"Fear you cannot
Such is the motto that's been assigned to Resident
Evil 5, the latest in Capcom's B-rate survival
horror series. Or is it B-rate action shooter? These
days it's hard to tell. Certainly, the scare seems to
have gone out of the long-running franchise, with the
last truly frightening Resident Evil game being Code
Veronica (Resident Evil 0 had its scares, but
it also had a drag queen controlling leeches with
Then again, the entire survival horror genre seems to be
undergoing a change. The question is whether this is an
evolution or a death of the genre altogether. With Fatal
Frame going to the Wii, and Silent Hill
running dry on ideas, Resident Evil was kind of
my last bastion of hope for a modern horror game, but it
seems itís not to be. I miss the days of jumping in my
chair. I miss the days of zombie dogs bursting through
windows. I miss the days of Jill sandwiches. Well, maybe
not that, so much.
I think what we need here is a return to the basics. If
Capcom wants to claim its latest zombie rave is survival
horror, then there's a few things that are going to have
to show in the full game that I haven't seen much
evidence for in the demo.
Atmosphere is the first thing. I mean, if your game is
set in the wacky land of make-believe and chocolate
ruled over by King Ryan the Bunny, you're going to have
trouble scaring your audience. Most developers seem to
know this and we have plenty of haunted houses, villages
of the damned and ghost ships to plant our shaking
booties on. But that in itself isn't scary. Fear comes
from our senses picking up on subtle clues within a
frightening environment. Of these senses, two can
currently be affected in the medium of videogames: sight
and sound. Fear comes from hearing footsteps coming
towards us; from seeing something peer quickly around
the corner before darting back into the dark hole from
whence it came.
less we can see, the more we're afraid..."
The atmosphere has to be
visceral. These days we have more power to graphically
represent our nightmares than ever before. Still, while
the ability to render skulls and blood is better than
ever, there's a difference between staring at a scary
picture and being inside a scary picture. Many
modern horror games feature realistically coloured and
textured levels, but few demonstrate actual good design.
Good level design in the horror genre starts and ends
with cramped spaces. Cramped spaces make us feel tense.
Wide open spaces don't. It's to do with visibility. When
you can see something coming from a long way away, you
have time to react. As a general rule, horror should
always follow this basic rule: the less we can see, the
more we're afraid.
I'm sure some of you are racking your brains for
counter-examples. Some popular ones:
"Silent Hill has plenty of open spaces! For
goodness' sake, Silent Hill 2's main environment
was one huge open street!"
Ah, but do you not recall that this street was encased
in perpetual fog? You couldn't see one hand's breadth in
front of your face, let alone the things creeping
towards you out of it. You could hear them (there's that
use of sound) but you couldn't see them.
"Well, what about Resident Evil 4? A lot of
that takes place in big rooms and the open fields of the
It didn't always work, did it? Resident Evil 4
definitely let you see too much. There were areas that
you could clear by using the rifle before even entering.
When it did work, it was because the open spaces weren't
really open. You might be outside, or in a large
room, but those areas were crammed full of stuff to
block your vision and impair your movement. Now, stop
bringing up Resident Evil 4. I'm not even sure if
that's a horror game.
"Okay, but how do you explain Dead Space,
with its huge 'darkness of space' environments?"
There aren't a lot of them. Also, Dead Space
takes the interesting route of designing its open spaces
with twists that make you feel cramped, such as removing
oxygen and/or gravity. With the former, you can't linger
long enough to get comfortable. With the latter, enemies
can come at you from all directions, meaning that you
have to constantly look around. This creates that same
feeling of being penned in.
dripping blood from the claws of a ghoul..."
Let's get back to
atmosphere. I've talked about the visual aspect, but
sound is part of it too. A game needs more than a spooky
soundtrack. A wide range of sound effects is required.
And these sound effects should have fun with the
player's mind. Envision the player coming cautiously
around a corner only to discover the hissing they've
been hearing is actually a whiny fan. Just then, the
dripping sound that they were sure was water coming out
of the ventilation pipes turns out to be blood dripping
from the claws of the ghoul right behind them. An
environment has to be alive: it's got to have a
heartbeat. And you have to set that heartbeat to the
psychological ticking of the player.
Another thing that adds to atmosphere is a good story
and characters. I don't usually hold out hope for these
in a genre known for terrible voice acting, midget
Napoleons, and plot lines lifted from the worst slasher
flicks in history. Even so, there's no denying the
effect of a good titular villain. System Shock's
SHODAN is the most popular example of this, but perhaps
a more striking (and bizarre) example can be seen in
Valve's puzzle-shooter Portal. Here, a comically
austere environment is made oddly terrifying by the
slowly morphing character of GLaDOS, the computer system
which tauntingly helps you towards your reward of what
she asserts is "really good cake." While
SHODAN is a similarly terrifying AI, what makes GLaDOS
such an interesting example is that she operates within
a minimalistic environment. There's none of the tension
or quick scares of System Shock's detailed
environment to scare yourself with. There's just GLaDOS
and her calm glee in psychologically torturing the
players by forcing them to incinerate their companion
cube. It just goes to show that the right combination of
psychosis and script can turn any environment into an
Atmosphere is only the foundation for fear, though. Once
that's built, developers need to move on to gameplay.
Having an enemy surprise you by jumping out behind a
corner is a quick thrill that lasts about five seconds
and quickly becomes predictable. To make fear linger,
the player has to be kept in a constant state of
From personal experience I can say that nothing is more
upsetting than seeing a monster fall from the ceiling
and whipping out my gun only to hear a resounding click.
And upset me it should. That is the point of horror.
Nonetheless, the equipment issue is a difficult one.
Obviously, if you punish players for not having perfect
aim every time they encounter a demon, the game is going
to go from scary to frustrating. But give them too much
leeway and they'll laugh in the face of your most
horrifying creation... right before blasting it with a
their endless supply of shotgun shells.
Nothing creates calm in a gamer like a fully loaded
at a time, like civilised gang-bangers..."
Traditionally in survival
horror the gamer is made to feel the pinch of ammo
while, in reality, the developer knows they have more
than enough to pass the next section. This is a tough
angle to work, though, and it usually leads to the
"fully loaded" scenario.
The truth is, ammo
limitation isn't nearly as important as ability
limitation. It doesn't matter how many shells your
shotgun has if the enemies are competent enough to dodge
or resilient enough to take blasts to the face and still
Which brings me back to Resident Evil 5. Capcom
is boasting that its new deformed child has the
scariest, toughest monsters of any survival horror yet.
I'm sceptical. What I faced in Resident Evil 5's
demo didnít seem far off from what I'd faced in Resident
Evil 4. Enemies still like to pause stupidly
whenever I aim at them. Enemies still fail to utilise
swarm tactics or, rather, they swarm you, but then
attack one at a time, like civilised gang-bangers. Head
shots I can understand causing some staggering, but knee
shots damn near cripple the enemies and open them up to
devastating melee combos. And to top it all off, you now
have a partner to help you mop up these critters and
save your ass in the unlikely event they do actually
manage to get a grip on you.
Many of us will remember the days of old, when a single
zombie got our blood racing. Why was this? It had
nothing to do with graphics (they weren't that good) or
the design of the enemies. Hell, the enemies werenít
even particularly dangerous. At least not in the face of
But see, that was the thing. Competence had left the
This is where the whole "crappy control"
syndrome comes from. I don't think anyone can deny that
games were more frightening when a simple task such as
turning around became an exercise requiring the use of
at least three thumbs. Granted, some characters had
excuses for this. Jill Valentine had spent so much time
becoming a green beret and the master of
unlocking (the master!) by the age of 20 that she
understandably had little time to devote to basic motor
But I digress.
The point is, game designers didn't have to worry so
much about that loaded Carbine you found in the bathroom
when aiming it was such a chore that gamers would rather
run away (not that running away was easy, either).
massive stretch of muscle and jaw..."
We shouldn't have to copy
the bad controls to keep the same tension, however. In
fact, we really should move past the bad control
syndrome. But we can take some lessons with us. What the
bad control syndrome drives home is my earlier point
that a game will be scary as long as the player doesn't
have abilities that live up to those of the enemy.
For instance, you don't need bad controls to limit your
gamer's ability to aim if they can empty an entire clip
into a zombie and have it still stagger towards them.
That's scary. If good graphics can show the gaping
bullet holes in its head and torso where you shot it,
that's even scarier. It's also a waste of ammo, which
affects gamers on a whole other level. Is it worth it to
fight? Now that you've wasted some ammo, how much more
will it take to fell it? Should you just run away? These
kind of strategic decisions can make a tense moment
tenser. This doesn't mean enemies can't react to
bullets. But they should always react with increased
aggression, not complacency. Think of the movie
'Aliens'. Those buggers were very killable, but every
shot brought forth a spray of acidic blood. The very act
of damaging them made them more dangerous, and thus more
If the whole "damage soaker" scenario doesn't
appeal, then developers can turn to mobility to enhance
their monsters. So the zombie is lurching at the player,
they've got a bead on it, and then suddenly the creature
leaps up on a wall and starts spidering its way towards
their face. That bead they had is lost to this
unexpected movement. Also, it makes enemies really
creepy, working on a psychological level to throw gamers
off in the heat of battle. A good example of this are
the Regenerators from Resident Evil 4, the one
truly scary enemy in that game. The way they shivered
and hobbled towards you, only to reach out in a massive
stretch of muscle and jaw to grab you was, to say the
Finally, when a monster does get you, its attack should
be very gruesome. Seeing a monster rip a chunk out of a
character's shoulder (and their life bar) is a good way
to encourage players to be afraid of your creations.
Monsters that hurt players for pittance by using stupid
attacks like swipes or, god help us, projectile vomit
deserve to be laughed at... and then put down.
Of course, a distinction has to be drawn between
struggle and Ninja Gaiden 3: The Ancient Ship of Doom.
You shouldn't be dying every time you encounter an
enemy. But every time you encounter an enemy, there
should be a distinct possibility of death. The genre is
called "survival horror", after all, and to
survive should never mean to thrive.
Fatal Frame is a good example of these things in
action. Ghosts can turn invisible, go through walls and
doors, and kill you in a surprisingly short number of
attacks. You, on the other hand, can take pictures.
Immediately the disparity in ability is driven home to
the player. Eventually they'll discover that, used
correctly, the camera is a powerful weapon and more than
enough to see them through the game, but winning a
battle will never be comfortable the way it would be if
they came equipped with a laser rifle.
cameras were a double-edged sword..."
Speaking of cameras, it's
about time we discussed that age-old enemy of the
survival horror gamer: the fixed camera.
This is a really tough one to come to terms with in the
modern age. Fixed camera angles were truly a double
edged sword. In many ways, they defined the old survival
horror genre, adding a cinematic view, increasing the
cramped feel, and really making gamers unsure of what
was around that next corner. They were also the source
of most of the shoddy control issues, in itself a
frightening limitation of the player's abilities which,
as described, made encounters with monsters all the more
Those days are gone. In today's gaming world, camera
views such as we saw in Resident Evil 2 or in Fatal
Frame simply wouldn't be accepted. But removing the
fixed camera doesn't have to remove the fear. Again it
comes down to limiting player abilities.
To this end, one thing I suggest developers stop
doing is giving the player all sorts of ways to affect
their enemy. Sure, it's cool when you can pop a zombie
in the knee cap and open them up for an uppercut, or
blow off its head in one shot if you aim at the bridge
of the nose. But players inevitably get good at these
abilities rather fast. Again, the point isn't that heads
shouldn't be gushy and explodable. But the ability to
pull off a headshot with ease should be greatly reduced.
Similarly, popping a zombie in a knee cap shouldn't
always trigger a stumble. Maybe it only works half the
time. Or, better yet, maybe the enemies start learning
your style and start dodging those shots.
For those of you now complaining about limiting the
player's options, remember that this isn't the
action genre. This is the survival horror genre. By its
very nature, the player should be limited. Thatís what
makes it scary.
I respect Capcom for having to insight to toss outdated
camera angles and control schemes into the wastebasket.
From what I've played of Resident Evil 5, it
controls well and is a lot of fun. But it is designed
with action in mind, not fear. I'm not entirely
convinced that action and survival horror can't go
together, but if they can, the proof isn't in Resident
Maybe it's because it's a dominating genre by nature
and, overall, developers these days are seeming to show
a reluctance to having their games dominate their
players. There seems to have been a shift more towards
the Dynasty Warriors mentality of "mow down
everything in your path with impunity." To this
end, developers are focusing on offering players more
ways to kill their enemies and less on limiting their
options for survival. Games like Devil May Cry
give players a veritable sandbox in which to create new
ways of dishing out pain. For the action genre, this is
a pretty great trend. But for the horror genre, it's
like an eviction notice. Not that I think mowing through
a hundred zombies isn't cool. But it isn't scary.
I appreciate Capcom's decision to mix things up in their
Resident Evil franchise, finding a way to
reinvent the series. But I do think fear got left
somewhere behind in the rush to appeal to the action
crowd. I can only hope that, come mid-March, the full
release of the game proves me wrong.
Until then, I'll be sleeping tight.
Jonathan Alisandyr is a
freelance games journalist based in the USA. He
primarily writes for Honest