Resident Evil 7’s Haunted Homecoming

As Resident Evil 7 approaches, we look back on the series' true origins.

“There’s always a lighthouse. There’s always a man. There’s always a city.”

With this simple credo, Ken Levine and the BioShock development team defined their franchise. Whether the series ventured to sky above or sea below, fans would always be able to identify a BioShock game by looking for those three simple elements. A lighthouse, a man, a city.

At no point in the Resident Evil franchise did any character utter a similar statement. If someone had, they certainly would have saved the Resident Evil 7 development team a lot of grief.

The moment that Resident Evil 7 was revealed, you could hear the misgivings of franchise fans. “That’s not Resident Evil,” they declared with the absolute certainty expected of fans closed off to change. “That’s not my Resident Evil.”

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The source of their outrage is easy enough to identify. All we knew with certainty about Resident Evil 7 following its debut at E3 and the release of the game’s first demo was that the next Resident Evil was going to play out from a first-person perspective. Capcom left a lot of room in their marketing strategy for fans to fear the worst. Many suspected that Resident Evil 7 would not feature combat or zombies or Umbrella or any of the trademark gameplay elements of the series. 

Since then, we’ve learned that not all of that is necessarily true, but doubt still runs through the veins of some Resident Evil fans. They worry that Resident Evil 7 will sacrifice every series hallmark in the name of conforming to the conventions of a new generation of horror games. As one YouTube commenter so eloquently puts it, these fans looked at Resident Evil 7 and saw, “Resident Evil: Outlast of the Layers of the Amnesia: P.T.”

Pundits will tell you that Resident Evil 7 represents Capcom’s forfeiture of the franchise. It doesn’t. Resident Evil 7 represents Capcom’s best chance yet to bring the franchise back home.

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When Capcom tried to bring their Biohazard project to the United States in 1996, they realized that they would never be able to get away with the name in Western markets. There were too many properties that already had the name Biohazard locked down. Instead, the studio held an internal contest to determine what the name of the international version of Biohazard would be. “Resident Evil” ended up winning despite the fact that some within Capcom – including the person who realized Biohazard wouldn’t work, Director of Communications Chris Kramer – felt the name was weak.

“I voted against the name – I thought it was super-cheesy,” said Kramer in an interview with GamesRadar. “[I] can’t remember what I felt was a better alternative, probably something stupid about zombies.”

As trivial as it may sound, Kramer believes that the reason why the team chose “Resident Evil” is because it had the word “resident” in the title and the game took place in a mansion. Ironically, there is a more meaningful justification for the name, which most Western gamers weren’t even aware of at the time.

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As some of you may know, Resident Evil/Biohazard began its life as the spiritual successor to 1988’s Japanese-only horror game Sweet Home. In fact, the game was initially conceived as a simple remake of Sweet Home. It was supposed to feature the same inventory management, the same emphasis on puzzles, door loading screens, and mansion setting.

While Resident Evil did retain all of those qualities, nobody considers it to be a remake of Sweet Home. Somewhere along the way, designer Shinji Mikami was forced to alter his vision. In several interviews, Mikami has stated that he originally intended to turn Resident Evil into the game he wanted Sweet Home to originally be: a first-person survival adventure that emphasized psychological horror. The problem was that the technology of the time didn’t allow him to make that game for the Famicon. Sadly, the PlayStation also wasn’t quite capable of running such a game.

Instead, Mikami elected to adopt the fixed-camera system from 1992’s Alone in the Dark. This perspective allowed Mikami to retain the game’s technical and cinematic qualities, but in an interview with GameSpot, he admitted that it came at a price:

“The changed perspective had an effect on immersion,” said Mikami. “[It made] the player feel a bit more detached. It took a little bit of time to get my feelings in order and make the call to change it.”

It’s easy, then, to portray Resident Evil 7 as an opportunity for Capcom to do justice to Mikami’s original vision and make a first-person horror game that utilizes atmosphere over cheap scares; that those who praise Resident Evil’s roots worship at the altar of a false god. To a degree, some of that may be true. However, Resident Evil 7‘s incorporation of first-person isn’t the only way that the game is reconnecting with its roots.

Yes, Resident Evil does have roots, and I don’t mean a few design aspects that have remained stalwart throughout the series. After all, “There’s always a shotgun. There’s always a green herb. There’s always a jump scare” isn’t exactly the kind of motto that franchises are built on.

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No, Resident Evil’s real roots are in the haunted house genre. Sweet Home laid the foundation for a horror game that would be worthy of an entire genre, and Resident Evil built upon it the structure known as Spencer Mansion. Before Resident Evil was the premier name in horror gaming, it was just an intriguing-looking title that promised a new kind of cinematic horror experience. 

Resident Evil certainly rewarded its initial group of adopters. Once players moved past the opening live-action short, which stands as a testament to how far video game storytelling has progressed, they entered the mansion. And this haunted house greeted them with the echo of a gunshot, informing them that they were not alone. Remarkably, looking back so many years later, the sound of that gunshot feels somehow muted compared to the hollow stomps of the characters’ footsteps, the rhythmic ringing of a nearby clock, and the beating of the player’s own heart.

The general sense of unease players felt upon entering Spencer Mansion was converted to full-blown terror once they turned down a seemingly normal corner and were confronted with the game’s first zombie. The sight of this shambling nightmare, which was blissfully off-frame mere moments ago, confirmed their worst fears. They now knew that every turn could bring them face to face with a monster they were not prepared for. 

While Resident Evil certainly borrowed aspects of Sweet Home, these opening moments of Resident Evil prove that Shinji Mikami was right when he said that the Famicom wasn’t capable of allowing him to complete his vision. The audiovisual elements that gave Resident Evil its unmistakable haunted house atmosphere couldn’t have been done on any system that came before. This is what he intended to deliver.

Soon, Mikami’s idea of what horror gaming was capable of became an industry standard. That same vision also turned Resident Evil into an incredible success. Once that happened, everything was destined to change.  

People talk about Resident Evil 7 abandoning the conventions of the franchise and not being a true Resident Evil game, but the truth of the matter is that the series abandoned its haunted house origins years ago. Honestly, it abandoned it shortly after Resident Evil was released when Mikami and his team started to work on a sequel. Their intention was to turn Resident Evil 2 into the story’s finale. However, legend has it that Capcom producer Yoshiki Okamoto had other plans. He saw Resident Evil as a future franchise and felt that the sequel should expand upon the game’s world. As such, he brought in a new screenwriter to help craft this new world.

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Resident Evil 2 did a brilliant job of mainlining the original’s atmosphere of dread, but it also made it clear that the intimate nature of the original experience was gradually going to be replaced by a grand adventure. From its earliest years, Resident Evil was destined to escape the haunted house. However, in the process of expanding the scope of the Resident Evil series, Capcom slowly whittled away at the thrill that comes from stepping into a hostile environment and feeling like every turn could put you face to face with your doom. 

You can’t entirely fault Capcom for their approach. In fact, some of the best games in franchise stemmed from this new philosophy. The problem was that Resident Evil’s story was never meant to serve as the start of something grander in the way that Sweet Home’s innovations were. Sweet Home was designed to be built upon.

Inevitably, then, the story wore thin around the same time that the game’s mechanics were showing their age. To Capcom’s credit, they did try embracing the new action-adventure path they had slowly been forging with Resident Evil 4. However, they never really found where the franchise needed to go from there. The developers achieved what they had set out to do with the original, but had wandered too far in the aftermath, making it very difficult to give the franchise a coherent return to its haunted house roots. 

What Capcom left behind in their attempt to turn Resident Evil into a premier gaming franchise with RE5 and especially RE6, other titles found. Dead Space became a hit, in part, because Visceral adopted the haunted house method of horror game design when crafting the game’s infamous layout of traps. Amnesia and Outlast employed a new camera perspective but retained that feeling of pure dread that comes from exploring every new room and just hoping you are prepared for what comes next.

These games understood what Resident Evil forgot in the long run, which is that a horror game is often at its scariest when it is trying to create the ultimate digital haunted house. Not every horror game must follow that formula in order to be a success, but it’s no coincidence that recent revolutionary genre titles such as P.T. utilized a similar design philosophy.

There’s an intimacy to haunted houses that few other horror sub-genres can recreate. They force us to confront the intimacy of the average home by filling it with our worst nightmares. From a design perspective, they allow a developer to engage players by restricting their abilities while expanding their imaginations.

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It’s no surprise, then, that in their attempt to revitalize the franchise, Capcom has decided to focus on the home of the Baker Family. We don’t know if the entire Resident Evil 7 experience will focus on that home and the family within, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Capcom finally seems to have found what it is that made the Resident Evil franchise special in the first place. 

Should Resident Evil 7 prove to be a hit, then Capcom may very well be tempted to do as they once did over twenty years ago and use the game as the basis for something much grander. Honestly, that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. They will always do well to remember that the fundamental qualities which made Resident Evil special are tied to the haunted house genre, but the truth is that most people will always happily consider a great Resident Evil game to be any great horror game that has the name “Resident Evil” on the box. 

For now, though, it sure does feel good to come back home. 

Matt Byrd is a staff writer.