'Resident Evil 7' succeeds where recent series entries have failed: by exercising restraint.
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
I've been thinking about Resident Evil 7 nonstop since release, so I thought that this week I would ask Waypoint's Patrick Klepek to have a spooky (and spoiler-y) conversation with me about the game and what we want from its future.
Resident Evil 7 has been out for something like a week now. We both played it through for review purposes (yours, mine), and that means I've been sitting on these feelings about this game for days and days.
Look, I'll admit it: This game is sticking with me more than I thought it would. I had a really hard time playing through it generally (I had to get someone to come over and play with me), but I didn't think that I'd be thinking so much about the game's content as much as I have been. A lot has been said about the formal changes to the Resident Evil games with this iteration's move to a limited, spooky first-person perspective, but I keep thinking about the game's content.
In RE7, we are presented with this Texas Chainsaw Massacre family of people who just can't die. Cut them apart, set them on fire, blow them to bits; they just keep coming back to get you. There are other monsters, too, and they're these weird humanoids made of mold. They're people, I guess, whose bodies grew but didn't grow in the same way that the family's did.
Weirdly, the haunting feeling I have about the game, that lingering creepiness, is about that lack of death. It's about things just continuing on, never ceasing, and not in the "Friday the 13th, Jason never dies" way. It's an existential terror right out out Jean-Paul Sartre or Samuel Beckett. It's a feeling that things will never change, that things will stay exactly the way they are right now, with all the hellscape feelings that that entails. So I guess I feel like all these enemies are a metaphor, but without the oppressiveness of a bad one.
Does that make sense? Did Resident Evil 7 stick with you at all?
If you were to explain the totality of Resident Evil 7's story to someone, including what happens in the last third, they'd roll their eyes at you—it's absurd. But what Resident Evil 7 gets right, just like the original game, is everything before that, when you're trying to open the scary mystery box.
It's funny. On paper, I agree with you, but I found it hard to spend much time thinking about the circumstances I'd found myself in because of the way I played the game. As purely an experiment, I'd been looking forward to playing Resident Evil 7, from start to finish, in virtual reality. With some exceptions—I wanted to show my wife a few minutes from the game—I had a headset on the entire time, and it was one of the most intense experiences I've had with a game. My focus turned to survival, distracting my ability to process the events unfolding around me.
Ever had that feeling where you're walking down a hall, and for a brief moment, you consider what it'd be like if someone was following you? You know that no one is following you, but for whatever reason, the thought passed your mind—and now you can't get out of your head? But rather than turning around, you start walking (or running), to find a place of relative safety? That's how I felt all the time in Resident Evil 7, buoyed by my ability (or inability, as it were) to actually shift my head around in a PlayStation VR headset and see what might be stalking me.
It feels like a physical manifestation of the oppressiveness you're talking about, no? A huge reason this is even possible is thanks to how unexpectedly reserved the game is in explaining anything. You are, more or less, dropped into an awful situation and forced to deal with it.
For example, every time that damn grandmother would show up in another spot, I would mutter under my breath, expect her to turn into some awful spaghetti monster with teeth, and feel sweat start dripping down my neck. I didn't know what she was, why she kept moving, or when the game would spring her—whatever she was—on me. Nothing else creeped me out as much as that wheelchair-bound woman, and she barely did anything! That's incredible, and whether we're talking about the lore or jump scares or wheelchair woman, Resident Evil 7 exercises restraint.
I gotta level with you: I think that grandmother might be the scariest character in a video game. For readers who don't remember (or just don't know), the family that lives in the house that the game takes place in is made up of a father, a mother, a son, and a grandmother. The first three are all active characters who become big, important boss or setpiece characters later in the game. I kept wondering when the grandmother was going to jump out of her chair, scream in my face, and then turn into some kind of flesh monster that ate the skin off my bones. And, brilliantly, that never happens.
I think that restraint is something that this game has going for it over some of its contemporaries. Like, the Resident Evil series has spent the last decade screaming at the top of its lungs that it is the coolest, most bombastic series, and then RE7 comes along to whisper some creepy stuff right in your ear. That grandmother is a key part of that whispering strategy.
I mean, she teleports around as much as any of the other characters. She's in the wrong place at the wrong time, and walking around a corner just to see her there facing you (or worse, not facing you) just sent this maximal chill up my spine. If those weird setpieces were a way of those other Resident Evil games to tell you what they were about, then I think that grandmother is telling us what Resident Evil 7 is about. It's old, it's patient, and it can wait there in that creepy hallway forever.
I know that you're a franchise veteran for these games, so is there something you want to see carried over from those previous games into the new and improved (read: scarified) Resident Evil universe? Or do you want new, creepy, restrained grandmothers the whole way?
Not to spend our whole time talking about a virtual grandmother, Cameron, but an advantage of playing in VR is the ability to lean forward and get a better look at everything in the world. When she appeared for the third or fourth time, I finally mustered the courage to touch faces with this creepy lady. In VR, the game loses enough fidelity that you can't make out the details of her face from a distance. A few drinks in, I decided to move uncomfortably close, at which point I noticed her eyes are fucking open and she's watching you. I flinched, screamed, and ran away.
I've stuck with Resident Evil because I'm a sucker for longform narrative; I'm always curious how they'll find some way to justify a sequel. If you tell me a horror franchise is on its eighth installment, you've guaranteed I'm going to give it a look! But more seriously, Resident Evil has successfully reinvented itself over and over, just as the series is at the brink. Right as Resident Evil was running out of steam, it dovetailed into action with Resident Evil 4, and when Resident Evil 6 suggested a series at the end of its rope, Resident Evil 7 swerved in a different direction.
I'm worried another game will fall victim to one of the worst traits of sequelitis: upping the ante. I'll be writing about this for Waypoint at some point, but the very notion of "upping the ante" is precisely what kills the final hours of this game, when the game ditches what worked—an unnerving family of mutated killers, the off-kilter familiarity of a house in decay—for screen-filling monstrosities sporting a dozen tentacles and obvious "weak points" to aim your shotgun towards.
Conveniently, this comes at the precise moment Resident Evil 7 decides it's time for a lore dump, a presented-on-platter explanation for everything that's happened over the course of the game and who's responsible. But I didn't need or want that. I would have been fine with grabbing Mia by the hand, escaping on a boat, and never truly understanding the Baker family's ailments. My brain (and YouTube theorists) would fill in the gaps, not a diary entry.
What do I want from a sequel? Surprise. I don't need to know more about the Baker family, what prompted Umbrella to show up, or if there are more girls like Eveline. Both Resident Evil and Resident Evil 7 were most effective when it twisted the familiar. I'll take more of that, please.
Ironically enough, and appropriate for this column, I don't want anything else. I want the mystery bumper at the end of the game to be unresolved. I want the Baker family, Evelyn, and the origins of a toxic ship to be covered over and never explained. I think there's something pure and wonderful about a franchise that throws off the mantle of being "the next one."
There's something true to horror as a genre and as an aesthetic concept when there's a real chance that there is no payoff. That the monstrous void of the inhuman just straight-up eats our beloved franchise and produces nothing of value afterward. So if I have to settle, I want more of the feeling of this game and less of its specific content. But if I don't have to settle, I think I would prefer if I just got nothing.