Family Matters: How Humans Became the Real Horrors of ‘Resident Evil 7’
We speak to the game’s producer and director about how a less-is-more approach makes for a more relatable and scarier experience.
"I think the scariest thing in the world is other people."
In just one line, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard producer Masachika Kawata has explained why his new game leaves behind so many of the monstrous mutations and giant bugs of previous entries in Capcom's survival horror series. Underneath the fantasy trappings that have been a franchise staple since that first zombie slowly turned and stared right through you, there's always been a human element to the antagonism—Umbrella wasn't founded by a foul fiend of the undead variety, after all. But here, more than ever, the real horror awaiting the player is decidedly, yet differently, human.
You'll have seen them in the trailers, on the posters, in so much of the promotional imagery: This game is all about the Bakers. The family that owns that house—or rather, the estate—that the player-controlled Ethan Winters finds himself searching from creepy, creaking attic to stinking, flooded basement, ostensibly in pursuit of his missing (presumed dead) wife, is the infected lifeblood of this first-person experience.
They're not all that they appear to be, and that's made clear within the game's first hour. But to first look at them, to listen to them speak to one another around a grotesque dining table, to see their lives spread out and interwoven across a series of rooms, hallways and outhouses, is to recognize the workings of a typical family.
Rummage around their home and it's all there: the agreements and the arguments; the hobbies and the hang-ups; the unique neuroses and the utterly mind-numbing ordinariness of an everyday existence. (VHS, in 2017, though, really?) And naturally, there's a little of the makers' own familial experiences in the mix.
"When I go home, my mother is always forcing me to eat so much food," laughs the game's director, Kōshi Nakanishi. "Of course, she doesn't go as far as what we see in the game, but the idea of the mother being this person, offering you this food on a spoon, 'Go on, it's good,' that sort of thing, that comes from my life. So does having a father at the table who insists on order."
Nakanishi actually played the Baker father, Jack, in pre-visualization videos the Japanese team made prior to bringing in both American actors, as befitting the game's Louisiana setting. The team also brought on an American narrative designer, Richard Pearsey—the first time the studio's done so for a Resident Evil title.
"We have this history of cheesy dialogue from 20 years ago—your Jill sandwich, stuff like that," says Nakanishi. "These have become tropes that I think everyone enjoys, and they're certainly fun, but previous games haven't had the best-written dialogue in the world. We wanted to make sure Western gamers accepted the believability of our more-realistic scenario, and hiring Richard meant the dialogue got polished in a way that didn't sound like it was just being translated, from the original Japanese script. He brought a layer of believability to the setting."
The Bakers might quickly prove quite an unreal family unit, but their outward appearance, matched with the dilapidated aesthetic of their rural home (aka The Dulvey Haunted House, as explained in the game's pre-release Beginning Hour demo), stirs thoughts of so many B-movie slasher flicks of yore, not to mention real-world accounts of kidnappings with horrific consequences. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre had some very real inspiration in the shape of Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, and Resident Evil 7's creators have looked to our own history, as well as fiction spun from it, to shape their newest terrors.
"The fear we can portray in the shadows of things we recognize from normal life can be so much more impactful than fantasy monsters." — Kōshi Nakanishi
"Ultimately it's this mother, father and son, this very believable set-up," Nakanishi says. "We wanted to show a dark side to what's supposed to be a loving environment. A home is supposed to feel safe. But here, things are twisted on their heads: the home is terrifying, and the family is horrifying. The fear we can portray in the shadows of things we recognize from normal life can be so much more impactful than fantasy monsters."
"Knowing that something like this could happen to you, however unlikely, it makes the player feel these scares more personally," adds Kawata. "That kind of feasibility, the idea that this could happen in the real world to an extent, or has echoes of things you've read about in the newspapers, kidnappings or mutilations, is so important. This game isn't just about supernatural scares, happening on a different level of acceptability to the player."
Which isn't to say there aren't other, more supernatural nasties lurking in those shadows. Resident Evil 7 features the "molded," gloopy black humanoids that are all teeth and claws, slow of speed but capable of overwhelming the forever-under-powered Ethan in tight spots.
"Initially, we were going to go through the game with just the Baker family as the antagonists," Nakanishi explains. "But we realized they represent a long-term cycle when it comes to player satisfaction. You'll meet one of them, and they'll almost kill you, and you'll eventually beat them, hopefully. But that can't happen all the time. The player needs shorter-term cycles, too.
"So, the molded are there to be met, to be shot, and to be beaten. Beating them makes you feel like you're progressing, getting stronger and on top of the situation. They give you that smaller sense of achievement, which drives you on and gives you the desire, the momentum, to keep going."
Related, on Waypoint: 'Resident Evil 7 Is the Game Horror Fans Have Been Waiting For
That feasibility doesn't just come undone, to a very video game-y extent, with the molded, but also with a number of somewhat-series-standard abstract puzzles and creative ways of unlocking doors.
"We originally planned to go with realistic puzzles," says the director, "but they were too boring. This is a video game, so it needs to have video game elements. So, we went back to the classic Resident Evil puzzles that the guys who came before us at Capcom put in place.
They're such an enduring motif of the series that anytime we thought about taking things more seriously, and making our items more realistic, we always came back to the classic Resi style."
What's not back this time is the explosive, action-orientated feel of Resident Evil 4, 5 and 6. The seventh numbered game is set within the same universe, and at least one clue linking back to Umbrella was easily discoverable in Beginning Hour, with several more scattered across 7. But the new characters, from the Bakers to Ethan, are featured so as to add an uncertainty to proceedings that'd been lost across so many iterations starring the same cast.
"Those old series characters, they're so established that you know they'll probably make it through," Nakanishi says. "But in the first game, you had no idea if they'd escape the mansion alive. It had a real 'nobody is safe' feeling, and we needed to use new characters for this game to make the player feel that again. There's no way for established series fans to predict what's going to happen next in this installment."
Nevertheless, for all of its keys-with-dead-things-on-them, missing cranks and silhouette-opened cracks in the walls—because, obviously, the only way to open a secret passage is with shadow puppetry—this is the most intimate, most pressing-on-the-chest-suffocating, most can't-look-away-but-fuck-me-that's-gross Resident Evil I have probably ever played. And I was there for the first game, back in 1996.
"I don't think that games are the best medium for horror. You lose that horror movie quality of watching and thinking: don't go down there, or through that door." — Masachika Kawata
I can remember exactly where I first saw it: Alex Humby's house, on the way back from an excursion into the nearest town with a record store to buy The Future Sound of London's Dead Cities at (deluxe-edition, get me) CD. Ever since, whenever I listen to that album (this song in particular), I'm right back in the Spencer Mansion, dreading what's behind the next door-opening animation. That first encounter is forever burned into my memory.
Which means, I think, that I'm fairly well positioned to confirm that Resident Evil 7 does, as advertised, reconnect the series with its roots—with, as Nakanishi puts it, "its original identity, as a scary, survival horror game". Few guns, sparse ammo: this is largely a case of fortitude over firepower, (very video game-y) logic over letting rip with both barrels.
Also: there are loads of doors in it, each potentially hiding some new menace to deal with. I like it, a lot, and it's a terrific showcase of how video gaming can be such an amazing medium for horror experiences.
"But, actually, I don't think that games are the best medium for horror," says Kawata, immediately presenting a different opinion to his colleague, who tells me that "being inside a gaming horror experience is something you can't get anywhere else". (And Nakanishi is quite the fan of visiting supposedly haunted locations in the real world.)
"Because you get to choose what to do next in a game, you lose that horror movie quality of watching and thinking: don't go down there, or through that door," the producer continues. "When you're watching, it's out of your control. You're waiting to see what will happen next. And I actually think that films' linearity can bring something to horror that games cannot achieve."
Nevertheless, for all of the expected "inventory Tetris," double-backing exploration and obtuse obstacle overcoming, this grimy, tense, atmospherically heavy and recognizably this world Resident Evil remains one of the most powerful survival horror games I've had the pleasure of.
What it lacks in the perhaps purer chills of uncontrollable experiences, it makes up for in immersion, and in its discomforting distortion of the everyday. Just as turning a light off in a room can make it come alive with unease, mundane objects appearing frightfully distorted by darkness, so this game turns the universally understandable dynamic of a human family inside out. Until all you can do is hack away at it in the hope that it finally stops coming for you.
Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is out now.