Warning: The following article contains spoilers for, amongst other older things, Resident Evil 7 and The Blair Witch Project.
If you've ever browsed the horror movies on Netflix, Amazon or your local DVD store in the last few years, you've almost certainly come across dozens of titles in the 'found footage' genre. Chances are you've watched a bunch yourself; it's an extremely popular genre these days, thanks to their lower budgets and occasional massive successes.
There's certainly an argument to be made that the genre's oversaturated, but there are also numerous interesting discussions to be had around why the genre's managed to make such a foothold in cultural horror. None so strong, perhaps, as the degree of immediacy and intimacy that the found footage genre provides. It's an appeal familiar to horror games, and it's no surprise then that the found footage genre has made its way into these games, culminating in the recent Resident Evil 7.
Above: Resident Evil 7 gameplay footage. All footage in the piece captured by the author. Header image courtesy of Capcom.
When people think of found footage movies, one title usually springs to mind. 1999's The Blair Witch Project was a cultural phenomenon, with discussions ranging from 'is this a good horror movie?' to 'is this actually real?' The concept of a group of campers lost in the woods gripped audiences worldwide, and while The Blair Witch Project was far from the first found footage movie, it was inarguably the most culturally prominent at the time. The style eventually expanded to the vastly popular but extremely hit and miss Paranormal Activity series, and its techniques are used in all manner of TV and film projects. Out of humanity's voyeurism, a subgenre was born.
Following The Blair Witch Project, but before some of the genre's other notable entries, video games were delving into the concept of found footage. There's a weird, obscure Playstation 2 title that's achieved something of a cult following over the years, despite (ironically) never receiving a North American release: Michigan: Report from Hell, directed by the inimitable Suda51. Now, Michigan isn't a great game. It's rough, a bit seedy, and not actually even set in Michigan, but Illinois (the Michigan of the title refers to the lake, not the state). But it's a prime example of the found footage genre.
Above: Michigan: Report from Hell.
You play as a cameraman, and everything's viewed through his lens, with a HUD that reflects a camera's viewfinder, and a structure that focuses heavily on visual journalism. While you're directly controlling the cameraman, the message is clear; these are tapes that someone is later viewing, and this chronicle of the horrifying night will one day be discovered. There's that familiar sense of immediacy to Michigan's horror, and it adds a commentary on the nature of voyeurism. After all, isn't found footage just the viewer watching terrible, exploitative things happening to others?
2013's Outlast focuses heavily on horrific, unpleasant events, mostly viewed through the viewfinder of the protagonist's camera. Then we have Shutter, Final Take, The Tape, 2:22:am, and even Her Story. And there's Experience 112. Experience 112 is little-known adventure game from 2007, and perhaps one of the most interesting commercial found footage titles around. In the game, you play an unknown protagonist sitting in a security booth, who must guide an amnesiac woman through a ship on which sinister sci-fi experiments have taken place. It uses an incredibly neat security desktop style interface, with a large degree of control over the cameras. It's poorly acted and not particularly scary on paper, but solely by using the found footage conceit, it manages to be greater than the sum of its parts. The game is also a rare example of found footage in which the cameras aren't being manually held. Experience 112 is notable in that it focuses heavily on establishing a relationship of intimacy and immediacy with the girl on the camera, playing to the genre's voyeuristic–yet strangely empathetic–strengths.
Above: Experience 112. Which brings us to the recent Resident Evil 7, the first main series Resident Evil to be in first person. Arguably, the shift to first person could be seen as the series tapping into the immediacy of the found footage genre itself, although, of course, numerous games adopt that viewpoint. But Resident Evil 7 also utilizes the concept of found footage throughout its narrative, and the series has always had one foot in the found footage genre. Or, at least a toe.
Think about those camera angles in the Spencer Mansion of the original Resident Evil. Like eyes on the wall, watching the protagonists; cameras mounted at believable and impossible locations alike, watching and panning as Jill or Chris passed, fly on the wall angles that gave a distorted, limited, and yes, voyeuristic view of the action. Remember the first time that zombie got up from the floor, and you back around the corner and the camera changes, preventing you from seeing your foe? As a precursor to the genre, this is reminiscent of classic found footage tactics, limiting your field of view to create meticulously planned scares that somehow still feel natural. While the series never presented it as such, you could have slapped a security camera HUD on a huge number of the Resident Evil camera angles, up until the shift to an over-the-shoulder camera with 4, and it would have looked perfectly believable. And Capcom has always known that.
Resident Evil 7 does some of the most interesting things with the found footage conceit that exist in the horror genre. Throughout the game, your protagonists find a number of VHS tapes, each serving a different purpose.
The first, the 'Derelict House' footage, takes you behind the lens of Clancy Javis, the camera man for a show called "Sewer 'Gators," which features a group of dudes investigating haunted houses. Ultimately this tape serves to show you (and Ethan) the location of a certain switch you might have missed, but mainly it establishes a fantastic atmosphere, a grindhouse exploitation aesthetic, and serves as an excellent form of backstory delivery that avoids info-dumping.
There's that famous shot at the end of The Blair Witch Project in which Josh is standing facing a wall, moments before the movie ends. It haunted moviegoers for years, and has influenced numerous horror productions ever since. It's interesting, then, that the initial tape in Resident Evil 7 recreates that scene in a perfect homage; not only within the game, but on a VHS tape, a piece of found footage watched by the protagonist.
But it's another tape that really shows the power of the conceit. In this one, you're playing as Clancy again, and he's thrown into a devious puzzle room constructed by one of the game's antagonists. It's all very Saw; very grainy, very dark, and an excellent multi-layered puzzle.
At the end of the tape, Clancy has an unfortunate accident, and you're left thinking yes, that was interesting, a fun way to add a bit of longevity to the game, a nice tape to watch. It's only when, shortly after, you end up trapped in the same puzzle as Ethan, that you realize just how effectively and smartly Capcom has used the found footage idea. Having watched Clancy solve the puzzle his way on the tape, you now have certain puzzle solutions that allow you to bypass mutilation and ultimately death. As a design decision, it's brilliant: rewarding Ethan's voyeurism, and indeed your own, with a tangible prize: the chance to not get burned alive by a maniac.
Above: Sara is Missing.
There are plenty of opportunities for the found footage genre to expand and evolve, using smart thinking and design as demonstrated by Capcom in Resident Evil 7. Indeed, just recently, a short and free indie game called Sara is Missing was released. Sara is Missing takes place entirely on a missing girl's cellphone, and involves searching said phone for texts, emails, pictures, and video that give an indication as to her whereabouts. Similarly, the game Replica, while not strictly horror, uses the same exploratory conceit to build up tension and intrigue, as does Orwell. Found footage doesn't have to be restricted to moving images, and these games show that the voyeuristic appeal can work just as well when you're looking through private files.
Every time it seems like cinema's exhausted the concept, we get something like Sickhouse, made possible by Snapchat, a technology that didn't even exist when The Blair Witch Project came out. And for every first-person indie horror that sticks a camcorder HUD over the screen, we have something innovative and smart like Sara is Missing, or a pure, terrifying homage like Resident Evil 7.
Ultimately, the genre will always thrive because humans are eternal voyeurs. We will always like to watch other people doing things. From camgirls getting naked in their bedrooms to Twitch streamers getting POTG in Overwatch, our fascination with getting a glimpse into the lives of others will never go away. Recently, Twitch launched 'Twitch IRL', a service that lets your favorite streamer broadcast their real life to the world. It's no wonder then, with our obsession with watching other people, that sometimes we like to watch through their eyes as terrible, terrifying things happen. And what better way to do that than in a video game, where we can interact with and even affect the abysses into which we're gazing?