With the announcement of an HD remake of the Resident Evil “REmake,” I thought I’d look into the classic survival horror genre and why it has gone downhill.
Originally, solutions to hardware limitations are what gave these early titles, like Resident Evil and Silent Hill, their distinct brand of fear. Pre-rendered backgrounds lead to fixed camera angles for Resident Evil games. A lack of control can be scary in itself, as it leaves the player feeling dread about what’s being obscured from their view, but when paired with claustrophobic areas you have a recipe for real horror.
The iconic fog from the Silent Hill franchise was brought about because of the short draw distance in the PSX original. That fog serves the same purpose as the closed in areas and fixed camera angles in Resident Evil 1. It creates a feeling of claustrophobia even in wide open, outside areas, and despite having more camera control, players still can’t see everything. The lack of these elements brought about by the fog was a major reason the Silent Hill HD collection turned out to be so horrible.
Another contributing factor to horror of the survival horror genre was the clunky control scheme we now refer to as tank controls. This limited method of control made players much less capable against enemies, making even the slowest of zombies a potential threat in tight areas. Character and player competency is anathema to settings attempting to create horror.
Take a look at Resident Evil 4, a game widely heralded as one of the greatest Resident Evil. It’s a great action game, but it’s a failure in terms of survival horror, precisely because it’s missing out on the points already covered. The camera can be maneuvered into advantageous positions to scout and plan battles. Instead of hearing the scuffling and moans of the unseen zombies, leaving your imagination to run wild, everything is given to you up front. No matter how well designed a scenario is, it will never be as scary as something augmented by the player’s imagination.
Capcom tried to find a new means of invoking terror by using hordes of fast moving enemies, but to avoid making the game cheap and unplayable, the player’s avatar had to be made more capable than the strongest and fastest of the opponents. While the first time a Resident Evil fan entered the ganado village may have been a harrowing experience, the idea of fighting off large groups of enemies loses its fear factor when you realize Leon Kennedy has been replaced by hybrid creation spawned from crossing Hulk Hogan and Bruce Lee.
How is a player supposed to be terrified when Leon can shoot a ganado in the leg, round house his head off, and send the corpse cartwheeling into surrounding enemies, before hacking through the survivors with a badass knife? If the situation is right he can literally suplex an enemy’s brains out. Despite being surrounded by stronger and faster enemies, I’m less scared than I’ve ever been in a Resident Evil game. Fluidly running around areas while being chased by an angry mob will never be as stressful as being forced to jog around slow zombies in narrow passage ways with limited means of fighting back.
When controls aren’t limiting, characters are overly capable, and everything can be seen upfront, the horror aspect of games completely falls apart. This forces developers to rely on the cheapest of tools, jump scares and instant death attacks. Instead of slowly building tension and forcing players to pick their battles, the most mainstream and iconic of survival horror franchises have essentially become shooting galleries filled with “horror” from enemies that try to look scary and almost exclusively use jump scares to get a rise out of players.
The Resident Evil HD remake may be just what the doctor ordered for the ailing franchise. Hopefully the guys at Capcom are proactive enough to add new or remixed encounters, but lazy enough to keep the tank controls and fixed camera.