Resident Upheaval: The Grim Future of Survival Horror

23 Apr

The survival horror genre is broken.

Time was, I would open a kitchen cabinet and half expect something dead to fall moaning on my neck. I’d see leafless branches in my backyard, stretched out against an autumn sky, and swear I could hear a chainsaw. Survival horror video games, especially those in the Resident Evil series, had an insidious way of creeping into my subconscious. Innocent shadows took on sinister shapes, and the dash up the basement stairs was a desperate bid for safety.

They don’t do that anymore. And it’s not just that I’ve grown up in the interim – something has happened to the genre. Controllers aren’t quaking in the hands of kids these days, and if they are, I think it has more to do with irresponsible parents not knowing what an M-rating is, and less to do with solid game design. So, it’s broken. And the creator of the Resident Evil series, Shinji Mikami, is promising to fix it. The question is: can he?

The first Resident Evil was an exercise in frustration. I never, ever felt that I had enough ammo to face whatever lay beyond the next door. I sweated over spending every single ink ribbon. I hated the way the controls made me feel useless when I stumbled into a deadly situation. And the beautiful thing about the game is that all of those “faults” are actually strengths; every time the developers crippled me as a player, they made the game more frightening. Resident Evil 2 upped the ante in terms of scope, but it was essentially the same game, with a more apocalyptic setting. It was bigger and bolder, and scary in a different way.

Resident Evil 4 walked a narrow tightrope between horror and action, balancing moody atmosphere with savage combat. Every new weapon the game placed in protagonist Leon Kennedy’s hands was an empowerment to the player, and thus a step backwards for the genre, but I excused that because of how wonderful an experience those design choices made. Every spin-kick to a Spaniard’s jaw was an act of desperation, and I could put aside the crazy body count, ludicrous setpieces, and hammy voice acting because the game still scared me. Its pacing was brilliant, providing moments of somber calm between each life-and-death encounter. Never once did I feel truly safe.

Resident Evil 5 tipped the scale. A heavy focus on gunplay, a constant supply of ammunition and health items, a non-optional co-op mode, and a scarcity of atmosphere robbed the game of any horror heft. The few sequences that may otherwise have been frightening – mutants chasing you through air vents, or tribal cannibals bent on pagan sacrifice – were manageable, even effortless thanks to your AI or split-screen partner, even on harder difficulty settings. It was okay, but not very memorable, and certainly not Resident Evil. It was hard not to play it and feel a pang of longing for the original. Survival, yes – technically. Horror? No.

Resident Evil 6 was the final nail in the coffin, and a black mark on Capcom’s résumé. For a game so stuffed full of content (there are four separate campaigns at about 10 hours each, thousands of collectibles, and a myriad of alternate modes), it is utterly devoid of anything this series fan actually wants, perpetuating a litany of poor design choices that threaten to become the only legacy I will remember.

It seems I’m not the only one, as Capcom has commented on disappointing sales and an apparent inability to develop game mechanics that “sufficiently appeal to users”. Shinji Mikami knows this, and he claims to want to fix it. He wants “to bring back survival horror to where it was”. I’m so on board with that! But the pitch for his latest game, The Evil Within, does a pretty poor job of selling me. Mikami claims that it will blend old with new, but it looks like they’re either continuing to make the same mistakes that have castrated the genre, or to paraphrase Ian Malcolm, they’re making all-new ones.

The IGN exclusive first-look article points out that the “ideals” we held so sacred at the genesis of the survival horror genre were sketchy at best, and that’s spot-on; the genre was born during that Wild West era of the 1990s when game developers weren’t bound by rules or convention, only by the limitations of the hardware. IGN admits that at this early stage, The Evil Within doesn’t seem to pour smoothly into that “ideal” mould. But, honestly, if one tenet of survival horror is sacred, it’s that it should scare you – right?

Well, I think we can all agree that there’s nothing more terrifying than the unknown. Unfortunately, The Evil Within appears to be resting on a solid foundation of the known: You play as a grizzled, brown-haired, nondescript action hero. It’s set in a mental hospital. There is uncertainty as to the reality of what you’re seeing and doing as you’re plagued by hallucinations and spooky apparitions. There’s a big masked dude with a chainsaw. It will have a distinctly cinematic feel, with gameplay occasionally stepping aside to allow for a cutscene or scripted event. There’s a blend of stealth and combat action. I mean, I wonder if you’ll correspond with allies via radio, or collect medkits to restore health! What other shocking innovations will lie in store?!

In the article, Mikami makes a fuss about breaking the mould, and shaking things up, and showing people something they’ve never seen before. But when you put that pitch next to IGN’s description of the gameplay, it sounds a lot like he’s just telling us what we want to hear.

It’s now independently-developed games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Slender that are satisfying the die-hards of the horror genre, with simplistic gameplay (born of low-budget necessity) and a finger to the pulse of what makes a game truly scary: the player’s imagination. These developers understand that it’s what we can’t see that scares us, not what jumps out and goes boogly-woogly. They know that no twisted creature their artists can dream up will ever be as frightening as what our own minds will conjure. And when Mikami talks about immersing the player using detailed character textures, I hear his words in George Lucas’s voice. To me, that is more terrifying than anything.

“You don’t require the player to use their imagination as much as you had to in the past. You’re able to show things on a much more granular level. A much finer level of detail. And make things feel that much more visceral to the player. You’re able to impart a much greater sense of space and able to use lighting to your advantage much more than you were able to in the past.”

That says it all, doesn’t it? The original Resident Evil’s scares were kind of a happy accident, a perfect storm of meagre hardware and ambitious design. We live in a world where there are no happy accidents anymore, because nothing is left to chance. Or, for that matter, to the imagination.

I hope first impressions don’t count, because Shinji Mikami doesn’t seem to be fixing survival horror – he seems to be making it worse.

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