Without a doubt, the most enduring horror video game of the 2000s is Resident Evil 4. Capcom’s classic game redefined the survival horror genre for an entire generation of gamers. Rather than just scaring the player at any given moment, survival horror provides additional challenges that forces the player to be strategic with limited resources like ammo, weapons, medicine, and more. Players must make smart, rational decisions in the face of fear to advance to the next part of the game. As such, survival horror games like Resident Evil challenge players to overcome the emotion and physiological response that the games bait them into. And no game does this quite like Resident Evil 4.
The Resident Evil franchise began in 1996, and was an instant success. The first three games used claustrophobic settings like dark, cramped hallways to generate a sense of terror for the player. In addition to this, the games’ use of a fixed third person camera added to that sense of dread. It would cut every time the character rounded a corner. The camera was stationary, often positioned at a low angle in the corner of the hallway, and facing the character as they ran forwards. This deliberately obscured what was around the corner, inviting the player and their imagination to come up with the worst possible scenario. It’s a type of gameplay that’s frustrating from today’s gaming standards. And that is in large part due to Resident Evil 4’s innovative changes in 2005.
Resident Evil 4 features a third person, over-the-shoulder camera placement that puts the gamer directly above and behind the protagonist, Leon S. Kennedy. Action games use this perspective heavily because it presents a more ideal viewpoint for aiming a gun at targets. And, it balances the integration of the character within the game’s world, as well as the player’s immersion within the action. With this new element, the Resident Evil franchise left behind its fixed camera placements and frequent cuts for good, opting to use third person camera angles for remakes of its second and third games. Resident Evil 4 permanently changed the look and experience for future games.
This perspective change rewrote the rules for Resident Evil’s scares, which is evident in the game’s opening sequence. No matter the medium, horror ultimately relies on the strategic reveal of new information. Resident Evil 4 revised the terms in which the player gains new information. Before, Resident Evil’s horror came from the deliberate obfuscation of the player’s vision and dark, cramped spaces. A new angle or source of light signified new information, and new terrors ahead.
In contrast, Resident Evil 4 opens with a scene in foggy daylight, countering horror’s expected, dark settings. The game gives us as much information as possible about the village that Leon must venture through—and it’s absolutely horrifying. Our eyes and ears discern everything as “wrong” in some way. Instead of imploring the gamer’s imagination, the game presents us with an inescapable spectacle of people, not quite zombies, behaving unnaturally. The sound design follows the lead of its illuminated visuals with a barrage of ghastly taunts. Before we even enter the village, we can hear disembodied voices cursing at us. Those sounds form a disconcerting chorus that we can’t outrun no matter where we go. The sense of confusion activates our fight-or-flight response before we confront any of the villagers.
At the time of Resident Evil 4‘s release, horror games largely encouraged the player to evade monsters, not directly attack them. For example, Silent Hill put the player in a regular person’s shoes as they tried to unravel a mystery with heavy psychological themes. Resident Evil 4, however, made the player a badass, even as they were fighting for their life. In doing so, survival game horror became not so much about putting together clues and solving puzzles. It also demanded that you hit headshots, and strategically conserved your ammo. For the sake of the character in your control, you had to fight off your own terror.
Resident Evil 4‘s take on fear is significant, given the unique impact that fear has on our brain’s ability to process new information. When we are afraid, our brains direct resources away from our cerebral cortex, the area responsible for rational thought and planning. Those resources instead go towards our amygdala, the emotional center of the brain. This evolutionary design’s purpose is to keep us alive; however, it comes at a cost: our ability to think clearly. For action-heavy video games that require players to make thousands of decisions in a split-second over the course of the story, fear can become an invisible obstacle.
Resident Evil 4 takes this into account, ramping up the feeling of immediacy between the player and its scares. The aforementioned camera placement brings the player physically, emotionally, and psychologically closer to Leon S. Kennedy. Instead of feeling like they are watching Leon take on enemies, like in Resident Evil 2, players become Leon. This brings a visceral sense of fear to the game, particularly in the opening scene. Leon could immediately die at the hands of a chainsaw-wielding villager if he gets too close. Leon is a smooth-talking action hero who previously survived a first day of work during the zombie apocalypse. But, he’s just as vulnerable as any of us would be in this scenario.
Frank Herbert famously wrote in his novel, Dune, that, “Fear is the mind-killer.” Resident Evil 4 invites players to discover the truth behind this sentiment. As the game’s innovations ramped up its scariness, it also brought action gameplay into a much more dire setting. All action games elicit some stress in the heat of battle. But Resident Evil 4 brings an entirely new wildcard into the fold: fear. There is no shortage of fiends for Leon Kennedy must fight off in the game; however, the true enemy that players must overcome is themselves. With the release of Resident Evil 4’s remake, it’s the perfect time to revisit why this game still terrorizes us decades later.