There will be, more likely than not, a new Resident Evil game unveiled at E3 this year. Some details have leaked, and among them is the phrase “this entry returns the series to its horror roots.” That’s a thing we hear get thrown around a lot these days, especially in regards to the Resident Evil franchise, since every entry since RE4 has been sold on a similar pitch.
How many of those titles returned the series to these “horror roots”? Well, none of them, because that’s not how the evolution of entertainment happens, and that makes it a stupid thing to say. So what makes it such an effective selling point?
What are “horror roots”? Basically, the phrase ventures to refer to a period of time that was kind of a golden age for survival horror video games, which began with the original Playstation console. Games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill invented this complicated style of play where the protagonists weren’t like typical video game heroes: they were weak, powerless but human figures, going up against unbeatable odds and rarely given more than the bare minimum of weapons and ammunition to achieve that task. To that end, these were the first games where running away became a necessary response to some enemy combat, and that instilled a lot of fear in the player.
Progressively, you can watch in a series like Resident Evil how each addition to the series moves further away from this survival horror combat, until the player-character becomes overpowered an military hero armed with rocket launchers and more types of ammo and power-ups than you can shake a fist at. This is because survival horror is, on the most basic level, a deeply un-pleasurable experience. It is designed to be the opposite of fun.
To that end, the number of gamers willing to pay $60 a hit for anti-entertainment will always be a limited market, so the number of publishers in 2016 willing to sink millions of dollars into a game with a very niche audience is, well, existent. Because, weirdly, the players of video games expect them to be fun.
I still adore a good survival horror experience, but the “horror roots” of so many games are based in a ‘90s approach to gaming, and games have come a long way in the last 20 years, so why would they truly step-back in any real way? For example, a lot of what makes Resident Evil and Silent Hill such unpleasant spooky experiences is based in the limitations of the game itself. Your character can usually only carry a few items based on a limited inventory, so balancing ammunition against weapons and health items taking planning and a good deal of “fuck I hope this works” that might blow up in your face an hour later. Do game publishers expect gamers raised on Call of Duty to experience the terrifying tedium of resource management in 2016? Probably not.
Another great limitation to point toward in “horror roots” were the limitations of camera angles. Some of the first zombies you encounter in Resident Evil’s mansion are in the same room as you, but you cannot see them until they lumber into frame. You can hear their terrifying grunts and maybe you’ll fire off a few lucky shots down the hallway, but inability to control camera angles or even see what your character narratively should be capable of viewing, is such a great horror limitation trope that a modern gaming audience would have no patience for.
So we get things like Umbrella Corps, the new Rainbow Six style cooperative team shooter that takes familiar locations from the Resident Evil franchise and makes them way more fun and silly and explode-y.
I keep pointing to Resident Evil because it’s such an easy timeline to prove my thoughts against, but even modern game franchises have similar problems. Dead Space from 2008 was a great rebirth to the survival-horror genre, but by the third entry in 2013 the series was already promising to “return to its horror roots” while only moving further away from them into big gun cooperative shooter action. The new Gears of War entry set for release later this year has promised to return “the series roots in survival horror” but even that feels like a stretch since the series started as a group of hardened military grunts with guns that contain built-in chainsaws. Sure, the first entry was a lot more dreary, but no one is actually going to make a new game that’s darker tonally than the last most successful entry.
We’re making everything more shiny and fun in a deeply competitive entertainment medium. That’s just how this works.
Nothing is ever going to get harder, darker, or more complex unless we start again with new IPs or a publisher is willing to take MAJOR risks. So stop promising a return to a style of game that a) you’re not really taking cues from and b) is misremembered in the nostalgia-brains of your target audience. No one really wants a new Resident Evil where your protagonist retreads over the same locations repeatedly while solving indecipherable key puzzles and running from the most basic enemy type in the game because they made a mistake and carried more plants than bullets. If you really want to light our excitement on fire, promise to fuck with us in some clever new way.