What Games Qualify As Horror?
If it’s not horror, what is it?
Where do Resident Evil 5 and Resident Evil 6 fall, if not into the horror genre? Into the “action” subset is probably the best way to define them, but even that seems to lack a full definition of what the Resident Evil series has become in its latest iterations. Resident Evil 6 still makes attempts at building atmosphere and dread, does its best to hold back your ammo, and throws the occasional pop-up zombie your way.
Resident Evil 5 works hard to recapture some of the elements of Resident Evil 4, which, despite its greater action focus, still managed to create panic situations and throw difficult, frightening enemies into the mix. There’s a difference between the situations seen in Resident Evil 4 and those of Resident Evil 5 and 6, even though the latter two obviously are drawing inspiration from the former. So why do they fail to scare, and why don’t they feel like horror?
One big possibility is the focus on set piece action sequences and over-the-top “thrills.” Most Resident Evil titles, and most horror titles, have no such sequences. They’re much more understated, often for the same reason that horror movies wait to reveal their monsters or killers: the imagination provides more scares than what you can see, and neither of the latter Resident Evil titles leave anything to the imagination.
There’s also a glut of creatures to fight and monsters coming at you, but it’s very rare — if ever — that either RE5 or RE6 feel overwhelming or hopeless. Neither game limits the player in a meaningful way; as I pointed out in my recent Resident Evil 5 review, Chris and Sheva are ultimate badasses who run willingly into danger. There’s no fear they won’t survive, or that something might step out from behind one of them and kill them before they can react. They’re superheroes, and superheroes have no place in a horror story.
The same is true of Resident Evil 6, even when the game tries to build dread or put you up against an unstoppable foe. What might happen to you (or, really, your character) fails to be scary because there’s no surprise, and no real expectation that you’ll come up against something you can’t handle.
Maybe at its simplest, horror requires the very real possibility not just of danger, but of failure. Though failure can happen in Resident Evil 5 or Resident Evil 6, one never approaches a room fearing that what’s inside might be some terror that can beat them. And it’s more annoyance than scare when the creature wins.
Does horror preclude action?
With their action-heavy leanings, the question is inevitable — is it all the shooting, running and exploding that takes the fear out of Resident Evil 5 and 6? If the action emphasis is overtaking the horror underpinnings, does that mean the two can’t exist together?
For that answer, we might look toward the Dead Space series. The first two titles in Dead Space are easily enough considered horror, whether one particularly likes them or not; they inspire fear and dread and focus on those responses. They fit our definition.
Dead Space and Dead Space 2 provide the player with plenty of firepower, however. Especially as the games wear on, there’s no lack of weaponry for Isaac to use to dismember whatever monsters come his way as he moves through the Ishimura or the Sprawl. Dead Space manages to dial back the player’s capabilities in other ways: providing newer, tougher monsters to kill, using jump-out scare tactics, and leaning on its atmosphere. You might be loaded for bear, but you don’t always feel like your gear will be enough. One scene in Dead Space 2 that features a horde of child-sized monsters highlights this beautifully — even with all the ammo in the world, you’re just one guy against a swarm of creatures.
So on its face, no, action doesn’t necessarily kill the horror. But the balance has to be struck in order for the two to coexist together. Too much action and the result is Resident Evil 6; not enough, and the game becomes something else, more akin to titles like Penumbra.
And of course, the idea of horror is, as always, subjective. Game Front’s Ron Whitaker pointed out that under the working definition in this article, he could place the space-sim rogue-like FTL: Faster Than Light in the horror genre for the feelings it generates in him. But it does seem clear that the most effective games we consider horror have a clear goal in mind — bring failure to the player, but leave it hiding around a corner, just out of sight.