Resident Evil Village has a pretty dramatic tonal right around the halfway point. If I had to pinpoint the moment where Village transitions from horror to action, I’d say it’s when Ethan picks up the Arms Flask and, instead of running for his life, waves the flask in the air to taunt poor Moreau. From that moment on, the game basically gives up on scares and instead delivers a rush of action set pieces and bloody shootouts that would make the Terminator blush.
It’s interesting how different the back half of the game feels, considering that the mechanics of the game and the threats you face don’t fundamentally change. If one lycan is scary, shouldn’t ten lycans be exponentially scarier? The simple answer may be that the accelerated pace keeps you so busy that there isn’t any time to be scared. There are plenty of unspeakable horrors and nightmarish creatures in the game, even in the second half, but for me, what makes Village so terrifying is the moments at the beginning where absolutely nothing is happening. The murder doll, the bug girls, and the voluptuous tall lady aren’t half as terrifying as an empty room filled to the brim with my own existential dread.
One of the most fundamental concepts in horror is that the scariest monster is the one you never show. Hitchcock taught us that ambiguity can be one of the most powerful tools a filmmaker has. What you don’t show, the audience will imagine, and what we imagine is infinitely more terrifying than anything we could perceive. Stephen King wrote about this in his Dance Macabre
“Nothing is so frightening as what’s behind the closed door. The audience holds its breath along with the protagonist as she/he (more often she) approaches that door. The protagonist throws it open, and there is a ten-foot-tall bug. The audience screams, but this particular scream has an oddly relieved sound to it. ‘A bug ten feet tall is pretty horrible’, the audience thinks, ‘but I can deal with a ten-foot-tall bug. I was afraid it might be a hundred feet tall’.”
Of course, Resident Evil Village does show the monster, tons of them in fact, but the big difference between the horror half of the game and action half of the game is the amount of time in which it isn’t, so to speak, showing you the monsters. It’s the movement you can just barely detect out of the corner of your eye when you first enter the village. It’s the giant entrance hall in Castle Dimitrescu that has nowhere to hide. That space is where tension lives. It’s the void where actual terror is created.
This is why House Beneviento is scaring so many players. Yes, the baby monster is horrifying and the doll is definitely creepy, but I would argue that House Beneviento hits peak terror before the big baby ever appears. The slow walk down the long hallways with peeling floral print wallpaper and dim lighting builds the tension. Taking apart the mannequin in the basement is so much more terrifying than running from the baby monster, even though, in reality, the room with the mannequin is the safest place in the house. It’s that time alone where your imagination runs wild. What’s waiting for me outside the door? What happens if I take too long in here? What if I’m trapped in here forever? What if that doll is inside my house right now, watching me?
The longer I spent in places like the mannequin room, the worse the anxiety got. I found myself flinching at every distant creak and muffled thud, and perhaps even imagining a few sounds too. Between House Beneviento and Castle Dimitrescu, there are a dozen rooms and hallways just like this where anything can happen, but terrifyingly, nothing ever does. The scariest moment in the entire game is the long walk down the pitch-black stairs where you then climb the ladder down into the well to get the breaker key. Nothing even happens here, but the fear of what could happen is so much worse. When I eventually met the big baby, I felt a strange relief. Running away from it is exciting, but just knowing what is chasing me gave me back a feeling of control.
The rest of the game never takes the time to build tension in this way. I never felt like I was alone for long enough to work myself back up into a panic after House Beneviento. There are plenty of horrible monsters in the swamp and the factory, but Village doesn’t give you any more chances to create the monster in your mind. Once you’re mowing down lycans in the stronghold and laying trip mines for the cyborg zombies, the game just doesn’t have the same respect for pacing and suspense anymore.
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