‘Resident Evil’: How the Franchise Has Mastered the Art of Horror Through Perspective

Horror is one of the trickiest genres to master in any aspect of fiction. Even when the discussion of subjective horror is left out, horror is at its best when the artists behind their respective projects not only understand how to make something aesthetically scary, but there must also come an understanding of what makes something scary, how it scares different groups of people, and what audiences will ultimately take away from the story.

Horror has long been one of the most profitable genres of fiction due to horror artists tapping into the collective fears of their respective audiences, which has increased tenfold with the introduction of video game horror. Starting as early as the 1980s, video games began experimenting with the horror genre, often being relegated to using text-heavy mechanics to make up for the lack of the graphical fidelity needed to bring some of the more ambitious ideas to life. Early horror games more closely resembled visual novels, but the seeds were planted for horror to take over the game industry.

A large part of its success had to do with the shift in perspective that became more frequent in the 90s. Though gamers were well aware that the character they were controlling was completely standalone in their creation, the horror became incredibly visceral simply having the players themselves control the actions of their protagonist. Suddenly, we were the hapless dopes walking down a dark hallway.

It wasn’t until Alone in the Dark was released in 1992 that “survival horror” began to take shape in video games. Though undoubtedly rough around the edges by modern standards, the game’s use of 3D models in a hostile environment served as a true breakthrough for horror in video games. No longer were horror games confined to textual scares, as the horror came at the player in real-time, offering up what felt like the most realistic depiction of a fight against zombies ever conceived.

Although Alone in the Dark planted the seeds for horror through perspective, the Resident Evil franchise perfected it for decades to come.

Resident Evil, first released in 1996, is often credited as the father of survival horror and while it wasn’t the first, it popularized the idea and continued to build on it thanks to the first game’s commercial and critical success. What followed were two decades full of sequels, spin-offs, movies, and a helping hand in perfecting the survival horror genre that continues to be lucrative well into the 21st century. 

But a decades’ worth of games all focused on the same concept of zombies trying to kill you sounds like a recipe for burnout, right? It’s foolish to believe that countless sequels building on the same concept won’t get old after a little bit. What was scary at first might not feel as scary with the second, third, and fourth game, no matter how many new enemies are added to spice things up. In order to stay fresh, a franchise should do whatever it takes to keep up with the latest gaming trends.

This is something that the Resident Evil franchise has thrived in, surviving 5 generations of gaming by consistently upping the ante. I’m not simply speaking in terms of the overarching lore itself. While the increasing government conspiracy-heavy story has made for loads of memes in today’s digital age for people to enjoy, Resident Evil has kept a tight grip on its most simple and popular concept: fight your way through monsters while trying to stay alive.

From the very first incarnation to Resident Evil 7: Biohazard and the recent remakes of 2 and 3, your goal throughout every game is to survive each respective ordeal with the various weapons at your disposal. It’s a thrilling concept even at a surface level, letting you feel in control of the monsters and zombies trying to kill you. That may seem like a simple thing for any action-horror video game to understand, but Resident Evil’s masterful handle on perspective gives it a leg up over a good chunk of the competition.

Perspective is one of the most crucial aspects of not only video game design, but deciding exactly how a game world will be viewed by the players. Artists can think up of some crazy and ambitious game worlds, but the perspective of the players will dictate whether those worlds will go to waste or not. While this seems like a mere aesthetic choice, the changes in perspective throughout the franchise not only reflect the gaming capabilities of their respective time periods, they demonstrate a masterful handling of survival horror and the various tones the games have gone through over the years.

The first Resident Evil took heavy inspiration from Alone in the Dark, adopting a similar look with 3D models operating in real-time overlocked and pre-rendered backgrounds. Playing as Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine, players would navigate through a twisty mansion filled with zombies and other nightmarish creatures while trying to figure out the mystery behind the mansion. 

The original game is undeniably dated, spawning countless memes surrounding the infamous voice acting (Jill Sandwich) and the now crude graphical quality. 3D gaming was picking up steam, but it was very much a work-in-progress at the time of Resident Evil’s release, hence why the camera is locked down for every angle shown in the game. Though that presented an obvious limitation to what the developers were reasonably able to do, it would also play an important role in creating the core scare factor of the franchise.

What the franchise, and eventually Silent Hill, would succeed in is fear through unpredictability. The monsters could pop out at the player with a simple change in angle. Perhaps the room the player has explored is empty, so they proceed to the hallway. After the famous loading screen with the opening of a door finishes, you can either be greeted by an empty hallway or a bloodthirsty zombie shambling towards you.

One of the most famous jumpscares of the game comes from a zombie dog breaking through a window as you walk down a seemingly safe hallway, ripping away any remaining sense of comfort in the mansion for the player. But what makes these scares so discomforting is the stationary position of the camera. No quick movements, pans, or perspective shifts apart from a different angle of the same room. 

The camera sits completely still, forcing the player to witness their avatars get chased by zombies as though being viewed on a security monitor, not unlike something out of a found footage film, which itself was rather uncommon in 1996. This type of distance from the character creates a fleeting sense of control through this 3rd person lens and when you factor in the clunky controls of the time, your character is close to helpless, even with weapons at their arsenal.

This is a strategy that would become a staple for the next two big entries in the series with Resident Evil 2 and Nemesis. Even with some minor graphical improvements, the two sequels would implore the same 3D-style gameplay over a locked pre-rendered setting, with the added bonus of having new giant creatures chase the player down: The Tyrant (or Mr. X, if you will) in 2, and Nemesis in 3. Even as the setting changed, the perspective still felt cold and strained as the players were conditioned to not feel safe in any corner of any map.

Though something like this is now a staple of most horror games, the first three Resident Evil games both popularized survival horror and had the accidental advantage of limited 3D play mechanics to help manipulate perspective against the players. But now that this format was familiar to players, it was inevitable that the scares would become less frequent. It’s only natural that players would adjust to the game world, risking potential burnout if the series continued in this direction.

But Resident Evil was aware of that, leading to the refreshed sequel that is Resident Evil 4, released in 2005. No longer hindered by dated developmental tools and with an updated graphics overhaul, 4 introduced the third-person “over the shoulder” perspective that is still going strong in 2020. Instead of the usual fixed camera angles, the perspective of the player was closer than ever to the main character while upping the violence to an action-horror level, straying away from survival horror in the process.

But just because the title was supposedly less “scary” than the first three games, manipulation of perspective still benefited the game by thrilling and scaring players through sheer chaos. While the first three games were pretty wild in terms of their violence, the shift of the camera meant that the player’s perspective was much closer to the action. The first three games were cold in their presentation of the monsters attacking the player, but here, there was a new level of intimacy that would create a whole new batch of nightmares.

The horror still tied to an unpredictable environment working against the player, but the new camera shift meant that the area behind you was a new source of caution. You’ve killed everything in front of you, but are you sure that there’s not something else lurking behind you? The fixed camera of the first three games at least gave the player a look at the layout of the room (from that angle anyway), but in 4, you control the camera, meaning that confronting the horrors of the village was almost entirely dependent on you. This could make for a more thrilling action game and as the likes of Uncharted and Just Cause have shown, it works well for the action genre. 

Yet there’s something visceral about the perspective of Resident Evil 4 and the following two sequels that feels like an update on the franchise formula without losing sight of its pulpy horror core. Even as the games switched to a more action-oriented tone, the terror of feeling overwhelmed by a seemingly endless wave of feral monsters made for a worthwhile substitute to the stilted security camera perspective of the first three games.

But soon, video game horror extended beyond the third-person.

Don’t get it twisted, 1st person horror was far from new even during the span of the first three games. Games such as Doom, Wolfenstein, System Shock, and Half-Life had already been experimenting with 1st person action-horror, slowly reinventing the video game format in a manner that we still see today with the likes of Call of Duty, Overwatch, Halo, and story-heavy walking simulators like Gone Home and What Remains of Edith Finch

Although horror had dabbled in the first-person, the 21st century saw a rise in first-person horror that would eventually come to define the survival horror genre. Games like F.E.A.R., Condemned: Criminal Origins, and Bioshock helped revolutionize first-person action-horror for the modern era, achieving the heights that just weren’t in reach two decades earlier. With first-person, over the shoulder became through the eyes, further bringing the player closer to the game world.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent, released in 2010, provided the launching block for first-person horror to enter untapped territory with the character being almost completely helpless to the terrors that players could once combat in more action-focused titles. Amnesia and soon games like Slenderman, Outlast, and P.T. put a stronger focus on atmosphere and helplessness over dynamic action gameplay and with Resident Evil 6 receiving mixed reviews for its lack of scares in 2012, it seemed as though the franchise had finally reached burnout. 

Amazing what a fresh perspective can do to change all of that, huh?

In 2017, Resident Evil entered brand new territory for the franchise with the release of the sequel/soft reboot, Resident Evil: Biohazard. Though technically taking place in the RE universe, Biohazard took the players away from the crazy government conspiracy story from before and only sprinkled it in here, making way for a standalone story about a man named Ethan Winters who searches a seemingly abandoned residence to find his missing wife, Mia. I’m sure we know by now that Ethan discovers that the house isn’t exactly empty.

What was namely an action-horror franchise about government corruption is mostly replaced with a contained escape story told entirely in the first-person. The nightmare that is the Baker residence is experienced in a new level of immersion by forcing the perspective through the character’s eyes. This applies to the cutscenes as well, playing out in front of Ethan’s and by extension our own eyes, applying a mean and visceral atmosphere to the House of Horrors that does everything in its power to throw everything at the player.

By 2017, first-person horror games were among the most popular in the market, largely thanks to YouTube Let’s Plays surging the demand for these games. The closest modern comparison to Biohazard is Outlast, given that both are first-person games from the perspective of an overeager man walking into the middle of a nightmare in a seemingly abandoned building. But Biohazard gets a leg up by adding a revamped combat system that brings with it a new level of unpredictability.

The guns and melee combat may not seem too different, but the 1st person perspective retrains the player to take everything they know about Resident Evil gameplay and apply it to Biohazard’s confrontational lens. Monsters are no longer just overwhelming the character you’re playing onscreen, now they want YOU and will chase you down in a manner not unlike the fear many have of staring down a darkened hallway, anticipating something to jump out at them. 

It truly is no wonder that Biohazard is considered a return to form for the franchise, updating its gameplay and going back to its survival horror roots sorely lacking from the recent installments. It’s this type of pure unadulterated pulpy horror that helped the Resident Evil 2 and 3 remakes succeed by keeping a firm grasp on survival horror, even as the remakes returned to over the shoulder third-person. The response to Biohazard only solidified this new direction for the Resident Evil franchise and the upcoming sequel, Village, and its 1st person perspective is concrete proof of this.

Additionally, it’s the proof that Resident Evil, in its near 20-year lifespan, has managed to use the power of perspective manipulation to consistently reinvent itself for an ever-changing audience. The start of the franchise was humble, yet influential for the state of survival horror in general. When audiences craved a nice mix of action and horror, 4, 5, and 6 delivered on that front and when 1st person horror became the next boom for video games, Biohazard came in late and still capitalized with a purely Resident Evil game in a new format.

To attribute the success of the franchise to shifting perspectives would be foolish, but the constant attention for a refreshed way to experience Resident Evil just shows the love and care poured into making RE a timeless horror franchise. Shifts in perspective can make or break a story and Resident Evil’s willingness to change up the presentation while keeping the formula of the franchise makes for a bold approach to video games, one that has paid off tremendously in the long run.

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