Resident Evil 4 Remake Is Anxiety-Friendly Horror
A comforting sort of horror
There's a question I've been asking myself as I play through Capcom's brilliant Resident Evil 4 Remake, a game full of dark corners, huge monsters, and stressful item management - how am I playing this, exactly? When I played through the first Resident Evil 4 on GameCube, the answer seemed clear enough - it's just a really good game, one strong enough to push through all the anxiety I often feel playing action-centric horror games. But with RE4 Remake - which is, I'd argue, a much scarier game than its predecessor -it's a question I've had to contend with.
I don't think I'm bad with horror, generally speaking. I watch plenty of horror, and although I have my limits, I'm very excited for Evil Dead Rise to mess me up later this month. I read a lot of Stephen King and have been making an effort to branch out into more horror fiction lately. Horror games with less of a combat focus - like Until Dawn, or my beloved Silent Hill: Shattered Memories - are often right up my alley. But there's a certain kind of horror game - one where I need to keep my wits about me, where giant monsters want to rip me apart, where I know there could be something awful around every corner and my brain might simply shut off when I try to figure out the best way to engage with it - that's a real struggle for me.
It's not that I'm scared easily, though; it's an anxiety thing. I've long been an anxious person - I have no formal diagnosis around this to speak of, but there are many activities that send me spiraling. It's something about myself that I should be working on harder than I am, and it's something that often impacts how I play games.
There are some games that I just can't quite come at, or which become very difficult to pick up again if I step away from them for too long. I can be overcome with the feeling that my failures could be catastrophic, that I could seize up when confronted with a terrifying challenge. A lot of horror games are about being stalked, it seems to me, and I really struggle with that. Some games demand that you fail often, that you recover from being lost, or that you commit to a harsh struggle.
When I put them down for too long, the tasks the game has set in front of me start inflating in my head until they feel insurmountable. Metroid Prime Remastered is my current struggle with this problem and it feels intimidating after three weeks away (not to mention Elden Ring, which I last played maybe ten months ago). It's weird, it's a thing that bothers me about myself, and it really kicks in when I'm looking at a horror game.
This has happened to me with multiple Resident Evil games over the years. I remember playing the GameCube remake of the original game, methodically following a guide the whole time, until I ended up using my last ink ribbon while trapped in a room with several zombies right outside, my ammo all but exhausted. I distinctly remember thinking "Well, obviously Jill would use one of those bullets on herself and the game would end there", and I never played again. (I was wrong, of course; Jill would absolutely find a way out).
Resident Evil 7 became untenable the moment I realised it wasn't littered with comfortable checkpoints, and that the game's insistence that I occasionally creep past the horrible family stalking me wasn't going to go away. You would not catch me dead playing Outlast or Amnesia; I peaced out on Observer during the stealth bits, and I quit Alien: Isolation before I even saw the alien.
All of this brings me back to Resident Evil 4, a game that, despite being moderately challenging, really feels like it wants you to succeed. Encounters are generally designed so that you can, and usually should, kill everything that is trying to kill you - and if you're really struggling, you can always go and buy a rocket launcher to all but skip past the worst bosses. There's always a risk of running out of ammo and healing items, but the game is so perfectly balanced that you seem to always get pick-ups in the moments that you really need them - I feel comfortable actually using my healing items and grenades because there will definitely be others.
Judging from how I've seen other people talk about RE4 and its Remake, many of the game's fans have played through multiple times, trying for better scores and faster runs. To me, finishing once is the entire goal, and knowing that I can reasonably do that - even with this not being the sort of game that I usually preserve through - feels great. As of writing this, I just passed the big disgusting liquid nitrogen bug dude that I remembered being the worst fight in the original, which means that I'll definitely be able to finish it.
Resident Evil 4 - both the original and the remake - are games that benefit from a clear sense of heroism. Leon isn't a character I thought about much before playing this Remake, but I find myself growing fond of the guy this time. As intense as the action gets, this is a guy who takes everything in his stride. The campiness of Resident Evil 4 is a lot of fun, but it's also a great way of characterising Leon. The infamous "bingo" line can't help but put me at ease, even knowing that the next area is also going to be full of monsters who want to kill me. If I can tap into some of that energy, I'll be fine.
There was a moment in the game that really stood out to me. I was midway through the castle area, heading down a hallway I hadn't explored before when something awful skittered across the wall ahead of me. It's a neat little tease for the shit that's about to go down. Leon, looking ahead, had his own reaction - and it wasn't one of horror, disgust, or even bravado. Instead, it was a sarcastic "Oh, great". I love that! At this point, an awful horror is routine for Leon. He's scared, sure, but it's the same kind of scared I feel when I'm asked to perform a new task at work that I know I could get wrong. The possibility that Leon's face is about to be ripped off by a horrible bug monster is an inconvenience, not a shattering thing. It's a problem to be pushed through, not a roadblock.
Anxiety hits me hard in other areas of life, too. I find it very difficult to speak my mind or to start difficult conversations. I have not gotten behind the wheel of a car in a very long time. I have needed a new office chair for at least two years but keep overthinking it - what if I overspend and feel foolish, what if I underspend and mess up my back? This is the tip of the iceberg, and the way certain games make me feel is just a symptom of a bigger mental block that I run into on a near-daily basis.
But Resident Evil 4 and its Remake feel at times like a game engineered to work with me, a horror game that really meets me halfway. It's balanced and fair. It gives me the tools I need to be confident. The remake in particular is generous enough with checkpoints that death never feels like a disaster. I can tap into some of Leon's confidence and courage, his ability to push forward, and his certainty that things will work out if he just stabs enough cultist zombie folks. Succeeding in the game makes me wonder if perhaps I have the strength to work on myself, too.
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