Horror By Design: Examining Resident Evil’s Iconic Doors
Resident Evil is an undeniable study in atmosphere and tension. From its humble, polygonal origins in 1996, all the way up to the recently released HD version of the perennial classic, Resident Evil proves that regardless of its visual presentation, horror resides largely in the moments in between the action, in the temporary stillness of the Spencer Mansion.
No better illustration of this concept exists other than the infamous doors of Resident Evil. By and large, each door that the player passes through in the game provides for a moment of heightened tension like no other. The fear of the unknown is king in Shinji Mikami’s masterwork, aided by the creaking of wood as a door is opened. What resides on the other side is no guarantee, the player’s safety perhaps, least of all.
To understand the effectiveness of Resident Evil’s doors, it is imperative to look back and discern their actual purpose. Of course, doors are commonplace in architecture – a necessity of design within any mansion or other dwelling. Within the context of Resident Evil as an early PlayStation title, however, the doors of the mansion took on a dual nature. Each door (and staircase in the original release) not only served as connecting portals from one room to the next, but also as a brief loading zone. In order to allow the game enough time to load in the next expansive area of the mansion, Capcom’s development team chose to include the now iconic door animations within Resident Evil.
These animations, despite their inclusion out of necessity, have become a hallmark of survival horror, ingrained in the public consciousness. As the first widely received survival horror title, Resident Evil set the standard for titles to come through its somber tone, tank controls and subtle pacing. The brilliant pacing of Resident Evil, at its core, is directly tied to Shinji Mikami and Capcom’s decision to keep players immersed in the game’s haunting locations even when the primitive PlayStation hardware required for continual loading.
In terms of horror-inducing potency, the doors of Resident Evil are perhaps the game’s most promising element. From the game’s outset, players are constantly reminded that they are on their own. Even as Jill, who finds herself retreating to the Spencer Mansion with Barry Burton and Albert Wesker, Resident Evil’s journey is largely one of isolation. Upon beginning the game in proper, Resident Evil quickly becomes an experience between the player and their avatar, with countless doors and hallways separating them from human contact.
With this level of isolation, the tension of Resident Evil is near-palpable. The game’s lighting and sound design play tricks on the player, toying with concepts of fear and paranoia, all of which come to a head upon entering a new area. By stepping through a door, the player must prepare themselves for whatever horror lurks in wait. The waiting, as Resident Evil’s door animations play, adds new depth to the lingering fear, never allowing the player to feel at ease.
Similar to the design of Resident Evil’s doors, the overall effectiveness of the game in terms of creating constant tension resides within the fixed camera positions throughout the game. The Spencer Mansion is a massive place, rife with passageways, doors and secrets that never truly divulge everything to the player. Intended in its design, the fixed camera view of each of the mansion’s segments is often jarring, making for navigating through rooms an often dizzying experience. As the player attempts to guide Jill through the game, they are forced to be constantly alert, aware of the character’s position in relation to the layout of each room.
It is in this awareness and overt attention that Resident Evil’s doors become so traumatic. Resident Evil, in both the original release and January’s Resident Evil HD, exude atmosphere. Thanks to the game’s relatively thin narration, the player is largely left to their own devices as they attempt to navigate the labyrinth halls of the mansion and onward. Amid threats of reanimated corpses and the insidious feeling of unseen forces, tension prevails. As such, each door entered feels as though it could be the player’s last. Transitioning from one area to the next is a normal affair in virtually any other video game, but Resident Evil demands that the player sit through the animation and feel the emotions that are running through the character’s head. As the knob clicks and the wooden door begins to swing open, all bets and notions of safety are off. Crossing the threshold is both a test of survival and a rite of passage.
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