Resident Evil: A little Cheesy, A Lot Scary
Well, it’s the month of Halloween, and I’d be neglecting my duties as a writer if I didn’t post some horror-related something or other. So here are a few quick thoughts on that classic horror game that made my youth memorable: Resident Evil.
First, are the old games cheesy? Yes, of course they are! Some of history’s worst dialog has originated from RE1. “Master of Unlocking,” “You were almost a Jill sandwich,” “I hope this is not Chris’ blood,” and “don’t open that door,” are just a few lines that come to mind immediately. (Note: Barry Burton is responsible for 75% of those lines, yet he gets to live?! Life is unfair.) So, let’s not pretend that a good chunk of RE dialog isn’t utter nonsense, and can’t even be blamed on bad translation.
Are the RE games scary? Well, let’s go back 14 years and ask 9 year-old me, who is huddled in his cousin’s darkened room with a bed pressed against the door because the power just went out during a play-through of RE2. His answer would be an emphatic yes. Unless, of course, he’d been playing RE4 or anything after it. Luckily, those games didn’t exist yet, so 9 year-old me was free to enjoy pure, unadulterated horror.
What did RE1, 2, and 3 do right? Pacing. Pacing, pacing, pacing. And no, I don’t mean zombies shuffling back and forth, that would be silly. I mean the nerve-wracking, nail-biting suspense of knowing something was shuffling, or worse, crawling its way around that next corner, and you had only a few shots left after that awful run-in with those skinless hounds. You’re hurting, barely able to walk straight, and that unknown foe could be a slow, stupid zombie, or something far worse ready to grind its jaws on your juicy flesh. All you can do now, is wait… But wait, why not look around the corner? Because the games’ use of fixed camera angles, set at some very peculiar vantage points, were brilliant from a cinematography standpoint. You could step around that corner and maybe get a better view, or maybe it would be too late and you would have stumbled into the clutches of a waiting… something.
Where they went wrong? RE4 and onward. Tense horror was traded for jump-scares. Limited ammo was swapped out for high-speed heavy weapons. Even RE 1-3’s most fast-paced moments were still better paced as far as suspense is concerned. This would herald the rise of zombie-blasting games that began to turn horror’s most viscerally scary monsters into fun practice dummies. Zombie games are now more about how much damage you can do, how many kills you can wrack up, and how many supremely blastable monsters can be fit on screen at once. (And yes, I know Doom 1 and 2 did this years before RE4, but they weren’t equipped to do anything else, they had no choice.) Gone is the jittery anticipation of the early RE days, gone is the heart-stopping terror when the enemy is slowly revealed, and most of all, gone is the fear for your life. RE was initially called “survival horror” for a reason: charging into battle was dangerous and almost certainly deadly. The monsters really could win if given the chance, you weren’t always able to just mow them down. Did the early games employ a few jump-scares? Sure, but they were well placed and artful. Glass might shatter for no reason, then just when you think you’re safe… well, I won’t spoil it.
To me, horror is not about explosions, loud guns, and Milla Jovovich pulling off Matrix-style moves to kill ten zombies within five seconds. That’s what action is for, and I love action games/movies with a fiery passion, but I also love my horror. Crossing genres is not bad, and I would never try to insinuate that stagnation is superior to innovation. (The RE1 Remake was in every way superior to the original.) But there is a difference between changing the formula for artistic reasons and changing it because it’s easier to pull off the latter than the former. Jump-scares are simple enough to execute, so use them, but use them sparingly. Let the true horror arise from the silence of a cold, dim corridor, the telltale scuff of a footstep in a seemingly empty room, or the perpetually looming presence of death. That is where the fear can be found…