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Resident Evil 4 Shows How “Dangerous” Is More Terrifying than “Scary”

So, it's horror week: Let's have a quiz about what is scary. To the right, you will see two images: Your job is to determine which is more frightening. 

Things in each image show scale: On top is a spider that has caught a small finch and is happily eating the bird. On bottom is a plain, fuzzy spider just a hair bigger than a quarter.

I submit that traditional horror (the less you know, the more terrifying something is) would point to the beastie on top. It is bigger and more dangerous in appearance. It is also mysterious: What species is it? Where does it live? Does it normally eat birds? Look at the size of it!

On the other hand, the lower spider is fairly easily understood at a glance: It is medium sized, brown, and maybe a little on the long-legged side but overall fairly plain. We are familiar with this sort of spider and are therefore more comfortable with it.

Scary Spider 2But conventional horror would be quite wrong. The top spider is the golden orb weaver: spindly, hook-legged, spooky black-and-yellow coloration, and capable of growing up to three inches across. It is not, as one might assume, the "bird-catching spider": the image was a carefully chosen fluke that almost never happens. They are poisonous, but not even as much as a black widow. You'd get topical irritation, swelling, and blisters that would go away in 24 hours.

The right-hand spider, the nice familiar one, is the brown recluse. One of the nastiest spiders in existence. It looks much plainer but is much more dangerous. The word "necrosis" is appropriate. I won't describe it, nor will I recommend that you google "brown-recluse bite." The end result is stomach churning and terrible. Don't do it. (But you will now, probably, because I've piqued your curiosity.)

I use this as an example, because the maxim I mentioned earlier is clearly not quite true. I think it comes from the misunderstanding of the we-fear-what-we-do-not-understand meme. In fact, many of the things we find the most terrifying we know quite a lot about. I am scared shitless of the brown recluse, and that comes from a very intimate understanding of the creature. Some things are scary not because of mystery, but because of familiarity.

With that in mind, here's another image. Which of these two things is scarier?

GanadosNecromorph

 

I was late to the party with Dead Space and only just beat the game last week. I enjoyed it: I like most third-person shooters that haven't gone the cover-based route of Gears of War or Uncharted. And certain similarities between itself and another favorite of mine, Resident Evil 4, repeatedly struck me. But I saw one significant difference: I found RE4 terrifying. With the exception of a few specific segments, Dead Space didn't scare me at all.

What makes RE4 so brilliant is that it completely disregards the primary rule of the horror genre: It openly dispenses of the psychological unknown and mystery that made something like Silent Hill 2 a hallmark title. The scariness of RE4 is like that of the brown recluse: not coming from the unknown or the mysterious but from its sheer dangerousness.

Visibility is really quite good save for a few occasional moments. Even if you can't acutely see what horrible thing is after you, at the very least you can hear it, because swelling music almost always accompanies enemies just before they show up. Additionally, the nature of the nasties you fight is fairly easily tenable: A vast majority of the opponents are human-ish, with only occasional appearances by more monstrous foes.

A Spanish peasant is about to drive a scythe into my skull, and I spy another behind me…and oh shit has that old lady got a knife! I think I'll hide in this tower…and oh fuck are they throwing moltovs at me? Shit, shit, shit.

Some have complained that this sort of action-based tension simply turned RE4 into an ordinary shooter, but for me it was brutally effective: I really didn't want to die. I didn't think, "Damn, I just lost an extra life" when I lost like I would do in Contra, but rather the much more visceral, "Oh god, is my face still attached?"

RE4's difficulty worked so well precisely because the game gave you just the right number of tools to survive. By comparison, Dead Space gave you a hand gun so overpowered that you could easily kill anything in a matter of two or three hits, which makes things much less scary.

And every time you start to get a little too familiar with the endless Ganado swarms, RE4 throws something different at you: the chitinous Novistadors; giant, troll-like creatures; or a massive, tentacled caterpillar centaur. But these opponents always make up brief, stunning set pieces. Compare this to Dead Space, where the very first enemy is arguably the scariest looking thing you encounter, and everything subsequent either looks exactly the same or only marginally different.

The culmination of this tension-relief gameplay is undoubtedly the scariest opponent I've ever come across in a game.

                So it's horror week: let's have a quiz about what is scary? 
 
Two spiders. Which one of them is scarier? There are other things in each image, just to show scale: on the left is a spider that has caught a small finch and is happily eating it. On the right, a plain fuzzy spider just a hair bigger than a quarter. I submit that traditional horror would point to the beastie on the left as being the more terrifying. It is bigger, and more dangerous in appearance. It is also mysterious: what species is it? Where does it live? Does it normally eat Birds? Look at the size of it! A basic tenant of horror is that the less you know about something the scarier it becomes. On the other hand, the right-hand spider is fairly easily understood at a glance: it is medium sized, brown, maybe a little on the long-legged side but overall fairly plain. We are familiar with this sort of spider, and are therefore more comfortable with it. 
 
But conventional horror would be quite wrong. The left-hand spider is the golden orb weaver: spindly, hook-legged, spooky black-and-yellow coloration, and capable of growing up to 3 inches across. It is not, as one might assume, the 'bird catching spider', and the image of the spider eating a finch was a carefully chosen fluke – that almost never happens. They are poisonous, but not even as much as a Black Widow. You'd get topical irritation, swelling, blisters that would go away in 24 hours. The right-hand spider, the nice familiar one, is the Brown Recluse. One of the nastiest spiders in existence. It looks much plainer, and us much more dangerous. The word 'necrosis' is appropriate. I won't describe it, nor will I recommend that you google 'brown recluse bite', because the end result is stomach churning and terrible. Don't do it. (But you will now, probably, because your curiosity has been peeked.)
 
I use this as an example, because the maxim I mentioned earlier (that the less you know about something, the more scary it is) is clearly not quite true. I think it comes from the misunderstanding of the 'we fear what we do not understand' meme. In point of fact, most of the things we find the most terrifying, we know quite a lot about. I am scared shitless of the brown recluse, and that comes from a very intimate understanding of the creature. Some things are scary not because of mystery, but because of familiarity. 
 
With that in mind, here's another quiz. Which of these two things is scarier? 
 
I was late to the party with Dead Space, and only just beat the game last week. I enjoyed it – I enjoy most third person shooters that haven't gone the cover-based route of Gears of War/Uncharted. And I was repeatedly struck by certain similarities between itself and another favorite of mine, Resident Evil 4. But there was one significant difference: I found RE4 terrifying. With the exception of a few specific segments, Dead Space didn't scare me at all. 
 
At this point, the old guard of the resident evil franchise might hiss at me, as RE4 is heralded by such as the beginning of the end. I agree that RE5 is probably the least scary horror game in existence, but RE4 I will maintain, is a work of brilliance. What makes it so brilliant, though, is that it completely disregards the primary rule of the horror genre: it openly dispenses of the psychological unknown and mystery that made something like Silent Hill 2 the hallmark it continues to be to this day: Visibility is really quite good save for occasional moments of the game, and even if you can't acutely see what horrible thing you're going to have to be doing next, at the very least you can hear it, because enemies are almost always supported by swelling music just before they show up. Additionally, the nature of the nasties you fight is fairly easily tenable: a vast majority of the opponents are human-ish, with only occasional appearances by more monstrous foes. Sometimes they happen to grow giant spiky tentacles when you blow their heads off, but even these aren't sprung on you – that mechanic is introduced through a cinematic, and you can plainly see what the thing is and how to kill it the first time it happens. Nevertheless, I was consistently terrified of that game, in a way that I haven't been of any other title previous. 
 
I think of the scariness of RE4 like I think of the scariness from the brown recluse: not coming from the unknown, or from the mysterious, but the sheer dangerousness of it: the fact that there is a Spanish peasant about to drive a scythe into your skull and there's one behind you and oh shit has that old lady got a knife I think I'll hide in this tower and oh fuck are they throwing moltovs at me shit shit shit. Some have complained that this sort of action-based tension simply turned RE4 into an ordinary shooter, but for me it was brutally effective. When playing Resident Evil 4, I REALLY didn't want to die. The game was brilliantly designed towards that: the graphics given just the right aesthetic tone, the sound design pitch perfect, and the consequences of dying just damning enough to invest you into the character. When dying, the thought wasn't 'Damn I just lost an extra life' like it would be in Contra, but the much more visceral 'Oh god is my face still attached?' 
 
This is why the difficulty of Resident Evil 4 worked so well – it was a punishingly hard game, but also effectively have you just the right number of tools for you to be able to survive (by comparison, Dead Space gave you a hand gun so overpowered that you could easily kill anything in the game in a matter of two to three hits, which makes things much less scary). The fact that every single enemy you come across in the game actually poses a complete, viable threat to your survival raises the tension of playing it to peak levels, and the fact that every single hit you take has long-term consequences because it stays with you, either in terms of lower mobility of fewer health items, you are forced to think not only of immediate but also of long term survivability. 
 
RE4 also walks a very fine balancing act in styles of horror. Every time you're starting to get a little too familiar with the endless Ganado swarms the game throws something different at you. The chitinous Novistadors, or giant, troll-like creatures, or a giant tentacled caterpillar-centaur to chase you through suspended shipping carts. But these opponents always make up brief, stunning set-pieces in the game, and the only reason they work is because the majority of the game has such frightening but comparatively mundane enemies. (Again, compare this to Dead Space, where the very first enemy is arguably the scariest looking thing you encounter, and everything subsequent either looks exactly the same, or only marginally different.) 
 
The culmination of this tension-relief gameplay is undoubtedly the scariest opponents I've ever come across in a game. That's right I'm talking about these guys: 
 
They were brilliant. And terrifying. And horrible. They were specifically designed so that the first time you encountered one, you almost certainly would die, or at the very least stagger out of the room unbearably maimed (only to encounter another one blocking your way in the hall). My first encounter with a regenerator is one of my most vivid video game memories, because it didn't die. At all. I had the Striker (a high-powered shot gun) and unloaded all twenty of my remaining shells into it, breaking it's limbs to pieces and sending it sprawling to the floor. It wriggled, leaped with just its torso power, and latched its needle-filled jaws into my throat. I survived (one pixel of life, no med packs, only one red herb), and ran. But it grew legs again, and chased me. I didn't make it. In desperation, I unload my entire TMP, my magnum, and my pistol into it (I hadn't been conservative enough with Ammo in that first playthrough, so I had already been on the last dregs when I entered the accursed room). It still didn't die. Then it reached out, its arms stretching from halfway across the room, opened its jaws at a right angle, and bit my head off. I shat myself. 
 
Of course, I later learned that my ammo wasting had been bad luck, and that you had to hit five specific, hidden points on the thing's body. The next try, I managed to kill the thing, but it was still a nasty experience even then. And the fear of regenerators had been put into me. Even when I got the infra-red scope, and could take them out with ease, I still broke out in Goosebumps every time I heard that glottal, soggy breathing. I still do. 
 
Of course, there is a trade-off for using this kind of horror. When the scariness in a game comes from how dangerous the enemies are, you also have to give the player the tools to deal with that dangerousness. And a player with the right tools can become more skilled; in a manner most tragic, even the professional mode of RE4 now holds very little in the way of horror for me: I can go through most of the game with an un-upgraded hand gun, keeping a TMP for bosses and a rifle for regenerators (because those fuckers will always scare me, no matter what). In short, RE4 is no longer especially dangerous for me. 
 
Things become scarier when you know how dangerous they are. They become less scary when you know how to deal with them. A brown recluse is dangerous, yes, but also exceptionally non-aggressive except in rare circumstances, and can fairly easily be dispatched with jar and a piece of paper, or even a pair of tweezers if you're quick. The boot always works too. 
 
Nevertheless, even though I now understand that headshots and knee shots lead to extended invincibility and room-clearing melee possibilities, and even though I can storm the village using primarily just a knife, I'll still remember the way I jumped and agonized over every twitch of a pitchfork the first time I played the game. And that's the thing about horror: the fear itself almost never lasts, but the impression the fear makes stays forever.So it's horror week: let's have a quiz about what is scary? 
 
Two spiders. Which one of them is scarier? There are other things in each image, just to show scale: on the left is a spider that has caught a small finch and is happily eating it. On the right, a plain fuzzy spider just a hair bigger than a quarter. I submit that traditional horror would point to the beastie on the left as being the more terrifying. It is bigger, and more dangerous in appearance. It is also mysterious: what species is it? Where does it live? Does it normally eat Birds? Look at the size of it! A basic tenant of horror is that the less you know about something the scarier it becomes. On the other hand, the right-hand spider is fairly easily understood at a glance: it is medium sized, brown, maybe a little on the long-legged side but overall fairly plain. We are familiar with this sort of spider, and are therefore more comfortable with it. 
 
But conventional horror would be quite wrong. The left-hand spider is the golden orb weaver: spindly, hook-legged, spooky black-and-yellow coloration, and capable of growing up to 3 inches across. It is not, as one might assume, the 'bird catching spider', and the image of the spider eating a finch was a carefully chosen fluke – that almost never happens. They are poisonous, but not even as much as a Black Widow. You'd get topical irritation, swelling, blisters that would go away in 24 hours. The right-hand spider, the nice familiar one, is the Brown Recluse. One of the nastiest spiders in existence. It looks much plainer, and us much more dangerous. The word 'necrosis' is appropriate. I won't describe it, nor will I recommend that you google 'brown recluse bite', because the end result is stomach churning and terrible. Don't do it. (But you will now, probably, because your curiosity has been peeked.)
 
I use this as an example, because the maxim I mentioned earlier (that the less you know about something, the more scary it is) is clearly not quite true. I think it comes from the misunderstanding of the 'we fear what we do not understand' meme. In point of fact, most of the things we find the most terrifying, we know quite a lot about. I am scared shitless of the brown recluse, and that comes from a very intimate understanding of the creature. Some things are scary not because of mystery, but because of familiarity. 
 
With that in mind, here's another quiz. Which of these two things is scarier? 
 
I was late to the party with Dead Space, and only just beat the game last week. I enjoyed it – I enjoy most third person shooters that haven't gone the cover-based route of Gears of War/Uncharted. And I was repeatedly struck by certain similarities between itself and another favorite of mine, Resident Evil 4. But there was one significant difference: I found RE4 terrifying. With the exception of a few specific segments, Dead Space didn't scare me at all. 
 
At this point, the old guard of the resident evil franchise might hiss at me, as RE4 is heralded by such as the beginning of the end. I agree that RE5 is probably the least scary horror game in existence, but RE4 I will maintain, is a work of brilliance. What makes it so brilliant, though, is that it completely disregards the primary rule of the horror genre: it openly dispenses of the psychological unknown and mystery that made something like Silent Hill 2 the hallmark it continues to be to this day: Visibility is really quite good save for occasional moments of the game, and even if you can't acutely see what horrible thing you're going to have to be doing next, at the very least you can hear it, because enemies are almost always supported by swelling music just before they show up. Additionally, the nature of the nasties you fight is fairly easily tenable: a vast majority of the opponents are human-ish, with only occasional appearances by more monstrous foes. Sometimes they happen to grow giant spiky tentacles when you blow their heads off, but even these aren't sprung on you – that mechanic is introduced through a cinematic, and you can plainly see what the thing is and how to kill it the first time it happens. Nevertheless, I was consistently terrified of that game, in a way that I haven't been of any other title previous. 
 
I think of the scariness of RE4 like I think of the scariness from the brown recluse: not coming from the unknown, or from the mysterious, but the sheer dangerousness of it: the fact that there is a Spanish peasant about to drive a scythe into your skull and there's one behind you and oh shit has that old lady got a knife I think I'll hide in this tower and oh fuck are they throwing moltovs at me shit shit shit. Some have complained that this sort of action-based tension simply turned RE4 into an ordinary shooter, but for me it was brutally effective. When playing Resident Evil 4, I REALLY didn't want to die. The game was brilliantly designed towards that: the graphics given just the right aesthetic tone, the sound design pitch perfect, and the consequences of dying just damning enough to invest you into the character. When dying, the thought wasn't 'Damn I just lost an extra life' like it would be in Contra, but the much more visceral 'Oh god is my face still attached?' 
 
This is why the difficulty of Resident Evil 4 worked so well – it was a punishingly hard game, but also effectively have you just the right number of tools for you to be able to survive (by comparison, Dead Space gave you a hand gun so overpowered that you could easily kill anything in the game in a matter of two to three hits, which makes things much less scary). The fact that every single enemy you come across in the game actually poses a complete, viable threat to your survival raises the tension of playing it to peak levels, and the fact that every single hit you take has long-term consequences because it stays with you, either in terms of lower mobility of fewer health items, you are forced to think not only of immediate but also of long term survivability. 
 
RE4 also walks a very fine balancing act in styles of horror. Every time you're starting to get a little too familiar with the endless Ganado swarms the game throws something different at you. The chitinous Novistadors, or giant, troll-like creatures, or a giant tentacled caterpillar-centaur to chase you through suspended shipping carts. But these opponents always make up brief, stunning set-pieces in the game, and the only reason they work is because the majority of the game has such frightening but comparatively mundane enemies. (Again, compare this to Dead Space, where the very first enemy is arguably the scariest looking thing you encounter, and everything subsequent either looks exactly the same, or only marginally different.) 
 
The culmination of this tension-relief gameplay is undoubtedly the scariest opponents I've ever come across in a game. That's right I'm talking about these guys: 
 
They were brilliant. And terrifying. And horrible. They were specifically designed so that the first time you encountered one, you almost certainly would die, or at the very least stagger out of the room unbearably maimed (only to encounter another one blocking your way in the hall). My first encounter with a regenerator is one of my most vivid video game memories, because it didn't die. At all. I had the Striker (a high-powered shot gun) and unloaded all twenty of my remaining shells into it, breaking it's limbs to pieces and sending it sprawling to the floor. It wriggled, leaped with just its torso power, and latched its needle-filled jaws into my throat. I survived (one pixel of life, no med packs, only one red herb), and ran. But it grew legs again, and chased me. I didn't make it. In desperation, I unload my entire TMP, my magnum, and my pistol into it (I hadn't been conservative enough with Ammo in that first playthrough, so I had already been on the last dregs when I entered the accursed room). It still didn't die. Then it reached out, its arms stretching from halfway across the room, opened its jaws at a right angle, and bit my head off. I shat myself. 
 
Of course, I later learned that my ammo wasting had been bad luck, and that you had to hit five specific, hidden points on the thing's body. The next try, I managed to kill the thing, but it was still a nasty experience even then. And the fear of regenerators had been put into me. Even when I got the infra-red scope, and could take them out with ease, I still broke out in Goosebumps every time I heard that glottal, soggy breathing. I still do. 
 
Of course, there is a trade-off for using this kind of horror. When the scariness in a game comes from how dangerous the enemies are, you also have to give the player the tools to deal with that dangerousness. And a player with the right tools can become more skilled; in a manner most tragic, even the professional mode of RE4 now holds very little in the way of horror for me: I can go through most of the game with an un-upgraded hand gun, keeping a TMP for bosses and a rifle for regenerators (because those fuckers will always scare me, no matter what). In short, RE4 is no longer especially dangerous for me. 
 
Things become scarier when you know how dangerous they are. They become less scary when you know how to deal with them. A brown recluse is dangerous, yes, but also exceptionally non-aggressive except in rare circumstances, and can fairly easily be dispatched with jar and a piece of paper, or even a pair of tweezers if you're quick. The boot always works too. 
 
Nevertheless, even though I now understand that headshots and knee shots lead to extended invincibility and room-clearing melee possibilities, and even though I can storm the village using primarily just a knife, I'll still remember the way I jumped and agonized over every twitch of a pitchfork the first time I played the game. And that's the thing about horror: the fear itself almost never lasts, but the impression the fear makes stays forever.

SHITshitSHITshitSHITshitSHITshitShit

They were brilliant. And terrifying. And horrible. They were specifically designed so that the first time you encountered one, you almost certainly would die. Or — at the very least — would stagger out of the room unbearably maimed (only to encounter another one blocking your way in the hall).

My first confrontation with a Regenerator is one of my most vivid video-game memories because it didn't die. At all. I had the Striker (a high-powered shotgun) and fired all twenty of my shells into it, which reduced its limbs to pieces and sent it sprawling to the floor. It wriggled, leaped with just its torso power, and latched its needle-filled jaws into my throat. I barely survived and ran.

But it grew legs again, and chased me. I didn't make it. In desperation, I unloaded the entirety of my remaining arsenal. It still didn't die. Then it reached out — its arms stretching from halfway across the room –opened its jaws at a right angle, and bit my head off. I shat myself.

The fear of regenerators stuck with me. Even when I got the infra-red scope and could take them out with ease, I broke out in goosebumps every time I heard that glottal, soggy breathing. I still do.


Things become scarier when you know how dangerous they are. They become less scary when you know how to deal with them. A brown recluse is dangerous, yes, but also exceptionally non-aggressive except in rare circumstances. You can dispatch the spider fairly easily with jar and a piece of paper, or even a pair of tweezers if you're quick. The boot always works, too.

Nevertheless, even though I now understand that headshots and knee shots lead to extended invincibility and room-clearing melee possibilities, I'll still remember the way I jumped and agonized over every twitch of a pitchfork the first time I played RE4.

And that's the thing about horror: the fear itself almost never lasts, but the impression the fear makes stays forever.


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