There’s a scene a few kills into The Texas Chainsaw Massacre where Leatherface has a tantrum by the window, visibly super anxious about these kids who keep coming into his house and won’t just get in their van and drive off. He’s not repentant or anything like that, but his stress is enough to show a crack in the surface of evil. Up until that point he appears as the grim reaper, quickly and with a sense of horrifying finality removing the kids from the realm of the living, like a full stop. Later still we come to learn that when he’s not the embodiment of death, Leatherface plays the role of a caring mother sweating to keep her family together even if just for the duration a dinner she’s lovingly prepared. Hooper’s films are built with a stoned elasticity that means that as many complementary and conflicting things can be true or untrue about them as the viewer is willing to work for, and the appearances of the Sawyer family are no exception. Depictions of abuse within a family-unit for whom violence is so commonplace that it’s as ritualised as a family dinner are the essence of that film as they are of Resident Evil 7.
We are made to witness moments of connection between family members, not so that we can excuse their behaviour, but so we can see that they belong to a unit in which they are functionally heinous. We come to understand them within the context of their world, whether this means pitying or just hating them more deeply than we would an abstraction. The family unit is taken for granted as a context for normalcy in the majority of narrative works that do not make family an explicit concern, but this is frequently upset in horror films. Something like The Witch looks at the oppressive nature of the nuclear family, but its break is gained too easily: the family in it is an abstraction, entirely without heart. Hooper’s works and Resident Evil 7 on the other hand understand that to dissolve the glue is not a clean process. Regardless of whether there is genuine love binding any of the Bakers or Sawyers, violence will be present under love’s guise.
It’s not easy because it’s lodged in us. The abuser is a master manipulator that works their way into the abused’s body and soul. The abuser will convince the abused that they are everywhere, that they need them, that there is no escape. Hooper’s works subject us to the idea of a potentially boundless horror, but also give us the bloodied tools to break out and expose it as pathetic, finite. For its first act, Resident Evil 7 explores the emotional ramifications and ambiguities of Hooper’s best to excellent ends. It is a game that traps us, tortures us, makes us feel weak, but also demands that we fight our way out of it. The game has been celebrated by many as a return to form, and it narratively and mechanically emphasises itself as a return home for the developer as well. The original Resident Evil was most frightening for its clunkiness, for the way that instead of breaking immersion, frustrations encountered outside the gameworld made their way into the player’s identification with the happenings on screen. Curiously, this new one is strictly in first person, emphasising that our return home must be viewed in terms of a new game body. We are trapped in our game body, and we are trapped in both a literal home, and the game body itself. To return home is to be trapped there.
There is much to be said about Resident Evil 7 as a first person game that works against conventional instincts. Where we might expect to transform into a digital body that can act and react with a speed and fluidity that easily transcends our own (particularly as parkour-ish flailing arms show no sign of disappearing from AAA games any time soon), Resident Evil 7 imprisons the player in a slow-moving body that is less a superhuman avatar than a kind of awkward cage. Immersion, it was at some stage decided, occurs as the player becomes a centrally privileged torrent of power rushing through an environment-as-playground, but Resident Evil 7 makes the case that a more chilling form occurs when the environment answers back: the world of the game encloses on our digital body, and our digital body encloses on us. Where in a typical action game the world arranges itself around the player, rendering itself for, but pretending not to see her (effectively performing as indifferent but also submissive), Resident Evil 7 makes us believe that there are all eyes on the player at all times. What is key, what is home, is this claustrophobic sense of mechanical friction between what we are and what we want to be.
That the player is encouraged to roam around and collect VHS tapes throughout the game makes explicit Nakanishi’s appreciation of found footage horror movies, where a similar negotiation of power occurs. In found footage, the viewer is no longer detached from the world of the film, passively receiving images they can trust, but rather becomes ‘grounded’ in it, vulnerable because to see is to be seen, to take part in it. No concrete truth, no safety. At its most effective Resident Evil 7 exploits the rift between belief and knowledge, withholding information and providing ambiguous sounds and light effects such that the viewer fills in the blanks themselves. Its entire currency is unrealised, individually felt fears. It is in these paranoid minutes that we become participants in generating our own sense of terror, believing ourselves to be in hell where our new father Jack is controlling everything. Resident Evil 7 knows that whatever we imagine to be behind the curtain, whatever we believe caused the crashing sound upstairs, is far more frightening than anything the game could ever depict, because we are home where Jack sees everything. Some gamers will balk at the comparison, but the developers of Resident Evil 7 clearly learned a lot from Gone Home.
Not that it in any way flirts with becoming an outright art game- it is of at least two minds where suggestion and realisation are concerned, and Nakanishi ultimately betrays the conceit for a mounting silliness more Sam Raimi than Blair Witch. The Bakers are an invasive, shrill presence across the screen, and wherever they appear the game switches its shallow-focus subjectivity for a filmic kineticism that is critically withheld from us and the ability of our game body. The developers’ decision to not gift Ethan with the movement capacities of his tormentors brings about moments of frustration that can break the spell of the game, particularly during boss fights, but it gives small fights the slow, lumbering inevitability of a George Romero film. This echoing of someone else’s cinematic dread through mechanical unresponsiveness is a bold move, but one that is reflexively necessary. Friction, entrapment, terror, home.
Another notable game to make the player feel helplessly trapped in first person perspective was Bioshock, which similarly demanded getting to know an environment in shallow focus. That game was economical in the sense that it reused environments by backtracking us into tedium, but the level design here is more sophisticated. Resident Evil 7 is economical in that it might take the gamer body the same amount of time to get to the end of a hallway as it would Franklin in Grand Theft Auto to run the way through multiple houses. Every bit of peeling wallpaper feels like it matters enough to take note of, every section of the floor not carpeted feels like the difference between life and death: Jack hearing and not hearing our footsteps. Resident Evil 7 is designed to make the backtracking process feel radial, as though we are returning to the centre of something having learned more about ourselves, and about that which threatens us. We may be pathetic, we may throw the controller down in fear when something scrapes at the window as we walk past, but now we know that the noise upstairs was just creaky floorboards. They’re not always watching us, they’re looking for us, and that’s a big difference.
Resident Evil 7 is most scary when we feel most mortal, and we feel most mortal when we’re weighing up how a conflict will go, before we fail and our game body dies. There is invariably a use by date cooked into the game and its terror (it has to scale in difficulty, meaning more deaths through problem solving), but this occurs after the game’s early climax: as the player for the first time leaves the house. We charge out, screaming, and we turn to the house that trapped us and tortured us, and we look for the eyes of evil and we can’t find them. We see the house and it’s just a house. We believed it was infinite, but now we can say ‘I see you too.’ The game trapped us in Jack’s house, but now the stage set has collapsed, and we can see it was a tree banging against the side of the house, and the wind howling through the boards. We’ve traced the tracks to the cause, the real cause, and it’s more and less than the man who told us he was in control of everything.
Later on the shadow of Jack lingers over us, the reminder of the power that he once had over us, but also of the family that perversely worked for him. The greatest gag in Resident Evil 7 is not the ultraviolence, but the fact that as a part of the Baker family we must close doors behind us to stop evil coming our way. Whether we like it or not, we will play by the family rules. Its most disarming moment is when the tenacious patriarch begins screaming ‘You killed my beautiful wife!,’ which, yeah, we did. It’s mournful as it is bizarre, and also completely heartbreaking- the only time that its baroque catharsis works to echo its hesitant, freaked out steps toward freedom.
Unfortunately these distinct modes are otherwise never reconciled in the game, and in truth jumping back and forth between horrorshow grotesquerie and psychological fear eventually leaves us numb to both. When we come to meet Marguerite, our mother, the loudness of the game is amplified such that we’re in a rush to defeat her, and as our inventory fills up we are left with two conclusions: either we’re too well stocked, or we’re going to have to play trial and error with our equipment. Either way it leads to action rather than caution, the antithesis of the first act. By the time we find Lucas, Nakanishi has toyed with so many horror formats that he figures he might as well throw in post-Saw torture porn too. At this point the game enforces trial and error, as we are well and truly too well stocked in arms and health to feel in any way threatened.
Resident Evil 7‘s need to contextualise itself within the franchise makes for a strangely anticlimactic final act, explaining the events we’ve witnessed within the larger picture of a catastrophic event. On the one hand this is frustrating because it doesn’t matter, but on the other it works as a tragic eulogy for the Baker family, removed from the visibility of world events but nevertheless impacted by them. In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre we understand how violence and family are inextricably bound, about how movements toward Big Agriculture have left rural families without their livelihood. Similarly the Event of Resident Evil 7 occurs outside of our experience of the Baker home but it leads to starkly visualised ills: the mould could be a blind rage over their way of life crumbling, it could be substance (Jack’s implied alcoholism), it could be the cycle of generational violence suffered and inflicted by everyone in the family line. Like Hooper’s works it is contradictory, complementary, and elastic: it took the director twelve years to release a sequel that made it clear that the Sawyers are everything mentioned before but also greed and evil itself, whereas Resident Evil 7 moves in the opposite direction, arguing for the family as victims. Eveline’s own quest for family holds its deal of pathos, but the picture is more complicated, more human, when family itself is the subject of its scrutiny: Marguerite’s southern hospitality loaded with the anger of going unappreciated, Jack’s performative father figure saying grace and beating the shit out of his son at the dinner table.