Even if being scared witless isn’t your idea of a good time.
Horror games are the goddamned worst. Depending on your proclivities and how much you enjoy being scared silly, they can be even more terrifying than horror movies, mostly because where horror movies show you awful things happening, video games ask you to actively go forward and seek out these awful things. If you are a chicken (and I am a chicken), horror games are the peak of video game misanthropy, packages of digital cruelty. I want to play them all the time.
It’s hard to explain why this is—I would personally prefer that I didn’t feel this way—but the new Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is as close to a perfect example I can get. I can’t stop playing it. You should play it too, even if you’re normally not into horror.
Resident Evil 7 is the newest game in a long-running horror series that stretches all the way back to 1996. Although it is out the very same week as the seventh Resident Evil film, it has nothing at all to do with it—and despite the “7” in its title, you really don’t have to have played any previous Resident Evil games to get what’s going on. Resident Evil 7 intentionally distances itself from everything that came before in just about every way imaginable. The camera perspective is first-person where previous games favored a third-person camera, it’s story is spare and simple where previous entries got bogged down in their own mythology, and the setting—a derelict mansion in the swamps of Louisiana—is about as different as you could get. It’s a reboot in everything but name, and it is a tremendous success.
It’s also scary as balls. This has to be stressed a bit, because Resident Evil games haven’t been terrifying for a while. They’ve skewed more towards action than horror as its cast of characters grew to include spies and badass supersoldiers with lots of guns. In Resident Evil 7, you play Ethan Winters, just a regular old schmuck who’s looking for his missing wife and finds horror instead. I don’t want to ruin too much, but Ethan ends up being taken prisoner by a crazed family who have gotten into some messed-up shit, and you need to both survive them and find out what happened to your wife.
That is, ultimately, what has me hooked on Resident Evil 7: the mystery. One of the most effective and simple things a video game story can do is suggest “something bad happened here,” because it presents a problem in a way that only video games can. A game suggesting that something is wrong in the place that it puts you is incredibly powerful, and almost always communicated indirectly: In the way the environments are designed, in clues and notes you can find, in the nature of the enemies you face. Because video games are interactive, it’s a little more than the old “show, don’t tell” rule—it’s more like discover, don’t tell. That curiosity is why I’m hooked.
Resident Evil 7 does what the most truly effective horror games do, which is take the player’s desire to find and discover things—answers, tools, a means of escape—and prop it up against the fear of what might happen when you go after them. The game is a master class in producing dread. Everything from the sound design with its groaning, creaky floorboards and expertly lit rooms draped ominously in shadow is built to elicit one specific reaction: Oh, hell no. Even later in the game, when I’m armed with a freaking flamethrower and grenade launcher, I remain one hundred percent averse to opening doors that might lead to something that wants to bite my face off—even though I’ve got enough stuff on me to blow it to hell at a moment’s notice. (At this point, the game is also significantly less scary than it is during its opening hours. You might be fine once you get that far. I am not.)
Resident Evil 7 takes the player’s desire to find and discover things and props it up against the fear of what might happen when you go after them.
Still I press on, because Resident Evil 7 is also a wonderful video-game puzzle, full of locked doors and secret passages that fold back on themselves to create shortcuts and lead you to more clues, more weapons; leading you to more things that you will need to escape—but provoking your desire to know more, and taunting you with the knowledge that you might suffer more for indulging it. As a naturally curious person, Resident Evil 7 is a special kind of hell for me, but it’s also a perfect distillation of what some of the best horror games do besides just scare you: They walk the line between dread and intrigue, tipping the scale back and forth so that the desire to know more regularly pushes against your fear of what comes next. The tension between these those feelings make everything you do in a game like Resident Evil 7 feel a hell of a lot more meaningful. They make the things that happen in your head as important as what’s happening onscreen. You make your own fun. And your own horror.
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