Reviving the Dead – The State of Survival Horror

by Bill Henning

In the modern era, the franchises that have acted as the cornerstones of the survival horror genre lack one major component – horror. Recent entries in popular franchises such as Alone in the Dark (2008), Dead Space 3, and Resident Evil 5 and Resident Evil 6 are more content with cheap scares instead of building atmosphere, forcing co-op into the mix and giving players more ammo than they can spend in a single playthrough. The traditional idea of survival horror seems lost to generations past, with this new wave of action-heavy games taking their place. But this is a genre that refuses to die, so the question is – is survival horror as we once knew it dead?

To try and answer this question, we need to understand where the genre started, where it currently stands, where it could be going and where it went wrong.

Defining Horror

Survival horror captures the sense of classic horror films – invoking fear via atmosphere, nightmarish creatures and occasional jump-scares. Horror films aim to expose the darker side of humanity, forcing us to face our insecurities and to look at (or turn away from) depraved, violent situations, and tapping into a fight or flight instinct present in almost everyone. The best horror films cleverly insert political or social commentary into the narrative, such as Dawn of the Dead did with mass consumerism, as a way to comment on both the nature of humanity and the world we live in.

Silent Hill 2

Silent Hill 2 is a prime example of survival horror games relying on the trope of unraveling sanity

Survival horror games drive players through the narrative through simple tropes: survive the night (Resident Evil), desperate escapes with plot twists and turns (Dead Space), or unraveling the players sanity (Silent Hill 2). Usually, health and ammo are limited, emphasizing the survival aspects of the game – players watch their health dwindle with each fight, knowing that every bullet counts, right on down to the last magazine. It’s common for player to not know when they can resupply those precious items, adding a layer of dread on top of the experience.

Initially, developers struggled to make horror games as they were challenged by  limitations stemming from hardware or poorly implemented control schemes. Castlevania was a game clearly set in the universe of horror movies, yet because of the limitations from the Nintendo Entertainment System, establishing the atmosphere and a style reminiscent of horror movies was a difficult task. Konami tried to build tension by making the game incredibly difficult, forcing the player to carefully consider each situation instead of running through entire levels like players would in Super Mario Bros. But the horror elements never translated, resulting in a very challenging game with a Dracula skin. Even with these flaws struggles, these games served an important role in building the foundation of what would become a very successful genre.

The Golden Age

Alone in the Dark

A unique approach from Infogrames with Alone in the Dark led the invention of the survival horror genre

Survival horror first took root when developers had the ability to to do more than slap a horror-themed skin on their games. Developer Infogrames took a very different approach to horror games with Alone in the Dark, leading to the birth of the survival horror genre. Instead of a game based around fighting bad guys, Alone in the Dark took cues from adventure games by way of solving puzzles to defeat enemies, instead of utilizing traditional combat mechanics. Forcing players to handle a puzzle with an unkillable enemy added a new level of tension to the game and created an exciting experience for players.

Shortly after, Capcom and Konami expanded on the ideas from Alone in the Dark with Resident Evil and Silent Hill, respectively. Fixed camera angles prevented the player from knowing what enemies lay just around the corner, stiff controls made movement sluggish when being chased by zombies or mutants, and limited health and ammo became the norm, oftentimes providing the player just barely enough to beat a level. These elements forced players into weighing the potential outcomes of every fight – running away from enemies may have been simpler, but that decision robbed the player of knowing what may be hidden in each areas of these haunted houses.

But not all was perfect – even though the technology used to make these games was leaps and bounds ahead of what developers had before, it was clear that technology was still holding the genre back. Yet because of these hurdles developers were forced to think outside of the box and come up with some very clever mechanics (such as the aforementioned fixed camera angles), and these parts stood out, serving as proof of creativity through adversity.

These games would soon become the three cornerstones for the survival horror genre – its origin story. They cemented the core tenets of the genre, and provided a blueprint for others to follow. But as with any new idea, after enough copy-cats and a lack of innovation, the genre began to stagnate. A number of games utilized this style of gameplay (Resident Evil, Resident Evil 2, Resident Evil 3 : Nemesis, Resident Evil: Code Veronica, Resident Evil Outbreak, Resident Evil Outbreak File 2, Alone in the Dark, Alone in the Dark 2, Alone in the Dark 3, Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare, Dino Crisis, Dino Crisis 2, Evil Dead Hail to the King, Silent Hill, Silent Hill 2, Silent Hill 3, Silent Hill 4: The Room, and The X-Files the Game, to name a few) yet none of them pushed the genre to evolve. The genre felt played out and the lackluster sales of the remake of Resident Evil on the Gamecube forced series creator Shinji Mikam to rethink how to make his games. The message was sent via poor sales – consumers will only accept cheap off-camera jump scares for so long before the feeling of horror becomes watered down and predictable.

The Silver Age

My first encounter with the Resident Evil series occurred in 2002, when Nintendo’s Gamecube saw the release of a remake of the original. The remake aimed to bring new life to the original with improved graphics, new voiceovers (terrible lines of dialogue remained) and added sub-plots cut from the original, as well as information about characters set to appear in later games. It was during this time I learned about Resident Evil 4, the game supposedly destined to shake up the whole series and change the survival horror genre.

Resident Evil 4

Resident Evil 4 was the game slated to shake up the survival horror genre in 2005

Released in 2005, Resident Evil 4 shifted to an over-the-shoulder third person view, added the ability to actively control weapon aiming and showcased a brand new storyline without zombies. These changes fundamentally altered Resident Evil, and not everyone was pleased. The game was criticized for its action-heavy flavor and throwing waves of enemies at the player, but Capcom designed each level’s monsters, traps, ammo and health in a way that let players think they had too much ammo, when actually if they missed their shots they would be completely overtaken by a horde of monsters.This drastic difference from Resident Evil, where players had three zombies at most to deal with at any time, added new elements of terror to an old series.

The Dead Space series utilized the Resident Evil 4 approach to combat, but set the action in space, fighting old monsters with new tricks. Dead Space kept more of the classic tropes of horror films, while inducing some of the new elements from Resident Evil 4, including the over-the-shoulder camera and aiming mechanics, enhancing them by allowing players to aim and move at the same time. Dead Space showed the value of the changes implemented in Resident Evil 4 to the survival horror genre so long as the action elements were limited and the emphasis remained on survival.

Unfortunately, Resident Evil 5 focused too heavily on the action, to the point where the horror elements began to disappear. Resident Evil 5 felt like Capcom tried to build off the success of Resident Evil 4, but for every step forward they took two steps back. A nonsensical plot relying too-heavily on over-the-top action scenes stuffed full of random monsters made for a game which lost sight of the horror elements. Resident Evil 5 never provided players that feeling of panic or dread like Resident Evil 4 or the terror elements found in Dead Space, and the action made it feel more like Gears of War.

Unfortunately, Dead Space 3 fell into the same trap, by adding co-op and removing many of the elements used to build suspense. The third entry seemed more concerned with action than plot and atmosphere, and plentiful amounts of ammo made it too easy to run through levels, mowing faceless enemies down without any sense of challenge.

The issue became clear – these games tried to have one foot firmly planted in the action genre, and one in survival horror. The problem is that action started to win out – these developers never utilized the puzzle elements to gradually build atmosphere. In eight years, from the release to Resident Evil 4 to Dead Space 3, survival horror games adapted these new gameplay mechanics, but in the process changed too much and strayed too far from the core formula. Action horror games are a much better way to describe the latest from these series, as fundamentally they are not survival horror.

New Age

As a fan of survival horror, I started to worry about the direction the genre was heading. Two of my personal favorite series had managed to alter their own formula to the point where they replaced horror elements for more mainstream run and gun gameplay. If I wanted to play run and gun co-op games there are better options to play instead of Dead Space 3 or the recent Resident Evil games. I sought something truly frightening, but it didn’t look like the AAA game studios would deliver, going so far as to say the survival horror games market is too small. That this statement came from the company that made the genre so great was disheartening. But by making these comments, Capcom was admitting how much of a failure Resident Evil 6 was to those who support this “small” market.

Surival Horro Slender: The Eight Pages

Slender: The Eight Pages removed the player’s ability to fight back

Luckily, the indie development community decided to try something new to bring survival horror to it’s roots. Games such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Slender: The Eight Pages, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, Slender: the Arrival, and Outlast took away the option of the player to fight back, instead forcing them to run away and hide. These games shifted the focus solely to surviving instead of fighting the creatures like an action hero.

With Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Frictional Games adapted an Arkham Horror style gameplay by focusing more on insanity and health. The longer a player stayed in the dark, looking at monsters or seeing unsettling events, the more their sanity meter would start to dwindle down, causing audio and visual hallucinations and, eventually, calling the monsters to the player. Light would regenerate the meter, serving as a sort of health item. That said, the light also gives away the player’s position to the monsters, making it a valuable resource that couldn’t be exploited.

Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs suffered though as Frictional Games handed development duties to The Chinese Room, best known for their game Dear Esther, which focused heavily on story and atmosphere at the expense of gameplay. That style bled over to Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, resulting in changes such as an endless light supply. The changes shifted the player’s focus to the story but resulted in creatures losing their horror faster.

Slender, made by a first time developer Parsec Productions, continued this new trend, but with a smaller scope – collect eight pages before Slender-Man finds you. Keeping each run of the game to less than twenty minutes removed a lot of the problems this new form of survival horror developed – the longer the games run, the less scary and more annoying the monsters become. The sequel, Slender: The Arrival, highlighted this problem in spades – as players progressed, the developers tried to raise the stakes by adding a second monster. Instead of heightening the experience, it just makes the game frustrating, as the player must still find a number of objects while now being chased by two unstoppable creatures, which ends in more restarts. While the first Slender game used this mechanic, it also had the charm of feeling roguelike; when the player died, the whole game randomized again. But Slender: The Arrival tries to implement a coherent story, and each restart forces the player to experience this over and over again, adding a level of frustration that feels like trying to break down a brick wall with your forehead.

Like games from the silver age, these entries changed how developers consider horror games, bringing with them a whole new set of problems. How could developers create longer games focused on storytelling without frustrating players? Could developers keep a game about one or maybe two monsters scary for anything longer than a few hours? Though these developers solved many of the problems of AAA survival horror games that came before, they backed themselves into a corner with these new issues. But as it always has, the survival horror genre persists, and the same AAA studios that lost track of the core elements of the genre might be the ones to solve these new issues.

Modern Age

There are two major AAA games on the horizon that seem to be taking the approach the indie horror scene started – Alien: Isolation and The Evil Within. From the available previews, Alien: Isolation looks closer in style to games like Amnesia, while The Evil Within blends what made Resident Evil 4 great along with the indie games that have kept the genre alive.

Alien: Isolation takes place in between the the first and second Alien movies and follows Ellen Ripley’s daughter as she tries to find out what happened to her mother. While on a space station that may hold the black box to the spaceship from the first film, a Xenomorph is born and starts causing terror throughout the ship. The Alien is unkillable and it will murder the player on sight, so naturally players will have to hide and out-wit it using noisemakers or fight it off with a flame thrower.

While I am worried as to how developer Creative Assembly will make the alien frightening for the length of the campaign, new information came to light at E3 this year about the other problems on the space station. Rogue A.I. and psychopathic humans roaming the halls of the space station should help keep the gameplay fresh (the player can even trick the Alien into killing them). Hopefully, these additions keep the player on their toes and allow for the addition of new tactics to the gameplay.

Survival Horror The Evil Within

The Evil Within comes from the creator of Resident Evil and aims to shake up the genre in a similar way

The Evil Within appears to play similarly to Resident Evil 4, utilizing puzzles in a creepy haunted mental hospital, monsters that act like zombies and a reliance on gunplay (interestingly, developer Tango Gameworks stated that firing a weapon may not always guarantee a hit as the player character isn’t the best shot), while expanding the gameplay to include traps in the environment that the player can repurpose for their own use.

The Evil Within borrows the single unkillable monster element from games like Amnesia, a man in a hood who randomly appears and stalks the player for a short period of time, trying to grab and kill them. Tango Gameworks opted to make him appear randomly and gave him the power to teleport and walk through walls, in an attempt to increase his scare factor. Unfortunately, this mechanic has the potential to frustrate and annoy gamers as evidenced by a Youtuber who happened to play the demo and experienced an unfortunate problem of being killed as he was stepping off of a ladder. Hopefully, problems like these will be addressed before the game’s release in October.

Back to the Roots

It’s exciting that larger studios are incorporating some of the ideas that the indie games introduced, and it provides hope that maybe survival horror can thrive with these new mechanics. A look at the first Alone in the Dark and where survival horror is now shows how much the genre has evolved. In a way it has come full circle – no more combat heavy characters, for example, but to get back to this point, the genre had to grow, even if that growth was sometimes painful.

Developers can hopefully address the problems present with this new take on survival horror games and incorporate new ideas of their own to help the genre evolve even further. Fear of the unknown is a primal fear for every animal, and survival horror games give us a chance to fight back, even if the newer versions don’t actually let us kill anything.