The Various Horror Genres of Resident Evil
Resident Evil is a franchise synonymous with horror in gaming. With over ten titles to its name and countless spin off materials including novel and film adaptations, it’s managed to stay fresh in the gaming public’s eye for over two decades, partially due to how the series reinvents not only its gameplay but its horror as well. Today, I’d like to take a look at the various forms of horror found throughout the RE franchise, and what impact it made on the games.
Note: This article will be primarily focusing on the numeric Resident Evil games for clarity’s sake, meaning titles such as Outbreak, Revelations, and Code Veronica will receive less focus.
Zombies (Resident Evil 1-3)
Zombies as we know them date back to 1968 with George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”. From then on they’ve become a pop culture phenomenon so it’s no surprise they’re the primary enemy of the first three installments. The trilogy is heavily atmospheric, using a static camera with dynamic shots for each room to make encounters intense. Ammo and inventory space was extremely limited, making players have to think about what each slot should be used for as well as which encounters have to be fought. This is similar to those original zombie films, as the characters usually find themselves overrun by the oncoming hoard, leading to scenes of anxiety and desperation. The hoards can best be seen in Resident Evil’s 2 and 3 where the setting shifts from the Spencer Mansion to Racoon City. A welcome change that allows for more on screen zombies and locales than previously possible. The dialogue during this time period was extremely campy, with poor voice acting to boot. It almost made the plot B movie esque.
Body Horror/ Action Horror (Resident Evil 4-6)
Resident Evil 4 was a dramatic shift for the franchise. The series dynamic camera was gun, replaced with a more conventional over the shoulder 3rd person perspective akin to 3rd person shooters. Ammo was more plentiful, and encounters were less about running away and more with gritting your teeth and pushing through enemies. The puzzle elements were also toned down, with most being simple “match the shape” or “collect the key and put it in the lock” sections. Enemies were also altered, changing from traditional zombies to the Las Plagas, parasite infected hosts that attacked the protagonist (Leon) with tools and firearms. The Las Plagas change both the gameplay strategy and the type of horror the player is dealing with. Since the enemies are now parasites, headshots have a chance of agitating the creature, having tentacles and other appendages erupting from its neck, increasing damage. Later in the game the parasite can leave its host and attack the player. This type of enemy is reminiscent of John Carpenter’s “The Thing” in which an alien parasite transforms into different characters to kill of an Alaskan research team investigating a disturbance. Many boss fights in RE4 are against various villains infected with the parasite that transform into horrifying creatures that look right at home in the 80s film.
Five and six would expand on 4’s action tones, with large set pieces and an emphasis on cooperative multiplayer gameplay. Since these were the primary focuses, traditional horror took a back seat, leaning more towards an action heavy game with light horror aspects. This makes these entries feel more like action zombie films/anime (the zany action of Highschool of the Dead comes to mind when thinking about 6 in particular) rather than the more terror focused zombie films that influenced the original trilogy. Voice acting was still campy, but delivered in a less exaggerated manor than in previous titles. Some attempts at serious or tender moments were made during this time period, but it became a bit ham fisted for some in 5 and 6, with many regarding 4’s mixture of campy dialogue with horror tone and action gameplay to be some of the best in the series as a whole.
Slasher Horror, Trap Horror, Body Horror, Supernatural Horror (Resident Evil 7)
Resident Evil 7 marks yet another drastic shift in the franchise. It is the first game with a constant first-person perspective and focuses on a new protagonist and plot in Ethan Winters, a man searching for his wife whom he suspects is being held prisoner in a Louisiana mansion. When Ethan himself is captured he is introduced to the various forms of horror he will be faced with in the Bakers. The Bakers are a collection of different family members with strange powers and personalities that Ethan faces one by one, with each Baker setting up a different genre of horror and environment. The patriarch of the Bakers, Jack, is similar to that of a charismatic slasher villain as he constantly takes defeat after defeat only to resurrect himself once more. Jack constantly taunts Ethan and is a lumbering presence, easily able to burst through walls and man handle the protagonist. He also references Evil Dead 2 in one of his encounters (a small bit of tongue in cheek humor). Jack’s wife Marguerite has control over bugs and once again gives the focus to bodily horror, with her grotesque appearance, ability to morph her limbs, and her final fight being rather disgusting. This type of bodily horror is different than that found in 4, as the horror is not only contained to one person instead of the multiple as seen in the Las Plagas, but also in that Marguerites bodily shifts are more discrete. There’s no cinematic shot of her body contorting, only in game hints and what we see in the fight against her. Lucas is the trap horror archetype, designing and rigging schemes for his unlucky victims. His section takes place in a neon lit barn lined with tripwire explosives and boxes that can blow up. In DLCs we see other traps that Lucas has made further showing the similarities between the killer son and the films he’s based on. Eveline is the final Baker you’ll face, and she embodies the ghost girl archetype, complete with psychic powers and the fears of loneliness. Not only is Eveline a creepy little girl (an archetype used in many a film), but her supernatural powers allow her to telepathically communicate with victims, as well as create concussive blasts and manipulate the victim’s body. This coupled with her mood swings and obsession with family makes her one of the creepier villains of the game, in line with her film counterpart. Creepy little girls are almost a benchmark for horror films, from the jump roping girls in A Nightmare on Elm Street to the more possessed Regan in The Exorcist the supernatural have a tendency to gravitate towards small children that can easily make you feel uneasy. The supernatural horror Eveline causes in 7 is extremely unnerving, especially during the last few hours of gameplay. She feels almost omnipotent at times, constantly watching your movements and appearing in front of you seemingly out of nowhere. The build up to your final encounter with her is tense and nerve wracking, but memorable none the less.
This blending of horror genres also lends itself to the gameplay. RE7 mixes some of the light puzzle aspects of Resident evil 4 and 5 with early resident evil backtracking and inventory management with action segments to break up the pace. Every environment lends itself well to the overall narrative, while telling stories of their own, such as the main home of the Baker family being run down with rotted basements, or the barn Lucas holds himself in being lit with neon lights that shine blood splatter from previous victims. Voice acting and dialogue really shine here, with the Baker’s in particular etching out a lot of personality from each performance that helps immerse yourself in what Ethan has to combat. From your boastful enemies to your more worried allies, 7 aims to give the most emotionally moving narrative out of the games so far. Each moment of Resident Evil 7 feels like a heartfelt homage to various horror films, while still maintaining its own identity in Capcom’s franchise.
As horror grows, adapts, and blends mediums, so to does Capcom’s survival horror titan. Over the years we’ve seen the franchise shift from dimly lit Dutch angle hallways, to claustrophobic first person journey’s through abandoned houses. The voice acting has shifted from campy B movie dialogue with comical voice acting, to more dramatic and serious conversations that allow player’s to be invested in the characters they encounter. With Resident Evil 2 Remake slated for a January release date, the franchise looks to uplift the second game in the franchise with new graphics and an over the shoulder camera akin to the action trilogy of games beginning with Resident Evil 4. Regardless of what step the series may take in the future, know that it will be looking to the genre of film that influenced it every step of the way.