Asinine Topic: Resident Evil 4’s “Horror-ness”

This picture is not out of date, I swear.

If you run a site about video games, or read message boards about video games, or even give Wikipedia articles on video games a passing glance, you are sure to find people arguing about asinine details of unimportant topics. I’m sure this is true for all kinds of subjects, especially those that have to do with popular culture, but since most of my internet surfing time is devoted to video game related sites, I’ve noticed it most dramatically in relation to video games. This site is no exception, of course, and today I am going to present an argument for an asinine detail of an unimportant topic that I’ve seen come up a few times: whether Resident Evil 4 should be considered a horror game or not.

There are a few arguments in particular on this topic that I want to address, and I’ve enumerated them below. My real message here is that classification of media is an inexact science, and therefore it is pointless to argue the particulars of any particular classification. That’s a little academic and esoteric-sounding, though, so I’m going to use RE4 as a way to ground that assertion.

Point 1: Resident Evil 4 is an action game, which means it can’t possibly be horror..

This is a very narrow-minded viewpoint that I’ve come across several times. The idea, I guess, is that horror games, particularly survival horror games, are required to scare the player by de-emphasizing combat or making it arduous. Previous Resident Evil games have rationed ammo and health, the Silent Hill series prefers bludgeons to guns, and games like Siren make combat extremely difficult on purpose. As I’ve written about in the past, many horror games seek to make the protagonist more vulnerable by weakening them in combat in order to increase tension.

The problem with the idea that action and horror are incompatible is that to believe it you must assume that there is only one right way to make a scary video game. Consider horror film: we have no problem lumping Child’s Play, Jacob’s Ladder, and Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu into the same “horror” category even though all three of those films are very different. I think the key requirement for a horror game is that it must attempt to be scary any way it can; whether that is achieved by making the player vulnerable or rationing save items or using excessive darkness is just a detail.

I also think that Resident Evil 4 is very clearly designed to scare the player. The key difference between it and previous Resident Evil games is that the protagonist is much more deft at combat and ammo rationing has been removed from the equation. But think about how the Los Ganados swarm Leon from every side; consider the unkillable Chainsaw Man; recall the tension that is induced by those goddamn Regenerators; remember how the first encounter with a Verdugo made you dread the second. These are all classic Resident Evil-isms: they are the developers using over-the-top monsters to put the otherwise tough-looking protagonist in a weak position to induce fear. Making Ashley’s life the player’s responsibility has a similar effect, as does the extremely personal camera perspective. The fact that Leon cannot move and shoot at the same time should be a clear indication that the developers didn’t want to make him so competent that he is never in danger. Compare their approach to the one used in Gears of War, which takes many of its stylistic cues from Resident Evil 4 but fails to induce tension in the same way.

Point 2: The controls in Resident Evil 4 are too easy. Other Resident Evil games made controls difficult in order to increase tension.

I am constantly astounded by this perspective. Perhaps it’s my experience as a games developer that makes me feel this way, but Point 2 is so wrong in

Holding up to run towards the camera can’t be done in a lot of games.

so many ways. It’s true that the earlier Resident Evil games were known for their difficult control scheme, but the idea that such a scheme was intentionally used in order to make the player feel even more vulnerable is nonsense.

Here is why the original Resident Evil control scheme was made the way it was. When it came out, the Dual Shock controller with its analog sticks had yet to be released; the controller that came with the PS1 only had a simple D-Pad. Most 3rd-person 3D games then (and now) employed a camera that followed behind the player, rotating with the player’s movement; when the player pressed “up” on the D-Pad, that translated into “forward” in the world, where forward is whichever direction the camera is facing. Resident Evil, on the other hand, used fixed cameras, cameras that never rotated or moved from their position. This style of camera was a requirement, as Resident Evil used pre-rendered backgrounds (the fixed perspective also helped Resident Evil be so scary). The problem with that approach is that the definition of “forward” changes with every camera cut, and the player has no idea when that is going to happen. If you are holding up to run forward down a hall and then suddenly the camera cuts to an angle perpendicular to the previous view, your character would rotate 90 degrees and run straight into the wall. To compensate for this, the developers at Capcom made the control scheme local to the player rather than related to the camera. Thus “up” on the D-Pad moves the player in the direction that their character is facing. This way the player can run forward across any number of camera cuts without worrying about their character accidentally changing direction.

The problem with a character-centric control scheme is that it makes no sense to people at first. The camera-centric scheme that most other games employ makes a lot of sense, and so to play Resident Evil people needed to train themselves to be able to drive their character around like a tank. A few years later Parasite Eve would mostly solve this problem by allowing the player’s movement direction to persist across camera cuts; this approach was eventually polished and made standard by Devil May Cry. But in 1996 when Resident Evil shipped, the only reference for this type of game was Alone in the Dark, which used the same sort of control scheme to solve the same problem.

Resident Evil’s awkward controls were designed out of necessity, not because they served another purpose. If the developers had really wanted to make the control scheme difficult, they wouldn’t have included the auto-aim functionality when shooting. More recent Resident Evil games (such as the GameCube remake) have featured other, better control schemes (Type C is awesome) without damaging the horror elements of the game at all.

Point 3: Resident Evil 4 isn’t horror because it is missing < insert favorite feature from previous games in the series >.

A surprisingly large number of people can’t get past the fact that the game says Resident Evil on the box and yet the content is so different from previous games. I don’t really know what to say to these people; just like everything else, video games change and evolve. You don’t have to like the new format, but I think that you are fooling yourself if you believe it to be intrinsically inferior to the previous format. It’s a different design with different goals, but it reuses characters and themes from the rest of the series. That’s not complicated, right?

And there you have it. As promised, this was a lengthy rant on an asinine detail of an extremely unimportant topic. I feel like I’ve done my part to contribute to the internet, and no longer have to worry about getting into some flame war on a forum in order to fill my asinine topic debate quota for this month.

32 thoughts on “Asinine Topic: Resident Evil 4’s “Horror-ness”

  1. Well stated. The impersonalization of emails and forums creates a situation that allow people to be much more aggressive than normal social standards dictate. No need to be polite or think about what is being stated, just hammer out the first thought and send it on. Most of the asinine comments come from this essence, and so do the flame wars. If people would attempt to be socially polite, arguments would be disagreements and might even have value.

    Open mindedness is something everyone claims to have, but few actually practice.

    I don’t consider it horror simply because it doesn’t horrify. I don’t consider it resident evil because — other than the main character and the title, it just isn’t.

  3. > zeroth

    See Point #3. I think you are confusing your personal preferences (“I didn’t find it scary”) with the objective nature of the content.

  4. I always thought RE4, despite the leaning towards out and out thrills, was horror. You’re still fighting monsters and mutations, it’s just upped the visual ante.

    And if anyone wasn’t a tad freaked out when Dr. Salvador and his chainsaw appeared, or when they had to get back in the boat before being eaten OR EVEN that frantic wait for the lift while being chased by that monster…well, they’re just lying through their teeth.

    I liked it. It’ll always be a bold step in the right direction and if someone doesn’t like it, Who cares? There’s always alternatives like AITD and Silent Hill 5.

    > Chris

    that may be, but it has nothing to do with the controls. On the contrary, I really like the controls in RE4.

    Tentacles pop out of their heads! What more do you need to classify this as horror? I shoot em in the damn head. Head goes pop. Now they have tentacle head! That is horror!

    Chainsaw maniac. Check. Parasites that want to burrow under your skin and take over your body, check. Large hideous boss monsters, that’s a great big check. This shouldn’t even be an argument.

  7. > zeroth

    Huh? Point 3 is about applying personal bias to the classification of this title. Point 2 was about controls.

  8. Most of the time it didn’t scare me but it sure was tense as hell. Those damn ganados always made me jump a bit when one of them starts screaming right behind me without me noticing….

    > Chris

    ah, I misread.

    I accept that games change and evolve (and in some cases devolve), but you have to draw a line somewhere and say “[this] is [this], but [that] isn’t”. Resident Evil isn’t just a name you glob onto a game; it’s a universe with it’s own atmosphere and story. The more you change that, the more it becomes something else. If Capcom slapped the name “Resident Evil 6” on the next Devil May Cry game, that wouldn’t make it Resident Evil.

    It is the familiarity that makes something what it is in comparison to it’s predecessors. For me, the experience was largely non-RE. That’s not to say it wasn’t a good game.

    All we’re really arguing is philosophy and semantics. it’s different for everyone, and I would want it no other way.

  10. > zeroth

    Your making exactly the argument I complained about in this post. Whether or not RE4 is faithful to its predecessors or not has no bearing on whether it is a horror game or not. The RE series is not the be-all end-all of horror games; a game that has the RE name on the box can still be a horror game even if it doesn’t play like previous games in the series.

    I think what you want to say is that the game didn’t feel like Resident Evil to you, which is a fair opinion. But to say that the game isn’t horror because it doesn’t conform to some arbitrary standard (even one defined by earlier games in the series) seems somewhat nonsensical.

  11. I think one of RE4’s biggest problems isn’t that its action oriented, but that the game does not take itself seriously, turning Leon into a cheap action hero and the storyline into a cheap action storyline that would appeal to Americans (Terrorism is on the minds of Americans these days and Capcom knew this which is why it made a simple “Terrorist” plot).

    The problem with the new action controls is that they oriented everything around shotting as much as you can (you recieve points and ammo for taking down enemies, avoiding enemies and taking a “survival” method of operations is not rewarded, etc). Resident Evil should not be a shoot ’em up, because it removes the horror effect – If you can take anything and everything then you have no reason to be scared. Leon’s cocky attitude didn’t help.

    So basically the problem with RE4 isn’t that it’s a horror game that is action bent, but rather that it is an action game that his horror bent.

    And in response to #3, I don’t think the concepts and characters are similar to the previous series at all. Superficially, Leon is Leon and Ada is Ada but they don’t act in character, especially in the context of RE2. Also, although RE4 includes B.O.W. that is the only real connection between it and the rest of the series. For that reason, RE4 IS too far away from the rest of the series.

    > Chris

    you’re mixing up my two main points in this whole conversation, and they aren’t relevant to one another.

    The first, that I don’t consider RE4 to be a survival horror.

    The second — which I’ll discuss right now — that I don’t like what RE4 has evolved into. RE4 doesn’t have the typical atmosphere that I’ve come to love and expect of any RE game. It’s turned into something not even remotely farmiliar with what it once was in it’s previous popular tites. It’s not the controls, the perspective, or anything like that. There are a lot of strange elements that didn’t sit well with me: buying items, diablo-like inventory with micromanagement, fighting waves of enemies, and actual battle tactics for defeating bosses just to name a few.

  13. This is so awesome! We’re totally arguing about an asinine topic! BLOG POST SUCCESS!

    > Ayuspeed

    I understand that you didn’t find Resident Evil 4 as effective as other games, but surely “not taking itself seriously” isn’t a reason to discount a work as horror? How many thousands of horror movies in the 1980s and 1990s have reveled in their own campiness (I mentioned Child’s Play, but there are enumerable others). Surely being less than serious doesn’t preclude something from being horror?

    > zeroth

    I think I’m confusing your points because you are presenting them as one and the same. As for your second point about not liking the direction Capcom took with RE4, that’s totally up to you: I’m not here to tell you that your opinion about the game is some how “wrong” or anything.

    What I’m interested in is your first point. Let’s throw out the “survival” part of the qualifier because the exact definition of “survival horror” is quite fluid and subjective. You said previously that you didn’t think that RE4 is horror. What I’m interested in is how it can be anything else? I don’t see any other thematic genre that fits RE4 as well as horror. Don’t you agree?

    > Chris

    I’ve been mingling definitions, so I appologize for that.

    in my opinion, RE4 qualifies as horror but not survival horror.

  15. I find it hilarious that a posting complaining about forum arguments as to whether a certain game is or isn’t “horror” immediately started a discussion exactly like what you were talking about!

    That said, this is one of the reasons why I hate the term “survival horror” I prefer to just call games horror games, since the phrase survival horror is so closely linked to RE that if any game is NOT like RE then people assume it’s not a “survival horror” game, whatever that means. And the notion that something isn’t horror because you don’t find it scary is absurd. I personally have never been scared by a Dracula movie, but if I said Dracula wasn’t horror, I would be laughed at.

    Its action horror, not survival horror, because they never make you feel that its anything more than difficult for leon, you never feel hes in a completely hopeless situation, or that theres a slight chance he wont make it.

    and youcant really call discussions asinine, becuase you yourself are just expressing your view, as am i with mine, other people wont and dont need to agree with each other s theories since no two people see the same thing in the same way.
    There is no definitive answer you can give to this argument im afraid. well you can, but its only one you alone will agree with.

  17. Totally agree with Chris. I’m tired of reading Resident Evil 4 is not survival horror, or even more ridicule, that the Siren games are not survival horror. Only beacuse they have different game mechanics comparing with RE.
    But the fact is that RE4 contains genuine moments of horror as we have always seen them in the movies. Not before we have played through an assault from outside the house like we did n RE4, for example. Yes, there’s more action, but this is beacuse there are more enemies, and zombie movies are about masses of crazy people attacking you, not about one or three zombies you kill in a room.
    May be thats because I didn’t find so easy killing all enemies and preserving ammo, and I consider myself a good player.

    The main thing that differs Resident Evil 4 from the rest is that it’s more action-oriented than the others.

    The previous games followed “George Romero’s school”: zombies, few resources, run to save your skin, etc.
    Also, as you said, the control was awkward ’cause when the first RE was released, there was no Dual Shock. Even on RE2 Dual Shock Edition the controls itself didn’t had any change from the regular version. I think that they used the same engine, with some small changes here and there, that’s why the control is so awful. To create one engine takes time, from 3 to 5 years, and more 1 or 2 years to get the game done, usually.

    In RE4 they did a new engine and tried a new approach: it’s more like Evil Dead series, but without the humor. In Evil Dead, the main character (Ash Williams) isn’t easily scared and rather to blows things up with his “boomstick” than to think or run like a scared lil’ girl. But to add the fear factor, they put a lot more tension. ‘Intelligent’ enemies, which can open doors (ok, you can find this in Alone in the Dark 1, so it’s not that new) and they can kick back your grenades back at you if you’re not careful. Besides that, of course, some stuff like the chainsaw maniac, that are just for the player know that it isn’t going to be a walk in the park. Leon can be a lot better fighter now, but an hero is only good as his/her villains are 😉

  19. > hellsing

    Yep, I’m expressing a view. I’m making an argument. I have a bone to pick. Not everybody will agree with me.

    But the point I was sort of trying to make (along with my gripe about how people judge things superficially) is that this entire discussion, including my original post, is amazingly pointless. Asinine. Trivial. It really doesn’t matter in the slightest what category we file this game under–it’s all subjective and arbitrary anyway, and it produces nothing constructive.

    I admit that this post was written with the express intent of baiting replies and sparking debate. I was sort of hoping to thus communicate that 1) superficial judgement isn’t constructive (RE4 has all sorts of interesting traits when examined closely), and 2) people take meaningless details (such as exact classification of this title) way too seriously, and spend a lot of energy arguing about exceedingly trivial topics.

    I agree that too much emphasis is put on game classification, but it’s hard to say that all discussion about it is pointless. All this discussion comes from a desire to influence future titles or just figure out why certain things are better or worse than others – such is the whole meaning of this site.

  21. I’m not saying that it isn’t horror. I’m saying that it’s weak horror.

    It’s just like I can draw scribbles on paper and call it art. It may be bad art, but its still art. Bad art.

    I also find it interesting that you don’t think its right for gamers to expect something familiar when they buy the next installment in the series. RE4 is so far from the rest of the series that it really wouldn’t matter if they made it a new series. There’s no reason to continue the storyline, as they obviously don’t plan on actually working on it anymore.

    Ask yourself, why does RE4 have the title Resident Evil? What makes it Resident Evil?

  22. *head to desk*

    I hate you all. This is truly an asinine topic. I had no idea this was even a point of contention in the survival horror community. Much as I hate them Something Awful was right. The internet does indeed make you stupid.

  23. I think it is most definitely a “survival horror” game. I can only speak to my personal observations, but parts of it were some of the most tension-filled gaming I have experienced. Particularly the sections with the Regenerators/Iron Maidens, the Verdugo battle, and especially the part where you’re racing through the suspended cargo crates, being stalked by that huge something-or-other (I forget the name)… that had the classic “I don’t want to continue, but I have to” survival horror hallmark.

  24. My proverbial two cents: RE4 is obviously horror themed. It isn’t, however, very scary at all: like Yahtzee so succinctly put it in Zero Punctuation, the inbred freaks that mob around you start out creepy, but then you realize you can blow all their heads off with a single shotgun blast and it all turns into a big old laugh. Despite the horror theme, I felt more menaced in Half-life 2 than in RE 4.

    I don’t really buy the presence of the survival aspect in this game because survival is so easy in it. Outside boss fights, you greatly overpower your enemies and almost never need to conserve ammo, let alone avoid combat. Finally, there is practically no adventure aspect at all, since the whole thing is a tunnel run with barely any puzzles past the “use key on door” level.

    For these reasons, I cannot label RE4 “survival horror”: there is no survival, and only the thinnest veneer of horror. I label RE4 with the same stamp I do Soul Reaver and Devil May Cry: horror themed action games.

  25. Sorry formy bad english.

    The videogames are as the music, as the time goes appear new styles and categories that the critics/people need to cataloge, to identify the styles that they likes and seek similar music.

    When a group see that the last disc didnt sell as they thought, they change the style turning more commercial, and od course they sell more. But the original style is contamized/evolved.
    At the beggining horror games are more oriented to survival. But as Chris presented in a wonderful report, the survival horror produce low benefits. So what is the solution, mix the original concept with another games styles that has a lot of better sells. And it explains Resident Evil 4.

    Resident Evil 4 for me, are two games, the first part, for me the best of the game, is action horror, with some scenes of survival. The second part is almost action. it converts in a military war simulator. The boss mosters and very little scenes are the only link for this part with the horror genere.

    As final remark. The main style is called horror games. inside that category are action horror, as house od the dead, and survival horror as silent hill. Surelly will appear new horror games with new ideas that will reinvent the main genere creating new sub-styles.

  26. Chris: “This is so awesome! We’re totally arguing about an asinine topic! BLOG POST SUCCESS!

    Cheers! I’ll add a leet laughing-smiley face to complete the atmosphere XD It’s funny how the most trivial of things can spark rampant debate and anger amongst the masses. As for the arguments you’ve mentioned that people make- I have to say this quite frankly isn’t even really about how “horror” Resident Evil 4 is; it’s nothing but a cover complaint for people to argue and show they’re dislike for the game. Don’t get me wrong, you don’t have to like the game or be scared by it (different things scare different people, so arguing about how scary it is happens to be rather ridiculous in itself), but let’s not sling mud on the game under false pretenses.

    Xombie Hunter: “I hate you all. This is truly an asinine topic. I had no idea this was even a point of contention in the survival horror community. Much as I hate them Something Awful was right. The internet does indeed make you stupid.”

    If you hate the people here then why bother coming back? There’s going to be ridiculous arguments in every topic that exists in the world- it’s just a fact of life. And the internet doesn’t make people stupid- it just allows people to express their stupidity… and on a disturbingly large scale.

    Anyways, Chris is just pointing out the bizarre topics and making sense for how they don’t fit their own arguments. I don’t see why there’s even debate going on here, but that’s just me. Some people just argue for the sake of arguing, too, I guess.

  27. Subdividing genres is pretty irrelevant overall. If you want to put things into perspective, every game is potentially a Role-Playing Game, since you play the role of a character in a game. I always loved that one, because it fires everyone up.

    What’s funny about this is I remember back when I posted more avidly in your forums several years back, you were asking about what specifically defines horror…and even then nobody could come to a definitive agreement on that subject. So if we can’t even classify horror overall completely, how can we be expected to subclass horror from there with any real degree of success?

    Or maybe I’ve got it backwards and we subdivide horror so that it’s more easily rationalized and recognizable.

  28. ok look i have to agree that this whole thing is rediculous and pointless but some of you have really struck a nerve with me saying that RE4 is not horror lets put it this way it is “horror” in morst aspects yes i agree it is not survival horror as much as it could be classifyed as action horror, so all you pepole out there trying to claim your right that it’s not horror can just shove it where the sun don’t shine this game is horror i can not understand why you pepole insist on saying it isn’t look at it this way you start off in a location you know little to nothing about you stumble across a little town which all you know about is that something is horriably wrong then you get jumped by the towns pepole which just apper crazyer then loons then you happen to have to fight a guy running around with a sack on his head and a chainsaw in his hands whats not horror about that.
    As for this whole RE4 has nothing to do with the rest of the seris thats rediculous you say leon isn’t like leon anymore well i won’t say your wrong but i won’t say your right either hes older in this game then in RE2 with more training of course hes going to be more cocky and more tough hes been through alot.
    Now i’m truely sorry if i offended anyone with this post but if you take this so much to heart take it up with capcom and stop your bitchin now i have expressed my veiws on this topic so to all have a scary horriable day.

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