Resident Evil wasn’t the first game I bought for the original Playstation — that honor goes to Persona — but it did round out a much-played second tier roster of titles (including Tomb Raider and WipeOut 2) that exemplifed the Bold New Polygonal World of Gaming.
Despite the clunky controls and Community Theater of the Absurd voice acting, website like this Resident Evil‘s mix of action, visit this site puzzle-solving, for sale and spooky-gory aesthetics was successfull and compelling enough to give rise to “survival horror” as distinct genre. Yes, Alone in the Dark may have gotten there first, but Resident Evil was the game which truly sold the message to the masses. The game’s use of zombie antagonists, in fact, played a huge role in elevating shambling hordes of corpses from the realm of cult cinema and into the overexposed multimedia position they occupy today.
My interest in Resident Evil took a steep drop after the Dreamcast release of Code Veronica, where the thrills and chills which marked three previous offerings took a back seat to dreaded plague of franchise entrenchment. The later games were less about the adrenalin-spiking tension of “too many zombies, too few bullets” and more about fleshing out a nonsensical (and dead boring) arch-narrative about corporate conspiracies and the interpersonal relationships between an ever-growing cast of characters.
There was more to my sense of survival horror’s dimnishing returns than the narrative exigencies of world-building, however. Horror is rooted in the unfamiliar. The object is too keep the audience off-balance by unexpected shifts in the boundaries of their comfort zones. There are plenty of effective horror tales which make use of quotidian springboards, but the chills come in how the narrative exploits/upends/shatters that illusion of normality. A cute kid isn’t supposed to be a killer. A Plymouth Fury isn’t supposed to start itself up and seek bloody vengeance. A kitten isn’t supposed to be the host of a genocidal alien pandemic.
The core concept of the survival horror genre already tread a thin enough line. Films and books and stories are passive entertainments marked by strict authorial controls. They engage and enrapture, but the experience is akin to carnival ride — strap in, hang on, and enjoy the cathartic terror. The “I wouldn’t do that” — where “that” equals some action which will lead to Very Bad Things — response to films or prose is a moot objection. The character did make the wrong choice, and now you’re stuck as a passenger on the terrifying ride.
Videogames, on the other hand, are an interactive medium which places the controls (literally) in the hands of the end user. The decisions are the end user’s to make, within the generally nonpermeable walls of the presented narrative. A “correct” path (or paths) leads to a pre-established ending (or endings), and death’s dreaded sting can be wished away with the quick reload of a game save. It also doesn’t help that the so many survival horror games make use of a plot framework which dates back to the first Alien film and, before that, 2001: A Space Odyssey — “Go check this foreboding thing out while remaining initially ignorant of a larger, conspiratorial agenda.”
Apart from the cheap and cheesy jump scares which serve as the genre’s junk food, terror in survival horror places a heavy reliance on novelty — “the unfamiliar,” in other words. The dark industrial nightmare-and-soundscapes of Silent Hill and Dead Space‘s rejection of the “headshot equals insta-kill” convention were effective in injecting some fresh scares into the formula, but they also lost potency in subsequent iterations where the innovations calcified into requisite components of the respective brands.
The last time I felt anything approximating legitimate dread in a survival horror game was during my first playthrough of Remedy’s Alan Wake. It wasn’t the overtly “scary” content that did it, either, but rather the interludes between the shocks. In the early part of the game — before the overarching threat is delineated — the titulat protagonist’s journeys to a shadowy nightmare realm alternate with brief segments set in the daylit mundanity of the “real” world. Those are where I felt the dread rising most prominently, the impermanent calm before an inevitable storm of even worse horrors to come.
Horrors whose actual manifestation never matched the ones conjured up by my imagination.
Recommended listening: Akira Yamaoka – Next Stop Nowhere (from the Silent Hill 3 Unreleased OST, 2003)
Here’s an upbeat little ditty, ideal for both slow dancing and naptime at the local nursery school!
(screenshots courtesy of the always helpful MobyGames)