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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Screenshot: Resident Evil HD/Capcom

The biggest name in video game horror never made horror games at all

Shinji Mikami is video games’ most enduring horror icon—our Shelley, our Walpole, our Carpenter and Craven. Other developers use the man’s language like a pocket dictionary. Every time something jumps through a window, Mikami’s there, grinning and taking a long drag off a cigarette—got ya again. When some improbably clothed lead in a Japanese action game spouts off an absurd one-liner that leaves you wondering, “Are they fucking with me?”—that’s him again. In fact, video games’ distinctive horror genre, dubbed “survival-horror,” is all his. “Mikami was the one who made Resident Evil,” says developer Goichi “Suda51" Suda, one of Mikami’s first protégés, in The Art Of Grasshopper Manufacture. “He created a template for survival-horror: a game experience comprised of tension like no one had ever felt before.”

But Shinji Mikami doesn’t make horror games. His games don’t torture you with psychologically fraught stories or lurking evils. No matter the aesthetic trappings, his works get their power from scarcity, from the suspense of making it all too difficult to hold onto the things you need to survive, whether it’s bullets, rhythm, time, or some other resource that’s constantly in danger of slipping away. He may be video games’ most famous horror icon, but what he actually makes are thrillers, tension engines that are equally silly and freaky and slick.

Survival-horror is a term born from a habit among Japanese game developers of coming up with idiosyncratic genre labels that would make diehard metal heads nod in approval at their finicky specificity. (Devil May Cry is “character action,” for example.) But it’s also still a fitting term to describe the thrilling stress that characterizes all of Mikami’s work, with Resident Evil embodying it fully. Mixing cornball monster movie tropes with genuinely creepy settings and lived-in moments, Resident Evil has you playing as slow-witted but capable cops trapped in a mansion full of zombies and other zombified grotesqueries. But while the creatures do make for disturbing antagonists—the slow reveal of the crudely animated zombie in the original release remains a candidate for talk-therapy trauma sessions—the monsters and too-quiet mansion aren’t the root of what makes the game unnerving.

Scarcity is the core of survival-horror, and it’s what makes Resident Evil scary. There are never enough bullets to kill every huge zombie snake, never a glut of plant-based cure-alls for Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield to patch up with, but there’s also never enough knowledge about what’s waiting in a locked room you’ve only just found the key for, either. Even mobility is at a premium. Shooting a gun requires you to stop moving entirely and slowly take aim while locked in place. It’s pretty unbecoming of someone with Chris and Jill’s background, but there’s a good reason for it.

“With Resident Evil,” Mikami told Polygon while developing The Evil Within, his most recent directorial venture, “you’re controlling these special-ops guys, and yet they fire their handguns pretty slowly, right? Even at the time, people on the dev team would say ‘These guys have special weapons training; aren’t they firing a little too slow?’ But there was a reason for that. You could shoot a zombie once, but they’d still keep coming towards you, right? He might bite you before you get the next shot off. That’s the kind of fear I wanted the player to feel.”

But that fear in survival-horror isn’t distinct to Resident Evil or even Mikami’s other horror-adjacent work like Dino Crisis—a PlayStation b-side that asks, “What if John Hammond from Jurassic Park were the bad guy in Resident Evil?” and then answers with stark, enthusiastic literalness. The scarcity drives all of his best originals. PN03, a bizarre GameCube game about a woman in a high tech suit that’s half Flashdance cosplay and half blowing up robots, looks like a staid exercise in old-fashioned video game shoot-’em-up action. In practice, though, heroine Vanessa Z Schneider is as stiff as Resident Evil’s heroes and twice as vulnerable. Rhythm and careful timing are your precious resources. You can’t play like an action star; you have to “dance” through the stages using Vanessa’s pirouettes and flips to dodge constant, relentless fire.

Godhand is Mikami’s slapstick satire of ’80s post-apocalyptic anime Fist Of The North Star. Enemies can brutalize you in seconds and the library of combination attacks are the only things that can get you through the fights against be-thonged musclemen and dominatrices. Here, it’s memory and dexterity that are a hot commodity, your fistfights fraught with the pressure to remember all those moves. In Vanquish, a distinguished but far more traditional game about shooting robots than PN03, it’s time. The lead character wears a battle suit that lets him slide around the screen like a rocket-propelled Pete Townshend, but time slows down as you slide, letting you cherry-pick your targets. The ability is on a strict meter, though, so every encounter is again about managing those limited means gnawing at your mind. Godhand and Vanquish would never be Halloween staples, but the same heart that pumps anxiety through Resident Evil beats in them as well. Mikami’s games are, all of them, thrillers.

And his career has been so fruitful because the arc of his thrills are so potent. Enduring his games’ tightening grips inevitably leads to a sensuous release. It’s there in the synthesized lilt of Resident Evil’s safe-room music or when a perfect score pops up on screen after one last pirouette blows a robot to bits in PN03. The heady wash of safety is unparalleled.

The disparity between Mikami’s reputation and what actually made his games so successful might explain why The Evil Within, his last directorial work, was so bad. He tried to make a horror game instead of a thriller and failed spectacularly. Another cop-versus-monsters scenario, Within borrows the basics of Resident Evil 4, which took all of the interplay of limited means in the original Resident Evil and reoriented them around a claustrophobic, over-the-shoulder point of view that added perspective to the list of resources in short supply. Where Resident Evil 4 used that cramped view for slow battles, The Evil Within instead bludgeons you for nearly two dozen hours with enemies far more agile than yourself and, surprisingly, an endless tide of horror clichés. They’re not the thematic pulp truisms that enriched his other work either, but superficial, cosmetic tripe. An asylum! Full of rusty antique wheelchairs! Covered with dirty, broken dolls! Even first-time Blumhouse directors would say it was all a bit much.

 Screenshot: The Evil Within 2/Bethesda Softworks
Screenshot: The Evil Within 2/Bethesda Softworks

“To be honest, it’s hard to make survival-horror work as a game,” Mikami said in that same Polygon interview. “Should you emphasize the entertainment aspect and focus on the fun of killing enemies? Or should you try to aim for more of a creeping sort of terror? It’s hard to strike a balance, but with this game, we’re trying to place our weight primarily on the horror aspects.” How strange that in trying to make a straight horror game, Mikami made something that wasn’t tense and even sometimes funny, but dour and frustrating.

His work as a producer, though, is maintaining his legacy and even redeeming that final misstep. Mikami’s time directly overseeing younger directors, often as they work on sequels to his games, has been remarkably consistent in producing even more quality suspense. “I want to go with this one,” Suda51 recalls Mikami saying when trying to decide what game Suda would make for Capcom and seeing an image of Killer7’s seven assassins. Hideki Kamiya, the director of Devil May Cry and Bayonetta, which both trade in similarly taut dynamics as Mikami’s work, directed Resident Evil 2 before making his own games.

And the recently released The Evil Within 2, a flawed but much more effective and original game, is also directed by a first-timer Mikami has taken under his wing. John Johanas, who worked as a designer on the first Within, recognized that trying to lean into horror led to losing Mikami’s essential flavor. “I think that type of pure horror gameplay is definitely compelling and I tend to enjoy it as well, but it can get a little overbearing if it goes on too long,” Johanas told IGN in an interview. “The Evil Within 2 puts you in situations where, if you are prepared correctly, you can take on the enemies.”

 Screenshot: The Evil Within 2/Bethesda Softworks
Screenshot: The Evil Within 2/Bethesda Softworks

The richest moments in The Evil Within 2 come when you have ample resources but notice them running out quickly as you sputter around with no plan on where to go next. Unlike the droning, undeviating sequence of unfair shootouts and county fair haunted houses that comprised The Evil Within, the sequel opts for more exploration and a setting straight out of the best worst direct-to-VHS horror movies of the ’90s. Returning hero cop Sebastian is stuck in Union, a Normal Rockwell painting of a town that’s actually a Matrix-style virtual world created by linking many human minds to the single, special mind of his own daughter, who’s been kidnapped by a sinister conspiracy. When you get in there, it’s overrun by all sorts of nasty things, from zombies to time-stopping serial-killer artists. Like Resident Evil, it doesn’t all work, but it resonates much more powerfully than The Evil Within’s parade of dollar-store Jacob’s Ladder hand-me-downs. The world is grounded by its suburban familiarity and its slow degradation in the hands of sinister forces.

And like in Mikami’s best work, there is a prevailing scarcity that stalks you throughout The Evil Within 2. In this case, it’s a lack of certainty, of knowing where you are and what is real at any given time. The tension conjured up by Johanas might not be as rich as in his mentor’s work, but it’s an admirable first effort, and Mikami’s legacy endures in the game, as it understands that horror was never his medium even if it’s one half of the phrase that remains his calling card. Shinji Mikami has never made games that keep you awake at night, wracked by existential dread, fear of the unknowable or the impossible. His gift has always been in the moment when you open a door, unsure what’s on the other side, nerves at the knife’s edge waiting to jump back if you have to, hunted and not haunted.

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