Yet like “American Horror Story” or “True Blood,” the alluring, evil sweetness of the characters is what keeps you coming back for more. The game makers injected a kind of sinister, serial killer charisma that makes being lured into their lairs almost irresistible. You know terror lies ahead, and you walk into the trap anyway; the familiar, chilling path from horror films when someone faced with temptation abandons reason.
From the early snowbound moments of claustrophobia when the protagonist is fumbling and panting in the frozen darkness with only a flashlight, it’s clear Capcom’s creators are still masters at cultivating tension and delivering jump scares. It’s the understated qualities that escalate players’ fear in Resident Evil 8. It’s the way the village’s residents engage with Winters, baiting him before chasing him, that induces shivers that build into screams.
This is particularly evident inside of Castle Dimitrescu. According to game director Morimosa Sato, the game developers wanted to have 100 witches lurking inside of the castle. Instead, Sato explained, they settled on creating “something synonymous to a theme park of horror, where players could step into different areas and experience different brands of fear.”
“We wanted the castle to present an odd juxtaposition that you may not normally find,” Sato said. “It provides beautiful aesthetics, but also an icy tonality that sends shivers down your spine.”
The castle’s mistress, Lady Dimistrescu, epitomizes that dynamic. The countess serves the mysterious Mother Miranda (the game’s ultimate big boss) and throw Winters off the trail of finding his abducted baby, Rose. At 9-foot-6, the giantess is imposing, so tall she has to duck under her castle’s door frames (although you do have to wonder why she didn’t hire an architect to adapt the manse to her massive height).
She is captivating both for her size, but for her charming qualities as well. Sporting a fashionable, wide-brimmed chapeau and Hollywood-style makeup. She’s clearly ready for her close-up — with your throat.
“She carries herself with the utmost confidence,” Sato said. “You’ll often see her smiling, because she knows she literally towers over anybody else in the room.” But there’s more to her. There’s an intelligence, a conviction and a sense of purpose. There is more than a lust for blood, even if her desires are self-centered.
“What you may not immediately see,” Sato continued, “is that she is also a very compassionate and caring mother that loves her daughters. She wants what’s best, not only for herself, but for her daughters. The exquisite and regal interior of Castle Dimitrescu truly depicts her sense of self-worth and that she and her family stand above everyone else.”
All of that adds to her allure, and complicates your reactions to her beyond fear. When you first witness Lady Dimitrescu, she easily throws a heavy, golden vanity across the room. She maims you. From the start, it’s evident she can snap you whenever she chooses. Instead she toys with you. Later, she taunts, “Come on now. Don’t be shy. Show me your terror.”
Interactions like that build a sense of dread that is entirely different than an appearance from Nemesis, one of the more famous massive villains from the Resident Evil series. It’s not immediately about fight or flight when you meet Lady Dimitrescu. Instead, you’re left wincing and wondering when the killing blow could come. By the time her claws come out, your adrenaline is already coursing.
The sense of uneasiness is further instilled by Lady Dimitrescu’s daughters, particularly Daniela.
Of the Countess’s three daughters, Daniela is the wildest. She has a rose tattooed on her forehead, wears a choker with a red ruby, and is followed by a swarm of flies. (Insects clattering and buzzing about have been a mainstay of Resident Evil goofiness throughout the series as recently as “Resident Evil 7″.) She mocks you when you’re confused, jabbing “Poor little manthing.” When she bites you, she smiles and asks, “How’s it feel?” as though you’re supposed to like it.
And that’s the key here: You do like it. There’s horror, but it’s always tempered by hints of comedy, however sadistic they may be. They don’t want to scare you to the point you need to change your drawers. They want you to fully enjoy and embrace the scares.
That dynamic is reflected in several other of the game’s characters.
From Claude Reins’s “The Invisible Man” to Gary Oldman in the aforementioned “Bram’s Stoker’s Dracula,” dark glasses have ornamented some of the nastiest horror characters in fiction. In “Village,” another of Miranda’s henchmen, Karl Heisenberg, leers from behind similar lenses. But that may well be overlooked upon spying his massive sledgehammer, which frightens as much as a stare from beneath those evil specs. One of a handful of Village Lords, the cigar-smoking engineer’s attitude is hammer first and ask questions later. Still, he too, has his appeal as a character.
Sato described Heisenberg as “very charming. There’s a moment where he dons a huge grin and invites Ethan to join his side, even though it’s clear Ethan has no intentions to ever partner up with Heisenberg.”
Sato also noted Heisenberg has a surprising, albeit vicious, playful side. “Given the option, Heisenberg would rather toy with Ethan than kill him immediately,” Sato said. Again, a slow build to terror.
The ascent climaxes with the complexities of Mother Miranda, who unsettles in a different way. Rather than buffering pure fear with wit and charm, she first presents herself as something of a comforting presence, a kind of caretaker for the village. She ultimately reveals herself to be something else entirely.
Early in the game, you find a tarnished photo of Mother Miranda in the half light of an abandoned cabin. When you meet her, dressed in what seems to be Christian vestments and a stole, she’s surrounded by giant black wings and crowned with an ornate halo. Her appearance morphs (literally, in this case) from something capable of offering comfort (a priest) into something terrifying, altering her appearance into various horrible forms during the final battle.
“Mother Miranda is shrouded in mystery,” Sato said. “What we can say is that she’s very integral to the village itself, having kept the villagers safe from harm over many years. It seems like she’s suddenly abandoned them and there [is] a very important reason for this change.”
The change Sato talks about could be present in anyone. There’s a bit of Mother Miranda in all of us. And when that dark side overwhelms us, it turns us into something unrecognizable and ghastly. She, like Lady Dimitrescu and Heisenberg, is a complicated monster.
Harold Goldberg has written for the New York Times, Playboy, Vanity Fair and elsewhere. He’s the founder of the New York Video Game Critics Circle and New York Game Awards. Follow him on Twitter @haroldgoldberg.