In many ways, it’s incredible that Resident Evil 7 turned out the way it did. It was obvious that the series needed a drastic change after the staggeringly negative reaction to Resident Evil 6, yet the path its creators chose — ditching the series’ latter-day action-heavy structure for a slower, first-person frightfest — was by no means the only obvious way forward. Capcom could have easily gone in any of a million, equally wrong directions, but Resident Evil 7 somehow turned out nearly perfect.
Resident Evil 7 wears its cinematic horror influences on its ragged, bloody sleeves, from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre in its homicidal hillbillies to the Evil Dead of the game’s churning, melting, slopping body horror. But all horror games crib from horror films. Where Resident Evil 7 really stands out is in what it borrows from recent horror games.
To find its new direction, Resident Evil 7’s creators looked to the contemporary survival horror genre, which had since been defined by games that passed Resident Evil by a decade ago.
Playing the teaser
First and foremost, Resident Evil 7 owes much to P.T., the beloved “playable teaser” available briefly on PlayStation 4 in 2014. P.T. was a proof-of-tone demo for Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima and film auteur Guillermo del Toro’s collaboration on Silent Hills, which was subsequently canceled. With that, P.T. was permanently pulled from the PSN store.
Resident Evil 7 owes everything to P.T.
These events – combined with the fact that P.T. was incredibly scary – has made P.T. into something of a legend. All horror games released since have fallen under its eerily swaying shadow. And despite RE7 producer Masachika Kawata claiming they’d decided on elements shared with P.T., like the first-person perspective, long before the developers played the teaser, the similarities are uncanny.
Kawata has confirmed in interviews that he “really loved [P.T.],” and Resident Evil 7 and P.T. share too much to deny that he and his team were influenced by the teaser. They drew their aesthetic and atmosphere from the same poisoned well: A tapestry of sights and sounds that weave together to form an omnipresent sense of dread. P.T.’s repeating hallways could have easily been another wing of RE7’s dilapidated bayou estate, and they would have fit in perfectly.
The resemblance goes beyond atmosphere. Although it was light on typical genre mechanics, P.T. accomplished much with very little. RE 7’s best moments do the same — all the dinky handguns in Louisiana won’t save you from the game’s most terrifying enemies.
P.T. may be gone, and Silent Hills canceled, but Resident Evil 7 does an amazing job building on what the Playable Teaser only hinted at.
The mechanics of impotence
Then there’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Frictional Games’ 2010 masterpiece redefined survival horror — or, maybe, brought it back to its roots. It stripped away every genre trope that series like Resident Evil had established over the years, from inventory micro-management, to the cheeseball characters and storylines. What remained was a minimalistic, psychologically terrifying game that forced players face-to-face with monstrous foes they couldn’t hope to fight. Cowering in dark corners was the only way to survive, and a creeping feeling of helplessness returned as the survival horror genre’s defining characteristic.
Horror games like 2013’s Outlast, and 2014’s Alien: Isolation, chose their plays from the same book, to great effect. And Resident Evil 7 owes just as much to Amnesia as those do.
The most harrowing moments come when you’re cowering in shadow.
You spend the game’s entire first half using every sense available to avoid the prowling Baker family members at all costs. Like Resident Evil 3’s Nemesis, mama and papa Baker are nigh-unstoppable — but unlike the scripted Nemesis encounters, Jack and Marguerite are on permanent patrol in their respective areas of the estate, making them an omnipresent and utterly overwhelming threat similar to Amnesia’s monsters.
Amnesia didn’t invent the mechanics of video game impotence, de-powerment where most games seek to em-power. Resident Evil itself — the original, of course — doled out ammo and save ribbons at a trickle, and made you feel like what little you had could (and frequently did) dry up at any second. There were few feelings worse than jogging lazily through an area you’d conquered hours earlier, ammo depleted from some recent horror, just to have a Crimson Head take a swipe at you from an unseen corner.
RE7 recreates that loop with delicious, nostalgic, terrifying success. But there’s more to it now than mere scarcity of supplies. Resident Evil 7’s most truly harrowing moments come when you’re cowering in a shadow or sprinting limply in terror down a hallway, an unkillable psycho redneck hot on your trail. And that’s a loop that wouldn’t exist without Amnesia.
As a longtime Resident Evil fan, I hadn’t let myself hope that Resident Evil 7 would be as scary and exciting as it turned out to be.
The developers borrowed from and built on everything that’s come before, refining old and new survival horror tropes while adding twists and flavors of their own. And somehow, incredibly, it still feels like Resident Evil.
It was weirdly humble of them. This is the series that more or less invented survival horror, and it took looking to the games that eclipsed it to return Resident Evil to nail-biting glory.
So many things could have gone wrong here — would have gone wrong had the developers not been so willing to acknowledge and internalize what their competitors have gotten right over the years, even as each new Resident Evil game got further and further from the point.
Maybe that’s what it took. Just as the fear of being eaten by a hillbilly zombie can provide unprecedented clarity of thought, maybe the threat of this 20-year franchise finally collapsing let its developers finally see what they had to do to get it right.