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Resident Evil 7: Beginning Hour: How to do a demo right

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A good game demo makes people want to play the full game. A great game demo is a full game. 

We saw that with PT. PT wasn't great because it showed us a slice of gameplay we might've seen in Silent Hills, but because it felt like a satisfying horror experience within its own right. Slice off the teaser at the end, add some credits and charge $15 and they easily could've gotten away with making PT a full retail product, albeit a short one. 

And that's just fine, because a lot of horror games work as short experiences. The original Silent Hill lasts just four hours, and Alien Isolation received a lot of criticism for lasting a few hours longer than it needed to. When it comes to horror, length is the hardest thing to get right. 

I've talked to some people who called PT their game of the year. That's incredibly, especially considering it wasn't even a full game and lasted a little more than an hour. But it inspired some confidence in the horror genre, and we may not even have seen Resident Evil 7 as it is without PT's success. 

And RE7 is even taking some cues from PT by releasing a standalone demo separate from the main game. They also tried something different by updating the demo with new content, with three versions: the base demo, the Twilight Version and the Midnight version. Each subsequent update added new rooms, puzzle items and story bits, as well as new endings. Just today we saw the release of the Midnight update, and I've been playing it all day, as well as having a roommate play through the full demo for the first time. 

Beginning Hour has the player find themselves locked in a house, being told their only objective is to escape. The demo has multiple endings, and "escape" is a bit of a loose term, but there are a few different endings depending on how you explore. On your first playthrough, you'll run straight for the back door, with the big red beacon of hope it represents. This door was previously the only ending to the demo, and gunning straight for it is exactly what the game wants you to do. 

"Welcome to the family, son," says a southern man who looks like he hasn't aged since the 1970s as he punches your lights out after reaching the door. 

Welp, that didn't work out. Time for phase two. 

Beginning Hour works through trial-and-error. A lot of people will sigh and moan about trial-and-error game design, saying it feels cheap and repetitive, but Beginning Hour works because of it. In your first playthrough, through a video tape you'll learn there's a secret switch in the fireplace. On a second playthrough, you'll go straight for it since you know it's there. When you open up the secret passage, you'll find a new item there to reward you for your intended sequence break.

There's a bunch of little things like that which allow you to do things in alternate ways or skip certain items. In the playable video sequence you can unlock a cupboard so, in the future, the cupboard is already open and you can get the item within. Or you can find the item elsewhere, hidden in the depths of the basement. You're allowed to explore, fill out your inventory and figure things out in your own order. 

And there's a ton of mystery and intrigue in this demo. You find items and you're not sure what to do with them. Previously the demo had items with no use: bullets with no gun, or an axe with nothing to use it on. But now you find pieces of the puzzle and you know they connect you to something. But there seems to be red herring items meant to troll you. That doll hand still seemingly has no use... none that anyone has found yet, at least. 

But disregarding how awesome it is to figure out the mysteries of the house and solve it as one giant puzzle (almost like old Tomb Raider games, where the levels themselves were just big puzzles with a lot of small moving parts), the detail and environmental design are astounding. 

The house feels lived in, yet also like it's been abandoned for decades. Wallpaper only a mother would choose peels from the walls. Framed pictures show an uncomfortable and awkward family. You find pill bottles right next to a little angel statue. In the same way PT personified the space of Lisa's home, Beginning Hour shows the home of the Baker family as they've slowly gone insane. Unlike the mansions or towns from previous RE games, the Baker house feels like it was once a respected and welcoming place neglected by time and owners who have become hostile and dangerous. In a way, the house is the true victim of the family, as it hides secrets it doesn't want to host, while showing it was once a home for a cold and distant family. 

I could go on, but I would spoil some of the greatest surprises from this demo. I encourage anyone who has a PS4 to play it, and once you're done, play it again. Just keep tossing yourself back in until you've figured out as many secrets as you can find. Good game demos make you want to play the full game, but Beginning Hour will stay on my hard-drive, because it works as a game completely on its own. 

What's more, is this type of demo works. I can't predict what type of sales numbers the game will reach, but by carroting players along, by getting them to keep coming back to the demo, and by hiding secrets to force the player to replay it, there's no doubt this demo has generated interest, at least in me and the people I've shown it to. 

I can't say how good RE7 will be, or even if it's anything like this. Regardless, as an experience on its own, Beginning Hour stands on its own, and if RE7 never existed, I feel like people would still find interest and value in Beginning Hour. We really don't see demos anymore, since they often prove to distract the development team and often scare away customers more often than attract them. But if we saw more standalone demos like Beginning Hour, which show off a slice of what the game might be, while providing a complete product, I think more people would be interested in demos and buying into their full releases. 

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About Casus Gamingone of us since 7:55 PM on 10.17.2015

The word 'amateur' is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to me as a human being.

I'm a writer and a video game player, with that last one taking up way too much time out of the first two.

If you like From Software, Persona and have a hard-on for retro shooters and the N64, I think we'll get along.