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The Terror Behind Being "Fine"in Resident Evil

Resident Evil's defining trait since its inception is that feeling fine might not even be enough to stop the terrors that await, but it's the best you're going to be until the end.


The slow creak of the door fills your ears as you enter the next decrepit room. The sound of the door closing behind you is replaced by the raspy moans of an undead creature just out of view of your screen, quickly followed by the dread of its shuffling feet, which does little to reveal the direction in which it is coming. You had already expended what few shotgun shells you had on previous hoards, so you raised your pistol, which will soon be drained of what little ammunition you have left. You pause to seek the one shred of relief that could calm the mounting terror that is approaching to take a bite out of you: the vitalizing tint of the green heart rate pulse atop your inventory. The four-letter word instills a sense of reassurance that you can weather the dangers and remain calm. You are fine, and in the world of Resident Evil, being just fine is as close as you will get to being safe, even if for just one more room.

Capcom's wildly popular horror franchise Resident Evil, known abroad as Biohazard, crept onto the scene in 1996 and turned the entire concept of what horror could represent into the space of video games. It has since served as the pioneer and gold standard for the genre of survival horror. The title spawned some of the most iconic troupes that are widely drawn upon in every copy, clone, and homage you could conjure up following the success of the series in the mid- to late-nineties. The game introduced tank controls, static camera angles, a UI void of life bars, ammo counts, and anything that could distract the gamer's immersion into a truly horrifying experience.

The creative decision to limit what the gamer could visually see, or not see, in the original release of Resident Evil was a pivotal choice in creating a tension that persists from the start of the game until the end. You have no way to actively see how much ammo you have left, no way to see exactly how much life you have remaining, or what afflictions you have, without pausing the game to check your current status.

The feeling of opening your inventory and your heart sinking because you are down to your last magazine of pistol ammunition, or that you did indeed forget to retrieve that key from the box that you were so assured that you had grabbed before making the trek across the danger-filled mansion, and ultimately, your life status after each encounter, played a role in how cautious or cavalier you might be going forward.

Capcom's decision to forgo a typical life bar that you would expect from other titles in place of something new, simple, but all too familiar, creates a new-found sense of dread for the player. Your chosen character's health is displayed as a heart rate monitor that starts with a steady heartbeat pulse of green that reads 'FINE' as a representation of assurance that, yes, you are in optimal health. Taking damage will result in that pulse degrading, first to a yellow 'CAUTION' and devolving further into orange, until it reaches the dreaded 'DANGER' that is shrouded by a shallow pulse in blood red. Anyone familiar with playing through the game will know exactly how the anxiety and fear begin to build when you reach this low level of health, with no healing items in sight and an unknown path to safety that is guarded by every horror imaginable.

Capcom successfully created lasting psychological effects on the player with each of these design choices that appeared ineffectual from the start but proved to extrapolate that effect tenfold as the game unwinds each successive terror, all the way to the pulsing heart rate being the foundation, the one constant reminder of the fragility of how quickly you could go from being safe to being on death's door.

It's no accident that the developers chose a heart rate monitor over something abstract such as a life bar. Everyone has at some point seen a heart rate monitor and knows what it represents. It's medical, methodical, and real, and sometimes something so mundane in real life can prove to be just enough of an extension from reality to fantasy to immerse the player further into allowing themselves to feel real fear while playing. We all know exactly what the real-world implications of a real-world flat line represent, and the game's ability to combine fantastic horror elements such as zombies with real-world dynamics is truly terrifying.

Even the simple and most basic use of the word fine is an establishment of a more sinister meaning. It doesn't say one hundred percent, full, or anything truly positive. It is simply fine. Almost objectively neutral in use, as if it's telling the player, "You may be fine, but that doesn't mean you are good," as that status can quickly change if you don't mind your step as you explore each corner and crook of the Spencer Mansion.

While in today's gaming landscape, this is almost a given and something everyone would recognize as a design choice, in 1996, this was a subversion of something that players would be comfortable with. It took a rudimentary element everyone was universally familiar with and did something with it—something darker—and made it more than just a reminder to be careful. No longer was it a life bar that you kept an eye on as you progressed through a level, but a reminder of your impending doom if you didn't focus on surviving. It may have been a bright green fine, but even at full health, it left players feeling anything but fine as they grew paranoid of how to even maintain that.

The series would go on to further evolve this concept in the sequels, with the game character's models slowing down as you fall from fine until you're limping along, barely holding onto hope of finding the next safe room or healing item. Over the countless sequels, spin-offs, and remakes, Capcom has shifted the dynamic of survival and how to figure out the way out of the nightmare that you are thrown into, but the one constant that never feels to serve its purpose has always been that pulsing heartbeat of green to keep the player in check before they decide to charge head first forward or be weary and take a slower approach.

Ultimately, that's the psychological grip that Resident Evil was able to create from day one. It was always about deciding to run or fight, to conserve ammo and supplies in fear of running out, to always pause and see your status and get that reassurance that you are fine, even though you know that you are far from fine as you dive deeper and deeper into the game. That is the mark of true survival horror, where even the concept of keeping track of your health can create dread.

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