Survival Horror is my favorite genre in gaming. Not because I’m a twisted and disturbed person (there is that, of course) but because it fulfills one of the primary things I look for in a game (or any artform): generating emotional responses. As a Psychology graduate, I’ve long been fascinated by the potential of gaming as a medium of communication between it and the player. Also, to be frank having an understanding of player psychology is a big part of being a game designer. If you need to communicate a message, or certain feeling to them, you should know what the feelings are.
Survival Horror is interesting to me, because I feel it’s the genre that manipulates the player the most. That may be also the reason why it’s remained mostly a Niche genre (for the most part) over the years. People generally don’t like to feel negative emotions (stress, tension) during their playtime. It’s understandable, considering how our lives are stressful enough as it is, we want to play games for release. Still, the genre actually had a devoted following till at least the early-mid 2000’s, after which ironically a lot of these franchises began to turn into action oriented games.
It’s seen sort of a rebirth as of these last few years, with first person titles like AMNESIA and OUTLAST gaining widespread popularity, as a result, fully AAA titles like ALIEN:ISOLATION and THE EVIL WITHIN were able to be produced. But for a long while (especially after the mid 2000’s), it experienced a slow painful decline, along with the JRPG. It was one of the niche genres that suffered due to games becoming simplified and more catered to the mainstream audience, and the budgets inflating rapidly. There probably wasn’t a market for this sort of game anymore. Some gems like LONE SURVIVOR somehow surfaced, but these were modest indie titles that a lot of people didn’t play.
The most popular genre of survival horror in the market today is perhaps the ‘first person horror simulator’ and while it was fun in its’ initial days, it has shown rapid regression. Games like AMNESIA and OUTLAST were innovative for their time, but as time has gone by, they tricks they co-opted have gotten too repetitive. If you’re an an experienced gamer, you can probably spot out the x amount of terrible survival horror games that have tried to rip it off, and have done so horribly. The excellent Youtuber Fungo ( seriously, check him out) calls these games ‘Participation Horror’ and I can’t help but feel that he has a point. A lot of these titles often begin to feel like smoke and mirrors, once you start casting a critical eye (Notice I said some. Not All). With advances in technology and sound design, it’s become easier to create a sense of foreboding mood and atmosphere. But a very few of these feel lived-in or have any sort of depth to it. I never got into ‘Five Nights at Freddy’ and other titles, they just seemed like gimmicks to me.
It’s hard to describe what I mean by ‘lived-in’-ness. Like the best horror movies, old survival horror games had more in their mind than just piling on a few cheap scares. They were directed, in a way that say, a movie is. The first RESIDENT EVIL is known for it’s pioneering, claustrophobic camera angles to build tension, but that’s not all it did. The ammo, save points, cut scenes were paced extremely strategically, and the cryptic nature of the ‘documents’ you’d uncover throughout, meshed well with the foreboding atmosphere, to make the world feel alive. Also memorable are a lot of PS2- era titiles . A little bit of rough around the edges, but the developers took great pains to ensure that what you were about to undertake was a journey. Like the best horror films, there were other emotions tied to the experience besides fear. The intense psychological probing of Silent Hill 2 is perhaps the perfect example of this, but the lovely stories of FATAL FRAME games, as well as unheradled gems like RULE OF ROSE and the now forgotten SIREN games did a great job of building a tense world. They felt handcrafted in a way, that say P.T or RESIDENT EVIL 7 didn’t. At least to me. In those games, every polished pixel kind of betrayed the rough charm of the games of old. The grit looked fake. At least to me.
World building aside, there was actual gameplay in the old games. There were more things to do than just hide in lockers. The old RESIDENT EVIL games ( special emphasis on the first game once again), used backtracking to hammer a sense of familiarization and memorization into the player. The path to progression was well laid out, and the developers often would put deliberately tough enemy/boss encounters in specific places, to make sure the players ammo count would rise/fall throughout the game, leading in an escalating sense of tension throughout. Innovative Horror Games like FATAL FRAME had the camera mechanic that added a genuine sense of strategy. If you wanted to live, you had to learn to be good at it . The point being, they were games. The player interacted with the environment. There were systems in place to ensure that your brain is constantly kept active throughout. Be it managing the ammo count, solving strange puzzles, inventory management, beating bosses ,learning to navigate an obstacle in (sometimes) multiple ways, your hand-eye coordination was also constantly active. The fantastic and beloved ‘Plant 42’ sequence from RESIDENT EVIL being a landmark example till this day.
What’s ironic is that whilst Survival Horror has kind of sidelined the ‘Survival’ parts, games that aren’t survival horror purely, are doing variations on this. The most famous example of it is of course, DARK SOULS. It takes the elements of making the player feel isolated, item management, cryptic lore and mixes it well with a sense of progression and escalating scale. All the while, it communicates feelings of hopelessness that take us straight back to the days of old. Be honest, there are many points where a lot of players give subject to thought: Maybe I won’t complete this game. Nothing is impossible, of course, but to make the player feel like that is the point of the game. The stellar revival of DOOM in 2016, was both moody and forced the player to both play well, and keep his resource count in check. Action RPG’s seem to have also adopted survival elements from games, during their more intense dungeon crawl segments. The point overall, I guess is to not make the place seem like just code, and more like a sort of second home. One that disturbs the living crap out of you.
Speaking of pure horror, I very much enjoyed the 2014 double blast of THE EVIL WITHIN and ALIEN ISOLATION much more, than the current glut of horror titles. These are games with obvious points of reference, but they do more than just borrow from their inspirations. THE EVIL WITHIN is a logical extension of Mikami’s ground breaking work in RESIDENT EVIL 4, whose framework it adopts and translates into a much more methodical, precise, taxing and altogether cerebral experience. ALIEN ISOLATION on the other takes the aesthetic of an FPS horror games, and inserts a dynamic emergent AI into the mix, creating a hunter/prey dynamic that makes the scripted encounters and ‘fake outs’ of other FPS horror games absolutely rudimentary by comparison. Also, these games put a concentrated effort in painstaking world building, which I really appreciate. THE EVIL WITHIN feels like navigating a gonzo, bizarre world that is equal parts Stephen King, Evil Dead, J-Horror and David Fincher, whereas, ISOLATION creates the aesthetic and atmosphere of the original 1979 film to such a microscopic level, and brilliantly puts it through a System Shock-esque interface and navigation system that urges you to pay attention to every inch of your surroundings.
These games understand the intensely cerebral experience that old-school fans like me love. There’s always the feeling of being completely overwhelmed and having to react intelligently under seemingly dire situations, and there’s always a sense of ‘big picture’ game design in place that keeps the whole thing glued together. Survival Horror to me, represents the pinnacle of gaming as an interactive medium, and here’s hoping more games in the genre continue on to be made.