Dark hallways, bloody murder, cockroaches, and creeps. Resident Evil 7's new demo Beginning Hour is eager to return the horror franchise back to something subtler and terrifying. It is slow. It is quiet. And yeah, it's also pretty dang scary!
How does it all work? What are the design tricks at play? In this video, I'll take a look at the demo to see exactly how Resident Evil 7: Beginning Hour constructs its haunted house and freaky family!
In the lead up to E3, there were rumours that Resident Evil 7 would be shown and that it would return the series to its horror roots. Hearing that, I expected something like this...or this. To my surprise, I got something that seemed far more comparable to Hideo Kojima's P.T. And while Resident Evil 7: Beginning Hour might have learned a few lessons from the ill fated Silent Hills demo, the more I played, the more I saw that Resident Evil 7 actually was channeling the tone and mood of the old games. It was simply doing it in a different way.
Let's talk about one of the things that makes Resident Evil scary. The camera. Older Resident Evil games used prerendered background that deliberately and carefully composed your view of the action. Using these backgrounds, it was easy to hide enemies behind corner for jump scares or call attention to important environmental objects. In the original Resident Evil, this camera design was combined with two other things: tanks controls and tight corridors. Tank controls made it difficult to react to new threats by limiting mobility and the enclosed spaces of Spencer Mansion ensured the player would have difficulty avoiding foes.
For me, this is was made Resident Evil truly scary. It wasn't the jump scares, although those dogs are still terrifying. It was the fact that I felt fragile. I didn't feel in control. I felt compromised. This is what later titles in the series abandoned in favour of a more reactive, pulse pounding type of fear. In those games, areas were open but there were more enemies. The threat of an encroaching horde was terrifying but it wasn't the same. So, how does, Resident Evil 7 head back to the original feeling? It uses a first person perspective.
A first person view does one thing really great for horror. It severely limits what you can and can't see. In tight spaces, you can only really see what is in front of you. Beginning Hour uses this to great effect. Because the game takes place in a very limited and enclosed space, the first person view creates a highly claustrophobic feeling. Better, it recaptures that fear of not knowing what is being a corner. When we, as players, lack information, we tend to feel less comfortable. A first person view capitalises on this by being very deliberate in what we can or can't see.
Here's an example: in the demo, we briefly take the role of a cameraman for a haunted house show. When we enter the house, our attention is drawn by our talkative host, it ensures that we keep our camera centered on him long enough for the producer to exit our sight and disappear. By the time he's gone around the corner, the game has already despawned that character and moved him to a new location. It simulates that idea of someone going missing instantly and because our view is so limited, it's very easy to do.
In fact, the demo is very fond of implying action outside of our view. If you head upstairs, you can encounter some mannequins facing a wall but if you turn and place them out of your field of vision, those dummies turn to face you. Move around the corner and turn back, a new dummy has appeared. Now, the dummies aren't actually turning or moving. Models are being switched or added to the world. But because all of this happens out of view, the implication of movement is enough. Beginning Hour uses this a lot in composing its scares. For instance, when heading into the basement to find your companion, you have to climb a ladder. While you're on this ladder, the game prevents you from looking down or to the side. Which means that when you get to the bottom and turn around, the designers can be sure that most players are going to see exactly what they plan. In this case, your partner is Blair Witching against the wall. It's manipulative but it shows that the designers understand the fundamental strengths of the first person view.
Additionally, like the original game, Beginning Hour stresses moving through spaces multiple times. This allows the game to make slight alterations to the environment. On one pass through the hallway, this lamp is fine. But when you head back, it begins to flicker. Because Beginning Hour asks that you navigate and then re-navigate space, it add these little affectations to make the game world seem a little bit wrong.
The demo actually relies on this a bit too much. While moments like the restricted movement on the ladder show an command of the first person view, we end up with something that's scary but only once. Because the experience is curated so heavily, one playthrough gives you everything and you really begin to see the artifice when you repeat things. That moment when your partner disappears around the corner? The game doesn't actually let you follow him. It adds an invisible wall. Beginning Hour has strong fundamentals but only manages its tone through a highly controlled experience.
Beginning Hour manages to achieve a type of horror but it doesn't last. It's sort of like a theme park ride. You're caught on a track and while you can break off the rails if you try, the game very quickly finds a way to pull you back in.In some ways, I'm not sure if Beginning Hours designers gleaned the right lessons from That game was very deliberate as well, using the funelling nature of the house halls and the first person perspective to set up very deliberately composed moments.
Yet, P.T. and even the original Resident Evil games had just enough random factors to make things truly dreadful. In Resident Evil, it came down to things like ammo count or whether or not you burned a zombies body to prevent them from coming back as a Crimson Head. In P.T. there was the random possibility of ghost attacks. That lack of control is so terrifying that I didn't even manage to record P.T. for longer than ten minutes. But Beginning Hour is so tightly organised and managed that while it manages to achieve the tone of the original games, I don't quite know if it achieves the same level of dread.
What does the future hold for Resident Evil? It's hard to say. Developers have stated that Beginning Hour isn't representative of the final product. In some ways, that's a relief. It means RE7 might find the final touches needed to be genuinely scary. In other ways, it could be a disappointment if the designers give up on the strong mood and tone the demo established. At the very least, I think it will be a welcome change of pace from RE5 and 6. The demo shows promise. There's strong design to be found. With any luck, the father of the horror genre will show us why we got so scared in the first place.