Resident Evil 7 producer Masachika Kawata has a solution for people who think playing his game in VR will be too scary — make your family watch your terror. "If you feel it's too much of an intense experience to play on your own, there's always the fun of enjoying horror in a communal setting," Kawata said at E3. "Maybe with family or friends, get people to gather round and enjoy the scares together. That might take a little bit of the edge off rather than being alone and driving yourself crazy with a horror game."
Kawata confirms his game is set in the Resident Evil universe, but it's making some major breaks with its predecessors, both in its story — it's ditching the schlocky G- and T-viruses in favor of more psychological horror — and its perspective. Where every other game in the main Resident Evil timeline has used a third-person camera, Resident Evil 7's action takes place in first person. Game director Koshi Nakanishi says this changes how Capcom has to approach development. "It really gets you in the mindset that this is happening to ME, and that I am the one on screen," Nakanishi said. "It forces us to go down a different route where characters are not just rock-punching superheroes — they have to be more of an everyman because you're in their shoes."
'Resident Evil 7' is the first with a first-person view
If a first-person view makes players feel like they're actually visiting Resident Evil 7's spooky setting, the game's VR functionality makes it feel like they're trapped there. "It feels like you're stuck in this place, you're not equipped for this," Nakanishi says. In one case at least, the Resident Evil 7 demo — made available for download after Sony's E3 conference — actually does pin players in place. The demo incorporates elements from Kitchen, the VR vignette first showed at E3 last year that became semi-legendary for scaring its players into public screaming fits. The short segment ties the player to a chair and forces them to watch as a demonic woman stabs them in the leg.
Kawata explained that Kitchen came after the team at Capcom had already decided they wanted Resident Evil 7 to feature a first-person camera as new VR technology became a big topic in the industry. "[Kitchen] wasn't a separate project," Kawata said, calling it instead "a separate space to explore VR." He and his team asked, "can we do this in VR?" — eventually taking the reaction to Kitchen at last year's E3 "as an indication we were on the right path."
With commercial VR still in its relative infancy, the lasting psychological effects of putting players in truly horrifying situations have yet to be truly understood, but some developers have consciously scaled their more terrifying experiences down. VR developer Wevr told The New Yorker that it wouldn't include any monsters "larger than a small dog," to avoid breaching the contract of trust between developer and player.
"It's not about killing everything that moves"
Resident Evil 7's demo didn't show many of the monsters we can expect from the final product, but if previous games in the series are anything to go by, it'll feature beasts much bigger than even the largest "small dog." But Kawata says that he's trusting players to work out if they can handle the scares. "I think it's something you have to decide for yourself and each player can decide how comfortable they are with it," he explained, reassuring me that players can always go back from VR to standard TV play if things get too oppressive. "We want to make it a flexible experience — the game uses the same save data, so when you play the game it's your choice if you want to play in regular mode or VR."
Running and hiding won't be your only recourse to escape Resident Evil 7's horrors. "One of the key features of Resident Evil is not just being a passive recipient of horror, but to try and fight back," Kawata says. "We've chosen to focus on the horror aspect over combat in the demo," Kawata says, "but the full game does feature combat."
But the final game won't be as gun-heavy as Resident Evil 4, 5, and 6. "It's not about killing everything that moves, it's more about 'How do I survive and get out of this situation?'" Kawata says. With the growing take-up of VR, the only solution may be taking the headset off.