Resident Evil 7 begins and ends with wide, aerial shots of a Louisiana bayou. The swamps seem to go on forever, huge expanses making the road a car travels down look like a thin piece of rope laid out across the landscape. Once the player takes control, the camera moving focus to look out from the eyes of protagonist Ethan Winters, the immensity of rural America becomes claustrophobic, limited to the narrow viewpoint of a single person. It’s only at the game’s conclusion, as a helicopter flies far above the bayou, that anything like that previous openness returns to the game.
There’s a purpose to this. Resident Evil 7 is a horror game, meant, for most of its run time, to make the player feel trapped in a bad situation. Once he’s left his car just outside the mysterious Baker family’s house, Ethan is at the mercy of forces larger than himself. He heads into a likely dangerous place hoping to find his missing wife Mia, but whatever agency he exercises in heading to the Baker’s is stripped away from him as soon as he realizes he’s walked into a deadly trap. In short order, Ethan’s hand is chopped off, he’s tied to a chair by the deranged Bakers, and, after escaping his confines, learns that he’s stuck on their grounds, hunted all the while by various family members.
The Baker house is big enough that it requires a map to navigate. This is partially because it has several floors and plenty of rooms. But, aside from its size, there are also its halls and staircases, blocked off by locked doors, impassable piles of old furniture and trash, secret passageways and compartments hiding new areas.
Ethan’s first task in Resident Evil 7 is simply to get out of the house itself—to avoid leech monsters and the immortal, mutated Jack Baker while scouring the cramped halls for items that allow him to press on. But even escaping into the rest of the grounds makes it clear that he’s not going anywhere unless he can take down every member of the family keeping the gates to the outside world locked. The game’s establishing shots make it clear that there aren’t any neighbours to hear cries for help and that running off into the woods or swimming out through the murky swamp would likely be just as dangerous as facing off against any number of murderous Bakers. Even beneath a wide open sky, free of the house, the game is claustrophobic.
All of this is meant to be scary, and it would be if Resident Evil 7 was able to do more with the sense of isolation it creates. The idea of being stuck in a single place—one so remote that even escaping from the killers’ home doesn’t mean a return to the safety of civilization—is a horror staple. In film, there’s the same interplay of house and the American South in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the cabin and the woods in Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, and, more recently, the New England wilderness of Robert Eggers’ The Witch. In games, there’s the deep sea facilities of Frictional Games’ SOMA and the space stations of Creative Assembly’s Alien: Isolation. Each of these examples plays with the idea that escaping a terrible situation requires more than just getting away from the source of danger. In them, the wilderness of rural communities and the inhospitable expanses of space and sea mean that survival involves returning to other people—fleeing to the comfort and security of places where it isn’t entirely up to the individual to overcome whatever’s trying to harm them.
Resident Evil 7 understands this on its surface, capably constructing a setting that makes players feel well and truly trapped. But it’s unable to commit to its premise. The game is most uncomfortable in its first hour, when nothing but the Baker’s property and house are given as context for what’s to come and when the player feels completely alone in a bad situation. After this, the game stumbles over and over again until any of the fear its opening might have created completely disappears.
The Bakers show up and, with repeated exposure, reveal themselves to be more funny than scary. Telephones start to ring and Ethan learns he’s not alone with a bunch of murderers, but actually close to Zoe, someone who seems to know all about what’s going on. He gets a high-tech smartwatch that allows him to manage his supplies and talk to anyone who messages him. Any sense of loneliness is chased away, replaced by one set of characters turning from monsters to cartoons and another offering comfort, support, explanation, and a sense of minimal community to the horror.
Ethan might be stuck where he is, but, despite the setting doing so much work to establish he’s far from help, the game decides to dismantle this effect by providing a line-up of other people. It’s a baffling decision for a game meant, at least in part, to scare.
Resident Evil 7 works best when it embraces the goofiness of its characters and shuts up long enough to allow the grunge of the Baker property to both set a mood and suggest a level of menace its writing isn’t capable of creating. In these moments, the game works simply as spooky-flavoured action and it’s easier to let its aesthetic speak for itself. The deliberate rhythms of simple puzzle-solving and monster-killing are easier to appreciate when the player, having accepted that the dread of Resident Evil 7’s initial hour isn’t going to return, allows herself to give up on finding any further, long-lasting scares.
This is a disappointing problem to find in a game whose supposed break from series continuity and design conventions promised a way forward from years upon years of repeated mistakes. Again the tone is muddled, swinging between attempts at outright horror and needlessly complicated sci-fi. Again the series feels unsure of what elements worked in its past and which should be left behind. And again, it ends in a scramble to be everything for all people, lacking confidence in any one vision for what Resident Evil is or can be. Far from being a game that explores the terror of isolation, it resounds with outside voices at every step.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared in Kill Screen, Playboy, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.