RE7 VR: Dissecting the Shortcomings of a Horror Title

I, like many horror enthusiasts, have known about the wonders of Resident Evil for the majority of my media-filled life. With the release of Resident Evil 7, I distinctly remember setting aside time in my middle-school days to huddle under my covers and watch my favorite streamers play their way through the jump-scare filled medium. Yet, when it was finally my turn, I never experienced the same high that they seemed to emphasize.

RE7 served as a landmark for horror games. Deviating from the series prior iterations, RE7 took an approach more closely focused on puzzles, complex layouts, immersive graphics, and resource management. These attributes, when coupled with the ever-looming threat of what may-or-may-not kill you, made for an extremely compelling experience for myself as a child. This has changed now that I have gotten older, and as ‘horror’ games have navigated into the VR realm, it begs the question – within the format, can they truly continue to be considered horror games?

Cornelia Schnaars comments on a mechanical shift in Redefining Horror within the VR Genre, writing “The controllable camera enables a three-dimensional view that can constantly be adjusted, granting players more control over the environment. Combined with abundant weaponry and improved combat and aiming systems, the player no longer  feels as helpless –even when facing  hordes of enemies.” (182) This was distinctly notable within RE7, where I found myself now more focused on the challenging navigation mechanics and the rather…odd strategies needed to engage in combat. This disjointedness was felt both in and out of VR. Again, Schnaars comments on this, saying “These visual and mechanical features are essential to gameplay, as they “create a player-avatar relationship that sacrifices control and predictability for perceptual unease and cinematic horror.” (186) As the player, I was forced to rely on my sense of perception to navigate the spaces put in front of me. However, the actual presentation of the mechanics were counterintuitive and confusing, leading me to escape the sense of immersion to instead focus distinctly on how I chose to navigate. Enemies were also leveled in a startlingly different manner, they were incredibly easy to defeat within RE7 VR. What this meant, then, was that over a short period of time I was desensitized to their level of “threat” because given my resources, I could easily outmatch them. 

With that, can VR horror really still be classified as horror? When talking to Emily about this question, she postulated “Well, what if horror games are limited to their sense of enjoyment because we don’t have enough genres to accurately define them…what if RE7 was instead a game marketed with a thriller context?”

Within film, the genres “thriller” and “horror” are distinct labels that carry vastly different meanings. Neil Chase, a screenwriter, clarifies the two, stating “horror is focused on eliciting a feeling of fear in the viewer or reader, while thrillers are designed to generate suspense and excitement.” So, given the limitations of VR, RE7 may in fact fall into the thriller category due to its lack of true audience fear, instead opting to provide its layer with a new sense of intrigue, excitement, and suspense.

“Since VR is still in its technological infancy, it is prone to errors and glitches and, like early survival games, it is saddled with technological limitations.” (183) Then, how do these limitations break a sense of player immersion, and as a result tend RE7 from the horror genre to the thriller genre? One major note of compensation throughout RE7 VR was the amount of ammunition they provide you with, coupled with the scaled enemies that fall much quicker. And, alongside the increase in ammunition, I actually felt that the aiming mechanic was much more accurate within RE7 VR despite it being less realistic. With a crosshair situated on the center of your screen, your aiming was entirely up to how you chose to position your head, ignoring what direction your body faced in-game. Furthermore, although aiming with my head felt unnatural at first, after picking it up I was much more accurate than in comparison to when I used handheld controllers outside of a VR playspace. 

RE7 VR, for myself, lacked that sense of fear that is integral to the horror label. Sure, at times the occasional jumpscare did get me, but it turned formulaic overtime, becoming predictable. I learned how to most efficiently navigate spaces, avoid enemies, and utilize the safe zones within the game to optimize how I chose to move around. My position as a player turned from reactive to active, and I gained the agency (and ammunition) to simply steamroll my way through sections without really caring about conserving my ammunition too stringently. This all served to change any residual fear into excitement, and I no longer found myself worried about what may or may not happen to me.

Finally, moving away from the mechanical nature of RE7, I feel the fantastical nature of the monsters significantly diminished any sense of fear I was experiencing, as their disjointedness and lack of humanity made me less scared. For instance, Jack was the most fearful entity throughout RE7 because he “appeared” as I did, that being human. His invulnerability, however, was a stark contrast from how damageable I was, and he was an ever present, unpredictable force within a space I felt was familiar. Only then was I afraid, because as I moved forward the enemies became less and less human and I no longer had a set ‘expectation’ as to how damageable they should be. For Marguerite, Evie, and even Jack III, their lack of humanity eradicated my fear, now amping me up and adding to the sense of suspense and excitement.

RE7, despite its downfalls within VR, is still a fantastic game that served as a landmark within the horror game industry. RE7 may be formulaic, but it is an immersive experience regardless of what format you choose to play it in, and I highly recommend you try out RE7 VR if given the chance. While it feels less like a horror game and more like a thriller, it still serves as a memory-filled game and one I will enjoy playing for years to come.

Katherine Waterman

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