Monday, March 23, 2009

Why Resident Evil 5 isn't scary

Above: I don't want to point fingers, but...

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?


Tom Armitage said...

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.

This feels like a nail that's been hit on the head. Survival horror seems, as a genre, to have stemmed from technical limitation; the (not forgivable but still present) clumsy navigation of early Resident Evil's, the poor draw-distance of Silent Hill being cleverly turned into dense fog; the lurching animation and indistinct textures of zombies in RE2 adding to the unpleasantness, rather than taking away.

There have been solid iterations subsequently - Siren, Fatal Frame, etc - but is the push towards greater realism, further into the Uncanny Valley, making slower-paced survival horror harder? The action-games do well out of shooting realistic dudes, but I feel like the limitations that make great horror are being abandoned.

Action-oriented as it is, I guess Dead Space made a good fist at the dark, and the unknown, and the genuinely horrific, whilst wrapping it up in current-gen beauty.

My argument isn't well formed, but I think there's a nugget there. I might have to come back to it - but that paragraph I cite rang very true.

Prof. Ruffleberg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Prof. Ruffleberg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Prof. Ruffleberg said...

That'll teach me to proofread my thoughts before posting...

Tom's got an interesting point about horror and limitations... I ran into this recently with my first attempts to play System Shock 2. At first I tried out a 3d character model replacement pack, but decided (after a couple of years' hiatus) to just play with the original textures and models, and I was surprised by just how much more disturbing the older, more pixelated creature design was. Perhaps that can be chalked up to good design (because I personally find the RE remake zombies remarkably unsettling), but when you mentioned the creative use of hardware limitations, that "less is more", the SS 2 example came immediately to mind.

Maybe good horror design relies not just on technical limitations, but on designing around those limitations in creative ways... take away the limitations, and (in a general sense) innovation becomes a more conscious choice, one that big developers are often averse to take.

Julian said...

There's definitely an "oh fuck" sort of tension to be had in not only RE5, but pinned down with nowhere to move in Call of Duty, or flubbing a key active reload in Gears of War. I would concede that it's tense and scary to be out of ammo with a bunch of angry Nazis shooting at you. But it's not HORROR. It's not terrifying. If Tycho really thought about it earnestly, I'm sure he would be willing to accept that. You're not running scared, you just get scared. It's a crucial difference.

It seems to me that you can mix graphical prowess with the type of sight and control limitations that existed in the early days of survival horror. Make a lighting system that makes the shadows come alive dynamically, letting the player's own mind play tricks on him. Make a shifting volumetric fog system that realistically obscures the player's sight. You can find ways to make the old limitations work realistically, or even find new ways to limit the player. Condemned 2's protagonist was a drunk, if you didn't have any liquor in you, you couldn't shoot a gun worth a damn. That's a way to limit the player's combat ability that's both interesting and endemic to the game world in a believable way.

There are still technical frontiers where there are opportunities to scare players too. Namely sound. The sound design alone was enough to get some good scares in Dead Space, and some atmospheric scrabbling behind you can keep you jumpy.

Filipe Salgado said...

I think there are different types of fear at play here. The kind I felt in System Shock 2 or Silent Hill is the dread of things to come. Through great sound design I was alerted that danger was -somewhere-. It played on my fear of the unknown, something you pointed out in your review. I haven't played RE5, but if I was going around a town, full of nooks and crannies, and I started to hear zombies, but have no idea when, or where they're coming from, well, that might scare me.

Mitch Krpata said...

Actually, one of the few things I thought was scary in Resident Evil 5 was very near the beginning of the game, when I heard a bloodcurdling scream around the corner. I wish there had been more of that.

Benjamin said...

The "scary" issue in RE5 is definitely a slick and subjective one. Case in point, I'm currently playing the game same-room co-op with a buddy of mine. Personally I never felt particularly scared, and chalked it up to the light banter between me and my friend and that I felt more like I was competing with him than actually struggling for survival in any way. The surprise came after our taking down our first chainsaw dude when he turned to me and said 'Jeez that was scary".

Not sure what exactly I'm trying to nail down there other than the idea that every factor can be the same, other than the person playing, and the results are wildly different. Personally I don't know that games scare me much anymore, and RE4 certainly stopped being scary in any visceral, non-challenge related way near the end for me. I guess just the idea that I feel very comfortable with the formula and the tropes of a current RE, and the fact that it never does deviate from those, that really keeps it from scaring me. Even if you love horror movies, something tells me if you go in to see some Friday the 13th faithful reenactment and that's exactly what you get, the scares are much dulled.

Jebus said...

The thing that has always scared me the most about horror games is not knowing when the next attack is coming. Dead Space had me on edge the entire game because of this. There were several ten to fifteen minute stretches of just simple puzzle solving and what not, but at any time something could attack. Eventually I started to catch onto the rhythm of the game and could sort of predict which areas I was safe in, but it was never certain. The only times I could really relax were on the encounters I failed, on the next playthrough I knew would know what was coming and even if I failed again it would all be expected.

I haven't played anything of RE5 except the demo yet, but I presume it is a little like RE4 in that it never really lets up on its onslaught. The only times I remember being freaked out by RE4 were my first encounter with the invisible bugs in that watery prison sewer room thing and those really dark rooms with the sniveling regenerators where all you could hear was their unsettling sound. Both times it was the unexpected that was scary.

To contrast, I've been playing Left4Dead recently and despite all the darkness and all the zombies it has never been remotely scary. Part of that could be the co-op, as Mitch touched on, but I think the main thing is the constant zombie threat. There is no time to be scared, just the instinct to survive. I think that is the tension Julian is talking about.

Nels Anderson said...

This is endemic to all horror games, but the "death as failure state" creates tension until it actually happens. Being afraid of dying creates tension, but actually dying obviates by forcing repetition on the player. If you already know what's going to happen (because it just killed you, that's about the furthest from horror and atmosphere a game can get. I've got an article coming up about this on the new IGDA Game Design SIG soon, I'll link it when it's up.

RE4 started out quite solid, but this repetitiveness (among other things) took it apart pretty quickly. Shame that RE5 can't even muster that in the beginning.

Sparky said...

Apropos of Nels' comment, I am reminded of a study that showed tense players were actually relieved by dying in a video game. I covered this about a year ago; it's an interesting little paper.

Julian said...

Dead Space wasn't that scary to me either. In that game combat is downright FUN. To some extent, I looked forward to fighting things in Dead Space (except for those damn little swarming bugs). When I heard stuff scrabbling around I wasn't thinking "Oh shit I'm gonna die," I was thinking "Hell yeah, I'm going to come out of this fight stronger than I went into it." I played it on the standard difficulty though, so I'm sure it would have been scarier on a higher difficulty.

I think it would have benefited from fewer enemies that were stronger. This would enhance the tension, and make each enemy scarier and tougher, without drastically altering the overall difficulty of the game.

Anonymous said...

What I feel is the problem with the "horror" element of resident evil 5 is that the makers of this version were trying to expand on the 4th version, which was designed to be more of a faster paced, less ammunition conserving fighting scenario.

With alot of sequel based games out there if the programmers do not create new elements to the story or play, the game will lose luter in subsequent sequels. I think with the resident evil series the opposite is true--people liked it for the slower more tense original gameplay and have found the newer idea less ideal.

I believe the impetus for the change is because the makers were hardlined to keep the umbrella story going (kinda like the dawn of the dead movie series) in which the zombies start of dumb and clumsy (which i found was the best part--- they were clumsy moaning things that would die (the first time) only top get up later when your not looking, to attack you again when you least expect it being stronger and faster ((unless you set them on fire)---CLASSIC!!!)))and then the zombies "evolutionize" into smarter, speaking individuals who can use machine guns?!?!?! (i thought it would be cool if they used guns but coudnt aim... but that didnt happen)

I think if the makers stuck to the dead moaning stupid zombies (or at least always include them here or there) then that scary and familiar feeling of the resident evil series would still be alive.

What is a plus are the mini-bosses. Since the 4th and 5th series, the mini bosses have been more scary looking, sounding and fighting, (i.e. the chainsaw & axe wielding guy) but the 5th so far (im at chapter 6) are good but less original as the 4th. The best i found in the 4th were those grey creatures who would continously regenerate unless you sniped their plaques inside their bodies with the infrared scope (they were slow & clumsy, hissed out a errie breath, totally dangerous and wouldnt die unless you figured it out (in which even when you do its not that easy)

All in all i am a little disappointed. When i got to a conveyer belt in chapter 5 of RE5 and saw things that looked like the classic zombies i was like "yes" this is like the old one, but alas, not what i thought. And comming towards the end every battle area is the size of a football stadium, with dudes shooting me from sinper distances, where is the horror in that?? (i felt like i was in Rainbow Six Vegas!!)

I think now it would be very hard for capcom to be able to reverse back to the old style of resident evil without scrapping the storyline or returning to the old way without sounding contradictory or redundant. Oh well, if they come out with a RE6 im buying it

Melinda said...

I think that's because I like so much the horror, I've tried to find out something really scaring so it has been hard.