Genre, as a tool for cinematic analysis, didn’t really come into its own until the 1960s. Drawing on their literary predecessors, critics during this period were able to develop and deploy the key tenets of genre theory in their efforts to analyze the Studio Era films of the ’30s and ’40s. These tools continue to shape our own filmic interactions today, and while few have turned their critical eye toward questions of genre and gaming, there is no better place to start than the survival/horror genre.
While many of survival/horror’s conventions can be traced back to early home consoles and arcade cabinets, most consider Capcom’s Sweet Home to be the first true survival/horror game. Atari’s Alone in the Dark, which debuted three years later, brought the genre to the U.S. Since Alone, little has changed.
In 2005, however, Capcom released Resident Evil 4. Both a critical and commercial smash hit, RE4 lays claim to survival/horror by incorporating the set pieces and themes that define the genre, but goes beyond rehashing what has worked in the past. Game designers drew more liberally from the canon of generic horror conventions – in essence, creating the quintessential survival/horror gaming experience by mirroring what’s made horror movies so successful. It is by examining these generic elements that we can come to a better understanding of how and why RE4 took such a monumental step in defining a genre and redefining what genre in gaming can be.
Genre is about economy. By sharing a mutual language, creators and consumers agree to communicate things that would only waste valuable exposition time. This concept makes genre an even more powerful tool in gaming because, unlike films, which are passively viewed, the space of the interaction is the space of the story. Designers, therefore, must rely more heavily on our shared assumptions when integrating plot into the gameplay.
In genre-based films, we identify with onscreen characters that act against common sense or social norms with an expectation of future actions that either reward or punish that behavior. When our expectations are met, we receive genre pleasure.
Think about how many times you’ve sat and watched a slasher film with someone only to hear them complain, “Why is she going into the woods all by herself?!” In reality, we know why the character insists on wandering off alone. In fact, we expect her to wander off alone, and it is through these expectations and their accompanying fulfillment – when the unsuspecting scream queen gets hacked to pieces – that we derive pleasure from watching genre-based films.
In much the same way, games are developed to match consumers’ expectations. In fact, one might argue that virtually every narrative game is built around the idea of affording the gamer as much genre pleasure as possible.
Take Grand Theft Auto. We all know that the rampant violence in GTA contradicts virtually every moral statute of our society. Nevertheless, when we take control of the character, spraying bullets and performing sordid tasks, we get satisfaction from our actions. This is because, in the game’s diegesis, our actions are not just warranted, they’re expected. Genre pleasure, that warm feeling you get when you see a dead hooker on the ground, is our reward for breaking free of our social constraints in an exercise in fantasy.
In film, the ability to provide genre pleasure can be the difference between continued box-office success and failure. Today, the horror genre remains a draw for a number of reasons; chief among these is the theme of the return of the repressed. Horror incorporates many of the hidden desires and drives that permeate our unconscious mind. The death drive, the expression of infantile narcissism and the breakdown of “family values” all have their part to play here. Horror turns a mirror on our innermost fears and anxieties, and by exposing our own frailties, allows us a respite to carry on with our daily lives.
Horror films represent, as critic Robin Wood wrote in his essay, “Return of the Repressed”: “at once the personal dreams of their makers and the collective dreams of their audiences – the fusion made possible by the shared structures of a common ideology.” This comment rings even truer when we approach the question of horror in games. Instead of being mere spectators to a slasher massacre or monster run amok, we are asked to take up the controller in active participation with the nightmare – to not only watch the hero vanquish the manifestation of our repressed anxieties, but to vanquish them ourselves.
When Capcom created RE4, one of the first and most important decisions they made was to move the setting to Europe. This opened a great many doors for them, including the ability to create atmospheres that would be wholly unbelievable if the game were set in the modern day United States.
In the game’s opening, the scenery provides a clue as to where and when we are traveling. Knotted, barren trees fill the scene as we look through the front windshield of a police SUV jostling down an unpaved road. This type of rural wooded area is a popular setting in horror films (think The Hills Have Eyes). Rural and sparsely populated land produces the sustenance that drives urban and suburban life. Because of this disparity, horror cinema has been the vehicle through which the subjugated get their revenge by terrorizing the civilized that wander too far into the woods. A version of this theme plays out in the first part of the game.
As the car slows and one of the policemen exits to relieve himself, we are treated to another easily recognizable convention of horror cinema. From a first-person perspective, the camera crawls through the bushes, alerting us to the presence of unseen actors. Because we recognize this effect from virtually every slasher film since Psycho, it serves to further heighten our generic expectations.
Once out of the car, Leon, the main character (now controlled by the player), approaches a rundown house. This set piece again plays to the difference between the urban environment of the previous survival/horror games and the exploited rural landscape. Inside the house, Leon asks a lone man if he has seen Ashley, the President’s daughter, who we have been sent to find. The man yells something in Spanish, then picks up an ax and frantically attacks Leon.
Firing at this crazed attacker, we’re granted our first instance of genre pleasure. Unlike reality, we can dispatch our problems here with a gun. Approaching the body, we are able to “Check” it. The game tells us, almost humorously, “He’s not a zombie.” While it may seem like an aside, this information sets the entire plot in motion.
Continued exploration reveals a slew of human skulls rotting underneath the stairs. Leon can only remark to himself that he hopes Ashley is safe. At this point, our escorts are thrown to their death as a group of decidedly un-zombie-like beings besiege Leon. The action takes off and rarely subsides for the remainder of the game.
RE4 is a game cut into three parts: Village, Castle and Island. In each of these settings, generic conventions culled from decades of horror films and written into our culture continuously shape and reshape our gaming experience. In the Village, Leon encounters Los Ganados, “the cattle.” We learn that Los Ganados are possessed by Las Plagas, a parasite unleashed by a Sr. Salazar, under orders by a man called Lord Saddler. Critics of zombie horror have long drawn the connection between Marx’s proletarian bodies, exploited by the bourgeoisie, and the possessed bodies of the undead, dedicated to a lifetime of consumption.
Once inside the Castle, a whole new slew of horror conventions confront the gamer. The castle’s main hall conjures memories of Tod Browning’s Dracula. The Gothic architecture works in conjunction with images of the unholy Los Illuminados cult (to which Salazar and Saddler belong) to play on various generic motifs.
We learn that Las Plagas were released from underground. This, coupled with scenes of Leon battling giant bug-like creatures in the sewer, emphasizes the theme of a rotten foundation, or bad land, below the Castle – a common part of many horror staples, including The Black Cat and, more recently, Poltergeist.
The Island setting is straight technological horror. It is here that Saddler’s experimentation with Las Plagas is revealed, as Leon must dispatch the seemingly invincible Regenerators. The dangers of technology are addressed in many horror films (see any Cronenberg film), which manifest as Leon passes through laboratory areas with half-finished experiments and esoteric, threatening devices.
Perhaps the most important change made in the game mechanics of RE4 was fixing the camera behind Leon, providing a tight third-person shot through which the player could experience the action. Through this move, Leon has become every protagonist from every horror film ever made. He is the lone survivor; steadily trudging into the dark when all our instincts tell us it’s a bad idea. And as the player, it is actually us proceeding into the dark, receiving (when we’re not getting beheaded) our genre pleasure.
Genre is a tool that both informs and drives our understanding of a text. In film, this practice has been commonplace since the 1960s, but as RE4 demonstrates, genre has its part to play in videogames, as well. By utilizing the economy of shared genre conventions, Capcom was able to create the highest achievement in survival/horror.
Films from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu to Devil’s Rejects and Hostel allow audiences to face their fears, but games demand more. In RE4, we become Leon as we move into an unknown world filled with unspeakable evils. The powers that drive Lord Saddler lurk in all of us, somewhere below the surface waiting to be awoken like Las Plagas. Wielding a Punisher or Riot Gun, all we can do is battle back, allowing ourselves a glimpse of the repressed, but no more. We might buy the game for the fright, but we don’t receive our true genre pleasure until the sun rises on a new, peaceful day and evil has been laid to rest once again.
Jon Schnaars is a freelance writer with interests in genre and representation in gaming. He blogs full-time about issues in psychology and mental health for Treatment Online.