysmal quick time events, uninteresting combat, awful boss fights and lots and lots of running at the camera; a monstrosity that could only be derived from a team containing 600 people. In a short space of time the series has declined immeasurably to where it holds little interest outside of a curiosity – like staring at a car wreck. Once at the forefront of a surging survival horror movement, Resident Evil now resides as a dwindling addition to an overcrowded genre, and Capcom seemingly sees little reason to change this.
The days of survival horror claiming the top of the charts may be long gone, but look a little deeper and there are plenty of small teams creating some phenomenal stuff to be excited about. Lone Survivor frightens with its effective mechanics and impresses with its anomalously simple take on the genre, while Amnesia‘s ability to horrify places it a step above the rest – and they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Resident Evil may have fallen from its perch, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel in a decidedly dark genre.