Around the Halloween season, I like to play a game with horror themes to keep me amused. With zombies enjoying their time in the cultural spotlight, as The Walking Dead’s popularity can attest, it’s only appropriate that I pick a game that features the shuffling undead. So this year, I’m playing Resident Evil 6.
Resident Evil 6 promises scares, gore, and thrills; it delivers on the latter two, and tosses the first out the window. Zombies are the enemy of the day in this game, however, you are allowed to arm your character to the teeth with handguns, knives, bombs, and assorted other firearms. Thusly kitted out, the hordes of zombies you face pose little threat.
I am disappointed. I was hoping for something frightening enough to make me at least jump out of my chair, and instead I find the undead, who bore me. Resident Evil 6’s zombies are lumbering, shuffling, infected half-dead things, and while they’re fast when they want to be, they aren’t frightening.
These zombies are slow, intent on causing you harm, but they’re easily dealt with. They shamble along, moaning, whimpering, covered in blood and body fluids, but they are not frightening. Aggressive play ensures that the player makes it from scene to scene, dispatching undead along the way. When the zombies start growing more aggressive, the player responds in kind. There is something oddly therapeutic about the game, I observed to a friend; nothing is quite as satisfying as plowing through a horde of zombies unopposed.
While the game can’t frighten me with its creature-feature tactics – I roll my eyes at each dark corner, because I know there’s a zombie standing in it; I’ve seen enough late night horror films to know how this works – it does keep me playing. It’s an enjoyable game, a perfectly serviceable game, but on the surface, it isn’t scary.
Digging into the game proper, however, revealed something that was frightening. It wasn’t a quick fear, it was a slow building tremor, a sour taste in the back of the throat that emerged into a wrinkled nose, and a softly uttered, “Whoa.” The fear was revealed not in the undead hordes, but in what made them that way, a virus. Unseen, invisible, a disease that kills people and leaves monsters in their stead. Worse, it’s a disease manufactured by people to be used on others, with the intended consequence being chaos, panic, and death.
Now that is something terrifying.
Imagine it. People turned into something unnatural by science, manipulated from within, their blood and bodies turning on them, corrupting what was human and natural, and creating something horrifying. It transforms a person into something that can be destroyed by a firearm or an explosion, but you’ve only stopped one carrier, and there are hundreds more out there, each one infected by a disease that’s spreading.
Resident Evil 6 takes this to a bitter extreme. Efforts are taken to protect a populated area, to prevent it from being attacked. The effort fails, and the game’s characters are left to watch as more people fall victim to the disease and each other.
How’s that for fear?
It reminds me of a book that terrified me when I was a teenager, a book that I still read once a year.
That particular book is Richard Preston’s ‘The Hot Zone’. Chronicling the emergence of the Ebola virus in the late 1970s, and its eventual appearance in a laboratory in Reston, Virginia in 1989, the book is a non-fiction “thriller”, as much about the science of infectious disease as it is about the real-life dangers of unknown viruses, and the people crazy enough to try to figure out how these diseases work, and how they might be defeated. With the detached fascination of the unsqueamish, Preston discusses the gruesome results of the Ebola virus, a disease classified as a hemorrhagic fever, that almost literally liquefies a human being from within. Following this, he blandly reminds his readers that a virus of this kind “lives within a twenty-four hour plane flight from every city on earth.”
It’s a virus, an organism that doesn’t know friend or foe. It simply exists, and acts according to its nature. It’s a scorpion without a frog to question its reason for doing what it does. It just acts.
This book scared me years ago because it seemed impossible. Nature cannot be like this, I wanted to argue; nature isn’t intended as a delivery system for horrors like this. How naïve teenagers are, believing that bad things only happen in the movies, or in places far, far away from home.
Resident Evil 6 knows this.
It’s not the virus-borne zombies, nor the twisted monstrosities that were previously people, that are the frightening elements of this game. It’s not even the resulting chaos of people turning on one another as they struggle to survive the onslaught. The real fear in this game comes from what the player is not seeing, this virus, this magic bullet of the natural and the unnatural, delivering a glimpse into a “what if” scenario.
It’s fiction, of course, and the game certainly doesn’t place the player in the role of a weak observer. Across the story, you play as a government agent, a highly skilled soldier, and a mercenary, as well as their respective companions, characters that compliment their styles of play, while also wielding an assortment of firearms. As Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw might say, “the comforting heft of heavy ordinance” does wonders for a player’s piece of mind when it comes to zombies and other assorted critters, no matter the game. A physical threat can be easily beaten back.
It’s the invisible threat, that one that we’re not looking for because we’re too busy seeing what’s on screen, as opposed to listening to what the – admittedly convoluted, silly-dialogue laden, and cliché-heavy – story is telling us. The real terror is made in nature, perfected in a lab, and unleashed to promote maximum chaos, to destroy the world from within. Resident Evil 6 might be the most terrifying game on the market right now. It’s a pity that the zombies get in the way.
About the Author:
Alexandra Geraets is an fan of story-driven video games. She's an even more avid fan of exploring how and why they resonate with all of us. Her essays have been found on Village Voice Media.
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