When I was a kid I remember being intrigued by watching water striders skitter across the surface of a pond or a pool. The idea that these tiny insects could skate across the surface of water, rather than swimming through it, seemed like magic to my young brain. Of course, it wasn’t magic; water striders simply have an innate understanding of surface tension.
Maintaining tension is precarious. Getting it right allows the insects to go about their daily lives. But should they apply too much force, the delicate balance will be upset, the tension will collapse, and the water strider will drown. The same concept applies to fictional narratives. In many stories, maintaining just the right level of tension suspends observers in a flow state where they are engaged without being frustrated, challenged without being stymied.
But this requires a constant adjustment of force: Removing yourself from that balance, even for a little bit, bursts the narrative bubble as the tension that was carrying the story forward breaks down. When that happens, players typically end up either bored or frustrated, sinking to the bottom of the pond rather than skating effortlessly across it. Resident Evil 7 begins by asking players to take a walk of faith across the precarious looking surface of a grimy Louisiana bayou, promising that the game’s incredible tension will carry them safely across. But partway through the game’s opening hours, the force dragging them forward slackens, and the effect is undone.
Resident Evil 7 makes good on its promises in its early act. With little in the way of direct exposition, the player is thrust into an unfamiliar environment with barely any information and even less help. The trite “find your lost wife” trope is uninspired, but considering it really only serves to justify the rest of the game’s tense moments, it’s not egregious. Viewing the game through the protagonist’s eyes—a first for this series—immediately invests the player in his well-being: What happens to Ethan happens to us as well, a point that is driven home time and again in the cramped corridors of the Baker household.
The combination of unfamiliar environment, incomplete information, and a general creeping malevolence that hangs over the Baker estate like swamp gas pulls the player tight right from the get-go, and the game’s earliest moments are its strongest. Slinking through the dilapidated house, evading Jack and Marguerite Baker between cramped and noxious corridors is genuinely frightening, especially once the game introduces that the Bakers seem to be immortal. The player has to “kill” Jack multiple times—watching her handgun bullets dwindle with no real beneficial effect, other than buying a minute to search a room. The tension in these early segments is pulled along by the constant knowledge that if you linger too long you will be brutally killed, and it lends Resident Evil 7 an air of desperation and vulnerability that transcends simple jump scares.
But tension is a fragile thing, and can be broken in two main ways: Either you stop applying the necessary force to keep the balance, causing the tension to slacken and break, or you apply too much and the bubble pops completely. In horror fiction of all types, the latter occurs commonly—a wander through a darkened corridor, lamely punctuated by a jump scare is what horror looks like once the driving tension of a scene reaches critical level and can no longer hold out. Good horror is a process of guiding players along an ever-tightening string of dramatic tension, leading them through increasing escalation until they reach a—usually scary—dramatic payoff.
Such a process represents a good, more nuanced breaking of tension. But the rhythm of horror can always be awkwardly broken, too. If the pace drops too far, then the line slackens and the intense payoff moment is ruined. Sadly, this is common in Resident Evil 7. Its early stages feature incredibly tense scenarios—they have the benefit of a vacuum-sealed chamber, conducive to cultivating the perfect conditions for horror. But to maintain this effect, players must always know exactly where to go and at what time. Once the bread crumbs are too sparse or the signs too opaque, the player will find herself going in (often literal) circles trying to figure out what to do next, replacing tension and immersion with frustration and growing annoyance. These moments are numerous in Resident Evil 7, a game so bound by the conventions of its own history it almost couldn’t help but get in its own way.
A big part of this failing is simply that Resident Evil 7 overstays its welcome. The essence of horror is uncertainty. Once you acclimate to stress and tension, however, the videogame environment becomes familiar and normalized, and in the case of RE 7 you’re eventually burdened with too much exposition which to good horror is anathema. In this way, Resident Evil 7 (and horror games in general) exemplify two diametrically opposed instincts: The notion that good horror needs to remain confounding and short, and the notion that videogames need to be above a certain length to justify their existence through providing a minimum amount of content.
Some of the best horror games are short, minutes-long affairs (Which by Mike Inel comes to mind), providing players enough time to experience a spooky atmosphere but also leave them with unanswered questions, and no unnecessary exposition. Characteristically, tension cannot be sustained for very long—if you try and hold a wire taut (or a narrative for that matter) for too long, it will either snap or slacken in the ways outlined above. Resident Evil 7 starts to slacken about half way through, and by the time you reach the game’s abysmal ending, all of the magic stirred up by the incredibly evocative opening hour has drained away completely. It’s like you’re playing a completely different game.
Horror thrives on tension; more than anything else, tension is experiential. Game design leans heavily on constant action and the logical “A-to-B” progression structure. But atmosphere and vulnerability are essential components to creating a tense environment, or one that is truly scary. It takes guts to develop a game that is committed to both creating and preserving that high level of tension; practically all the common accouterments of game design have to be jettisoned. Methodical objectives, constant character development, and the knowledge that the player always has the tools to solve any on-screen problem must be set aside if you desire to craft a game that is truly frightening. Resident Evil 7 begins this way, with its new setting hinting at its desire to break from established norms and try new things. But this artful experimentation quickly melts away, revealing underneath the same videogame structure upon which this series has always rested.
Patrick Lindsey is a Boston-based game critic who likes to focus on narrative and thematic design. In addition to cohosting the Bullet Points podcast, he also co-edited SHOOTER, an ebook anthology of critical essays on shooting games. Follow him on Twitter @HanFreakinSolo.