Whether you know it yet or not, you are living in a golden age of video games. The past three months have seen an unbroken sequence of extraordinary game releases, among them two remarkable titles for the PlayStation 2 console—Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, by Hideo Kojima, one of the medium’s true auteurs—as well as the hugely successful Halo 2 for the Xbox. Each of these games has marked a realization of the promises of its predecessors. The technology has developed to a point at which the synthetic worlds are vast enough to sustain a player through many hours of play, allowing deeper immersion in more emotionally credible environments—the equivalent of the leap movies made from their origins in the penny arcade.
The satisfactions of such immersion are complex. GTA: San Andreas explores notions of gang-world kinship in a sprawling virtual Southern California, while Snake Eater lets the player share in the development of the character he has likely been playing since 1998’s original Metal Gear Solid. But in Resident Evil 4—perhaps the most purely exhilarating game of the season, single-handedly rejuvenating the GameCube console—the mood is not one of triumph and growth. Instead, an atmosphere of dread underscores the game’s central theme: survival. In San Andreas and Snake Eater, you grow; in RE4, you merely continue to live.
Unlike first-person shooters such as Halo 2, RE4 is patterned not on mission-based war narratives but on the eerie stop-and-start rhythms of horror films. Meditative and horrifying (and also strikingly beautiful) as well as merely exciting, it’s an experience composed of a constant sense of foreboding punctuated by repeated, intense shocks. Creator Shinji Mikami has said that he created the original Resident Evil game in response to his disappointment with Zombie, a gory 1979 film by Italian director Lucio Fulci; Mikami was determined to make a game with none of the failings of the movie. Setting the player adrift in a maze of genre-specific settings—an abandoned mansion full of slow-moving zombies, a lab (devoted, of course, to the fiendish perversion of science)—Resident Evil re-created the sensation of being the main character in a horror movie, with all the requisite anxiety.
To heighten intensity, Mikami deliberately left the controls sluggish, resulting in a charged game space where survival seemed impossible. You wandered through the deserted, abomination-filled mansion, the wind moaning in your ear, constantly bracing for the next nightmarish attack—hobbled by the game itself. It was an experience that was deliberately frustrating, similar in a sense to the effect created by the lighting in a horror film, with dim shadows and bizarre Expressionist camera angles that hid imminent attacks from both character and player. Gamers called the new genre “survival horror.”
While past installments have stayed close to their zombie roots, Resident Evil 4 is a departure, of sorts. You play as Leon Kennedy, a character familiar from Resident Evil 2. As the game opens, you creep through a forest on a cold fall afternoon and are rapidly pounced on by . . . well, whatever they are, they’re not zombies. They come at you fast; if you aim at them, they duck, and if you barricade yourself in a building, they’ll organize—use ladders to break in through an upstairs window or set a fire to smoke you out.
These not-zombies tilt the emotional tenor of the game from apprehension to one of constant near panic. There’s no more stumbling, no more moaning: The new enemy artificial intelligence is fantastic—the creatures seem deeply aware and still entirely alien. If a not-zombie catches sight of you, he’ll cry out to alert other not-zombies, and you’re quickly beset by an entire village of homicidal farmers, the men hacking at you with hatchets and adzes, the women stabbing you with carving knives, and, for some obscure reason, a particularly resilient type of not-zombie with a sack over his head slashing at you with a roaring chain saw. The producers keep the pressure on by making sure ammunition and healing herbs are scarce, and by not allowing the player the ability to step sideways (a Resident Evil tradition).
That said, this is easily the most playable episode in the series, thanks to a new in-game camera that hovers behind you, even lighting your way through the dark parts like the camera lamp of a tabloid film crew hounding an adulterous celeb. The camera’s fluidity makes the somewhat creaky controls tolerable, but the producers also use it to increase the stress: Enemies now attack from behind, in classic jolt-horror style.
As a genre, horror lets us safely confront social anxieties incarnated as monsters. By making the experience interactive, video-gaming takes this one logical step further. When he’s hurt, Leon limps, clutching his wounded arm, emphasizing his vulnerability and your responsibility. When Leon is killed, the sight of his broken body collapsing to the earth is genuinely disturbing—particularly since it’s followed onscreen by the words you are dead in a bloody script. There are homages to classic movies embedded throughout; one of the game’s best set pieces is a re-creation of the climax from George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, when you (as Leon) frantically shoot swarming attackers as they break through boarded up windows, then retreat upstairs only to find that they’ve already breached the barricades. At such moments, Resident Evil 4 is more than the apotheosis of the survival-horror genre: It’s a masterpiece of horror in any medium.