Sometimes I find the concept of family perplexing. It is something that we take for granted, something that we think of as natural, but give it a second thought, and you’ll find that people living together solely on the basis of blood… can be kind of disturbing.
There’s a chance I’m thinking this way because I come from a broken home, but I can also recall how unnatural our family reunions are. Some of these people are essentially strangers, yet still talking to each other once a year. You can tell that they have nothing in common, sometimes even turning on each other, arguing about politics, inheritance or worse. And they eventually reconcile over food.
You can live your own life, be your own master, but once in a while, there comes a day when you have to sit at a dinner table with people you secretly despise, or even fear. Only because it is expected. Enforced by nature and society. That’s something you can’t control.
Being welcomed into the Baker family in Resident Evil 7 is a wonderful and twisted display of this dynamic, and it works so well on many levels of interpretations (as it turns out, they are also being forced into a family bond), but let’s just appreciate for a second how terrifying they are at the very first glance. (It is also quite fitting that I’m experiencing this game just before the Christmas feast.)
Resident Evil is a long-running video game series with brilliant moments and some really corny episodes, and this one serves as a fresh start, moving away from the globe-trotting adventure and high octane action, reaching back to the original 1996 game’s slow-burning survival horror with unnerving atmosphere, scarce resources, and offering a well defined central location. But in contrast to the Spencer mansion in the first Resident Evil, this house is inhabited by actively omnipresent people, guarding their territory.
The members of this violent family are sentient, but clearly afflicted with a kind of madness that’s only possible in a Resident Evil game: you can still catch a glimpse of their former personalities, but they are now twisted, near-invincible monsters, hungry for aggression, communicating through both verbal and physical abuse, and they are still somehow trying to make it work as a family. This setting and setup takes influence from the Southern Gothic subgenre, found footage and slasher movies, and a recent trend of first person horror games featuring invincible stalkers (such as Penumbra, Slender, Outlast and Alien: Isolation). At first, it doesn’t exactly seem like your usual Resident Evil game, but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that this is a true continuation of the series’ traditions, both in terms of narrative and gameplay.
The protagonist (the player character) arrives in Dulvey, Louisiana to search for his missing wife, Mia, only to find her now being completely assimilated into this family. This is the first sign that whatever is at work here, it’s affecting all of the residents of the house. Everyone refers to this force as “her”, but it’s not immediately clear that an outside force is referenced at all. Only by playing through the second time can we appreciate all the clever hints and references foreshadowing all the twists. The writing here, maybe for the first time, is excellent, it plays with old tropes, subverts them, even starts new traditions, but what sells the whole experience, is the characters and their acting. Resident Evil as a series is infamous for having bad dialogue and stilted acting, but this time everything feels very real, and I can’t find any immersion-breaking elements here.
Thankfully, the game also doesn’t feature any ham-fisted references, and it keeps its connection to the other installments vague. There’s quite a few nods toward the Resident Evil: Revelations spinoff series, though, but it’s a touch I really appreciate. In my opinion, both of those games were better than any of the main entries since Resident Evil 4, and seeing director Kōshi Nakanishi helming a numbered installment is very satisfying. As the game progresses from the Baker house to its surrounding areas, including a wrecked ship, the influence of Resident Evil: Revelations becomes more and more clear, and without breaking the excellent atmosphere, the narrative finds its way back to laboratories, virus contaminations, shady corporations and PMCs as well.
Still, it is ultimately a story of a family. Protagonist Ethan Winters goes through hell to rescue her wife, despite her lying to him for years. The Bakers are robbed from their original selves, but they are still trying to stick together. And that looming presence (without spoiling much) will turn out to be nothing more than a cry for help from someone who just wants to have a family.
As I said, sometimes I find the concept of families perplexing, but it’s true that you can’t really appreciate it until you’re really alone. Resident Evil 7 explores what it’s like to be abandoned, what it’s like to never having anyone in the first place and what it’s like to be stuck in a twisted, disgusting family against your will.
As a matter of fact, the game itself is a member of a twisted, disjointed family of both masterpieces and sometimes really bad games, but it has its own, unique personality (and it’s a polar opposite of the previous installment). That alone could make everything awkward for both the developers and the audience, but while walking its own path, Resident Evil 7 makes sure to let you know that it belongs in its series, sitting comfortably and confident at the dinner table, fully embracing its legacy.
This series has become very dear to me, and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this one when I first saw it, but now I’m confident that the Resident Evil franchise is heading towards something great with this new addition.
To quote Jack Baker: “Welcome to the family, son.”