The general belief in video games is that to create good horror the player must feel weak. They must feel like one enemy encounter could kill them, making every blind corner and winding corridor a nerve-wracking experience. Resident Evil 4 managed to turn that belief on it's head in a way striking a balance between making the player character feel badass, but still creating an oppressive and genuinely scary game. As we prepare for the release of the new title in the series, let's look at how Resident Evil 4 achieved this.
With the original titles in the Resident Evil and Silent Hill franchises, the defining titles in the survival-horror genre, the emphasis was on avoiding fights wherever possible or even running away as enemies all took a number of bullets to kill and resources were scarce. Even saving the game was limited by in-game items. The controls were also incredibly clunky, even for PS1 standards, meaning that the camera was as much of a threat to player as the zombies themselves. The 'tank' controls in these games never make you feel in full control of the character. They leave a disconnect between the player's physical input and what the character does on screen. These elements combined are an effective way of scaring or panicking the player. Having finite resources means the player is more attentive of the game-world as every stray herb could be the difference between life and death, and every room could hold a secret item that is used to progress later in the game. The controls mean you cannot rely on quick reactions alone to get you out of trouble.
But is this actually fun...
It isn't necessary for games to just be fun per se, but I would certainly argue it is fairly important trait on a personal level if I am going revisit the game and not just give up. Because of the scarce rations and tools and your disposal, the natural instinct when you see an enemy is not kill it but to run away. "Running away" is simply not engaging gameplay mechanic and it is one which has plagued horror games in recent years. Amnesia, Outlast and Alien: Isolation all centre-around you running away and not being able to fight the monsters that terrorise you. These games do make you feel scared, walking around their interlocking worlds with trepidation knowing at any moment you could be ambush and not be able fight back. But despite playing all of these games I haven't completed any of them. I find it hard to look forward to jumping into a game just to run around trying to find an item while being chased by invincible monsters. As a horror film fan, where survival-horror games are lacking, is that they forget that they can be fun as well as scary.
So that brings me back to Resident Evil 4. RE4 managed to strike the balance of making you feel afraid and powerful at the same time. The core to this idea is the stop-and-shoot mechanic. While seeming clunky at first, the fact that you stand still while shooting is a masterstroke in making the player feel in control but one mistake away from death. The guns and ammo Leon Kennedy has in his arsenal should mean that, unless you're very wasteful with bullets, you should have enough to dispatch the enemies thrown at you. The question is more how you use what you are given and how you navigate your surroundings. You need to have confidence whenever you go in for a shot, finding the right vantage point and being quick and accurate with your with trigger finger. The real threat to the player is being overwhelmed. If they pick the wrong place or time to start spreading lead, the villagers can be inescapable meaning you might have to frantically leg-it as the hordes approach surround you. This gives players both the panic-inducing “running-away” mechanic and the satisfying shooting mechanic in one go, rather than the two being disparate.
Two early set-pieces establish this to the player. First, is the ambush in the village. Not only is this an amazing setting with great environmental storytelling, with the church and sacrificial burning body, but it also throws the player in at the deep end and forces them to use their surroundings to survive. Despite it being outdoors, the maze of structures and the smog-stricken sky create an incredibly claustrophobic atmosphere. Your job is simply to survive and dispatch as many foes as possible. The shooting is fun on mechanical and visceral level with weight being afforded to your shots, with the staggering animation on the monsters being obvious to signify your shots are being effective. The way the area is laid out means you never feel safe as there are so many directions that they can come from. They are slightly brighter than zombies of the previous games and will work as a team to trap you in. Plus you don't have the luxury of looking 360 degrees when in shooting-mode to fully assess all your angles. This opening is where the game really begins and establishes how you shoot, how you need to navigate the space and the mob-mentality of the Los Illuminados all at once.
This is mentality is solidified in the player's mind during a later section where the player must retrieve parts of a 'Hexagonal Emblem' scattered throughout a complex with a myriad of stairs, ladders and bridges to unlock a door and to progress. Due to the tight and narrow paths that you can walk on not only is it essential to keep moving, but it's also vital to use the different heights of the area to your advantage. There is no clear space for you to simply pitch up and shoot all the enemies away. You have to keep moving around utilising the little space you have around you. They swarm on you from all around as before but with the added excitement of exploding bombs and even less space to get your shot away. If you don't take them out with a couple of shots they will be on top of you and you will be history.
RE4 also mixed up the gameplay with specific set-pieces which conveyed slightly different emotions in the player to prevent it from become a slog. The boss fights provided injections of pure action. None more notable than the battle with the sea monster Del Lago while on board a speedboat. This is counter-balanced by the section where you take control of Ashley with the game completely striping you of your weapons. This allows for the tension experienced in the original RE titles to shine through with its heavy emphasis on puzzles and avoiding fights. The Regenerators that appear late in game also leave quite the impression. With their horrible panting noises and bullet-sapping bodies also feel like throwbacks as it probably makes more sense to just run away. It uses these creatures spareingly which makes the impact more meaningful when they do appear. These changes spice up the variety of the game and offer range of horror tropes without ever having to resort to lazy jump-scares. The game slowly drops new challenges and different types of horror throughout its run-though whilst still remaining a cohesive whole. This is very different to spiritual-successor of sorts The Evil Within, which felt like it was trying to cover too many bases and resulted in a rather unfocused second-half. Pacing is absolutely essential in horror, both in games and film. RE4 nails it.
Resident Evil 4 manages to navigate the tricky divide between action and horror, being a game which manages to scare and oppress while still remaining fun. The series went off tracks in the following instalments when they switched out the stop-and-shoot mechanic for a more standard system which took away the tension. I hope more games both AAA and indie learn from how RE4 managed to straddle the divide and create horror that is fun to play as well a psychological torment using simple gameplay tricks.