We are family! (Case Study: Resident Evil 7)

by Arno Görgen

The game begins with a cutscene that has the feel of a video recording: a woman, Mia, stands on a ship against the railings and cheerily greets her husband. She tells him that she is there working as a babysitter. The video cuts off abruptly; we see dirtied hands in a dark room tampering with an old laptop. A new video appears on the screen, showing the same woman again, but this time she is upset and afraid. Her last sentence is: “…if you get this, stay away.” In the next shot, we see a bird’s eye view of a car driving through a rural area and overhear a telephone conversation. In it, Ethan explains that his wife Mia has contacted him after three years and that he is now on his way to Dulvey, Louisiana to pick her up. There, he finds an abandoned house in the swamps.

Game name: Resident Evil 7: Biohazard [hereinafter RE7].
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Director: Koshi Nakanishi
Narrative Consultant: Richard Pearsey (first western writer of a RE game)
Year of release: 2017
Platform: Windows; Xbox One; PlayStation 4; Nintendo Switch (for the analysis, the PS4 version was played)
Setting: Horror
Genre (ludic): Action-Adventure
Gameplay: Stealth; Survival;

I. Production analysis

RE7 was released in January 2017 on Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and in May 2018 on the Nintendo Switch. The creative director was Toshi Nakanishi, who had previously played a key role in developing the Nintendo 3DS title Resident Evil: Revelations in 2012. Peter Fabiano, Senior Manager at Capcom, gave a presentation on the game’s development process at GDC 2017 (Nakanishi & Fabiano 2017). Thus, the observations based on this should be viewed with a source-critical approach, and in light of its context as a ‘sales pitch’:

According to Fabiano, the planning for RE7 began in February 2014. At the same time, Jun Takeuchi, the Managing Corporate Officer of Capcom, wanted to use the development of RE7 to build a more cost and labour-efficient environment in game production, which could also serve as a possible talent factory (Capcom USA 2020, 20). This development environment should also actively encourage experimentation with new ideas. The team’s main inspiration for the new game was the 1981 film The Evil Dead (five characters, action contained within a confined space). The aim was to achieve narrative depth through the use of narrow, claustrophobic and photorealistic set-pieces, rather than expansive open-world areas. The explanation given in the art book released by Capcom in 2020, ‘Resident Evil 7: Biohazard Document File’, which includes details on their development process is also interesting here:

“At the time, open-world games were a global trend, but Takeuchi felt that this type of large-scale game didn’t suit the Japanese – especially Capcom’s development team. What sets the Japanese apart is the artistry of taking an element and using it to its full potential.” (Capcom USA 2020, 23).

In RE7, the first-person single-player mode is used for the first time in the Resident Evil series, with new characters that are not anchored in the previous canon. This tabula rasa allows for players to experience the horror first-hand, and not through fully-formed characters from the previous games. The aim was then to bring ‘horror’ back into the franchise, as the market had been oversaturated with action zombie shooters at the time (Nakanishi & Fabiano 2017). As such, RE7 also represented a direct departure from its predecessor (Hornshaw 2016). Initially, the new direction taken by the series drew criticism from the marketing department, but in the end Kenzo Tsujimoto, CEO of Capcom, authorised its development.

Promotional Art in the RE7-Press Kit (https://www.igdb.com/games/resident-evil-7-biohazard/presskit)

In April 2014, a team of ten developers began pre-production on the game. To form a common mindset, the team visited “haunted houses” and watched horror films together. They travelled to Louisiana together to get a “feel” for the local setting. The game was to be built with a new engine, the “RE Engine”, which was, however, not yet ready for use at the time. Because of this, the prototype of the game was developed using the Unity game engine. Nakanishi gave the developers total creative freedom, deliberately refraining from imposing any design specifications. The use of flat hierarchies was intended to encourage contributions from every team member, regardless of their position. Work was done in small self-organised teams (Capcom USA 2020, 41-42), in line with the ‘Scrum Model’[1] for agile product development in order to develop an “indie feel”. (A short film was also produced at the same time to encapsulate and showcase the concept of the game). It is interesting here how the indie scene was glorified in this way as a creative petri-dish. Now this style was to be recreated but within the large-industrial setting of CAPCOM. The teams were divided and assigned to different characters: “Father”, “mother”, “brother” and “grandmother”(plus). Further on in the development process, this subdivision also defined the game’s structure: each character was allocated an area and its associated specific atmosphere. In this way, distinct film genres were attributed to the characters. The father, Jack, embodies the slasher genre, Marguerite, the mother, embodies the genre of biological/ body horror, and finally Lucas represents psycho-horror and the sub-genre of torture porn (cvxfreak 2018). According to the director and manager, the disadvantages of this method were that some team members were unable to cope with the new infrastructure and that development sometimes led to creative dead ends. In addition, there was initially no interconnecting story, which, according to Pete Fabiano, made the individual elements appear “disjointed” (Nakanishi & Fabiano 2017).

In April 2015, the company went into full production with the new RE engine and a team of about 120 employees. The aim of having a dedicated engine was to shorten development cycles in the long term, require fewer resources, offer more design options and enable a higher level of photorealism. The game was developed using the iterative game design process, which saw each game segment undergo many rounds of prototyping and testing.  The aim of the gameplay was to encourage players to interact with their environment in new ways. The learning curve of the players was to be regularly disrupted and the gameplay was intended to unsettle the players (Nakanishi & Fabiano 2017). The game was also designed to have different versions to accommodate local regulations and control mechanisms. The Japanese version is less visceral, for example. Instead of the player finding a severed head in the refrigerator, there is photo of a portrait with a line crossed through instead. In another scene, Ethan, the main protagonist, obtains a key by reaching into a corpse’s neck to retrieve it. In the Japanese version, the key lies right next to the corpse. In an interview for Forbes, Nakanishi explains the reasons for this:

“Ratings are different per region and amongst them, Japan tends to be on the stricter side. Even with previous installments, there was a difference between the Western and Japanese versions of those games. To be frank, it can sometimes be a challenge during development. When we think of a specific scene, thoughts such as ‘it will be difficult to deal with ratings’ or ‘let’s make a milder scene’ start creeping in. When we started development on Resident Evil 7 Biohazard, we wanted to move forward without such concerns creeping into our mind.” (Kain 2017)

In the same interview, Nakanishi replies to a question about his “storyteller” philosophy by saying that games such as The Stanley Parable (2011), Papers, Please (2014) or Gone Home (2013) had inspired him to think about new forms of storytelling for the RE franchise. In RE7, he had sought to enable a greater integration of embedded narratives. At the same time, however, it had become clear when the game was play-tested that many players did not respond positively or had “more negative” responses to subtler types of narration. As a result, the number of direct story-telling elements were increased (Kain 2017).

For the first time, a narrative designer from the west, Richard Pearsey, who had already worked on SpecOps: The Line (2012), was hired for a Resident Evil game. Nakanishi explained this move as follows:

“We have this history of cheesy dialogue from 20 years ago—your Jill sandwich, stuff like that [. …] These have become tropes that I think everyone enjoys, and they’re certainly fun, but previous games haven’t had the best-written dialogue in the world. We wanted to make sure Western gamers accepted the believability of our more-realistic scenario, and hiring Richard meant the dialogue got polished in a way that didn’t sound like it was just being translated, from the original Japanese script. He brought a layer of believability to the setting.” (Diver 2017)

From this statement, it can be seen that the team was aware (also according to their own statements in previous games) of the cultural bias of Japan and the USA. In order to provide a feeling of greater authenticity, it appeared necessary to counteract the external perspective on American culture, and introduce an observer ‘on the inside’, at least in part. Interestingly, there is no mention of Pearsey in the ‘Document File’ in the list of team members (Capcom USA 2020, 10-11).

II. Product analysis

The narrative

After the first cutscene, Ethan breaks into the guest house, where he believes his missing wife to be. There he finds an old cassette player (these serve as save points). Next to this is a video tape, which he is able to play on the VCR in the living room. A television crew can be seen in the recording; as a player you are actively in the role of the cameraman. The topic of the documentary is haunted houses. Three members of the TV crew break in to the house that Ethan has just broken into. We learn that the house belongs to a couple, Jack and Marguerite Baker, who have been reported missing. They are described in a newspaper report as quiet, but not backward, though bad rumours surround their son, Lucas. One of the presenters disappears suddenly without trace, and the others discover a secret passage which leads to a room below.

Now that you know about the secret passageway, as Ethan you can now also descend into the basement where you find Mia in a cell. Outside the cell are posters and documents of missing and mutated persons. This is also the first time you encounter the “Molded”, the mutated creatures that will repeatedly stand in the way of the player as the game progresses.

Promotional Art of the RE7 Press Kit (https://www.igdb.com/games/resident-evil-7-biohazard/presskit)

While Mia is leading Ethan to safety, she momentarily lies down and loses consciousness. As Ethan, you find your way back to the guesthouse via the cellar stairs. Back in the guesthouse, however, there appears to be nowhere else go, so you want to go back down to the cellar. As you descend the stairs you hear a rattle, and the sound of electronic drone music. A zombified Mia attacks you from out of the darkness. As Ethan, you kill her with an axe.

The phone rings in the hall. It is the family’s daughter Zoe Baker who tells Ethan to go to the attic. When Ethan returns to the living room, Mia has disappeared. On his way to the attic, he is suddenly attacked by Mia with a chainsaw and loses his hand in the struggle before Mia disappears again. In the attic, Ethan finds a gun and is attacked again by Mia. Ethan has to shoot his own wife in self-defence. Her supposed last words are: “I love you.”

Ethan is knocked out by the father of the family, Jack. In a brief fever-like dream sequence we watch as someone reattaches Ethan’s hand. A woman (Mia?) speaks from off-camera, “Come on, don’t die on us now, you have work to do.” Ethan passes out again. When he wakes up he finds himself tied to a chair at a dining table. An old catatonic woman in a wheelchair is sitting there, as well as Jack, Jack’s wife Marguerite and their son Lucas. At first the family quarrels, then they disappear. Ethan manages to escape, but is chased by Jack through the corridors of the house with a shovel until he finally finds an escape route through a floor hatch to a laundry room, a save point for the players. Here, he meets a police officer who appears at a window, who is searching for a number of missing people. The police office lets him have his pocket knife.   

Promotional Art of the RE7 Press Kit (https://www.igdb.com/games/resident-evil-7-biohazard/presskit)

When Ethan reaches the garage via a staircase, the policeman is already waiting there, but Jack brutally kills him with a shovel. In a ‘boss fight’, Ethan manages to defeat Jack with a fire explosion. However, Jack gets up again after the defeat and uttering the words “You are about to see something wonderful” shoots himself in the head. Going from the garage to the corridor, you are able to enter into the main hall after finding a relief of an ox that functions as a key. Here Zoe calls again, now identifying herself as the daughter of the Baker’s. She tells us that we need to leave the house, but Ethan has to find three special keys/ reliefs of dog heads. Ethan locates these one after the other, and often encounters Jack as he does so. In what is supposed to be a final encounter, Ethan fights Jack using a chainsaw in the basement rooms, these rooms being used as “cutting rooms” for human victims.

Ethan is finally able to leave the house and makes it to Zoe’s caravan trailer, which is parked in the yard. There, Zoe calls him. Ethan’s new goal is to find the components of an antidote to the infection that has affected both Zoe and Mia. These are found in body parts of mutated humans, including a “D-series” arm and head. The term “D-series” suggests that Zoe seems to know about some of the processes associated with the infections and events at the Baker property, and that she knows how to identify them, for example, as the result of biotechnological research. Ethan then goes to the “Old House” game area, where he gathers the first ingredients that will make up the serum. Here he defeats Marguerite, Jack’s wife, who has mutated into a giant ‘monster spider’, in a final battle.

Ethan returns to the trailer to meet Zoe, but is instead contacted by phone by Lucas, who has captured both Mia and Zoe and is holding them hostage. Lucas forces Ethan to overcome a barn full of monsters and traps, but Ethan is able to outwit Lucas and forces him to flee. He then rescues Mia and Zoe, and Zoe is able to make two doses of the antidote. At that moment, however, a heavily mutated Jack attacks again, and Ethan is forced to use one of the doses to kill Jack for good. With only one does of the serum left, Ethan must decide whether to cure Mia or Zoe. Here, the otherwise linear narrative of the game splits into two optional strands, but they are later interwoven with one another again:

Option A: If Ethan chooses Zoe, he abandons Mia in despair. Once aboard the dinghy, Zoe reveals to him that the Bakers were infected when Mia washed ashore in the wreckage of a tanker three years ago with a girl named Eveline, a bioweapon developed by Umbrella competitor and crime syndicate ‘The Connections’. Still in the boat, they come under attack from Eveline, who kills Zoe and knocks Ethan unconscious. He has a vision of a now sane Jack, who warns him that Eveline has the power to play with the minds of those she infects, and says she caused him and his family to go mad. He begs Ethan to kill her. The game then switches to the perspective of Mia, who wakes up on the shipwrecked tanker and searches for Ethan. As soon as Ethan is found, the game switches back to his perspective. Mia rescues Ethan and gives him a vial of Eveline’s DNA before Eveline can take control of her. She cannot resist Eveline though and attacks Ethan: He is forced – again – to kill her.

Variant B: If Ethan chooses Mia, Zoe unwillingly stays behind. Ethan and Mia escape on the same boat as in the other variant and are attacked by Eveline as they near the tanker. Ethan is knocked overboard and, as in the other version, has a vision of Jack warning him of Eveline’s power. Again, Jack begs Ethan to kill her. The play then switches to Mia’s perspective. She wakes up on the shipwreck and starts searching for Ethan, but keeps having visions of Eveline, who claims Mia is her mother. Eventually, Eveline forces Mia to watch a videotape to restore her memory. It is revealed that Mia actually worked for “The Connections”, the company that developed Eveline as a bioweapon. It was her job to supervise Eveline as she was secretly transported aboard the tanker to Central America. However, Eveline managed to escape and capsize the ship. She then infected Mia to telepathically force her to take on the role of her mother. Now aware of her role in creating Eveline, Mia rescues Ethan and gives him a vial of Eveline’s DNA. She manages to resist Eveline’s control long enough to keep Ethan off the ship so that she cannot hurt him.

Here the games two storylines once again converge. Ethan makes his way to an abandoned salt mine where he finds a hidden laboratory. After some research, Ethan learns that Eveline is an anthropomorphic “E-series” bioweapon developed from a genetically modified embryo and artificially aged (the ‘young’ Eveline has the appearance of a girl about ten years old) to infect people with a psychotropic mould to control their minds. Side effects of the infection include insanity, strong regenerative abilities and extreme mutations. She grows up with an extreme desire to have a family of her own, which is the reason why she infects Mia and the Bakers. It is revealed that Lucas was secretly working for the organisation. He was given a serum that prevented him from being under Eveline’s control.

With the help of the lab equipment and Mia’s serum, Ethan is now able to synthesise a toxin that can kill Eveline. He returns through the tunnels to the Baker house. When Eveline learns that Ethan has the toxin, she begins to attack him with strong visions and hallucinations to keep him away. Ethan finally injects Eveline with the poison and is surprised to discover that all along Eveline has been the nameless older woman Ethan has kept running into since the initial supper scene, but who has only ever watched him passively from her wheelchair. The poison, however, causes Eveline to mutate into a massive monster that attacks Ethan and that he can only destroy thanks to a special weapon dropped from an “Umbrella” corporation helicopter.

Setting (temporal, spatial)

RE7 is set in the present day (2017) in the Louisiana Bayou. The main action takes place in what at first glance appears to be an abandoned plantation – the Baker property – which includes a guesthouse, main house, old house, barn (testing area), and boat house. Further on in the game, you also come across an abandoned salt mine (including secret laboratories) and a stranded tanker. Notably, the Baker estate is divided into different areas which are each assigned a different family member, and thus also a cinematic genre of horror (see above). The building themselves are dilapidated, but also the salt mine and tanker have been abandoned and have been left to decay. In their timber frame construction, the farm buildings are architecturally reminiscent of the gothic revival style (carpenter gothic) prevalent in the US as well as in the manner of the simple American farmhouse (Dutch colonial) style; also iconised through pop cultural discourses as a paradigm of American building styles. As the game progress, whole game areas become increasingly covered with a type of mould. It is from this mould that the ‘Molded’, persons reported missing from the local area who have now mutated into dark monsters, regularly emerge.  The plantation itself is located in the middle of a bayou, an area of swampland in Louisiana.

Promotional Art of the RE7 Press Kit (https://www.igdb.com/games/resident-evil-7-biohazard/presskit)

Although the game is set in the present, the technology is more reminiscent of the 1990s (analogue telephone, VHS player, VHS-tapes). The architectural style and the condition of the plantation also contains a strong marker of ‘pastness’ and a sense of the game world’s historical past. Masachika Kawata, producer of the game series, also expands on the idea of Louisiana as a setting:

“A lot of horror scenarios take place in rural America as these locations tend to be isolated and are far from more populated cities. So a setting of an abandoned plantation in Louisiana fits in with the sense of isolation that would work well with the horror theme.” (Takahashi 2017)

Spatial isolation and temporal decoupling characterise the Baker Estate. In addition, we see a dissolution of its boundaries in the form of mould, a result of a wrathful nature in league with scientific and technical experimentation in the form of bioweapon Eveline. These elements mark the Baker property out as a threshold space in which unbridled biology becomes a system that connects and assimilates all living beings including the house itself. In their analysis of the connection between illness and spatial design in RE7, McGreevy et al. emphasise that the individual buildings themselves are also representations of the respective house owners. RE7 consequently plays with the idea of the house as an identity marker:

“Resident Evil 7’s reflection of identity appears in balance between the public face and the inner life: the corruption and rot start below the surface and creep into the public space, becoming visible.” ( McGreevy et al. 2020, 266)

The buildings are closely linked to the characters ascribed to them and are also loaded with ideas of gender. In Jack’s house, there are reminders of Jack’s time on the football team, as well as a billiard’s room and a room with hunting trophies. Jack himself hunts Ethan using weaponry with masculine connotations: a shovel, a car (!), a chainsaw. In comparison, in Marguerite’s residence we find a child’s bedroom. In contrast to Jack’s use of brute force, the control she exerts in the house is subtler and can be better overcome by the player by hiding and using stealth. Likewise, her transformation in the final battle is overlaid with ideas of the feminine body:

“Marguerite‘s horrifying final form is a long-limbed creature with an engorged stomach and vulva marked with the same hive structures visible on the walls and the ceiling. This hybridity, the monstrous lower part of the female body, carries on the long-standing tradition of combining the female form with the monstrous […]” (McGreevy et al. 2017, 263)

Ultimately, the house/mould/Eveline is an organism striving for self-preservation and dissolution of its own boundaries, a network that also seeks to take Ethan under its control. Kneale emphasises that such sites of alienation function as a source of environmental contamination (Kneale 2006, 144). Here, it’s worth noting how this contamination increasingly spreads through the Baker estate as the game progresses, as the house becomes increasingly riddled with black mould. It is later found on board the stranded tanker and identified as the starting point of the infection. As well as being a visual marker of danger, the mould also fulfils a game-mechanical function, just as it also represents the superlative of an abject body and territory in terms of the ‘embedded narrative’. Here, the mould’s visible, externalised feeding and digestion process, as well as its transformative potential in the form of the ‘Molded’ as its extension, takes on a ubiquitous, claustrophobic and repulsive quality.

Audio-visual design

As already mentioned when describing the setting, the game draws partially on aesthetics imbued with historical references with a nostalgia for past technology. This is evident especially when playing sections that have been found and played (literally) as documentation of past events on VHS tapes. These sequences are characterised by corresponding colour shifts, image glitches and similar filter effects. Barbara Flückiger rightly points out that:

“the imitated analogue glitch […] is something grafted on, superimposed on the actual process. It does not point to the object of reproduction, but to a process of reproduction and thus forms a multiple referentiality, one could also say a referentiality of a higher order, which is to be assigned to the complex that Barthes called ‘myth’. Myths, in this conception, always occur when a cultural practice adds to pure matter and changes its meaning.” (Flückiger 2004, 425)

In Flückiger’s view, the myth here is to be found in the defective quality of analogue technology represented here as a VHS tape, which at the same time becomes a fiction of authenticity of a recent past::

 “It could thus be stated that contemporary distortion procedures, even if they are pushed so far that they leave the framework of the invisible, ultimately serve the purpose of overlaying mathematically automated processes with an irregular, sometimes even individually hand-generated grid.” (Flückiger 2004, 427)

In RE7, this effect is part of a long series of aesthetic strategies that are intended to give the game world a realistic touch. On a purely technical level, the naturalistic aesthetics are achieved through the use of photogrammetry, the capture and digitisation of three-dimensional objects in a space (mainly) through photography. At the same time, this has the advantage of contributing to a massive reduction in labour, as well as allowing for an unprecedented level of detail (Capcom USA 2020, 52-57).

Fig.: Photogrammetric images for Resident Evil 7. (Source: Tokarev 2016)

This photogrammetric realism allows for an aesthetic strategy that is situated in the field of tension between historicising the game world and creating a sense of the abject. By historicisation I mean that the use of “embedded narratives” in the game world of RE7 clearly indicates its temporal procedurality, its having become. On the one hand, the estate is laid out in a former cultural landscape (the farmland) that has now been reclaimed by nature. But the farm itself is also depicted in its buildings in such a way that it suggests a historical sedimentation process, which implies not only the decay of the farm, but also the accumulation of artefacts, of rubbish and the most diverse objects at the most diverse times.

There are body parts and rotting food,  as well as increasing contamination of the house through black mould and the Molded, the monstrously deformed creatures that emerge from these growths and attack Ethan. Disgust turns the house into a fantastic space, a world of the telepathic murderous fungus superimposed on the imaginario of the real world.

Sound design

It is particularly noticeable when first playing RE7 that musical accompaniment is used only sparingly after the first cut scene where Ethan approaches the house. In contrast to this, ambient sounds, such as creaking wood and the thumping and banging of distant objects dominate the soundscape. In a contribution to Inverse, Rollin Bishop emphasises that it is precisely the inescapability of sound that contributes to the immersive experience of RE7:

“Every little creak, every fridge door opening, and every clack of a foot landing on unsolid ground combines into a cacophonous whole that is impossible to escape. If you get the chance, run around a bit and just touch things while listening to them all. Doors, microwaves, all of it. It’s a delightful auditory smorgasbord. Considering that Resident Evil 7 is meant in part to be a virtual reality experience, the focus on sound makes sense.” (Bishop 2017)

A broad range of sound textures, tones and noises were recorded and arranged, inspired by the style of ‘Musique Concrète’ in order to create an eerie and disturbing atmosphere, adapted to the materiality and architectural organization of the spaces. (Kojima et al. 2017). In this way, RE7 can be seen as following a tradition as established by horror films such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), in which the soundtrack was composed in a similar way (Puddicombe 2016).

As every sound communicates information to the player about the environment, a strong dynamic of silence, (partly dissonant) music and sound effects also contributes to the disorientation of the players: although there are quite specific sounds and noises that can be attributed to objects, these remain unreliable (Soundworks Collection 2017).

Each character also receives an individual sound profile (see illustration), so that a high degree of immersion is made possible by the individuality of the soundscape.

Fig.: Sound profile for Jack. (Kojima et al. 2017, slide 56)

In summary, it can be said that the sound design is above all organic and at the same time alienating. The lurking, invasive moment of the fungal threat and its environment-altering character are implemented in such a way that this sonic level also acts like a threshold between (game) reality and the horror of the impossible, in accordance with the basic idea of fantasy.

Game mechanics/gameplay

In terms of game mechanics, RE7 can be classified as a so-called Metroidvania game, i.e. there are larger, interconnected individual areas in the game that the player must explore. Access from one map to the next is only granted once the player has unlocked the respective doors by collecting certain items, tools, abilities or weapons. This process of successive unlocking is usually coupled with stronger enemies, and in addition, one can/must often revisit areas, as there are spaces that in these areas that can only be accessed further on in the game. In RE7, there is no increase in difficulty during the game’s progress, but within the individual maps, the focus of the gameplay changes according to the individual character traits of the main enemies described. Since each member of the family has been assigned a horror genre (Marguerite: natural/body horror; Jack: slasher; Lucas: torture porn; Eve: supernatural horror) and gender attributions also come into play, the game focus can shift between stealth, escaping, solving puzzles or even fighting, depending on the area.

Promotional Art of the RE7 Press Kit (https://www.igdb.com/games/resident-evil-7-biohazard/presskit)

Another important aspect is that the developers deliberately wanted to go against player expectations of the game. Thus, prior knowledge of the Resident Evil Universe doesn’t appear, at least initially, to bring about advantages in gameplay. This strategy includes placing the player in an unfamiliar house, where he or she must act without any real understanding of the origins of the Molded. In addition, Ethan and the other characters are unknown to the players; it is only towards the end of the game that Ethan is rescued by helicopter by the Umbrella Corporation with a brief appearance by Chris Redfield, who features in earlier games. Moreover, the means of defeating the enemies was not intended to be obvious. So while, for example, popular cultural knowledge tells us that zombies can be eliminated with a shot to the head, this is not the case here with the zombie-like Molded, which undermines expectation. With the main characters in particular, shots to the head have no effect, they keep on regenerating. The players have to find out the best strategy by engaging in ‘boss fights’ multiple times. From the developer’s perspective, such uncertainties also have the advantage of increasing the stress and fear factor in the game.

III. Reception analysis

The relaunch of the game franchise and its return to its roots was well received by customers. By August 2020, a hefty 7.9 million units of the game had been sold (O’Connor 2020). The game was also well received by the gaming press. The meta-database Metacritic registers an average rating of 86/100 points for Xbox and PlayStation 4 (83/100 for the PC version), with a total of 118 reviews for PlayStation alone, which also attests to the public interest in the franchise and the new game. Many reviews commonly refer to the franchise’s long tradition, the first game is especially lauded. But the reviews mention that the series declines in quality (with the exception of Resident Evil 4, released in 2005). RE7 is then evaluated in the light of these expectations that surround the franchise. Writing for the Guardian, Simon Parkin emphasises, for example, that RE7 does not reinvent the franchise, rather it infuses it with new energy, building on its traditions:

  “With a shift to a first-person perspective, Resident Evil 7 looks like a vivid reinvention. In fact, it rigorously follows the template established by the formative games in the series. There’s the complicated house, its various wings and tiers segmented by implausibly contrived locking mechanisms, fed by increasingly ornate keys. There are the virus-maddened monsters that grow in power and appendage over the course of the story. There’s the inventory management, which requires you to meticulously choose what items to carry with you in those mad dashes between safe rooms, places where you record your progress via cassette answerphones. There’s a familiar shift in pace and location near the end.“ (Parkin 2017)

He emphasises that all the above elements are taken up and realised particularly effectively in RE7. Gary Bailey also refers to previous games, but also emphasises the similarity to more recent survival horror games such as the Amnesia series (from 2010), Alien: Isolation (2014) or Outlast (2013). In particular, he mentions the comparatively sparse and slow narrative style that he says heightens the immersion of the players.

“The story is one of the most fascinating things about the game, as it is very sparse in its telling. It drip feeds information to the player, through snippets of dialogue and within the text of documents scattered about the place, but rarely gives you enough to fully put the story together. This makes the overall plot a little more vague and may make it difficult to follow for those not paying attention, but it also allows the player to feel like they’re a part of something.” (Bailey 2017)

In her review for The Escapist, Liz Finnegan points out that she was particularly interested in the Bakers’ family history:

“What was most interesting about the Baker home is that, underneath the layers of rot, decay, and dried blood, there are remnants of the family that once was. Portraits, trophies, a random football helmet. This isn’t a family that was always so insane. There were two stories driving me forward – Ethan’s story and the Baker family’s story.” (Finnegan 2017)

At the same time, she criticises the fact that the puzzles and ‘boss fights’ are too easy to resolve. (ibd.) Reviewers also remark on the extent to which RE7 in designed as a nostalgic potpourri of various hues. Luke W. writes in his review/analysis:

“Let’s get one thing out of the way first: Resident Evil 7 is not concerned with realism. It’s about simulating a horror movie; recreating their grit, visuals, and mood. In this way, it is a simulation of a simulation, and it leans heavily on the history and conventions of the American horror film without ever fully understanding them. You see this in direct, 1-for-1 tributes, such as the chainsaw fight with Jack that evokes Evil Dead 2, or the Saw-like machinations of Lucas Baker’s deathtraps, or the body found in the basement corner in the Derelict House Footage tape, positioned just like the victim in Blair Witch Project. And practically the entire front-half of Resident Evil 7 is pulled straight from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” (Luke W. 2018)

According to a review by Matt S., it is precisely this level of referentiality that ultimately strips the game of its own language. After an immersive and impressive start, he soon notices how overly constructed the game is. He then goes on to say that it felt as if the authors wanted to compile a medley of the scariest horror films. This, and the lack of self-referential humour inherent in the earlier games makes for a game with less atmosphere.  At the same time, he finds that the players are too empowered – for every challenge they are presented with a suitable solution. He concludes:

“Real horror is about disempowerment, and this game forgets that completely. There’s the potential in Resident Evil 7 to be utterly terrifying, but too often it seems like the development team restrained themselves, going for far less horrific imagery than they could have, in favour of generic gore and extreme violence; the stuff that focus groups will tell you is far more commercial.” (Matt S. 2017)

In other words, the game is predominantly praised for its setting, atmosphere and story – criticism is mainly levelled at the gameplay, which is deemed too easy.

V. Conclusions/mythems

Myth 1: The Southern Gothic

“Southern Gothic” is a term commonly used to describe the literary or cinematic imagination of the US Southern states. This usually revolves around the contrasts between scenic beauty and civilisational decay. Matthew Wynn Sivils describes it as an atmosphere evoked by “the common spectacle of abandoned, rusting or otherwise disintegrating shacks, trucks, tractors and other artefacts of a not-too-distant past, which, in their weed-wrapped embrace, seem emblematic of humanity’s legacy in the South” (Sivils 2016, 83). Sivils further emphasises that:

“in so many gothic works the landscape represents more than just a setting; it is a threatening embodiment of the land itself, of that oft abused supplier of our human needs. Such landscapes not only foster an important element of terror, but also represent a sort of warehouse of cultural and individual anxieties relating to the social issues in play.” (Sivils 2016, 84)

Southern Gothic contains themes of racism that go back to the era of slavery in the United States, here blending with other forms of horror, and is an expression of an inescapable past that comes back to haunt us. Sivils continues:

“the landscapes of the South are haunted by the threat of a shallowly buried cultural contagion, one that threatens to expose humanity’s monstrous legacy and to spread that legacy from the past to the present. That is the great fear of the Southern landscape: that its pestilence will not merely frighten us with horrors exhumed from days gone by, but that even buried those horrors continue to poison the land, as well as those who reside within its influence.” (Sivils 2016, 92)

In this way, the crumbling outposts of civilisation in the bayous of the southern states are at once pathological and invasive, something which is also found in RE7. Here, it is the stranded tanker, a symbol of a failed modernity, also reminiscent of the failure of modernity in the face of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005. In RE7, it is a hurricane that sweeps away Eveline, whose origins are in the perversion and violation of nature, to the swamps of Louisiana where she takes control of the Bakers and robs them of their bodily and human integrity. The pioneering spirit of the frontier myth tips into the opposite here, the inhabitants of the swamp are, as Bernice Murphy describes it in her genre-defining analysis of the “Rural Gothic”, taken over by a vengeful nature and turned into savages, cannibals (Murphy 2013, 134-135. The bayou and the dilapidated and labyrinthine Baker plantation as the epicentre function as a threshold space here (Murphy 2013, 3). It requires someone from the outside, the systems engineer Ethan Hunt, to reveal this perversion in order to put an end to it, and forcefully reinstate a state of civilisation. The struggle between nature and civilisation, a constant element of the Southern Gothic genre, is also shown in this constellation. Ethan, an engineer who lives in Los Angeles, travels from the urban centre of (pop) culture to its rural periphery. As a missionary of rational (presumably democratic) reason, he has to take on the degenerate (presumably republican) country dwellers. The narrative of degeneration and mutation shown in RE7 is based equally here on assumptions  of antagonism between nature and culture and between technology and nature. Through its literary tradition as a Southern Gothic topography, the localisation of the setting in the Louisiana bayous provides an effective framework for such a constellation, both in terms of content and aesthetics.

Myth 2: Family/ mad science

One of RE7’s central themes is the disintegration of the family. The nuclear family, consisting of three to five members, is not only a central place of longing but also an anchor of ‘Western’ culture, a place that promises a secure and reliable future. It offers then a place of retreat as well as structure. At the same time the family, with its intricate relationships between members, also offers a repository of negative connotations which are constructed primarily through intergenerational and gender-related power relations. Abuse and revenge, envy and hatred provide a fertile, charged breeding ground for tales of conflict.

Promotional art of the RE7 Press Kit (https://www.igdb.com/games/resident-evil-7-biohazard/presskit)

The family has then – perhaps unsurprisingly – been a prominent theme in horror films since the late 1960s if not earlier, mirroring perhaps the processes of social change that accompanied this period, such as the breakdown of traditional patriarchal family models. From Night of the Living Dead (1968) to Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976), The Last House on the Left (1972), Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) or The Hills Have Eyes (1976), a proliferation of films can be observed in which evil either infiltrates ideal family worlds in various forms or families themselves become agents of evil (Williams 2015). Jordan Peele’s Get Out! (2017) and We (2019) can be added to this tradition, as can Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) or Midsommar (2019), or John Krasinsky’s A Quiet Place (2015).

In the context of RE7, there are three variations of the same theme. First, we have the Baker’s, a classic nuclear family with two children. Secondly, there is Mia, who forms a stand-in single-parent family with Eveline (with the Baker’s as an add-on) as well as Ethan and Mia, who are married but still without children. In their constellation, the Bakers represent the deconstruction of a stereotypical family structure, as caricatured in The Simpsons, among others: the stupid, violent father, the housewife, the rebellious son, the precocious daughter.

In RE7, the characters in their assigned roles and constellations are exaggerated to the extreme, thus ultimately expressing the crisis at the heart of patriarchal family culture, an idea also present in the films referenced by the game (Jackson 2016, 2). At the same time, RE7 departs from this template, as in this case, with the exception of Zoe (as the representative of a female reason) the whole family succumbs to violence. Jack, Marguerite and Lucas give free rein to their brutality, to their desire to possess Ethan and their sadism. Aside from Lukas’ sadistic experiments (which he carries out quite independently of Eveline’s influence, having taken an antidote to protect him from her powers) the parents seem to have lost their minds due to Eveline’s telepathic sway and the mould. We are reminded repeatedly that they were once a normal family, evident in the embedded narratives of the house. Later in the game, Ethan also has a brief vision in which he sees Jack when he was still sane. These elements ultimately counteract the technocratic modernity symbolised through Eveline’s destructive invasion that rips through nature, house and man, transforming the family into savage, backward hillbillies you would expect to find in a Southern Gothic setting (see above) : the historical view shows the ideal of normality from which the family has been snatched.

In addition, the “family” that Eveline so forcefully adopts is also characterised by the skewed relationship between technoscience and society. Eveline can also be considered a marginalised victim who rightly demands the normal trappings of childhood. As a technological construct, she displays the will but does not possess the emotional intelligence of a child. Her violent and coercive acts are in vain, because as much as the ideal family image she so desires spurs her on, it is ultimately unobtainable. At the same time, as a shape-shifter (and thus as a personified threshold space), she is scarcely in a position to ever be able to establish a ‘normal’ relationship with her environment. From the perspective of Luhmannian systems theory, she herself metonymically creates an environment that imitates the family system within the limits of her possibilities, but ultimately cannot grasp its language or finds herself at odds with the system and cannot be integrated.

However, she can disrupt this family system to such an extent that it can no longer propagate so that the family unit falls prey to collapse. She herself is actually part of the social system of science and, conversely, her longing for the family here also creates so much turmoil that the system can no longer be maintained, creating a Mad Science that has a structural effect on nature and the environment, on the Bakers’ estate and on the Bakers themselves. The black mould, the product of science, grows unchecked. There is no corrective that can possibly hinder it here.

Finally, Ethan and Mia represent the promise the idea of family holds. Married but childless, the game’s premise is that Ethan longs to fulfil a social (and biological?) imperative. Thus, the entire game is an attempt to restore the couple to the status quo of their former relationship. However, it remains unclear whether Mia shares Ethan’s view of a future together, given that she voluntarily agreed to be absent herself for a long period of time as part of her mysterious work for The Connections. It is possible that this is another instance where traditional family images and more modern models of life collide.

Myth 3: Evil corporations

The overarching meta-narrative of Resident Evil is the unethical approach of corporations to science and society. At the centre is the Umbrella Corporation, a multinational conglomerate active in cosmetics, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, industrial machine production, consumer goods, health foods, the transportation industry and tourism. The Umbrella corporation also operates in illegal areas, developing biological weaponry, including the viruses that trigger the zombie scenario underpinning the game series. However, in RE7, the Umbrella corporation only appears at the end as a Deus ex machina plot device, when Chris Redfield, hero of earlier RE games throws Ethan a weapon from a helicopter with the blue Umbrella logo on it with which to eliminate Eveline in the ‘final boss fight’. As the Umbrella corporation has been dissolved and re-established several times, it is difficult to say what this latest iteration stands for.

There is also limited information to be had about The Connections, the main ‘evil corporation’ of the RE7 game, except that they are Mia’s employer, they provide Lukas with an antidote to Eveline in exchange for his services, are responsible for not only the laboratory set up in the nearby mines, but also for the tanker that transports Mia.

This syndicate then is the underlying cause for all the events that unfold in the game, and on the narrative level is also the MacGuffin that makes plausible the transformation of the Baker plantation. This depiction in itself is bold and simple, and insinuates that The Connections too has sinister interests for the sole purpose of increasing profit and/or acquiring power, as with the Umbrella corporation that features in earlier games of the series. In the same way that the bioweapon Eveline literally absorbs the Baker estate and its inhabitants and repurposes them into her prosthesis, The Connections also operates within the sphere of conspiracy and neoliberal ruthlessness with respect to the consequences of their actions.

The Evil Corporation, like the aforementioned Mad Science, thus represents the strategy of making plausible the infrastructure of an alienated, unbounded technocratic and neoliberal modernity.

Myth 4: Gender

As already discussed above in the context of the family, RE7 perpetuates existing media stereotypes of dysfunctional families and conceptions of roles. In particular, Jack and Marguerite, in their grotesque and exaggerated representation of fatherhood and motherhood, extrapolate these ideas. This is taken to the extreme, when Marguerite transforms to become a perverted monstrous symbol of femininity. She becomes the queen of the insects, with a monstrous pregnant belly reminiscent of a wasp’s nest, a deformed vulva and long spider-like limbs.

“Marguerite” (Promotional screenshot of the developer)

Jack, on the other hand, exudes a strong male toxicity leading up to his transformation into his ‘final boss’ form. He lashes out at Ethan with phallic weapons such as shovels and chainsaws with no regard for collateral damage. At all times in the game he is a force to be reckoned with – a stalker bent only on destruction. To be fair, the game doesn’t necessarily show him much clemency because, after all, he is simply reacting to Ethan who he sees as an intruder and, in the end, is defending his family. Mia and Ethan seem almost like antitheses of this toxic masculinity and femininity. They constitute the ideal state of bourgeois reason, chastity and restraint that must prevail.

To a certain degree, both Mia and Zoe have been cast in the role of the “damsel in distress”, to be saved by the game’s hero (while at the same time being depicted as strong, independent women). What is striking here is that the portrayals are somewhat ambiguous, i.e. the stereotypical image they project often falters. The game therefore seeks to establish identity constructs based on gender ascriptions, but these also fall apart. In the end, RE7 fails to generate new perspectives on family, on women and on men precisely because of these contradictions. Whether this is due to aspects of Japanese culture, the environment in which RE7 was developed, would have to be examined.    

Myth 5: Illness/ health

No Resident Evil game can be without a depiction of illness, because a zombie pandemic is virtually the core of the franchise. As with previous Resident Evil games, RE7 does not attempt to realistically depict illness, but rather presents an amalgamation of mental disorders and somatic diseases. As a consequence, disease and infection are also equated with social deviance in RE7, or rather brought into a causal relationship. The more advanced the disease, the more ‘insane’ the infected become with the result that the Jack/Marguerite ‘end-boss’ mutants signify a complete dissolution of all human, and especially moral, values. But even in this respect, RE7 is not consistent: Ethan’s wife Mia in particular displays schizophrenic characteristics. However, in Ethan’s presence, Mia reverts to her normal mode of behaviour time and again. RE7 perpetuates images that stigmatise mental disorders, whereby the game follows the tradition established by many narratives about illness in popular culture.

Concept art from the RE7 Press Kit (https://www.igdb.com/games/resident-evil-7-biohazard/presskit)

Above all, RE7 is also interesting because of the spatial externalisation of illness: the mould infestation on the walls represents a kind of prosthesis of Eveline, who is herself a personified pathogen. She exercises her telepathic as well as physical power via this pathological fungal network. In this way, the Molded, the people she has transformed into monsters, regularly emerge from the black structures. The mould is ideal for this representation, on the one hand because, depending on the context, pathogenic effects are attributed to it, and on the other hand because fungi are neither animals nor plants, but instead represent their own, third kingdom of eukaryotic organisms. In addition, like animals, their growth depends on organic substances, i.e. they live either as parasites, by decomposing dead organic matter or in symbiosis with other living organisms. Lastly, they also have psychotropic properties that presumably can have a mind-altering effect on those who consume or are infested with them. All of the above-mentioned characteristics have negative cultural connotations, so that mould itself carries a negative image. In this halfway position (neither plant nor animal), the fungus also resembles a virus, and even goes one step further by encompassing characteristics of both dead and living matter. The black mould is therefore sinister, opaque and like a tumour it constantly spreads throughout the Baker property, programming and reframing everything. At the same time, it is also suited to the humid swampland of the Baker plantation. It is the culmination of the aforementioned myths: a product of Evil Corporations and Mad Science, nature’s revenge, a force that destroys society and the family.


Recommended QuotationArno Görgen,  We are Family! (Case Study: Resident Evil 7)“ in:  Horror-Game-Politics, <http://hgp.hypotheses.org/1627> 11.01.2022


Games

3909 LLC (2013): Papers, please. 3909 LLC.
Capcom (2005): Resident Evil 4. Capcom.
Capcom (2012): Resident Evil: Revelations. Capcom.
Creative Assembly (2014): Alien: Isolation. Sega.
Galactic Cafe (2011): The Stanley Parable. Galactic Cafe.
The Fulbright Company (2013): Gone Home. The Fullbright Company.
Red Barrels (2013): Outlast. Red Barrels.
Yager Development (2012): SpecOps: The Line. 2K Games.


Movies

A Quiet Place. 2015.
The Blairwitch Project. 1999.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre. 1974.
The Evil Dead. 1981.
Der Exorzist. 1973.
Get Out! 2017.
Hereditary. 2018.
The Hills Have Eyes. 1976
The Last House on the Left. 1972.
Midsommar. 2019.
Night of the Living Dead. 1968.
Rosemary’s Baby. 1968.
Das Omen. 1976.
Wir. 2019.


Literature:

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