In Friday's Penny Arcade news post, Tycho challenged the coalescing conventional wisdom about Resident Evil 5:
...I'm still trying to figure out how the game isn't scary. I keep reading that it isn't, and everyone seems to agree with this thesis, but no-one ever says why. It's true that the game relies less on what you might call "pavlovian" horror - it doesn't ring the expected bells. There is no haunted house, for example. There is a marked lack of jack-o-lanterns, and black cats are rare. When I run out of ammunition and five men are trying to kill me - one of whom has no head but rather a lashing, six foot trunk of slick vermin, I know that I personally find that unsettling.
I posited a couple of reasons why it isn't scary in my review for the Phoenix, which is coming up later this week. But it's worth going into in a bit more detail, because Tycho's right: people are agreeing that the game isn't frightening, without really saying why. Then again, horror, like comedy, loses much of its impact when you have to explain it. That's never stopped me before. I think there are a few reasons why this game isn't scary.
First, it's light out. I appreciate Capcom's attempt to try something new here. There may be no reason why horror couldn't work in the daytime. Still, I remember reading long ago about how the daylight was going to be incorporated into the gameplay. The contrast between brightly lit outdoor areas and shaded indoor areas would cause Chris to lose his eyesight, temporarily. I even seem to recall that spending too much time in the sunlight might cause Chris to start hallucinating. That all sounds awesome. None of it happens in the final game.
Instead, all that happens is that nothing seems to be lurking around corners anymore. Everything is right there in front of you. The essence of horror is what you don't see -- it's about your imagination filling in the blanks. Being swarmed by bloodthirsty foes in Resident Evil 5 may be exciting or tense, but if that's horror, then we have to start calling every game that gets your heart pumping a horror game. It simply isn't so. There's another quality we're looking for here.
Another problem is that, writhing bug parts aside, the enemies in Resident Evil 5 now appear so human that they've climbed out of the uncanny valley. Zombies are creepy because they're human, only not. They possess a lifeless, alien quality that provokes an instinctive revulsion. But the enemies in RE5 just seem like a bunch of angry dudes. Again, this is a decent setup for an action game -- but it's not scary.
As for the writhing things that tend to pop out of the villagers' heads, they sure are icky. But in Resident Evil 4, they were surprising. We already didn't understand why the villagers were attacking us, and then we really didn't know what the hell these things were that were popping out of them. In RE5, we enter the game with this knowledge. Therefore it's not surprising, and worse still, we understand what's happening and why. That cuts horror off at the knees.
There's one factor more than any other that makes Resident Evil 5 less scary than many of its predecessors. It's having a partner. That changes the entire calculus. In other Resident Evil games, back to the first one, you may have had allies in the game world, but you spent most of your time cut off from any hope of assistance. In the new one, you've got somebody at your side the whole time. She bails you out of tough spots, and can even revive you when you're about to die. Once again, this is pretty neat for an action game. But it changes everything about a horror game.
When I played Resident Evil 4, I had this sense that if Leon died out there, nobody would ever know what happened to him. That was one of the scariest things I could imagine. Playing Resident Evil 5, I feel just the opposite: that everything's going to be all right. What could be less scary than that?