Fear at First Bite – Resident Evil’s Stunning First Encounter
Resident Evil’s first zombie encounter is a slow, disturbing, unsettling sequence that sets the tone for the entire game. The slow pan of the zombie’s face. The severed head. The plodding approach of your enemy. The gun’s slow firing speed. That feeling of growing tension as your foe keeps absorbing shots, getting ever-closer. Every aspect of that encounter demonstrates the creeping terror that infuses the game and, even twenty-five years later, makes it such a compelling horror title.
Despite a harrowing (and more than a little cheesy) FMV opening, the game starts off relatively quietly. You begin in a massive open room, the main hall of the game. Maybe you do a bit of wandering around, looking for stray items. It’s unnervingly quiet, honestly. Most likely, you’ll meander through a few different rooms with little to find besides the sound of your own footsteps. It almost feels abandoned at first.
This may make you lower your guard as you work through Resident Evil. Or, if you’re like me, it’ll tense you up even further. You know something sinister lives here. You can see it on the game’s cover (that dude with the shotgun isn’t making that face for nothing). It’s what got you to buy the game, after all. Still, even this silence plays into the unease of that first encounter. It gets your imagination going, having you concoct your own horrors while you wait for the game to tip its hand. It doesn’t leave you to imagine it for very long, but just enough time that you can develop some nasty vision of what this encounter will look like
Eventually, your desire to move forward will have you walk around a blind corner, stumbling right into that first zombie meeting. It plays out in a video, panning slowly over a pale creature in shabby clothes. It’s leaning over what looks like a body. You see its head bobbing up and down, a loud crunching sound coming from your speakers. Blood dribbles across the floor. Then, the creature stops, turning its head to look up at you through pale, staring eyes.
It’s a moment that’s been impossible to forget since the first time I played Resident Evil. This whole sequence doesn’t take long, but it feels like an eternity. The game gives you a lot of time to really linger on the details of the creature. The sounds it’s making. The growing pool of blood. It doesn’t show gory visuals of the zombie biting into the corpse’s neck, but with that bobbling head motion and the horrible crunching noise, it didn’t have to. My mind was already racing, creating a sickening vision in my head.
It was a smart move. Not only did it engage my imagination (something that always makes my fears worse in horror games), but it also avoided having to deal with graphical fidelity. That’s why this scene still gives me the chills all these years later. I’m not too caught up in noticing the visual quirks of the scene, instead just letting fear take hold in my imagination.
Not that it needs to stay in my head, as Resident Evil is done existing only in the realm of imagination. Now, you need to deal with the zombie for real. Well, unless you run away from the zombie. Coward (just kidding, save whatever ammo you can). Once the cutscene ends, our bloody buddy rises up from the corpse it was gnawing on (the chewed neck wound on the severed head is…definitely something), turns, and starts making its way toward you.
While you may have been playing around with movement in the hallway, now is when you’ll likely truly notice how strange it is to walk in these games. The tank controls work well in a game where the camera angle is constantly changing, but when you need to flee something, they add some extra challenge. They’re likely a bit unintuitive at this point, having your character slowly backpedal when you probably want them to turn and run. Your movement is also pretty slow – at most, a brisk jog – making flight feel difficult. Or that you’re backing away in horror when you want to escape. So, you feel like you have to face what you’re fighting. Turning away is just awkward enough that you’re semi-forced to deal with your fears head-on.
If you choose to fight, you’ll likely equip your gun, thinking about how generous Resident Evil is being by letting you have a fair amount of handgun bullets loaded at once. I remember feeling a hint of confidence at seeing my ammo count. It couldn’t take that many bullets to take the zombie down, right?
Now, you’re standing pretty close to that first foe after the video, so you might want to move. That leads to whole new problems, though. If you move to put some distance between yourself and the zombie, the game will transition to another camera angle. Now, though, it’s just about impossible to see the enemy. So, if you want to see if your shots are landing, you need to stay pretty much right on top of a monster that bites people hard enough to tear their heads off. No matter what you choose, you’re going to feel tension. You either can’t see if your shots are hitting the mark or you’re afraid of the undead thing that’s far too close.
Whatever you choose, you’ll likely be noticing your firing rate (the gun shoots pretty slow). If you made the choice to stay close to the zombie, you’re probably regretting it right now. As you’re firing, you’re watching the creature lumbering closer and closer, your shots seeming to have little effect. You’re thinking of your ammo count, feeling your confidence crumble as the beast absorbs shot after shot. How many hits will it take to bring it down? Resident Evil starts to make you feel a bit of panic as your weapon proves largely ineffective. You’re almost guaranteed to be standing too close, needing to back away. Which brings back the problem of movement.
If you’re stumbling through any of these mechanics, that zombie is probably going to manage to get you. When it does, it’s going to chow down on your neck, a sight that’s terrifying in its intimacy. I’ve mentioned before that being bitten feels so much more disturbing than being struck, and that revulsion is going to come into play, here. It’s so much worse than if you’d been slashed or punched, creating this natural desire to never have it happen again. If you look at your health afterwards (which flows through nebulous states instead of a bar you can easily measure, making for its own tension as you wonder just how close to death you really are), you’re definitely not going to want to get bitten again.
If and when you finally overcome the zombie, your mind will be left reeling from the encounter. You won’t want to get bitten again. You’ll be shocked at how many shots it took to take down a single foe. You’re afraid of how little ammo you have for your next run-in. Unsure of your health. Sickened at the idea of being so close to such a sickening creature. Afraid of what else lurks in the house. Scared of trying to flee. Nervous to navigate around foes in tight corridors with these clumsy motions.
Resident Evil makes you feel all of this from a single-well-executed encounter. And as you’ll discover, it’s far from its only devious trick, making for a game that continually finds new ways to unnerve. It’s an incredible moment that tells the player so many different things to fear, setting up the ever-growing terror that will carry you through the rest of the game.