Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
[Note: This column contains spoilers for the second major section of Resident Evil Village.]
Resident Evil Village is not, on the whole, a scary game. That’s not a dig: By leaning back into the action side of the franchise’s long-running heritage, director Morimasa Sato and his team may have sacrificed some of the visceral, stalking horror of 2017’s Resident Evil 7, but they’ve replaced it with an endlessly tense, frequently thrilling shooting experience. The point still stands, though: When he’s not busy having his delicate hand-meat sliced, diced, and chomped by the residents of its titular backwoods setting, Village protagonist Ethan Winters resembles a one-man arsenal, gunning down werewolves, zombies, mutant fishmen, and worse with a tally of ammunition expended that belies any real effort, past the game’s opening hour or so, to sell the element of disempowerment so vital to proper horror.
Except for that one part.
And if you read the above sentence and flinched, the sound of a crying baby and too-heavy footfalls pounding in your ears, then chances are good that you’ve spent some time in House Beneviento. Resident Evil Village is frequently thrilling, sometimes shocking, and more often than not a little silly. But only in one location is it horrifying, and that’s in the home of the game’s second major antagonist, Donna, and her malevolent doll companion Angie.
Things get ominous early on, with Ethan undergoing strange hallucinations and crossing a creaky rope bridge to reach his latest goal. But it’s not until you’re in the House proper, locked deep within its basement, that Village prepares to go for the jugular. First, you wander a maze of long, same-y corridors, the kind where anything might lie in wait around the next corner. Next, your weapons are stripped away—a mixed blessing, since it also telegraphs that you’re entering a non-combat stretch of the game. (Village wouldn’t throw something lethal at you without a gun to defend yourself, right?) Then your defenses are lowered even further, as you’re asked to solve a series of escape room puzzles—a throwback to the Lucas sections of Resident Evil 7, also a respite from the unrelenting horror of being chased by the more active members of that game’s Baker clan. Sure, there’s some psychological torture, with Ethan forced to disassemble a mannequin based on his dead wife while messages suggesting she was hiding something horrible from him play on a nearby radio. But at least you can be reasonably sure that nothing bad is going to happen beyond having to re-try a stubborn door code.
And that’s when the lights go out, and the crying starts.
What happens next, as Ethan stumbles through the darkness with a flashlight that’s never quite powerful enough to catch the far end of the hallway he’s blundering down, brings together many of the things that make Village one of the best Resident Evil games ever. There’s the pacing, obviously, as a long series of jump scares and prolonged silences prime you for something awful to happen. There’s the top-tier sound design, which makes every creak and cry reach through your ears and straight down your spine. And there’s the sheer audacity of the game’s design ethos, never clearer than when you get near one of those damn corners, only to see, well… this… crawling out of the darkness toward you at an upsetting turn of speed.
Resident Evil 7 was accused, in a few corners, of trying to mimic Hideo Kojima’s P.T., a recent landmark in first-person horror design. Well, if the developers of RE 7 denied those claims, the creators of Village apparently embraced them, because the ensuing chase from the creature known only as “Baby” taps into many of the things that made that “playable teaser” so groundbreaking. That includes the ever-unsettling sensation that anything could be in front of or behind you in the dark, the feeling of being completely vulnerable in the face of an unstoppable antagonist. (See also the indie game Spooky’s Jump Scare Mansion, which makes an entire game out of these horrible sensations.) But there’s also the relentlessly psychological nature of the whole encounter: Barring the occasional priapic tentacle monster, Resident Evil has usually left the more Freudian kinds of horror to it neighbors over in Silent Hill. But being chased by a wet, hideous manifestation of Ethan’s fears of failing fatherhood—complete with head-splitting baby cries and a monstrous gurgles of “Dada” as it hunts you from hiding spot to hiding spot—is this series at its most deliberately subjective and upsetting. In a game where every werewolf has a magnum bullet with its name chiseled on it, the Baby encounter has our big scary action hero literally huddling under a bed, praying for the awful, half-glimpsed thing prowling around him to just please, for the love of Christ, go away.
By any objective metric, House Beneviento is Village’s shortest section, easily less than an hour of play in total. But in the impression it leaves on the player, the sheer sense of horror and unsafety it leaves, like a red umbilical smear, on the face of a game that otherwise revels in power, it can’t help but persist. Resident Evil Village isn’t a scary game—except when it decides to remind you that it absolutely fucking could be, any time it feels like it.