Released more than 20 years ago, Resident Evil was the first video game to coin the phrase “survival horror,” but over the years the franchise has drifted further away from its origins, with less scares and more action.
With 2017’s Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, Capcom has reinvigorated the series, breaking away from the conventions of previous titles, and creating an experience that puts the focus back on fear.
“We determined that continuing the direction of expanding the scale of an action-focused Resident Evil would be difficult” says producer Masachika Kawata. “Instead, we decided the best direction for the franchise this time around was to focus more on depth and immersion with a heavy emphasis on horror.”
In the original Resident Evil, called Biohazard in Japan, most of the gameplay, which takes a third-person perspective, involves wandering around mansions, solving puzzles and destroying the “infected”—the fear factor coming from not knowing what was lurking behind the doors or might suddenly come crashing through the windows. But with Resident Evil 7: Biohazard players are thrown into a first-person ordeal.
“We wanted to visually differentiate ourselves from previous numbered entries in the franchise and also determined that a first-person camera view would allow the player to experience the horror on a more personal level.” says Mr. Kawata. “Being pitted up with an element of horror right in front of your eyes, feeling the hairs on the back of your neck tingle as an unknown entity slowly creeps up behind you… These are some of many situations that suit a first-person camera that wouldn’t be as immersive using a third-person camera perspective.”
In the new game, the player takes on the role of Ethan, a civilian, who travels to Louisiana to collect his ex-girlfriend Mia, whom he hasn’t seen for three years, from a derelict plantation mansion not dissimilar to the slaughterhouse in 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
On finding her, it’s only a short time before she takes the bloodless pallor of the possessed, attacking Ethan with a carving knife, and driving it through the palm of his hand.
“I can hear her!” she screams, “I can feel her clawing her way back inside me! Get out! Leave me alone!” she continues, now frantically banging her head repeatedly against the wall.
“I’ve been bad!” she shrieks. “I deserve this!” before collapsing unconscious.
It’s a compelling opening horror sequence that sets the tone of whats to come; the nightmare ordeal of escaping a deranged family.
“There is a rhythm to the game that is a balance between tension and relief, mixed with some unpredictability” says Mr. Kawata, who cites “Evil Dead” as one of the development teams many influences. “Horror is about not knowing what’s coming or what to expect next.”
But it’s the gore that makes Resident Evil 7: Biohazard stand apart from titles like 2013’s Outlast, another first person experience, that sees the player take on the role of a journalist investigating a remote psychiatric hospital in Colorado, following a tip that inhumane experiments are being carried out on patients there.
Inevitably, comparisons have been made between the two titles but as Mr. Kawata puts it, they are “quite different in the way that fear is tackled,” a fair observation given that “Outlast” is all about running away and hiding from pursuers, while Resident Evil 7: Biohazard says Mr. Kawata “is all about aggressively combating fear and adversaries head-on.”
During the development of Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, Capcom also experimented with virtual reality, trialling a demonstration at the Electronic Entertainment Expo E3 in 2015. Kitchen is an experience in which the player is virtually tied up and attempts to escape a kitchen that doubles as a torture chamber, which Mr. Kawata says fits the “Resident Evil” profile.
“With the first-person perspective and horror direction, we felt that VR could enhance the immersion and was a good fit with the content we already had planned.”
The demo was well received and was, as Mr. Kawata puts it, “the proof of concept” for Capcom, who received help and cooperation from Sony in optimizing the PlayStation VR experience.
“Truth be told, the resolution and visuals are higher on a TV screen.” says Mr. Kawata. “However, VR offers a brand new experience that really kicks up the immersion to the next level.”
Since its first iteration was released in 1996, 113 titles have been published in the Resident Evil franchise, which to date has sold more than 71 million units worldwide. But the best-selling game in the series, which is also Capcom’s best-selling game of all time, is Resident Evil 5 with 7-million units sold.
When it was released in 2005, Resident Evil 5 had moved away from the “survival horror” of the previous installment, instead delivering a largely outdoor “action” experience, rather than a “survival horror.” And while the protagonists are still battling zombies, it’s third-person shooter approach lacks the earlier titles trademark feeling of creeping death.
So whether you’re porting into Resident Evil 7: Biohazard using PlayStation VR or playing in the real world on PS4, X-box or Microsoft Windows—you’re guaranteed an injection of horror that’s been missing from the franchise for more than a decade.
This article is the longer version of a story written for The Wall Street Journal on March 9th 2016.