I have a confession to make. I love horror flicks. But, if I have never seen a horror flick before, there’s a good chance that when I do watch it I’ll be spending quite a bit of time looking away from the screen. The tension in so many horror flicks is just too much for me, and as the protagonist creeps up a darkened stairway or approaches a slightly ajar closet door, I can’t handle it. I’ve obscured my view through my fingers, pulled my glasses down the bridge of my nose, even watched the reflection of the screen off of the glass of my desk — anything to prevent a direct line of sight to the coming terror. It’s sad and pathetic, really. But such is my ability to suspend disbelief and lose myself in some horror flicks, that genuine fright oftentimes keeps me from watching. I can’t imagine experiencing the genre in any other way.
But then there are survival horror video games. Unlike a movie, where out here on the other side of the screen one is just a passive observer, in a video game one is a participant. And while there is just as little real danger in a video game as there is in a film, there’s no way to back out of the experience when it begins to get too uncomfortable. One has control and can max out their fear while watching a horror movie, but when playing a game, that control is ceded to the game. It’s part of the immersion, and makes scary video games much more frightening than their filmed counterparts.
Case in point: Resident Evil.
Resident Evil was the game that made me go out and spend a month’s worth of rent money on a PlayStation back when I was in college. At the time, it was just about the best one could expect from a console game. In the 20 years since its release, the graphics have grown stale, and the voice acting has only managed to get funnier, but the tension in the game still holds. Its dread atmosphere redefined the survival horror genre of games, its reverberations felt to this day. Unfortunately, that original game feels very dated. But, never fear. A remake of the game was made in 2002, updating graphics and extending gameplay. This past January, an HD version of the remake was released, and those of us who had never played this version before had much reason to cheer.
Resident Evil tells the story of either Jill Valentine or Chris Redfield (depending on which character a player chooses), as they solve puzzles and piece together clues in Umbrella Corp’s secret research mansion in Raccoon City. The scientists at the lab have been working on some real nasty stuff, and an accident has released the lethal T-virus into the environment. When Jill or Chris arrive on the scene, the virus has turned the lab’s staff into zombies, and also allowed for the release of all sorts of mutated creatures with which the player must do battle.
The main setting of the game is the mansion. That’s where players spend most of their time, even ones who stick around for the entire game. It’s a real horror show of a place. It doesn’t have much in common with a real environment out here in the world. It is very much designed with a funhouse aspect, meant to send a player back and forth in and out of hostile environments. There isn’t any trickery going on with the layout, a la the Overlook in The Shining, but there is a lot that doesn’t make sense. I haven’t spent much time in mansions (none, actually), but I can’t imagine there would be so many interior rooms with no windows. But never mind all that. After all, I can’t see how any mansion, secret lab or not, would have such elaborate puzzles just so people can open a door here and there.
Although it is a horror game, the puzzle solving is as much a core gameplay mechanic as battling and/or avoiding the bad guys. This breaks up what would otherwise be linear gameplay into something more organic. The game was also made with enough skill that the fair amount of backtracking a player has to do does not feel like padding gameplay, although it does come close.
The most recognizable aspect of the game is the fixed camera. Unlike other third person games, the camera isn’t floating behind the player, tracking their movements. Rather, each room in the mansion or elsewhere in the game has cameras fixed up in corners or at the end of hallways. It has the unsettling effect of making the player feel like they are being watched — as if there is someone, somewhere, watching everything that happens on security cameras. The camera arrangement does wreak havoc with the gameplay on occasion, as aiming a weapon is difficult, but it is worth the atmospheric tradeoff. Having a fixed camera was probably necessary to meet hardware specifications of the time, with the happy result that it only makes the game creepier than it otherwise would be.
Resident Evil is an unsettling game. On a first playthrough, it is expert at causing and maintaining a knot deep in the stomachs of its players. As a horror experience, it is top-notch, exceeding some of the best films in the horror genre. For those horror lovers out there who have never played a scary game, there is an entirely new experience waiting for you. I couldn’t recommend playing the HD remaster of Resident Evil more.