Is the video game Resident Evil 7 the state of the art in horror?

The interactive nature of a video game makes it the perfect medium for the horror genre, writes Jonathan Ore.

Latest game in the classic survival horror series even scarier in VR

The murderous and deranged Jack Baker closes in to attack in Resident Evil 7: Biohazard. (Capcom)

If you've ever sat down to watch a horror film, you've probably found yourself shouting at the screen, imploring the main character to do something, anything, to avoid their inevitable fate.

Don't open that door! Don't go into the garage alone! You're dead if you walk down that dark hallway — you know that, right?

Now, what if you were that person in the movie? Could you muster the courage to move ahead, knowing you couldn't progress without letting the monsters out of the closet?

Therein lies the central allure of horror video games, exemplified by the recently released Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, the latest in a series that arguably defined the form.

In it, you play as Ethan Winters, an unassuming everyman who ventures into the muggy Louisiana bayou to search for his missing wife, Mia. He soon finds himself trapped in a dilapidated estate inhabited by the Bakers, a demented family with a penchant for murder and dismemberment.

If you were a character in a horror movie, would you walk through this door? In Resident Evil 7 you're faced with choices like this on a regular basis. (Capcom)

The aura of suspense and dread is amped up by the use of first-person camera, limiting your view to whatever Ethan can see in front of him.

It's the perfect setup for someone or something to slither behind you as you peer into the dark corners of the estate. It also exemplifies why video games are such a fitting vehicle for this genre.

"Even the scariest horror film can't compare to a well-orchestrated horror game, because as the instigator of the events, you literally can't look away," says Toronto-based game developer Benjamin Rivers.

"Games are not a passive form of media," says Peter Counter, a horror culture writer and founder of the blog Everything Is Scary.

"If you close your eyes while watching a scary movie, you can avoid the parts that frighten you, but if you close your eyes while playing a horror video game nothing happens – the scary part just sits there waiting for you."

Survival horror games

Released in 1996 for the Sony PlayStation, the original Resident Evil put players in the role of Jill Valentine or Chris Redfield, two special forces agents trapped in a giant mansion infested with zombies, monsters and elaborate booby traps.

It was a breakout hit in an emerging genre that would become known as "survival horror" games.

It spawned a franchise of over 25 games and spin-off titles that have sold more than 75 million copies, as well as a film series starring Milla Jovovich that has grossed more than $1 billion US worldwide.

Who could forget the game's first jump scare: As you walked down an empty hallway, rabid, skinless dogs burst through the windows and chased you down.

Or the first encounter with a zombie, which began not with a visual but a sound — namely, a stomach-turning combination of crunches, groans and gurgles. If you stepped around the corner, you'd find the zombie feasting on the neck of Jill and Chris's freshly deceased teammate.

Unlike shooter games such as Doom, which let you emulsify your enemies in a hail of bullets, Resident Evil gave players only a meagre amount of ammo and supplies to survive. As a result, every enemy encounter became a real threat to your life. Often, the best course of action was to simply run away.

Rivers vividly remembers the impact RE1 had on him.

"I didn't think games like it were possible at that point – it took elements from other games, but also pulled heavily from films ranging from the gritty Night of the Living Dead to campier '80s movies," he says.

Toronto developer Benjamin Rivers took many of Resident Evil's lessons and applied them to a smaller-scale horror experience in his smartphone game Home. (Benjamin Rivers)

It so ignited his interest in horror games that he eventually released his own, Home, a well-received game that applies Resident Evil's eerie sound design and narrative tension to a smaller-scale, smartphone-friendly experience.

But when Resident Evil 4 (2005) came out, the publisher, Capcom, had exchanged the claustrophobic mansion for wider environments and more action-oriented gameplay. Your arsenal of weapons was now much larger and the hero, Leon Kennedy, could punch, kick and suplex bad guys into submission.

It debuted to overwhelming critical praise, but some longtime fans lamented the change.

Taking RE back to its roots

Resident Evil 5 and continued the trend, each game sequel becoming more like the film franchise, which has always favoured action over suspense. But as they got bigger in scope, critics and fans felt they lost much of what drew them to the series in the first place.

"The last games had expanded to a global scale of action, and when we thought about where to take the next game from there, we thought continuing in that direction would be difficult," series producer Masachika Kawata told CBC News.

"We took the opposite approach this time and decided that the best course for the series this time would be to focus on horror that is deep and immersive."

That choice to scale things back paid off. RE7 strips away the action element and doubles down on what fans loved about the early games.

The Baker estate evokes the original RE's mansion with its labyrinthine layout, sparse supplies and the constant threat of enemies – especially the near-invincible Baker patriarch Jack.

Horror buffs won't find much in RE7 they haven't already seen in theatres. It cribs liberally from recent tropes and traditions, from "found footage" tapes a la The Blair Witch Project to torture rooms reminiscent of Saw to a Creepy Little Girl character (the latest cinematic incarnation of which appears in the new film Rings).

The first Resident Evil game dropped players inside a zombie-infested mansion. (Capcom)

Throw that all into the interactive environment of a video game, however, and familiar elements take a more sinister tone.

Even scarier in virtual reality

To Counter, who has written and performed horror for stage, the goals of horror are the same no matter what medium it is set in.

As a horror buff, "I want to experience the sensation of being unsafe while holding the knowledge that, ultimately, I am safe," he says.

"Fear and anxiety have physical symptoms, and horror is a way to safely feel them — chills, the nausea of impending doom, muscles tensing, cold sweat squeezing its way out of your skin.

"When I describe it like that, it sounds completely unpleasant, but on the other side of horror, there's a catharsis that's really addictive."

If you want to make Resident Evil 7 especially intense, you can play the entire game in virtual reality with the PlayStation 4's VR headset.

Just be sure to adjust the camera and movement settings correctly, as several users have complained about motion sickness when trying it out.

RE7 ratchets up that sense of unease so well that even Rivers has trouble diving into the Baker residence.

"I've been trying to work up the nerve to play it on PlayStation VR, but haven't been able to so far," he says. "I managed a total of 45 seconds or so before bailing."


Jonathan Ore

Senior Writer

Jonathan Ore is the Senior Writer for CBC Radio Digital in Toronto. He's also covered arts & entertainment, technology and the video game industry for CBC News. You can find him on Twitter @Jon_Ore.