THERE’S a point in Resident Evil VII when Ethan, the stoic hero of the game, mutters to himself: “Who designs this shit?” Ethan is referring to an obscure door-locking mechanism involving a projector, a statue and light-shadows, but he might well have been talking about the game developers. Resident Evil VII is a masterpiece of pioneering, crazy game design.
This is the first big-budget release to make virtual reality a foundational aspect of the experience. While Resident Evil VII can be played ‘normally’ in first-person mode, the game has truly been built to accommodate VR and is simply astonishing in a headset.
While the limitations of virtual reality are still present, it’s incredible what Capcom have done here.
The hero Ethan arrives at a swampland mansion following a lead on his missing wife, Mia. She’s been gone for over three years. He subsequently embarks on a trip through the mad, cannibalistic household of American hick family the Bakers.
While the Resident Evil zombie mythos is still present in the background, this is a game that draws more from horror movies about cannibalistic ‘crazies’ than the walking dead. At one point, you’re sitting at the Baker’s dinner table, strapped into a chair, while the family eat the intestinal remains of their latest victim. The son is throwing food at you, the father tries to force feed you human remains and the mother storms off when you spit it out, screaming obscenities about the effort she made to prepare the meal. All of this is crazy enough in standard first person, but simply incredible in VR.
While the Baker family take centre stage, it’s their house that steals the show. It feels like a sunken ship, with filth and slime and dankness on every surface, creaking wood, fridges full of mould and meat, bathrooms left derelict with tubs of “God-knows-what”, a basement filled with rank water, old ornaments and paintings and furniture that are somehow unsettling just by their dissonance and placement.
The house is also a generally dark place, where visibility is hard to come by and claustrophobia dominates.
On a television screen, this lack of visibility can get frustrating, but it doesn’t hinder the gameplay. Upon the switch to VR, however, it becomes clear that Resident Evil VII was truly created with this perspective in mind. The view from the headset is completely different to that of a screen, with the details of the house visible in ways a television simply can’t reproduce. Suddenly that limited circle of flashlight that was on the TV widens to fill your whole vision. It’s the difference between peering at a small sketching and admiring a life-size sculpture.
More than that, however, the game is just astonishingly frightening in virtual reality. Much of the experience revolves around being ‘chased’ by the almost-indestructible Baker family.
The father, for example, hounds you throughout, dragging his shovel on the floor as he slowly walks you down, cooing “I can smell you!” and “You can’t hide forever…” in a thick southern drawl. All you can do is run, hide, and wait for him to pass. God help you if he catches up. Unlike previous, similar gaming experiences on a screen, this one is undeniably tactile. Your body reacts to what it perceives as a genuine threat in your vicinity. The sensation of being chased has always been powerful in games, but when you turn your own head to run, knowing that something is following, the experience becomes almost too intense.
In fact, so successful is Resident Evil VII at creating a horror experience in virtual reality that it raises questions about whether that’s something gamers will really want to do. Virtual reality itself is unsettling enough in its subversion of perception, never mind when that new reality involves having your hand removed by a chainsaw.
On the other hand (no pun intended) horror has always been a hugely popular genre and Resident Evil is horror like we’ve never seen it before. It is a horror film with you at the centre, a nightmare house come to life for the player to explore and escape.
When played from the comfort of a couch, gaming becomes cerebral, but when a game smothers your vision, when the couch disappears and is replaced by dankness and darkness and headphone-soundscapes, then the game becomes something else entirely. It becomes physical. And for the first time in Resident Evil, the residence becomes real.