Horror comes home with Resident Evil VII
A love letter to one of gaming’s finest single sets, Resident Evil VII: The Beginning Hour is a horror masterpiece worth discussing
It’s difficult to breathe. The air is thick, unnatural. It’s as if years of neglect had forced the atmosphere itself to surrender to the will of the family mansion. The dust of time had left its mark and everything inside had been left untouched; except for what the maggots had got. Yet, in the hours that we spent here alone – clawing at the walls for an escape, any escape – it always felt like we were closing more doors than we had ever opened. Eventually the weight of it all – fuelled by a growing obsession with the unseen – becomes suffocating.
And so you come to loathe the darkness, for you know it could conceal anything. Standing paralysed with fear under a flickering light becomes a fleeting comfort. For if you surround yourself with decay for long enough, old comforts of the homestead begin to take on unnatural forms, the first sign that you are caught in the throes of a panic attack; anxiety onset by claustrophobia. As something shifts in the shadows, the darkness envelops you. You can feel it coil around your throat, squeezing. Softly at first and then tighter. Tighter until you’re choking – tears coursing down your cheeks. You can’t fight something that you cannot see and so it swallows you. The best scares should always leave a scar.
Anything but is a mere parlour trick, immediately affecting, but just as quickly forgotten. Capcom wants its scares to be permanent, and so the Beginning Hour carves its marks underneath the skin. Resident Evil VII plays with something far more insidious than physical violence; you don’t have to be a psychiatrist to know that emotional trauma can be just as damaging to the psyche as any weapon crafted by humanity.
The Beginning Hour is a window into the world of Resident Evil VII. It employs a first-person point of view to fully immerse you in an enclosed environment, in a dilapidated house of horrors. To immerse is to submerge, and Resident Evil does so in style. By severely limiting what you can and cannot see, you rarely have an opportunity to settle. The pressure of not knowing what’s behind you (or even a few feet in front of you, as is often the case here) is a powerful tool in the business of fear in an interactive space. The less information the player has – the less space they have to move – the more claustrophobic they become. That’s where the mind games begin.
Taking control of the character and the camera, it tricks the player into feeling as if they are trapped inside of a body, shifting from the vantage point of the viewer to victim in an instant. It’s the unique interactive element of a videogame that makes this concept work so effectively. Because you too are trapped, in a seat on the other side of the screen, forced to experience the events in tandem with little control over the inevitable outcome. That is where the horror lives and breathes.
You are complicit in the action, nauseated by the reaction and still compelled to continue by an instinctual desire to escape. But there is no escape to be found in this minimalistic horror masterpiece.
Capcom isn’t the first developer to reenergise a franchise with a POV shift, though it has certainly delivered a playable teaser here that finds success in its simplicity – not in spite of it. But therein lies its genius. It presents a location that is familiar to all, but ever so slightly out of focus. It isn’t expressly strange or otherworldly, and at times it can even feel still and sedated. You’ll grow to hate that about it – the warped comfort. Though once it’s ripped away you’ll quickly wish for its return. It’s in this constant struggle between familiarity and finality that Resident Evil builds such a strong foundation for the future.
The teaser never explicitly states its purpose either; it’s an experiment in non-linear storytelling for Capcom as much as it is anything else. The level doesn’t expressly tell you a tale; it invites you to find the pieces of its puzzle and assemble it together yourself. You build a narrative in your head, filling in the blanks as best you can by leaning on knowledge of Seventies horror tropes and the Resident Evil series itself.
In turn you then tell your version of the tale to another person, and they counter with their own. Eventually the picture becomes clearer and muddier all at the same time. Because of this you return home over and over again, searching for a missing piece of the puzzle that may not even exist. This is how three rooms, two hallways and a staircase were transformed into a global phenomenon overnight.
It’s difficult to see how the driving factors of this short-form horror fiction will translate into a longer piece, but Capcom does deploy one impressive twist on conventional narrative design that shows promise. On your search through the house you’ll come across a hidden VHS tape that you’re able to play through, tracking the movements of a ghost hunting crew through the same location some time before. This is where the inherent problems of expanding contained games such as P.T. and Beginning Hour are exorcised, it allows the developer to create a story within a story – an anthology-like experience that is layered onto the main narrative.
That VHS is a doorway into a different, connected story; your actions in the past actually influencing the location in ways that never seemed possible in the present. New context is given to the locale, new items unlocked and new rooms revealed – and believe us, following in the footsteps of the deceased is pretty terrifying. Drawing on found footage imagery may not be overtly original, but it sure is effective; if anything, it adds to the charm.
Resident Evil has spent the better part of a decade searching for an identity it can call its own. It feels like it has found it within this teaser, a new direction that’s not only designed to appease franchise fans and horror aficionados, but to present a new possibility for the future of interactive horror. It’s much needed, because we have become largely detached from the innate emotions that drive us – desensitised to fear, sadness and surprise.
You can see this reflected in everything, even in the way that we critically consume and define media. For instance, it’s common to see the word ‘claustrophobic’ thrown around whilst discussing horror in videogames – its true meaning lost. But if the onset of claustrophobia is indeed triggered by two key symptoms, a fear of restriction and a fear of suffocation, then there is no better way to frame Resident Evil VII and its debut in the Beginning Hour.
Celebrate more of the masters of horror with our Videogame Nasties special issue, available now.