by Keith Jackson
Imagine a cool and breezy autumn night. The bare branches of trees tap against the window, playing with your senses and making you feel like someone is watching. You and your friend sit nervously in a dark room, alone and bored. Your friend suggests playing the game you rented from the local Family Video, but you’re hesitant. The game that you chose is Resident Evil, a video game filled with such grotesque and persistent horror that you may fear leaving the volume on. Your friend, not offering to helm the controller, is your only source of courage. The game boots, and the infamous title Welcome to the world of survival horror, in bloody red, flashes. Your heart drops. The game loads and the eerie music, consisting of random thuds on a piano and ambient noise nothing shy of uncanny, pours into the dark living room.
You’ve just entered the world of survival horror.
Resident Evil came out in 1996 but has since been re-released in special editions and remasters. I revisited Resident Evil recently, not just to look at the game a source of entertainment – though much was had – but rather to analyze the game for its merits and how it stacks up against Edmund Burke’s ideas on the sublime. Burke defines the sublime as “a state of astonishment with some degree of horror” (53). Video games offer a new way of experiencing fright and, through immersion, can potentially create an even greater sense of fear than movies and television do. What Resident Evil does very well is create a sense of both internal and external obscurity, characteristics that are necessary to the sublime (54).
In Resident Evil, you do not quite know what awaits you in the next room. Will it be more zombies limping around, groaning and absorbing every bullet? Be sure to burn their bodies, purging them of the virus, or they’ll rise again stronger and faster. Maybe zombie dogs lie in wait? Mutated frogs and nearly God-like super beings, mutilated by biochemistry to kill all uninfected – these are what you hope isn’t beyond the next door. In A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Burke says that obscurity comes in two forms – one that is internal, or the imagination, and one that is external (54). Both add to the experience of the game and both add to the terror.
Externally, the player can’t see what is happening onscreen. As Burke explains, “when we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of apprehension vanishes” (54). In the case of this game, the apprehension is never lifted. Burke considers how night adds to our dread but, even in the light, Resident Evil is able to make the player feel like they are always kept in the dark. The level design – which is the environment the developers have chosen for the game – makes the player feel claustrophobic. The tight hallways, littered with bodies and various artifacts, the dim lighting, and obscure camera angles (which were always a nuisance until the release of Resident Evil 4) keep the player from fully understanding what they are seeing or will see in the steps they take towards completing the game. What you may hear coming through your speakers may not reveal itself on screen until the camera angle shifts. You may begin to imagine things yourself.
This brings us to internal obscurity. In certain situations, the player is forced to resort to their imagination, especially on their first play-through, when noises and level design are fresh and new. Through internal obscurity, Burke claims, “the passions are even stronger and more intense” (55). With external obscurity, the player seeks clarity within the game, but when this obscurity is internal, the player becomes traumatized by their own thoughts, a prisoner in their own mind. It is within the mind that the player may fall prey to their own insecurities, making the wrong move or being too cautious while entering a room. Making one mistake in the game can result in quick and relentless punishment or death. It is often internal obscurity that causes a player to die and restart from their last save.
Because the game does so well with both internal and external obscurity, Resident Evil can be an experience some don’t wish to have ever again. Balancing the need to survive (ammo, health, etc.) with external and internal obscurity causes the player to question themselves and the moves they make on screen. All three together are what make Resident Evil a pioneer for the genre, and these elements are emulated in almost every horror game since its release. Through horror games, we get to live what George A. Romero, Wes Craven, H.P. Lovecraft, and Stephen King have captured in movies and in stories. The sublime inches closer and closer to our brains through levels of immersion unrivaled in other mediums. But, at the end of the day, what anyone really cares about, what really matters, is getting scared half to death while your friend giggles under a blanket on the couch.
Burk, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Oxford Up, 1990.