A backwoods horror more revolting than thrilling
“There’s no escape, city boy,” says the mad woman crawling spiderlike in front of you. Her line reflects “Resident Evil 7’s” dopey kind of backwoods horror. Both you and she know that from her perspective you’re an interloper, a city slicker who looks down on her and her kin. After all, the woman, with her insectlike motions, is a manifestation of what it means to be a pariah who has fallen outside the bounds of human society. For much of its length, the game toys with some of the most obvious class divisions in American society — rural vs. urban — by placing players in the shoes of an unflappable guy forced to run around the house of a family whose status has plummeted to the levels of the subhuman.
“Resident Evil 7” opens with Mia, a young woman, sending a video message to her husband, Ethan. On camera, she bemoans that her “babysitting” job has kept her away from home. The game then cuts to Mia situating herself in front of a grimy computer to record a brisk message for Ethan in which she apologizes for lying to him and implores him to stay away. It’s left as an open question as to whether her second message finds its recipient, because in the next scene we find Ethan driving along a sun-dappled road chatting with a friend on his cell. After three years with no word from her, Ethan tells his friend that he is en route to Dulvey, La., to follow up on a tip that Mia is alive and well and waiting to be reunited with him.
Soon after arriving at the Dulvey House, Ethan discovers a VHS tape bizarrely enough recorded in 2017. An easy search in the immediate vicinity reveals a VCR. Popping the tape in, the play- er’s perspective shifts from Ethan’s to that of a cameraman — I think anyone who was a fan of the movie “Poltergeist” will experience a frisson moving from outside the television into the action on screen. It’s evident that the cameraman is at a low point in his professional life since he’s filming the dullards behind Sewer Gators, a show whose title trumpets its dedication to the investigation of contemporary legends. After breaking into the same house where Ethan is now, the crew babble about the rumors surrounding the former inhabitants who disappeared. When the host of the show snarkily refers to the Bakers as hillbillies, his colleague corrects him saying, “they were quiet, not backward.” Needless to say, since this is a survival horror game, the filming that night doesn’t wrap on a good note.
As I made my way through the house as Ethan, I found it hard not to feel equally contemptuous and revolted by the monstrosities that threatened me because the dwelling was beyond derelict. Aside from the deadly looking mold that I encountered with ever-alarming frequency, the thing that leapt out about the Bakers’ residence were the bags of trash everywhere. The family photographs, children’s toys and other bric-a-brac of domesticity are all made dubious or tainted by way of association with so much filth. If “Resident Evil 7” does one thing particularly well, it’s to tease out the prejudices that lie at the heart of consumerism. If you can’t take care of your stuff there is something morally suspect about whatever degraded circumstances you might find yourself in. You brought ruin on yourself, so to speak. The paradox of the game making such logic obvious is that its basic story, which I found otherwise unrewarding, works to produce sympathy for one’s antagonists. It becomes clear as you advance through the story that the murderous entities surrounding you are also victims — of irresponsible actions.
I’m ultra-selective in my appreciation of horror. I liked “Alien: Isolation” and I found “The Evil Within” fascinating for the variety of its macabre level design. “Resident Evil 7” was not something I relished playing, but I respect its puzzle design. The way the game gradually doles out its environment is impressive, but I found many of the monster encounters toward the game’s second half fairly predictable. I came to expect each new enemy encounter to pile on a couple of extra monsters similar to the ones I’d already killed.
As the credits rolled, I felt glad to be done with it.