My first experience with a horror game will always stick out to me.  I was in elementary school, at a sleepover, and somehow one of my friends had gotten their hands on a copy of Resident Evil 2.  We waited until everyone else was in bed, gorging ourselves on pizza and sugary drinks, then popped open the lid of the PlayStation, pushed the disc into place with a satisfying click and took turns passing the controller between the three of us as we journeyed through the world of zombies that awaited.

Resident Evil 2 is told from two different perspectives.  Players can play as Claire Redfield, a girl who journeys to Racoon City in order to search for her missing brother, Chris – or Leon, a rookie cop who shows up to his new post just as the Racoon City becomes infested.  When you finally get control of your character, it doesn’t take long to realize the controls are clunky.  We died time and again while firing bullets into the shambling undead before realizing it was easier to just dodge around the creatures – even with the tank-like movement controls.  

At first, the game wasn’t all that scary.  It’s been thrilling.  When we finally got Leon to Police Station, me and my friends gave each other high fives and celebrated our victory.  We overcame the bad controls and started to get a handle on the mechanics.  But that’s when Resident Evil 2 demonstrates its skill at building suspense.  As we wandered the unfamiliar halls of the Police Station, the game’s quiet calm became unnerving.  The only sound to be heard was the clicking sound of Leon’s hard-soled shoes against the linoleum floors.  The Police Station is empty, but you can feel the people missing, you can tell that the absence of people is strange.

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We had saved some ammo, but we wished we had more.  We proceeded down another labyrinthian corridor and as we passed a window there was a flash of something red.  Leon didn’t notice, he was already standing at the door, waiting for the command to go further – but we didn’t want to go any further because we knew what awaited him.

After we summoned the courage to proceed, we noticed blood dripping from the ceiling, forming a pool on the floor about halfway down the hall.  We drew Leon’s pistol, but nothing happened.  We holstered the pistol (something you must do before moving) and walked to the pool of blood.  Once at the blood, Leon finally noticed the dripping plasma and raised his head to see the stuff of nightmares, a creature stripped it’s skin crawling on the ceiling.  My friends were scared, I was scared – but our agency over Leon gave us a feeling of control, of resolution.  We had to overcome fear to proceed.

This is why I love horror video games.  Horror movies are all about the submission of the audience, you make an agreement with the filmmaker that you will give into the terror they present on screen and become a helpless audience member who will be subjected to the whim of the director.  There’s a forced intimacy between director and audience that I’ve always found uncomfortable, something that is straight out of A Clockwork Orange.  Horror video games are the opposite.  They encourage you to overcome your fear, to be brave in the face of the terrible unknown.  Horror video games can teach you things about yourself, they empower you – and not through weaponry or fantasy, but by testing your resolve.  Can you resist the desire to “nope” and give up?

People have become dismissive of Resident Evil over the years – shrugging it’s cultural significance off as a playable version of Night of the Living Dead.  To those who were familiar with George Romero’s films, Resident Evil was mining already discovered horrors, and doing so with terrible dialogue and bad controls.  The Resident Evil series hasn’t done itself any favors in recent years, the series has devolved into giant action set-pieces that are the calling card of triple-A game development.  But Resident Evil and its sequel did something that no horror movie had done before, it made people engage with the horror.  There was no looking away at the scary parts, there was no hoping the protagonist would escape the clutches of a zombie.  You had to push the zombie away, you had to dodge your way to safety.

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Resident Evil may not have technically been the first survival horror game, but it gave the medium a template by which all survival horror games are judged.  I love games like this, but I feel like sometimes they lose focus on what made Resident Evil great, what made it something that was indispensable in video games.  

Every Halloween I play a scary video game with my unfortunate roommate, in an attempt to capture that same magic that I first had when I was sitting in my friend’s living room after midnight.  We eat candy, drink sodas, and pass the controller back and forth as we navigate haunted houses and avoid serial killers.  But the success of what I have come to lovingly refer to as Scary Game Night largely hinges on something many video games overlook: world building.

Horror video game have become obsessed with the scare, much like horror movies, and have lost touch with what makes the medium of video games so unique.  This year we played Layers of Fear, a game that starts out by showing off a gorgeously designed mansion with creaky doors and lavish decor.  I fell in love with the location immediately.  But Layers of Fear throws away all of this goodwill by ignoring the layout of the house and having each door open to a random hallway.  The goal of this is set up a series of jump scares, keeping players on their toes and ready for the next heat-stopping moment.  But Layers of Fear’s disinterest with the consistency of the mansion makes it a disposable location.  We don’t grow attached to any rooms, we don’t remember certain locations because there’s nothing to remember.  Our attachment to the game becomes synonymous with fleeting fears and thrills that last a matter of seconds.  Layers of Fear is like the candy I feasted on while play it, a bunch of small rushes that came and went so fast that I hardly remembered them.

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This is the same problem that Red Barrels’ Outlast had.  Outlast starts with a wonderful asylum location that is filled with memorable places and terrible horrors, but it quickly dismisses them for something that looks like it came from a sci-fi film.  Eventually the jump scares and creepy music fade away and all you’re left with is the lingering realization that you’re not actually invested in the character or the surrounding, but you were clinging to the frightful jump scares to keep you paying attention.

Great horror video games create not only an atmosphere of horror or unsettling ambience, but strike it home with something that adds up to more than the sum of its parts.  They are a culture of terror.  The encounter with the fleshless Licker scared me, but the paintings of torture hanging on the walls of the Police Station made me morbidly curious about the world of Resident Evil – who was this police chief who hung this painting, why did the do so?  Why was the Police Station this strange mansion-like building?  The search for Ada (or Sherry, depending upon the character you’re playing) kept me pushing forward, hungry for answers of what part she played in the drama.  

There are some horror games that have learned the lessons of Resident Evil.  The horror of The Static Speaks My Name doesn’t come from a shocking moment or a surprise, it’s a cold feeling in the pit of your stomach that gnaws at your calm.  Until Dawn spent hours getting you invested in the band of one dimensional high school characters, begging you to either save them or slaughter them – while also laying groundwork for a few surprises in the game’s narrative.  Amnesia: The Dark Descent created a strange journey to escalating terrors.

Horror video games aren’t that different from any other game, they rely on an interesting world, likeable characters, and smart design to be engaging.  Unfortunately, horror games often tie themselves up in the obsession with a singular moment, the jump scare that will get the YouTuber to squeal and cry, instead of making a game that is worthy of the player.  

Quit ruining horror games, YouTube.

About The Author

The Glorious Predecessor

As I write this, I am listening to Striking Matches and eating a blueberry muffin. The music is good, the muffin is even better. I dance when I drink and have been known to occasionally free-style rap, none of which benefits society.

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  • Tank controls (are the opposite called “free” controls? I don’t know) are the best controls. Even with the camera angle changes, which arguably are what are so difficult controls wise, the tank controls still win, because they remain relative to the direction you are facing. I don’t know why they’ve fallen out of favor. I think it has more to do with appealing to the novice, which was very popular around the turn of the century, when more people were non-players than not; but now it seems like everyone has a grasp of video game fundaments.

    Last year I was “researching” The Resident Evil (Biohazard) sequel that never was, either before or after 2. It made me want to play a RE game. I tried 3, because I’d neglected to play it when I was younger. I have to admit that I didn’t get far, not even past the first scene. It’s not known for being a good RE, but I honestly couldn’t survive the opening scene. I’m sure I could have if I practiced, but dying on the first screen over and over really sucks the spirit out of you. The controls were unfamiliar at first, and remained so, but that’s always the case with me and video games. I wish the interfaces were standardized so muscle-memory training would stop being a thing you have to do every time you move between games.

    • Hey Stormbringer, I read what you wrote about a prevent-aliasing technique and would like to know if I can help in some way. Please let me know.

      • Off-topic: Basically it’s a very simple technique that literally all 3-D games should be using. They should’ve been using it since the 90s. I’ve pretty much taken it as far as it can probably go, without hardware vendors exploring built-in ways of taking it further (the way it works on a vertex shader is fine, but it could be much better on hardware. Not for performance reasons, what shaders can do is just limited. There is no performance overhead.)

        I just don’t know how to spread the news. People don’t take it seriously, or don’t care. It’s implemented, and easy to see in action running on a modified version of From Software’s 3-D RPG Maker, that’s freely available on my main website (open-source/public domain) but I don’t have time to develop more accessible demos myself, because I don’t have a lot of confidence in people’s intelligence to be receptive about it.

        I don’t know if it would work in a WebGL canvas, because to make it look best, you need to be able to manage dualing render targets, so they can be dissolved for each final frame. I haven’t taken the time to find out. Maybe demos would help a lot. Like I say, anyone developing games, wants to implement this. It should be standard in everything.

        I’m trying to position myself as a new COLLADA working group leader, even though I don’t know if I have the right outlook/lifestyle for it. I hope I can arrange for some interviews with Silicon Valley companies to try to get some spending money on behalf of COLLADA, sometime next year, if I make it that far. I will definitely bring this up if I can get interviews.

        Basically as an non-industry-outsider, there’s an iron curtain that I can’t go through. And I find the “indie” community and people in general to be comically unreceptive. It’s not that I don’t make every effort to reach people. It could just be a string of very, very bad luck.

        I’m just trying to get the technique/technology out at this point. At first I thought it would be very good to get a patent on it (for in-hardware applications) and use it for the basis for an artistic foundation to try to elevate the ambitions of this paltry medium. But after more than a year, I don’t really care what happens. I also tried to turn it into animated GIFs, but since browsers don’t implement the GIF specification correctly, it won’t work. There is APNG and WebP as competing emerging replacements for GIF, but they’re siloed in different major browsers.

      • FYI: Your post just happened to remind me of an email in my inbox this morning. It was about a message I’d requested to be sent to someone in the Khronos Group. It turned out (probably because COLLADA is a bit of an orphan right now) that the assigned party was the president of Khronos (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neil_Trevett) so because of your post, it occurred to me that I should try to also bring this up with them at the same time. I don’t see why something shouldn’t come of it. I just didn’t have the pretense to write anyone like this. I just happened to contact them via a forum moderator, who I’d reported some spam to. I was surprised someone responded to the report, because the Khronos Groups’s various websites have an air of being unmanned and deserted for the most part.

        I wrote again, thinking that just maybe the “patent” path is still open for this. The president is currently working for NVIDIA as his day job, a president of one their divisions, so it may even be a straight path to hardware implementations. In that case, you could help to vouch for the source the technology, in case my wishes are not respected along the way.

        EDITED: Truly, if you’d not written this, I don’t think the idea would’ve occurred to me. It just wasn’t on my mind.

    • Louis

      Tank controls have a time and a place, and while I won’t argue with their ability to create dread in that way that forces you to think about your moves even in tense situations, I wouldn’t go so far as to call them the “best” controls. “Best controls” is a subjective argument, and part of it is based on just what kind of horror game you’re trying to make. Resident Evil’s gameplay was focused on exploration for resources and puzzles, with attention to basic combat, so tank controls were appropriate, and the use of varying and dramatic camera angles synergized with it to great effect, but if you were to compare that to a game like, say, Yomawari Night Alone, where focus is on evading and hiding from ghosts, tank controls aren’t useful in the slightest. And what about the genre of first-person horror games, from Amnesia and Outlast to Cry of Fear and Left 4 Dead?

      • In my experience “free” controls raise too many problems that result in games looking bad and frustrating play. First-person and over-the-shoulder third-person tends to stick with “tank” controls (tank is totally wrong to me, because a tank is a top and bottom that is free to move independently, but whatever) and so there’s a reason for that one assumes.

        Slowness of turning and things, are not related, unless I misunderstand and “tank” means slow. I assume it means relative turning where forward is where you are facing instead of turning to face the indicated direction.

        One reason “free” controls are popular in third person is they are much easier to articulate and implement, because the animators only have to work in one direction–forward. Anyway, I personally feel that it’s a travesty that games only offer one way to play. Games should play according to how the player wants to play them. (I.e. based on games they’ve learned to play in the past. And have become accustomed to.)

        PS: If I am misusing terms, please help me out.

        • Louis

          It’s more than just “forward is where you’re facing”, it’s also “no strafing”. You can only move forward and backward, and to move to the side you need to turn your body in that direction. This is something that over-the-shoulder games rarely implement, and first person games even less. Adding the ability to strafe was something Resident Evil didn’t include until 4, when they switched from fixed camera to over-the-shoulder.

          • Well “free” controls (my term?) were not possible before the “analog” sticks were added to the PlayStation controllers. Of course, joysticks were nothing new, they may even be much older than “d-pads.”

            I think probably “tank” controls may mean combining the turn controls on the same stick/pad as the forward/backward controls. I don’t know. That can be very hard to work with in my experience, especially if you’re used to having them apart.

            I don’t think it’s very useful to talk about controls that don’t include “strafing” (lateral movement) but people deploy useless terms all of the time, so you could be right. (edited: I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a formal definition of sorts somewhere.)

            I actually believe very strongly that the right-analog stick situation is really bad. But it’s an unrelated subject. I just think, yes, having turning tied to the forward/backward axis is pretty bad, but it’s not much better on the traditional right-thumbstick/pad; it’s just that players rely on vertical look (up/down) function much less than the forward/backward ones. (The right-stick works well for looking up/down, but it’s a very bad fit for turning. It’s the wrong shape and the wrong movement. It’s going to be strange if the look up/down is ever performed by neck movements with headsets, and that will leave the traditional right-stick with nothing to do, except what it’s really very badly suited for.)

          • In fairness, another person in the recent comments here (http://www.thejimquisition.com/the-jimquisition-the-funny-brilliance-of-resident-evil-4/) seemed to have the same view as I did. I’ve shared your perspective with them. I think where “tank” controls pop up in articles, it’s rarely if ever explained what is meant by it; we all just have to reason about it context-wise.

            I do think you are on to something, insofar as not being able to move laterally is definitely the situation with a tank, more so than with a standard wheeled vehicle. Still I think the emergence of 360 degree free controls, only possible with the DualShock, eclipsed the old idea of “tank” controls, until it was no longer an apt descriptor for anything at all. In the modern context, I think most people hear “tank” and assume what is meant is pre-360 degree controls … applied to free-camera games.

            EDITED: Anyway, I appreciate the education. (And have passed it along.)