How Resident Evil 7 Startles Us

by Jacqs M.

In Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, a variety of techniques are used to create feelings of horror, but for this post I will be focusing on the startle effect. According to Robert Baird, there are three core elements needed for a film’s startle effect: 

  1. A character presence, 
  2. An implied offscreen threat,
  3. And a disturbing intrusion into the character’s immediate space.

As a video game that’s also been adapted for VR, does Resident Evil 7 follow the same rules for the startle effect as established for films?

[For all the scenes I discuss I will give a timestamp from this video, a no commentary walkthrough of the game. There will also be some graphic images.]

In class we discussed some scenes where the rules applied. Firstly, the scene where we encounter Mia in the Bakers’ house is already unsettling from the “we’re gonna be a family” lines and conflicting dialogue from Mia. When we walk down the dark stairs and Mia comes crawling up and then starts stabbing us (00:29:50), with screeching, tense music in our ears before Mia stops and knocks herself out, we get two of three elements. First, the character’s presence (Mia, coming out of nowhere in a creepy crawling position), and second, the disturbing intrusion into the character’s immediate space (stabbed through the hand). When she gets up and pushes us through a wall before we take her down with an axe (00:32:15), the missing element is introduced — the implied offscreen threat now that we know Mia defies typical logic. So when she comes back and eventually cuts our arm off with a chainsaw (another instance of the disturbing intrusion), we have all three elements (00:36:20). We know she’s out there somewhere, probably getting back up and finding a way to attack us again. However, I feel as though I can argue that even before that official implied offscreen threat is introduced, we still feel startled when we see her crawling up the stairs. Does the general looming threat stemming from just being in the ominous Baker house, as well as the dead birds on the road and the missing persons news articles, constitute enough of an implied offscreen threat? Or do we need to know that Mia is indestructible to be wary enough of her to be startled by her?

Mia cutting off Ethan’s hand.

On the other hand, there is another scene that more closely follows the traditional rules for film. There is a scene later in the game that we did not get to during the screening where we try to get help from a police officer that has somehow shown up outside the garage (00:57:00). When we let him in, we get zero cooperation from him, and after a short conversation, we see Jack loom up from behind him with a shovel and cut his head in half. Here, we know that Jack is somewhere in the house after just being chased by him, giving us character presence and implied threat. Then, the intrusion happens when the officer’s head is sliced and Jack starts targeting us again. This is somewhat similar to the example Baird gives with Alien, where a monster (in our case, Jack) moves towards the main character/camera out of nowhere and we have a “horrified, frozen reaction.” 

The officer being attacked from behind by Jack.

There’s one more scene I’d like to look at that is even later in the game, when we play as a Clancy Javis setting up a “birthday party.” His job is to light a birthday candle and put it on the cake, but there is a leaking doorway that sets out the candle when you go to the room with the cake. You must find a very round-about way to get this done, involving three startling moments. One has an ugly skeleton machine suddenly grab our arm and carve a password into it (3:03:10). A second has a balloon filled with large nails and a quill pen explode and imbed themselves in our hand and stomach (3:02:30). And lastly, when we finally put the candle into the cake, it explodes and kill us (3:05:00). These three moments don’t have the presence of some malicious evil monster or character, and I feel as though the implied offscreen threat is a bit fuzzy and non-traditional. The character knows that the birthday cake challenge is dangerous and has some hidden threat, but the threat isn’t exactly offscreen. We see the threats over and over as we walk through the rooms and see the skeleton, balloons, and cake. In this case, the requirements for the effect are less defined.

The nail-filled balloon moments before it explodes.

This complicates the straightforwardness of film’s startle effect. In VR, we get even further complications. As mentioned in class, not all requirements are needed for a startle when you are not viewing the character and rather being the character. You can be guided to look behind you and have a startle from that. With more advanced VR, you can be startled by anything that you would also be startled by in real life. Baird also mentions that “viewers can be startled by film sound and motion in part because the systems that immediately attempt to judge sound and visual motion make no distinction between real and apparent motion, or real and amplified sound.” With VR, I believe that there is even less distinction between real and fake, and startles are even easier to achieve because there is less to ground players in real life. You can’t just look away from the screen when you’re wearing a headset, and you don’t get constant reminders that the film isn’t real when you’re sitting in a comfy seat and hear someone else in the theater sniffling. (Unfortunately, I can’t talk much about the startle effect in VR for this game, since I didn’t get a chance to play it with the headset.) In all, I think that Resident Evil 7 is an interesting game to study startles in due to the variety of applicable scenes.

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