March 6th, 2010
Recently I completed Resident Evil 0 on the Gamecube and have prepared a few articles snuffing out some observations. My primary interests this time around lie in the traditional Resident Evil template (that used in RE 0-3) which I’ll explore in the 2 mini-essays below.
Genre Origins and the Creation of Traditional Horror
The Resident Evil template is ultimately an evolution of the traditional point and click adventure, perhaps the first stage of migration after the genre’s demise from the mainstream. What separates Resident Evil from the genre previously is the inclusion of an entire offensive system, giving Resident Evil more than just a purely investigative, puzzle-solving feel. As with many point-and-click adventures however, Resident Evil‘s exploration and shooting mechanics take a back seat, not to narrative though (the narrative is atrocious), but to atmosphere.
The majority of the player’s time in a point-and-click adventure is spent investigating, sifting through for environmental clues and interrogating the locals in pursuit of the next lead. Resident Evil removes the people from the equation, leaving the quiet isolation of the player’s unassuming puzzle solving as the dominate part of the game.
It’s easy to see from here where survival horror comes into play, all we need is a little atmosphere to set the tone. The atmosphere is created largely through soundscapes. Of course, the realism of the pre-rendered backgrounds, particularly those in RE Remake and Resident Evil 0, discomforts the player and the limited supply of items work to suffocate the player, setting a tense mood. Sound, maybe just because it’s more dynamic than the visuals, is the primary director of the experience, it tells the player whether or not they should feel calm or frightened. A prime example of this is in Resident Evil 0‘s laboratory area where on the first floor the “tension” music is played in an empty hallway connecting multiple rooms of importance. Although I’m aware that nothing is going to happen (there’s tentacle monster directly downstairs and the music therefore seems misplaced), every time I enter this hallway I feel nervous and rush to the nearest exit.
Some other horror games just stop here, at the preparatory stage, and leave the player hanging with the illusion that horror will occur at some point, most likely when they least expect it. Resident Evil is pretty standard horror, I think, and there are usually two directions where the atmosphere may head, either a climax in tension or a jack-in-a-box scare. On the former, tension crescendos in, in lead-up to a dramatic event which then unfolds and spooks the player; horror which is explicit and affirms the players assumptions (ie. rooms with splatters of blood which leads to other rooms painted in blood, finalising with the source of the killing). The alternative is horror which scares through surprise, where discord is in fact created by the way atmosphere is interrupted by the invasion of a threat. Atmosphere, in regards to music, can be broken by the breaking of a long silence (and damn these games sure are silent, which is why the cheap scares are so effective) or by the clashing of one set of music with another. With this technique, your assumptions that the environment is safe is quickly subverted, leaving you in a panic. Between these two approaches, the build-up and the cheap scare, is variance in the middle, which I don’t think requires much exploration as it’s just a blending of the two aforementioned techniques.
On the whole, the puzzle solving provides the stage for the atmosphere to be set, the limited load-out and item slots along with the realistic visual and soundscapes set a tone where your assumptions can be subverted or affirm in the horror. The effectiveness of the horror is therefore dependent on the developer’s ability to massage the player into psychological states.
Contrasting Traditional and Contemporary Horror
We can learn quite a lot about the way atmosphere is constructed in this traditional mold of survival horror by comparing Resident Evil with similar titles. I choose you Eternal Darkness!
Eternal Darkness is far more dynamic at creating horror since, for one, the game is rendered entirely in 3D, but more importantly the means to horror, the insanity effects, are dependent on the player’s agency. The 3D environment offers more options to create tension than a still, 2D one, and Eternal Darkness capitalises on this, in my opinion, largely through the brilliant camera orientation. Ontop of this the player can shrink, objects can fly around, the player can hallucinate, sound will warp and other strange events will happen in-game; there’s an ample amount of variety. Not only is the horror dynamic, but the jack-in-the-box scares are still viable, and this gives Eternal Darkness a real edge.
With the horror now player-dependent, Silicon Knights forfeit part of their directive control, one would think. The player’s sanity meter drops upon catching sight of a demonic creature, and it’s here where Silicon Knights can regain control through the placement of enemy types within each chapter of gameplay. Silicon Knights can’t ever have total control, mind you, but they can increase the likelihood of the experience unfolding as they intend it. Interestingly, despite all the qualities this system offers, the psychological course run through each chapter is largely identical: a slow crawl building up towards a tightening squeeze of tension, culminating at insanity. A result of this, as with the repeated use of the same environments, is that the horror becomes routine and therefore less effective.
Resident Evil is less sophisticated and highly rigid in comparison, but it does use its assets well. The horror is scripted through cause and effect scenarios, ie. if the player walks to this point or enters an area, dog will jump out of window, music will start playing, zombie will start groaning. Since Resident Evil‘s graphics are 3D models over 2D stills, the stills can be more realistic and the models can support an increased number of polygons, as a result the Resident Evil are supremely more convincing and perhaps better at creating a general sense of tension.
Some people seem to get off on criticising the Resident Evil titles, but it’s pretty unfair really. The Resident Evil games are simply representative of a certain style of horror, be it the traditional style of the earlier games or the new mob-horror approach of Resident Evil 4 and 5, and there’s no denying that these games have each served their respective styles well. The future of the franchise (perhaps evident in this upcoming Resident Evil Portable game for the PSP), I think, comes in the series either A) finding new approaches to explore horror in video games or B) reinterpreting the origins and readapting these mechanics into the modern day. I would like to see both, and I certainly think that there is room for both in the franchises’ extended lore.