Ginger Nuts of Horror
It might be difficult for present day video gamers to credit, but there was a time when the original Resident Evil was the high watermark for horror in the medium.
Shortly before its ousting by the likes of Silent Hill, Resident Evil and its sequel were the video games de jour for horror fans; wry pastiches of B-movie horror tropes, zombie apocalypse traditions and various species of monster cinema, the franchise provided in the early days of 3D, 32-bit video gaming the kinds of experiences we had never had before.
Being an adolescent at the time of its release was particularly fascinating, as it allowed us to assess the game in context with what had gone before: the medium of video games was maturing as we were, becoming a medium synonymous with our generation. As such, those of us that were teenagers in those days had, perhaps, an exaggerated reaction to the game, shocked by the quantum leap not only in graphics, music and atmosphere, but the subject and content it contained.
There had, of course, been attempts to encapsulate or refer to horror in previous generations of home computers and consoles, but the culture of video games during those periods meant that any effort was necessarily truncated: certainly in Western markets, video games were strictly a children's medium, meaning that Super Nintendo players missed out on such horror classics as Clock Tower and Sweet Home, both of which became instant classics in Japan and other territories, and have garnered something of a mythic status in the decades since.
Home computers here in the UK were a little more adventurous, as such systems tended to be marketed towards more adult demographics, hence the existence of rarities such as Darkseed and Waxworks.
But, until Resident Evil, there had never been a specific genre of horror within video games, and certainly not a title that had risen to such prominence: alongside the likes of Tomb Raider, Final Fantasy VII and Crash Bandicoot, Resident Evil (or Resi, as its fans have christened it) became one of the original Playstation's flagship titles, the talk of playgrounds and schoolyards throughout the UK, and, no doubt, the inspiration for more than a few nightmares.
For my part, I came to the game somewhat late on, long after I'd discovered the likes of Tomb Raider and Final Fantasy VII, when most had moved on to its spiritual successor, Silent Hill.
One of my fourteenth Christmas's stocking fillers, the game quickly became the reason why I wasn't present for the vast majority of the celebrations, sequestering myself in the cold, dingy room where the Playstation resided, not even feeling the cold, pangs of hunger and thirst...barely even breaking to use the bathroom, so engrossed was I in the b-movie, science-fiction world the game conjured.
To a boy who'd grown up adoring horror in all of its forms, who'd already seen practically every canonised horror “classic” made since the 1960s, Resident Evil was a revelation; a digital hellscape into which he could disappear, taking an almost perverse delight in its escalating tensions, its blood-viscous atmosphere, its body-horror grotesquery.
Whilst undoubtedly crude to present day eyes, the pre-rendered backgrounds and polyganal sprites conjured a strange sense of verisimilitude players hadn't found in video games up to that point. Whilst comic-book absurd in many respects, the Arklay Manor in which the game takes place felt more like a real environment than any we'd wandered in the medium before.
For my part, I was obsessed by the minor, domestic details the environment boasted: studies filled with random books, ornaments, keys and ephemera, bedrooms with dishevelled closets, bed-side cabinets, abandoned books, kitchens and cellars and gardening sheds, all of which felt like environments that functioned beyond the parameters and situations of the games itself.
Whilst it would be a year or two before that boy threw himself into writing proper, his imagination was already a florid and conspicuously verdant place: almost all the material that obsessed him provided grounds and fodder for imagined scenarios that unfolded during his idle hours; the long darkness of insomnia that persisted almost every night, the idiot, hopeless moments in schoolyards and classrooms, when he couldn't wait to be out from behind his desk, out of those sweat and despair-stinking places, and somewhere where the horror was of far more mythic kind.
More than anything, I remember the atmosphere; becoming so immersed in the game and its environments, it almost felt as though I was walking there, with the characters; a factor that ramped up the tension immeasurably, making for some truly horrific moments (I will never forget the sense of utter dread when the game screen cut away whilst I explored the kitchen beneath the main house, to a stairwell I'd just passed by, to a point of view shot of something, something, slouching and slumping down the stairs, reaching for the door that I stood behind...).
Resident Evil stands as not only the game that solidified and enshrined the conventions of what would later come to be known as “Survival Horror” (i.e. video games in which the player character finds themselves trapped in potentially lethal situations, usually with little in the way of time, health or defence, hunted by various unlikely abominations), but became my -and, indeed, our- entry point into the fledgling genre; one that would sustain and obsess us for many years to come.
The game's original sequel, Resident Evil 2, quickly capitalised on the original's success, aping the George Romero zombie films that the franchise derives clear inspiration from, in that Resi 2 removes the action and horror from a single locale -in this instance, the Arklay Manor- and into an urban setting, with an entire city of zombies, mutants and suspicius characters to deal with.
Resi 1 has a peculiar focus as a game; its atmosphere derives from claustrophobia, tight corners, blind corridors etc: the comparatively limited number of actual in-game monsters is made up for by the sheer tension of not being able to see what's coming; what might be shambling or groaning behind the next corner.
Resi 2 takes a different approach; throwing the play area wide and populating each screen with numerous hordes of enemies, as well as a far greater variety of creatures and mutants to tackle. The game's creatures, as well as being more numerous, are also more dynamic, some, such as the iconic “Lickers,” able to scale walls and ceilings, dropping down from above, others utilising air-vents and sewer pipes to harass the player. The dread that the game cultivates is far less intimate than that of the first game; a much more fraught and wide-ranging sense of society breaking down, of being lost and alone in a world where there is no hope or help to be had.
As an adolescent, the game not only terrified me in the most pleasing and enduring of ways, but also demonstrated the potential of video games in environment building, cultivation of atmosphere and narrative. The game is far more ambitious with its story, characters and creations than the original, building on throw-away suggestions in Resi 1's narrative to swell the back mythology of the series.
Of all the many, many new elements that snared my attention, the most enduring -the shades of which linger to this day- are the monsters.
Resi 1 featured its own familiar bestiary, creatures generally derived from classic horror and b-movie science fiction films (the iconic zombies complented by mutant, gigantic spiders and snakes, undead dogs, genetically mutated plants, reptilian predators, to name but a few), but Resi 2 looks to more abstruse sources for inspiration: The Thing, H.R. Giger, the films of David Cronenberg, the “body horror” sub genre: whereas the original game was intent on providing players encounters they might recognise from film, TV and literature (thereby evoking dread and horror by association), Resi 2 establishes a more abstruse and experimental style, its monstrosities more fluid and disturbing in design, not to mention stranger, more elaborate and surreal. Even the iconic zombies are given an enormous makover, foregoing the stock models from the original game to present hordes of unique and idiosyncratic designs, from recognisably female specimens to those of cops, kids; tall guys, short guys...
The game marks the evolution of “survival horror” into a dominant sub-genre in its own right, taking everything that made the original successful and ramping it up to the power of N.
For those of us that were enamoured of the b-movie shocks and silliness of the original game, this one blew our barely-formed, adolescent minds: a play environment that's vaster, more detailed and dynamic, a more elaborate and expansive storyline, so many monsters, they're impossible to catalogue here, and a sense of atmosphere that, if anything, is even denser and darker than before.
For my part, I recall being enamoured, totally enamoured of the game's environments; the pre-rendered districts of Raccoon City feeling as close to real places as we'd come in video games up to that point, the genuine uncertainty as to what lay behind each and every corner, at the top of every flight of stairs, every unlocked door, keeping us on the edge of our seats, almost glued to the TV screen, in anticipation of what fresh horror the game would throw at us.
As for the horror itself, the game foregoes the more proscribed, cinema-derived shocks and set-pieces of the original game for far more subtle and inventive situations: an excellent example comes early on, when the player finds themselves sealed inside the Raccoon City police department: wandering down a corridor, you see...something crawl past one of the outer windows; something that moves far too quickly to make out, but that is clearly not human. Entering the next area in a state of breathless tension, you hear...dripping, finding a pool of blood round the next corner. Cut to an FMV sequence in which the player character bends to examine it, noticing the drops of blood falling from above...glancing up to find the flayed and mutilated form of the “Licker” splayed out across the ceiling like some hideous hybrid of human and spider.
The general tension of the game is also ramped up by having the player character pursued by various entities; unlike the previous entry, in which creatures were generally confined to set play areas, here, certain monsters and entities pursue you throughout the game, the most notable being arguably my favourite monster in the entire franchise, the constantly mutating William Birkin, creator of the original virus responsible for the escalating calamity and now host to its even more onerous derivative, the “G-Virus.”
Birkin is worthy of particular note, here; as well as being a character in his own right -not only the creator of the virus, but also Father to Sherry, a little girl who will become one of the major characters in the game-, he's far, far more than a mere abomination; a tragic entity that calls out to its daughter as it pursues her and the player through the depths of the city, leaving mangled, mutated abominations in its wake with its parasitic capabilities.
Not only is Birkin visually stunning, given the graphical limitations of games at the time, he also features in some of the most tense and terrifying moments in the game, including a descent into a subterranean facility beneath the police department in which he constantly reaches for the player through the walls of a mechanised carriage with bony, scythe-like talons, a sequence in which he physically swells into a quadrapedal mass of teeth, eyes and barbs, and -if you happen to complete both scenarios in the game within an allotted time limit- a Lovecraftian mass of tendrils, eyes and flesh that marks the ultimate encounter in the game.
Beyond that, the game was enormously generous, in that, as well the two primary scenarios, it also included two “B” side situations that altered the game's structure and dynamic: in scenario B, the players are pursued throughout by the mysterious, trench-coated “Mr. X,” a giant, unkillable entity that smashes through walls, erupts through floors, drops down from rooftops...often terrifying the player out of their wits, before a final encounter in the lab complex below.
Resi 2 obsessed those of us that played it at the time, becoming one of the most beloved and talked about games on the system: everything, everything we loved about the original game was here, but refined, exaggerated and generally improved upon.
For a time, nothing could oust it: we couldn't even conceive of anything that might.
Then, Silent Hill.
Silent Hill. If Resident Evil marks the early adolescence of video game horror, then Silent Hill is its maturation towards adulthood: technically and stylistically similar to Resi (thus solidifying “Survival Horror” as a sub-genre in its own right), but deriving inspiration from far more abstruse subjects (ranging from Jacob's Ladder to Alice in Wonderland, from the abandoned US mining town of Centralia to 1980s pulp horror fiction), Silent Hill blindsided all of us: none of us, none of us expected anything so remarkably “adult” in tone, so emphatically disturbing or distressing as this.
The contrast between Resident Evil and Silent Hill can be most readily drawn by a comparison between George A. Romero and directors such as David Lynch: whereas Resi is more “popular” horror, Silent Hill is surrealism and disturbia; supernatural, psychological and densely, densely symbolic:
Unlike Resident Evil, Silent Hill has no intention of making the player laugh or leap out of their skin: earnest rather than ironic in its desire to disturb.
Whereas the original Resi begins in a fairly familiar situation (if you happen to be at all experienced with horror fiction of any kind), Silent Hill is a little more abstruse: swerved off the road to avoid what appears to be a little girl, player avatar Harry Mason wakes to find himself on the outskirts of Silent Hill, his daughter Cheryl missing, a strange fog blanketing the town, something falling from the sky that might be snow or ash.
Exploring the town, he finds it abandoned; homes locked, boarded up, derelict, stores and services closed, their shutters drawn.
It's only when he follows footsteps down a narrow alleyway that the game's patent weirdness starts to become apparent: whereas Resi has always made use of fixed camera angles in pre-rendered environments to instill a sense of claustrophobia and disorientation, Silent Hill has a dynamic camera that swoops and swerves, that pans at strange angles around the player to frame scenes and sequences in the strangest manner.
Distantly, a siren begins to wail, the mist gives way to a strange, unnatural darkness. Stone and cement peels away, revealing rusted metal.
It's at this point that the player begins to encounter imagery that echoes that found in the novels of Clive Barker, the films of David Cronenberg: a hideously flayed and mutilated dog's corpse, what appears to be a hospital bed, bloodied as though from surgery.
And then, a dead end: a corpse ritualistically strung from the rusted wire fence, elaborately mutilated, flayed, stretched open.
The atmosphere unlike anything encountered in the Resident Evil titles; a strange sense of spiritual grime and dirt; as though the player is somehow being infected by the images onscreen, polluted by them.
Then, the babies appear; mewling, naked, deformed infant-things, wielding knives with which they hack and slash at Harry's ankles, dragging him down...
All the while, the score clashes and shrieks and escalates: not exactly music, more the rhythms of a breaking down engine, some ancient surgical device, setting the player's teeth and nerves on edge.
None of us were prepared. None of us truly comprehended what was happening, which made the experience all the more traumatic.
Silent Hill became the talk of schoolyards and sleep overs; the game that obsessed us in the manner of a sceptic scab, that distressed and disgusted, but that we couldn't leave alone.
For the longest time, most of us didn't even comprehend what was happening in the game, its style, its narrative, its aesthetics so abstract, so symbolic; a factor enhanced by the ropey dialogue, the poor Japanese to English translation...
Unlike Resident Evil, which was a horror movie translated to video game format, Silent Hill was a nightmare; more intimate, more traumatic, infesting and transforming us in far more profound ways.
For many of us, it was the first time we realised that we couldn't simply be shocked or frightened by a video game, but disturbed by it; that the medium has artistic and aesthetic potential far and beyond anything we'd encountered or experienced up to that point.
Resident Evil might have made us jump at noises or shadows, but Silent Hill got into our heads; it followed and whispered to us, and whispers to us still, informing the shape and nature of our imaginations in ways only the very finest of horror films or literature can boast.
But it wouldn't be until the next generation, and the game's genre-defining sequel, that horror in video games -and its audience- would take their first, uncertain steps into adulthood.
End of Part One.