Where have all the survival horror games gone?
During a ‘Making Of’ documentary for his most recent game–The Evil Within–veteran developer Shinji Mikami said a curious thing: “There aren’t any real survival horror games in the world right now”. The man who created Resident Evil 4 thinks horror games have become “all action”, and that, with his first game from his new Tango Gameworks studio, he’s motivated to create a pure survival horror game. And that got us thinking. Where have all the survival horror games gone?
A large part of us agrees with Mikami–games like Dead Space 3 and Resident Evil 5 & 6 have taken the survival horror genre, loaded it up with as many guns as it can carry, and told it to start shooting. Sure the shocks and scares are still present, but much of the psychological menace has drained away from them. Quite simply, when you’ve been given enough ammo and firepower to level a small European nation, there’s little reason to run away. In fact, ask yourself this: When was the last time you ran away in a game? Not just to hide behind cover and let your shield recharge, but actually ran away because you were out-matched and terrified?
Throughout the ‘Making Of’ documentary for The Evil Within, Mikami and his team reiterate that creating a proper survival horror is incredibly tough. You need to create those moments where the last bullet really counts, where you genuinely have to choose between fight and flight… but without making the game prohibitively tough. In recent years Demon / Dark Souls is the series that has really nailed a similar kind of tension, but a survival horror game it is not.
In fact, throughout gaming history, there have been fewer true horror titles than you’d think. There’s a decent argument for a point-and-click adventure called Uninvited (1986) being the first survival horror title, but many regard Capcom’s Sweet Home (1989) as the first game in the genre that we’d recognise as ‘horror’ today. There then followed a decade of classic, chilling games like Alone in the Dark, Dark Seed, I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream, Resident Evil, and Silent Hill. You can catch all the highlights in CVG's excellent history of horror.
However, following the release of Silent Hill 2 (2001) there was a dramatic decline in true survival horror games. Ironically, the release of Resident Evil 4 (2005), all but killed the genre. Instead of following the templates of previous Resi games, number four underwent a serious redesign–at the hands of Mikami–to become more action game than horror. Since, we’ve either had action games with horror themes or pale imitations of past glories like Alone In The Dark and Silent Hill Homecoming.
Part of the reason is undoubtedly down to tech. Silent Hill 2 (a game this writer sees as the greatest survival horror ever made) enjoyed the happy coincidence that the PS2 needed to shroud the town in fog because of memory limitations, and that lower resolution textures guaranteed terrifyingly ambiguous monsters. Since the dawn of HD, there has been little reason to restrict the vision of our gaming protagonists because developers can show things off in crisp 1080p. In fact, tech allows developers to show off and that’s precisely what many have done; most opting for shock set-pieces rather than levels that create slow, deliberate dread. Even Alan Wake, which gave us some creepy forest environments and ghostly town-settings, couldn’t resist the opportunity to show off via strange set-pieces like its ‘rock concert’.
Marketing is another reason why–on console at least–horror has
fallen from favour. It’s tough to demonstrate how terrifying a game is
in a 20 second TV commercial, or even a three-minute demo at E3. You’ll
never wrestle attention away from Nathan Drake blowing up half of
Shambala with a dark room that may–or may not–have something sinister
crawling across it. And as for a protagonist who has murdered his wife
and made demons manifest through his sexual frustrations and desires? If
James Sunderland and the rest of Silent Hill 2 was pitched to a board
now, it’d be laughed out of the office.
No, no, no. Better to have shit blowing up instead. Bangs = bucks. And do ‘the key demographics’ even want horror now? Or do they just want strategic dismemberment and intestines slithering around on the floor (in between explosions)? And Trophies for dismembering those limbs? Lots of God-damned-dismembering Trophies and explosions for everyone! YEAH! Simply–as budgets have gone up, the hair on the back of our neck has come down. Dead Space is a great example of a series that has gone from scares to ‘splosions in just a few years. The series started well, with a tight psychological story and some great scare moments, but since then it has evolved into shooter (Dead Space 2) and a co-op shooter (Dead Space 3). We miss the bleak terror because that was the reason we bought Dead Space in the first place.
Ah, but wait. Not all games are AAA blockbusters. Maybe survival horror games are lurking in the shadows of independent PC games and iOS projects. Yup, we can see a few there for sure. Perhaps the best example of survival horror of recent years is Slender: The Eight Pages (2012) and its sequel Slender: The Arrival, a PC series based on a meme from the Something Awful forums. Created in Unity and released for free, the original recaptures the spirit of horror and hopelessness as players search for eight pages of a diary, in a dark forest, with only a torch for company. Despite of–and perhaps because of–a lack of budget, the game has become a cult horror success.
Since then we’ve also had Year Walk (2013) on iOS, which creates a fictional Swedish myth to take the horror beyond the screen and (almost) into the real world. It’s a brilliant evolution of the survival horror genre that simply couldn’t live on console or as a big-budget PC release. There are many more examples of great horror games that have found homes as smaller budget PC releases–Amnesia, Cryostasis, Lone Survivor–proving that the genre is far from dead (even if it isn’t as healthy as it once was).
So, where have all the horror games gone? Well, to an extent they’ve crept onto PC and mobile, away from the brash marketing man in the pin-stripe suit. Smaller budgets allow horror games to stray from ‘safe’ concepts, and really get into the spirit of those earlier games that were desperate to mess with our minds, not our trigger fingers. This often means they’re out of the lime-light, and herein lies the catch-22 of many survival horror games. Too much exposure leads to less creative risks and fewer shocks, which dilutes the terror. Perhaps that’s why, as far as AAA games go, Mikami is spot-on: there really aren’t any true survival horror games left. The size and scope of our industry has simply scared them all away. Or have they…?
With a new generation come fresh opportunities for recapturing genres that have fallen out of favour. Just look at the way mobile gaming has revitalised the 2D platformer through the likes of Rayman Origins, Mirror’s Edge iOS and endless runners like Banana Kong. While the boost in pure power will enable developers to create increasingly twisted monsters and more detailed environments, we’re more excited about how the wider technology can be used. Will PS4′s Gaikai tech allow us to jump into the next Project Zero (or similar) to scare friends as a ghost? Will we get disturbing messages via a connected tablet or phone?
Fear is one of the strongest human emotions, and having that back in games can only benefit our engagement with them. Right now, developer focus is largely focused on winning and feelings of gratification through victory – the constant rewarding of the player with ‘stuff’. What we miss from true survival horror games is having to struggle; having to keep our on-screen character alive; fearing for their safety and the horrors that might be lurking in the next room. Remember the fear of being constantly chased by Nemesis in Resident Evil 3? Or the helplessness of only being armed with a camera in Project Zero? We want that back, but in our mega-budget games – not just smaller PC releases or iOS titles.
Let’s hope that The Evil Within, which will straddle next and current gen consoles in 2014, makes us truly terrified of the unknown once again.
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too enthusiastic, ponderously well-educated in topics no one in their
right mind should know about? Loud? Well, that kid’s occasionally us. GR
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By Andy Hartup