Resident Evil 7's [official site] demo, Beginning Hour, isn't available on PC but the final game will be in January 2017. I've played through the demo several times and have some doubts as to how it'd translate into a longer game, but I also think it's the most exciting thing to happen to the horror series since Resident Evil 4. The key to it all is found footage, an often maligned term thanks to the many movies that treat a handheld camera or webcam as a stand-in for a decent script. In Beginning Hour, however, VHS tapes hold the promise of something truly startling and sinister.
Beginning Hour is astonishingly good at what it does, and what it does is scare people who play it while ensuring their curiosity keeps them paying for the entire running time. That running time, incidentally, is less than the hour in the title. It's beautifully minimalist. You're in a house of horrors and, as the sole direction you're given states, you should "get out of the house". What follows is one of the finest uses of a single set I've ever seen in a game.
Even if you didn't get a chance to play it, you probably heard about Silent Hills PT. The 'PT' stands for 'playable teaser' and the download was a short horror experience, set in the corridors of a house that loops around on itself, growing ever more sinister. It's a piece that has already been hugely influential. While it's unfair that any game containing a corridor and a fright is now likely to be compare to PT at some point, its distinctive style was apparent in the now-cancelled Allison Road and appears to have influenced Capcom in the creation of this demo.
It's not just the fact that both are set in a creaky, creepy claustrophobia-inducing haunted house, it's their entire structure, right down to the fact that both have an air of secrecy and exclusivity, given the nature of their release. Neither were teased before release because they are themselves the tease, and some similarities to Silent Hill 4: The Room aside, neither have a great deal in common with the series they are apparently teasing.
That latter point is more applicable to Resident Evil than to Silent Hill. The latter series is flexible, the titular place and its appearance and meaning shifting from one game to the next. Resident Evil has an ongoing narrative though. It's as broad as a barn door and sometimes just as wooden, but the conspiracies, the characters and the various viruses are all part of a mythology which, last time I checked, didn't incorporate the kind of isolated familial terror on display in Beginning Hour.
Both PT and Beginning Hour are examples of exquisite short-form horror fiction. They're perfectly constructed interactive ghost stories, self-contained and packed with details, and both have been scrutinised as thoroughly as that Cliffnotes guide to Ulysses you bought right before going on a date with a literature graduate (don't worry; they hadn't actually read it either). Neither demo, however, is proof of concept for a full length game. An anthology of similar experiences, sure, but even six hours in this style would be draining, not only for the player but in terms of the resources necessary to create larger environments with this degree of fidelity and detail.
Capcom have already warned that Resident Evil 7 and Beginning Hour may not be cut entirely from the same cloth. Director Kōshi Nakanishi had the following to say, just after the reveal:
The demo, just to be clear, isn’t a slice of the game. We really want to focus on what concepts we want players to understand about the game with the demo, and that’s horror. This is a tonal preview of what to expect in the game, rather than a little bit of game content you’re getting in advance.
He appears to confirm that the full game will played from a first-person perspective and is clear that it is a sequel rather than a reboot. But while it takes place in the campy world of Jill, Leon, Barry and the rest, Resident Evil 7's route to the scare factory is built on helplessness.
I think one of the places we got in the series up until now is you’re kind of playing these superhero characters. They’re fully equipped, powerful people who go into these survival horror situations but they’re ready for them. They can take it on. We’re not really talking in too much detail about who they are right now, but they’re an ordinary person stuck in an extraordinary situation. I think that really brings the horror right to the fore. You wonder if this person you’re playing as – or you – will be able to cope with this situation. That’s a real feeling of helplessness that helps the horror stand out.
It's a noble aim, scaring people by stripping away all of their defenses and dropping them in a dark haunted place, but having played through the demo several times now, I've been struggling to work out how it would translate into a longer game. There's an obvious answer, and that's to bring on the guns and the combat after the first hour or two, switching gears and giving the player a way to fight back. Alien: Isolation, which is one of the few games I both love and wish were significantly shorter, wisely varied its adversaries and treatment of the player at several key points, but still struggled to find new tricks for old monsters in its final hours. A more striking example is Layers of Fear, a game which works fantastically for half an hour and then repeats its scare 'em up tactics so much that they become almost laughably absurd.
It's the closest full release in the style of PT and Beginning Hour that I can think of, and serves as a fine example of the limitations of the form. For all of their trickery and clever mysteries, both teasers rely on slight changes to the environment and excellent sound design for most of their scares. That and startling imagery – not quite jumpscares, but close. PT did reveal some clever secrets, discovered in a fashion befitting an alternate reality game rather than a free demo, but attempts to decipher Resident Evil's weirder elements (a finger that might be but definitely isn't a key and a Morse Code lamp) have failed. There isn't all that much there.
And yet, I think the demo contains the most impressive secret of all and that is a way to make this kind of experience work in a full length game. For those who haven't played, a quick explanation that contains light spoilers.
There is a VHS tape hidden in the house and after finding it you can insert it into a VCR to watch the contents. In a stroke of genius, you then play through the video, as the cameraman in a three-person crew filming a rehearsal tape for a Ghost Hunters style show.
That video is one possible response to the problem of making a game like PT. You make stories within stories, tapping into the narrative possibilities of an anthology series without actually leaving your main plot. Different moments, different perspectives and different ways to die, all within a structure that happily draws on found footage visuals. There's what I can only assume is a direct nod to the kickstarter of modern found footage films right at one of the key moments in the demo.
VHS tapes become a doorway between one story and its neighbours, in both time and place, and all of those things can be playable and able to influence one another. In the demo, watching the video reveals a way to access a new room, and as well as providing useful detail, there's a horrible thrill provided by the context in which you find that information. Having to replay actions that you strongly suspect won't have a happy ending is hideous. Having seen what happened to the last person who went through that one door is petrifying.
PT and Beginning Hour are both exciting. They feel like they're presenting new possibilities for interactive horror. That's mostly thanks to the superb technical craft that has gone into each teaser though. If Capcom really are making a Resident Evil game that resembles this new flavour of haunting, I hope they'll expand on those tapes and the storytelling potential they offer rather than simply escalating the scares and the conflict as the plot moves forward.