My love for survival horror games began with the first Resident Evil. As a kid I hated everything related to horror, but, after Resident Evil, I came to love and even seek out horror games.
I didn’t know anything about the game and had no idea what to expect. The opening, with its live-action footage, reminded me of the horror films of my childhood. When the zombies started showing up in the mansion, I was terrified. The long halls, the strange puzzles, and the tight rooms made the whole place feel claustrophobic. There were so few bullets and ink ribbons that I had to run from a majority of my battles, sparingly using the typewriter to save when I could. Zombies began haunting my dreams.
Horror documentary The American Nightmare argues that horror’s allure comes from providing a form of tribulation, even catharsis, for dealing with the terrors of real life. Seeing a horror film and coming through it together becomes a rite of passage for audience members, a common trauma they endure to help them bond with those around them. But a horror film is still a passive experience in comparison to a game.
I began Resident Evil playing as Jill Valentine. But because I was in control, I felt like it was me stuck inside that mansion. I was chilled when I saw the first zombie snacking on fellow S.T.A.R.S. officer Kenneth Sullivan. When the ghoul came to attack me, then actually grabbed me, I shook my controller in a frenetic panic. I killed it and ran away. Little did I know the horror was just beginning.
A Famicom game called Sweet Home was the original inspiration for Resident Evil. It’s one of the scariest games developed, and even as pixelated 8-bit horror it oozed with a supernatural terror that worsened in the face of a terrible crime.
While in Sweet Home the four members of your party were ordinary people, Resident Evil had you playing as Racoon City Police’s elite special forces. But they were just as helpless as the ordinary civilians, and most of your compatriots get killed in brutal ways.
Resident Evil made you feel vulnerable and alone, a feeling intensified by these traditionally powerful characters being so weak against the zombie horde (I still don’t know why every time your teammate, Barry, shows up, he inexplicably wants to split up with you instead of fighting together). When Jill begins to suspect someone in their group has betrayed them, the sense of isolation becomes almost unbearable. I was certain every resident in the mansion was evil.
The only peaceful moments you get are in the storage rooms. They provide a break from all the tension, as well soothing music to calm the nerves. Every time you venture out of them, there’s a harrowing sense that every turn could result in death. Bosses like the giant snake and the mutated Plant 42 are anticlimactic because they can’t compare to the constant anxiety of wandering the mansion.
Despite how scared I was, the thing that kept me going was the game’s emphasis on exploration and puzzle-solving. Uncovering all the strange new rooms and the mysteries of the mansion is part of what makes the game so memorable, whether it’s the Ceiling Trap room or the Armor Room with the knight puzzle. There’s also notes that reveal the fate of many of the researchers and hint at a darker secret buried in the mansion’s underbelly. The Keeper’s Diary stuck with me as I read his creepy transition from a human describing a work poker game to a blood thirsty zombie in his last journal entry: “May 19, 1998 Fever gone but itchy. Hungry and eat doggy food. Itchy Itchy Scott came. Ugly face so killed him. Tasty. 4. Itchy. Tasty.”
You eventually discover that it was a corporation called Umbrella developing bioweapons that created the zombies, aided by your S.T.A.R.S. leader, Albert Wesker. As soon as I understood what was really going on, most of my fear dissipated. There was a scientific reason for the monsters. As scary as they were, I understood the biological reason for their existence. I overcame my fear at that moment and, by eventually stopping Umbrella and Wesker, conquered it.
Most horror games rely on a shared fear, whether of zombies, ghosts, or daily existence. But fear is such a subjective emotion that there are some games that scare the crap out of players that barely register on others’ fear gauges. I generally prefer games that keep the supernatural elements unexplained, like Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and Fatal Frame 2, focusing solely on the personal mystery of their main characters. But games like Resident Evil and Dead Space introduce science fiction to support the horrors and are pretty damn scary as well. The common bond they share is the journey that necessitates players confront whatever sins plague them and on a deeper level, these games force us to face the things that scare us.
Resident Evil has excelled when it gets back to its roots and has been less successful when it tries to move itself into action blockbuster territory. The game I consider to be the best overall in the series, Resident Evil 4, wasn’t very scary. But there were moments in the PS3 port of the imperfect Resident Evil: Revelations when it reminded me of the old mansion, only on a boat, and had me quaking with fear. Resident Evil 2 took the formula of the first one and brilliantly expanded it to a whole city. Resident Evil 0 actually tried to take the gameplay mechanics back to Sweet Home, and I consider it the most underrated game in the series. Code Veronica probably has the most convoluted story in the series with more plot twists than the rest of the series combined. But nothing emulates the sense of horror I felt when I first entered the mansion in the original Resident Evil, nor the sense of relief when I uncovered the truth behind the zombies. It’s a feeling I actively seek out, making me a permanent resident of horror games.