How Resident Evil 4 Changed Horror Gaming

Ultimately, Resident Evil 4 was both an innovative and harmful entry in the survival horror genre.

The cynical mind is a patient one. A well-honed cynic knows that with enough time, good things will eventually come to an end. It’s why on even the brightest days they’ll say, “Don’t get too excited. It’s going to rain.”

It’s also why a small group of gamers didn’t share in on the festivities when Resident Evil 4 was released on January 11, 2005. While the rest of the world was busy celebrating the debut of what was considered by nearly everyone to be an instant classic, these gamers stood on the sidelines shaking their head at how this latest installment was a mockery. “It’s not even a true Resident Evil title,” they said. Or, as Eurogamer’s 2005 review of the game more elegantly put it, “We’re not entirely convinced though that the long-term adventurer will appreciate having the need for lateral thought replaced with action.” Those that doubted Resident Evil 4 insisted they didn’t want to rain on everyone else’s parade, but they also couldn’t help but point to those clouds on the horizon.

At the time, everyone else laughed. Resident Evil 4 wasn’t just a great game, it was a genuine revolution. Capcom’s desire to revitalize the Resident Evil franchise may have gone through several failed incarnations during development (one of which eventually became Devil May Cry), but the studio knew that the fourth Resident Evil title needed to destroy most of the conventions the series had created. 

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How did they intend to accomplish that? Well, as in most cases when one is trying to solve a particularly stubborn problem, they realized that they needed a change in perspective. Heavily influenced by how the fixed camera style and pre-rendered backgrounds of the Resident Evil series impacted the action in Onimusha 3, producer Shinji Mikami decided to experiment with a dynamic new camera system that would hover just behind and above the player’s shoulder during action sequences.

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It seems like such an irrelevant alteration, but it meant the world. For years, horror game developers had struggled to insert enjoyable action into their games without compromising fear. It’s why early survival horror titles made their combat so cumbersome. The idea was that if you can’t defend yourself easily, you’ll succumb to fear more quickly. This new viewpoint and the combat system designed to accompany it changed all that. Yes, you were able to fight your way through hordes of monsters using a variety of weapons, but you were not a living weapon. Resident Evil 4 sped the action up just enough to make you feel capable of taking care of yourself, but still kept things slow enough to ensure that you had to consider every shot.

This pace helped create arguably the most enjoyable to play horror title ever made, but there was one significant problem with this new style. Now that Capcom had removed the fixed cameras and pre-rendered graphics, they also removed a great deal of the franchise’s cinematic elements. How would Capcom dictate the scares now that they weren’t framing every shot? How would they recreate the sensation of being in a horror movie now that players had unprecedented levels of freedom?

The answers to those questions would dictate the next 10 years of video game design and fuel the fears of those who said Resident Evil 4 would kill horror gaming as we knew it.

Capcom’s desire to retain the film-like presentation qualities that helped put Resident Evil on the map without compromising Resident Evil 4’s new gameplay forced them to modify their old bag of tricks. They turned to the action genre for influences. Just as the highlight of action films tend to be highly choreographed sequences, the major moments of Resident Evil 4 play out in a similarly scripted fashion.

For instance, early on there is a moment that sees Leon Kennedy hold up in a cabin while villager’s assault his position. Previous games in the series would have had this key scene play out via a cutscene. Thanks to the newfound capabilities of the player, however, Capcom was able to design the scene in a way that allowed players to participate in the moment by kicking down siege ladders and making their escape. Everything is still designed to play out in a specific way, but you have a role to play in the script. 

Even the traditional cutscenes the game did utilize benefited from the use of quick time events. Not since Shenmue had a game experimented so heavily with the concept of these timed button presses incentivizing the player to keep the controller in their hand during crucial story moments. Resident Evil 4 pushed this tactic even further by inserting QTE moments during almost every one of the game’s boss fights. The appeal there was that Capcom was able to design hulking monsters that could be differentiated from the standard minion via the use of unique scripted scenes that gave each battle an identity. 

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At the time, this all seemed like gaming’s great compromise. In exchange for a more linear overall game design that largely replaced exploration and puzzle solving with a series of carefully orchestrated moments, Resident Evil 4 was able to provide organic cinematic sequences. No longer did a game’s film-like moments need to be merely watched. Now, the industry had been given a blueprint for how material typically reserved for cutscenes could be converted into gameplay.   

Make no mistake that Resident Evil 4 was a true innovator in that respect. The problem was that the game did such a great job of forever changing the way we look at cinematic gameplay that many other key developers in the industry never bothered to look back at what we left behind.

Failing to realize that the highly-successful Resident Evil 4‘s word wasn’t gospel, developers soon turned the game’s guided method of storytelling into hand holding. As cruel as it may sound, Resident Evil 4‘s controlled method of presentation eventually led to titles like The Order: 1886 and recent Call of Duty campaigns taking place in hallways disguised as video game levels. While Capcom’s masterpiece did a pretty admirable job of utilizing that style in a non-oppressive way, it broke ground on one of modern gaming’s crippling conventions. 

To be fair, it would be inaccurate to say that every horror game released after Resident Evil 4 followed its design innovations exactly. If anything, the shooter genre was much more influenced by the game’s camera and seamless presentation. Gears of War essentially re-sculpted the Resident Evil 4 mold, and even games like Uncharted can trace their formula back to that same design. You also can’t say that the horror genre didn’t benefit from Resident Evil 4’s innovations. Dead Space is one of the greatest horror games of all-time and it’s stylistically an elaborate sci-fi mod of Resident Evil 4.

At the same time, Resident Evil 4 stopped the evolution of AAA pure horror games in its tracks. In the years leading up to Resident Evil 4’s release, titles like Silent Hill 2, Fatal Frame, and Eternal Darkness had begun to explore a more methodical form of terror. They emphasized a more subtle brand of horror. These games weren’t above jump scares and the usual genre conventions, but their primary method of fright was a lingering sense of dread cultivated by environments that tormented your psychology. Their stories were often hinted at via implications best not dwelled upon.

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In the absence of a clear genre leader, games like these dared to push beyond the boundaries of the original Resident Evil‘s era in order to test the limits of horror gaming’s capabilities. The one thing they kept from the survival horror games that had come before was that same feeling of helplessness. Playing these games required you to submit yourself to them. Even their combat systems were presented as a purely defensive measure.

You could argue that’s why these games sometimes suffered from “dull” gameplay. They certainly didn’t offer the same brand of thrilling action that Resident Evil 4 provided. Still, it was remarkably shortsighted of certain AAA horror developers to throw the baby out with the bathwater and so willingly buy into the idea that active gameplay could not coexist with the revolutionary strides that had been made in the field of psychological video game horror. In the days that followed the release of Resident Evil 4, a line in the sand was drawn. Many major developers stood on one side pursuing the profits of Resident Evil 4’s lucrative new design. Quite a few secondary studios and indie developers were on the other end trying to put together the pieces of a far different pursuit. 

It’s a divide that is just now beginning to fade away. It lasted just long enough, however, to justify the concerns that Resident Evil 4 had done irreparable damage to horror and homogenized game design. The brunt of the game’s damage was reserved for the franchise itself. Resident Evil 5 and Resident Evil 6 tried to emulate the cinematic style of the fourth installment to their own demise.

What elements of horror and open design Resident Evil 4 was able to retain from the original games had been shelved in the sequels in favor of an even more controlled cinematic style. Subsequent franchise sequels and similar experiences treated horror as an afterthought that could be achieved through the cheapest means necessary. Those games were often more interested in providing set piece moments, which is why they ultimately failed as horror games in many cases. The consequences of Resident Evil 4‘s innovative game design ultimately seemed to proved the cynics right.

That’s one way to look at it, but it won’t make you very fun at parties. The truth is that a game like Resident Evil 4 always comes along and dictates the creative direction of the industry for better and worse due to its success. If it feels like this effect was particularly pronounced in this instance, perhaps that’s because the game shifted the popular horror genre in a direction that grew to barely resemble horror. Really, what it did was help pull the genre away from an identity crisis by proving it was strong enough to not have to conform itself to any one idea. You could even argue that many of today’s horror staples, like Amnesia, OutlastSOMA, and P.T., were fueled by a desire to make something radically different from the design philosophies Resident Evil 4 preached. 

It all worked out over time. Influenced in part by the innovations of the games that opposed what Resident Evil 4 started, Capcom’s Resident Evil 7 took the franchise back to its roots and ushered in a new era of psychological horror for the series. The clouds have parted and the light of a new day beckons.

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Or, as the cynic would say, “What ever happened to action horror games?” 

Matthew Byrd is a staff writer.

This article was first published on Oct. 28, 2016.