How Resident Evil Defined Survival Horror

Let's dissect the history of Resident Evil and see how it became a turning point for the survival horror sub genre.

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Resident Evil 3 Nemesis

Let’s dissect the history of Resident Evil and see how it became a turning point for the survival horror subgenre.

The Resident Evil video game series was the apex when it came to horror-themed video games. Its reinvention of the survival horror sub-genre paved the way for numerous franchises, clones, and films. Though its legacy has only spanned the course of 22 years its impact is extensive. Let’s dissect the history of horror in video games and explore what made Resident Evil so terrifying.

Just like films, video games also have genres and sub-genres. These sub-genres are decided on not only the tone of the story and the events but also the mechanics of the game. A few things that make the survival horror sub-genre are an oppressive atmosphere, an overwhelmed protagonist, limited resources, and resource management.

Similar to slasher films, our protagonist is typically at the violent whim of the antagonist without many options of retaliation. Some examples in video games that also happen to be some of my favorites are Alien Isolation and Outlast. Both games leave you under the constant threat of death and limited resources. Resident Evil did not invent these tropes of the survival horror subgenre but it popularized them as well as redefined what a survival horror game was.

The first Resident Evil game hit shelves in 1996 but for now, we have to go back to 1972. One of the first horror video games on record is Haunted House on the Magnavox Odyssey. A two-player chase game where one player is a detective and player two must catch the detective as the ghost of the haunted house. The design of the house is in the style of your classic Victorian mansion and evokes associations with old school horror movies. That being said, Haunted House was not a scary game.

Haunted House - Magnavox Oddessey (Source: gameboy3800)
Haunted House – Magnavox Oddessey (Source: gameboy3800)

At that time video games were either side-scrolling beat’em ups or perhaps chase based games where you avoided whatever creature came your way. Potentially the first indication of run and hide mechanics in video games but they can’t be considered overtly horrific. They were more so action games with gothic horror aesthetics. Some of the most prominent and successful games to look at for example are Castlevania and Ghosts n’ Goblins.

Fast forward to 1989.

The tide had begun to shift when it came to storytelling in digital media. One of the biggest indicators of this shift was an American game off the Commodore 64, Project Firestart. Inspired by Aliens, Project Firestart introduced a truly scary atmosphere in one of the first times in video game history. With limited weaponry, tense platforms, and jump scare like music stings, it laid the foundation for what was to come.

At the time, a majority of the video game market was coming out of Japan. One company, in particular, that came out of this boom was Capcom. Tokuro Fujiwara was a game director for Capcom and actually the same person who directed Ghosts’ n’ Goblins. So it’s no wonder why he was approached to direct a game adaptation of the Japanese horror film known as Sweet Home.

Sweet Home Poster
Sweet Home Poster

Kiyoshi Kurosawa, a major horror director in Japan, wrote and directed the original Sweet Home film. The film follows a TV crew who are making a documentary about an infamous fresco painter. When they start filming at his old home, they come under attack from the ghost of the painter’s wife.

Fujiwara was tasked to create a loose version of Kurosawa’s film. Taking inspiration from the story and the physical film set, Kurosawa looked overproduction and assisted in the direction of the game. The game adaptation was released alongside the film in 1989 and was positively favored in Japan. It never saw an official US release due to its strong and disturbing imagery.

The game was designed as an RPG, with five playable characters. Each character featured a special item that was essential to complete the game. The items included a camera, lighter, medical kit, lock pick, and vacuum cleaner. Some of your main enemies included zombies and ghosts but the game primarily focused on solving puzzles located around the mansion. Notes throughout the game were also utilized to tell the overarching story. One thing that elevated Sweet Home was the threat of in-game death. If too many of your characters died, there was no reviving them, which meant you were stuck and unable to complete the game. It was one of the first of its kind to threaten real permanence.

Nearly 3 years later, in 1993, Tokuro Fujiwara already wanted to remake his adaptation of Sweet Home. He proposed the idea to his understudy Shinji Mikami who was infamously terrified of the horror genre. This sensitivity to terror made Mikami the perfect candidate to guide the new project. This new version of Sweet Home would focus on the atmosphere and do technically more than what could be done on earlier consoles.

Many elements would be carried over from the original game, like loading screens, notes hidden around the mansion, puzzles, and zombies. The game would take inspiration from American horror films. For example, the mansion would be inspired by The Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and the in-game zombies would be more akin to George Romero’s. As for video game influences, 1992’s Alone in the Dark would inspire developers to utilize fixed camera angles which ended up creating an even more tense atmosphere. The in-game fixed camera allowed the designers to create detailed settings that were pre-rendered, which also saved tons of memory that could be allocated to other parts of the game. The detail of the mansion was unlike anything ever seen previously in video games.

Nearing the end of production, Capcom had made an entirely new series that entitled it to a new name. In Japan, it was aptly named Biohazard but due to copyright hurdles in America, the series would forever be known as Resident Evil.

Resident Evil Cover Art
Resident Evil Cover Art

This new game’s story would tell that of an elite task force known as S.T.A.R.S., as they investigate the outskirts of Raccoon City following the disappearance of their team members. They soon become trapped in a mansion infested with zombies and other monsters. Having to select one of the two playable characters at the start of the game, you must explore the mansion to uncover its secrets.

Resident Evil became a top seller in not only the US but as well as the UK. In the video game magazine known as Next Generation, one reviewer said it…

“manages to be as genuinely scary as a good horror film – no small achievement. There are a lot of things that work around games being this frightening … In this case, however, the fine character work, creepy and well-executed sound effects, and just the right music in just the right places all have a subtle, cumulative effect …”

I believe this is what made the legacy of Resident Evil. It wasn’t made to just be fun but also absolutely frightening. The fixed camera angles leave you terrified as to what’s coming next, the details of the empty mansion are nothing short of portentous, while the creatures feel like a true threat rather than just another enemy.

My first experience of Resident Evil was on the GameCube which featured the updated version of the game. So I never experienced some of the laughable dialogue. But what I did get to experience was the blood-curdling anticipation of the first zombie. And even looking back at the original PS1 version, its unequivocal terror still rings true.

Resident Evil did away with the brightly colored cartoon villains and opted-in for something entirely more treacherous. Its implementation of explorative storytelling and atmosphere provided immersive gameplay that had never been seen before and because of that gameplay, it inspired games like Dino Crisis, Parasite Eve, Chaos Break, Silent Hill, and more. The change in perspective gave people the opportunity to not only watch horror films but play one. More than ever before you were now put in the shoes of your favorite final girl, and you got to truly experience that fear first hand.

As the franchise evolved so did its scares. With characters like Mr. X and Nemesis being introduced in Resident Evil 2 and 3. Players were now being actively hunted by these larger than life monstrosities and sometimes without any indication of when they would pop up. This chase style of gameplay was inspired by the Clocktower series which was also a major proponent of the survival horror genre in video games. This run and hide mentality would again become an essential mechanic and would be replicated for years to come.

Resident Evil 4 would continue this legacy of evolution and introduce the over the shoulder perspective to third-person games. Of course, the strength of the franchise could not last forever. It would begin to focus on action rather than its horror-inspired roots but would eventually course correct with the introduction of Resident Evil 7 and even strike a balance of action and scares with the Resident Evil 3 remake. 

As technology developed for digital media, so did its storytelling. Video games offered a new medium with fewer limitations than film and what made it even more special was the personal experience of individuals to the playable story. Many horror games like Project Firestart can be called survival horror, but the inventiveness of Resident Evil is what made modern survival horror games thrive.

A focus on imminent death, captivating atmosphere, the sinister score, and the slow burn of a world bigger than yourself, unraveling before your very eyes are not only what made Resident Evil what it is but what it inspires other video games to be.

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