Resident Evil 7's Madhouse is a great example of difficulty done right

Something that Resident Evil fans like to talk about a lot is how long they'd survive in Spencer's Mansion or Raccoon City before having a zombie pull their jugular vein straight out of their neck and eat it. I always thought I'd be able to make it pretty far because those zombies move slowly and I'm a pretty good shot with an airsoft gun—yes, I know real guns are not the same thing, but I once shot my friend right in the butt. Precision aim. However, I now know for a fact that I would not survive for very long on the Bakers' plantation, thanks to Madhouse's cruel realization of just how fucked up Ethan's situation is in Resident Evil 7. And I'm still probably being a little bit overconfident.

I've beaten Resident Evil 7 on Normal difficulty twice. In my first playthrough, before the final stretch of enemies, I had 67 handgun bullets, 36 shotgun shells, 160 machine gun bullets, nine remote bombs, and a bunch of support items. My second playthrough wasn't too different, and I was never conservative with my ammo. I was Mr. Video Game Hero, and I was really good at making monsters' heads go boom. In fact, there wasn't a single monster I came across that didn't end up headless at some point. If this version of me was real, girls would think I'm cool

If this version of me was real, girls would think I'm cool.

This feeling, however, would not last in my third playthrough. After seeing both endings, I wanted a challenge, and the Madhouse difficulty—unlocked by completing the game—was my only option. Knowing nothing other than the requirement of cassette tapes to save, I jumped in, expecting to be faced with a harder version of the game I already knew. And that's what it seemed like up until the garage fight with Jack Baker. Having done this twice before, running over Jack with my car both times, I sprinted over to where the keys were. But wait. Where are the keys? All I saw was a locked box only accessible with a lockpick. A panic spread over me, as I slowly started to realize the game was going to play on my expectations for the next eight hours. I scrambled to find a lockpick, no idea where to start, running laps around the garage as a crazy old man chased me.

This small deviation, coupled with the increase in difficulty, set the tone for the rest of my run. I wasn't sure what would be different about this game that I had evidently grown too familiar with. I breathed a sigh of relief because, at the very least, I had put Jack down for the time being and could explore the house, looking for changes like some kind of demented Easter egg hunt.

To start things off, I walked into the main foyer and noticed the next big change: a set of bird cages sitting around a table. In Resident Evil 7, bird cages contain upgrades that you can obtain by inserting Antique Coins, which are found throughout the game. The cages in the normal game contain a Magnum and upgrades for health and reload speed; these cages, however, contained new items. One of them immediately caught my eye, as it contained the Scorpion key, which can be used to gain access to certain areas. In the normal game, it's located in an area behind a bunch of enemies; knowing how helpful it would be to have up front, I grabbed it just in time for Jack to burst through the door. 

"He's not supposed to show up yet," I thought, recalling how Jack would only start roaming the house after you trigger a specific cutscene. In Madhouse, though? He's on your ass immediately. And he's faster than you. Panicking, I darted through the closest door and ran towards a nearby safe room to regroup, but I didn't quite make it there. A four-legged Molded now called that hallway its home, so it came around the corner, lunged, and killed me, sending me all the way back to the last time I saved, which just so happened to be right before the garage fight. Yep, I had to do that all over again. I almost cried.

In Madhouse, I'm not trying to put down everything that moves, I'm just trying to survive.

This made me realize that I was no longer the cool video game dude that I thought I was. I was now a fragile boy whose guns were no longer keys to a world of exploding heads, but instead lockpicks that I had to use carefully and thoughtfully on one obstacle at a time or else I'd get overwhelmed. And sometimes, guns aren't always the best answer, let alone an effective one at all. Memories of playing the original Resident Evil flooded back as I thought about which enemies I should run away from and which ones would be best to dispose of—at times, the only right choice was to cut my losses and flee to fight another day. And, for the first time, I was forced to utilize one of the game's core mechanics in most situations: blocking. In Madhouse, I'm not trying to put down everything that moves, I'm just trying to survive.

This entire experience comes together to make something very special. If Madhouse was just a harder version of the Normal game, I wouldn't be compelled to continue forward. It's like having an unreliable memory; you know the bathroom is the third door, down the hall on the right, but there's a monster that pops out of the second door that you're positive wasn't there before. It's stuff like this that's given me new reasons to recheck every nook and cranny for items, see what twists the Madhouse has arranged for me, and most importantly, be scared again.