Let's reminisce back to the days of horror games that came before. In a post Resident Evil 6 industry, it's more important than ever to look back, dig up, and assess the horror games that paved the way for our modern interpretation of what it is to be scared. Regardless of what you might think of the new entry in Capcom's award winning series, Resident Evil 6 is a far cry from where the series started, and has continues to drift further from it's survival horror roots. What made the first game so compelling and popular? Let's take a look at a few elements that most (not all) modern horror games have left to pasture in favor of a mainstream focus.
DON'T BITE ME, BRO!
When Resident Evil was released in 1996 it was a breath of fresh air and a critical success. However, many were put off by the game's unforgiving controls. Controlling the characters was often described as unresponsive, cumbersome, and tank-like. Defending yourself required you to stop walking or running, turn, aim, then fire. Flash forward, to 2012 and you'd be hard pressed to see the resemblance. Chris Redfield, one of the game's many protagonists, moves, shoots, and melees with lightening quick efficiency. He's badass personified! Games have got better and Chris' controls reflect that, right? Maybe, but something gets lost in adopting modern conventions. Part of what I love about "survival horror", a genre that came into it's own in the original Playstation era, was the sense of vulnerability. The player was always meant to feel feeble in comparison to the environment. Back then, did I rarely feel safe. Regardless that you play a special ops, military soldier, who comes across some sweet gear, was there ever a feeling of security. The controls helped convey that sense of vulnerability. Chris may have controlled cumbersome, but that lack of instant response increased the tension. When a licker was crawling on the ceiling, skittering towards you, trying to lop off your head with it's tongue, you nearly pissed yourself. Missing the shot meant you'd have to run like hell, in hopes of trying to position yourself for another shot. It's not as scary if Chris uses his "parkour" skills, and flips out of the way, starting a quick time event, where Chris gives the licker a boot to the face. Those controls are well and fine for say, Assassin's Creed, but until developers invent new ways of delivering scares, action/adventure controls dilute the sense of terror that should come from feeling like you're escaping death.
Just like not wanting to pay extra baggage claim fees on vacation, I'd try and make the most of the limited inventory space, in early Resident Evil games. Mixing herbs and prioritizing guns was common practice. I never had my full arsenal of weapons and ammo, meaning I'd have to plan accordingly. Developers across all genres, have almost entirely done away with inventory limitations and in the case of survival horror, it's was for the worst. Deciding how to best kit my avatar was a game in itself, sending me down imaginary "worst case scenario" situations. My pistol wasn't strong, but it had tons of ammo and took up minimal space, and if I ran into a lot of standard zombies, it would prove useful. The bazooka took up a huge space in my inventory, and so did the many ammo variations, but if came across the games later enemies, I'd kick myself in the ass for not having it handy. The limited inventory forces you to dwell in the face of your opposition and without it, survival horror becomes a bit less horrific.
Finding a typewriter in Resident Evil was like stumbling on a pond in the middle of the Sahara. Typewriters were your only access to saving your progress, creating some of the Resident Evil's most memorable survival situations. Save points were sparse and you'd play for long periods without coming across one. I remember many times where my friends and I were hanging by a thread, limping along, just trying to discover the next typewriter. We'd slowly enter each new room, hoping we'd hear that distinct music that signified sanctuary. Not finding one before dying would result in a restart to your last save. Anytime a game can weigh death with a tangible penalty, you're bound to incite fear in the possibility of failure. Much different than what we expect now. Aside from games that are considered "hardcore", death merely takes you back to the beginning of the last scenario. About 2-5 minutes worth of backtracking. Don't get me wrong. I don't endorse retreading past gameplay as a punishment for death, but I think the penalty should encourage me to fear and avoid death, at all costs.
Anyone who's played the original Resident Evil often sites the same scene towards the beginning game. After discovering your first zombie, you continue through the other end of the mansion's lobby, solve a simple puzzle, and are granted access to a long hallway. Walking down the hallway, thunder flashes through the sprawling windows, as distant curtains lash about, against the wind. Focusing towards the end of the hall, time figuratively stops, and a zombified dog leaps through the window behind, barreling towards you. In the case of a video game, I'd never been so surprised and terrified. Throughout the game, you are put in slightly similar situation, all coming when least expect them. The surprises exceed expectations and horror games need to get back to creating new ways to catch the player off guard and scare them in ways they weren't aware video games could convey.
OH, ANOTHER ZOMBIE....
If I see something enough, I'm no longer scared of it. Except spiders, that is. Spiders will always scare me, no matter how many I see. Resident evil only had about 6 different enemies. One being, SPIDERS! The enemies never wore out their welcome or became less scary. A lot of this had to do with the fact, they were used so sparingly. Some rooms would have one. Some would have three. Some rooms would have no enemies, leaving me on the edge of my seat, just waiting for something to jump out of every window I came across. Resident Evil seemed to make it a point to never show so much, any given encounter would lose it's edge. At a certain point, you become desensitized to an onslaught of enemies and that becomes the norm. Being frugal with the scares is a staple of horror in all mediums and there's a good reason for it.
Modern games are quite proud of the fact that they can display 10, 20, 100 characters on the screen at any given point. We see this in Resident Evil 6 and Capcom's other zombie darling, Dead Rising. In Dead Rising you traverse the entirety of a middle-American mall, the protagonist is faced with hordes of zombies, and though the experience is original, I wouldn't go as far as calling it a frightening one. From the player's point of view, the hordes simply become clusters of things you need to avoid. It loses the sense of dread, due to the shear volume and and just how easy it is to dispatch the hordes. Obviously, Dead Rising has a slightly lighter tone, but the zombies are still intended to incite fear and that's lost, after the first few minutes.
YOU HEAR THAT?
What horror game would be anything without the proper backdrop? Atmosphere plays a pivotal role is creating an unsettling mood and what better place than a turn-of-the-century, abandoned, mansion? The mansion could arguably be considered a character it's self. Cold and oppressive. Not to mention the ambient sound production, which Resident Evil took full advantage. Foot steps echo on marble floors and floor boards creak as you walked up stairs. The sound made the mansion feel old and empty. Cutting through the eerie silence, at one point is Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata". A beautiful song, when placed in the game, sonically represents a lonesome and unnerving quality.
Fixed camera angles also played an important role in scripting events to scare you in certain ways. Not having direct control of the camera angle allowed developers to stage scenes and scenarios, because the range of variables were limited. Horror can be about timing and if the player isn't at the right place, at the right time, you're forced to rely on quick time events or cut scenes to convey more dynamic scares or situations. As rewarding as it might feel to have complete control of your viewing angle, letting the game control your point of view allows it to tell a better story. This might just result in advanced "monster closets" (areas hidden from the viewer with something waiting to jump out), but if done in moderation, they still scare.
Resident Evil 6 takes place all around the globe, instead giving us uninspired representations of other popular games. There is absolutely no cohesion between these backdrops and they add that you haven't seen in most major action titles. Chris' campaign has you battling it out Gears of War style through the all-to-familiar urban city and at one point you even man a fighter jet! Yup. Dead serious....
Capcom made it a conscience decision to make the focus action, since Resident Evil 4. It's not as if they were aiming for a horror game and the sixth installment was what we got. The series is now their most profitable, and with that comes the interest of pleasing as many people as humanly possible. Though Capcom jumped ship awhile back, the sixth installment is the furthest from their survival horror roots. You'd be hard pressed to call it "survival". Let alone, "horror". The series has adopted the tone of it's theatrical counterpart, and embraced the over-the-top, non-stop, action, that made the movie franchise a success. Directors realized that Resident Evil would not translate as a movie, in it's original state. Unfortunately, Capcom's developers didn't realize Resident Evil wasn't broken, as a game. Though the series will never be what it once was, there's always those early titles to go back to and enjoy a genre that once thrived.
If you like recent survival horror, not all hope is lost. You could always dust off your old Playstation and pick one of the many great franchises that succeeded in scaring the pants off of you. Silent Hill, Parasite Eve, Clock Tower, or Fatal Frame. Even if you only have access to current generation, the Left 4 Dead series has managed to reinvent survival horror, allowing you to play alongside 3 other players, in one of the most distinct and scary gaming experiences, this generation. And if you really wanna see where horror still thrives, check out the PC space. Indie developers have embraced those fond memories, creating solid horror games like Slenderman: The Eight Pages and Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Also, check out our interview with Hypersloth Games' Samuel Read, Lead Designer of Dream. A game that promises horror through exploration and surrealism.
What did you think about Resident Evil 6? Do you like the changes? Do you miss old-School, "Survival Horror"? Any fond memories of the series? Write a post and "Let's Talk" Resident Evil!! www.1985fm.com