Entering the world of survival horror used to mean an atmospheric trek through haunted mansions and killing ghouls. There was corporate intrigue, and certainly some action elements, but the horror aesthetic was clearly grounded. The pharmaceutical industry makes zombies and giant monsters, got it.
Resident Evil 4 changed all of that, however. The Las Plagas virus became the sort of enemy defining future for a portion of the franchise’s identity. Fast enemies that felt more like humans than monsters. In a way, horror was being pushed further and further away for the sake of action.
Resident Evil 7 represented a new era for the franchise. While the remakes remained faithful to the tone of the originals, 7 sought reinvention. This required new horror influences, beyond what they’ve already utilized. This also required abandoning the blockbuster aspects that defined the spectacle of Resident Evil.
The first person camera angle enabled a more visceral shock value, especially for players wearing a VR headset. The sound design also is less focused on a score but rather atmospheric shuffling about in the periphery. You’re meant to march forward and hear a bucket kick over, and wonder what exactly is behind you.
The labyrinth isn’t a giant spooky mansion, but rather a redneck haven on the bayous of Louisiana. The Baker family feels real, both in their personalities and relationships to each other and their moral decay. The scene where you are trapped at their dinner table as they bicker feels directly lifted from films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Jack Baker as a predator enemy isn’t like Nemesis or Mr. X. Jack taunts you, he lets you live while disfiguring you. He is a predator that plays with his food. Mia’s random outbursts of evil feel like moments lifted from The Evil Dead, along with all the hand butchering the game does.
Marguerite and Lucas Baker also offer their own horror. Marguerite’s body horror resembles a Cronenberg nightmare. There were certainly insects in previous Resident Evil Games, but the insects became intertwined in Marguerite’s character and boss battle in a beautiful way. The sound design is an essential part of the boss fight, to locate where Marguerite retreats to.
Her downloadable content segment of the game, called “Bedroom”, has Clancy handcuffed to a bed. It’s practically an homage to the classic Stephen King horror inspiration, Misery. Marguerite may not be as fanatical as Annie Wilkes, but the horror of being bedridden while you’re terrified if the door is going to open remains.
Lucas Baker’s SAW influences enable the first person adventure game key elements to feel like an intense escape room. The VHS tapes also are meant to play into this madness, where the distorted camera perspective can mess with the typical first person visual elements. These video elements evoke films like the Blair Witch Project. Eveline’s character also evokes things like Sadako from the classic Japanese film Ringu. This is all to say, horror was back in a very big way for Resident Evil 7.
Resident Evil Village continued the course of innovating the franchise. Being a direct sequel to Resident Evil 7, a lot was maintained. The first person hand disfiguring remained as gory as ever. Notably, however, the more modern film influences with the grounded setting of the Baker residence was no longer the direction. Instead, Resident Evil Village utilized different but equally valid horror influences.
A lot of the references intersected with vintage cinematic horror; vampires and werewolves and fishmen placed into an old but rich folklore that sought to give the series a much more classical horror backbone. Lady Dimitrescu and her castle represent a much more traditional Resident Evil experience. It’s a citadel full of dangers and puzzles, culminating in a fantastical boss fight.
The typical gameplay is also more in line with the action focus of later Resident Evil titles. There’s a merchant, and the inventory resembles the Resident Evil 4 attache case. This immediate action gameplay remains scary because of the first person approach and new creative direction.
It’s worth noting here that one of the primary horror influences on both 7 and 8 was clearly Hideo Kojima’s P.T. demo for the unreleased and cancelled Silent Hills. That demo focused on iterative hallways with new scares and puzzles to solve in repetition. 7’s house was a more general translation of those haunted house feelings, but 8 shoots for the moon with the Beneviento doll house. It is similarly tied to escape room style adventure game puzzles as the Lucas segments were, but instead of SAW, goes for a more traditionally scary thing: dolls.
The dolls of the Beneviento house have a lifelessness to them but the entire segment also is meant to play into Ethan’s own messed up psychology. The segment directly examines how Ethan feels as a husband and as a father, and has its own monster baby. The monster baby certainly evokes the baby in the sink of P.T., but also has cinematic ties to David Lynch’s Eraserhead. That film similarly had a disfigured child that was meant to represent the anxieties and failures of a father.
The downloadable content for Village involved other alterations that changed things up quite a bit. First was the official third person camera option, which may do less to viscerally engage players in hallways but is better for the wider shots of the village and the mobs Ethan is forced to engage in. It also allows for something like a chase scene to be even more effective.
The DLC chapter, Shadows of Rose, looks forward into time and features Ethan’s daughter as the protagonist. It revisits locations of Village, but with the Duke in a more antagonistic light and a focus into other horror iconography, such as mannequins and size changes during Rose’s House Beneviento segment. It’s common for horror titles to examine fatherhood for older male protagonists but body horror for young female protagonists.
The future of Resident Evil is always going to be unknown. As long as Capcom releases quality games that either enthrall or terrify, Resident Evil will remain one of the greatest gaming franchises ever. I hope one day 9 will enter us into another brand new realm of survival horror.