Survival horror games aren't what they used to be.
Once upon a time, they were about survival and horror. It makes sense. It's what the genre is called, after all. These titles would encompass qualities of mystery and exploration as the player fought to stay alive with every step. Over the years, they've increasingly become about action, gunfights, and an overload of cheap jump scares. I prefer the former, despite a plethora of the latter.
I surmise that because shooters seem to be the most popular console genre, developers (especially of the triple-A variety) are morphing survival horror to resemble them in order to steal some of that market. It's no surprise that if something becomes popular and starts making money, some developers and publishers will chase it, even if it means abandoning the initial vision. In a world where stories emerge weekly about massive development layoffs and studio closures, it's rare to see triple-A games take many risks with unproven ideas. Shooters sell and horror can sell, so flattening the two together is bound to rake in money from the crossover in interest, right?
When the Xbox 360 launched in 2005, only two bona fide survival horror franchises still existed; Silent Hill and Resident Evil. However, with the transition into a new generation came the transition of both of those franchises, too.
Team Silent (developers of the first four Silent Hills) wasn't handling the next console installment, and Resident Evil 4 had taken the franchise into new territory. Konami and Capcom both had to decide what to do next, and it turns out that they each crafted sequels that were more action-oriented and less horror-filled than their predecessors.
Thank goodness Condemned: Criminal Origins launched with the 360 to keep survival horror in a great place. More on that later, though. For now, I'll dissect Resident Evil because it represents the perfect evolutionary arc of how horror games were once slow-burn explorations with spikes of terror, and what they've morphed into: over-the-top action games.
Until Resident Evil 4 came along, the early Resident Evil titles focused on exploration through large environments that didn't force a player down one linear path. Combat existed, but it wasn't the main affair. Often, the player started with just a handgun and knife, but ammo is always scarce and the knife is unreliable when multiple enemies close in. The option to flee instead of fight was sometimes the best choice. Unlike today's survival horror games, clearing room after room of enemies to progress was a terror-infused exception, not the rule.
Back then, planning and execution was paramount because each enemy encounter could be a game-ender, enemies didn't drop supplies, and inventory space was limited. As such, scavenging and exploring for items was necessary. However, exploring meant the possibility of encountering more enemies, so this avoid enemies/need-to-explore mechanic was cyclical. Keep in mind that in these titles, there wasn't an option to auto-save in every room. Dying meant repeating more than 5 seconds of gameplay, so something else was at stake besides the success of the character—the player's time and effort.
Unfortunately, limited saving in games is an inconvenience that gamers don't stand for much anymore, for better or worse. In survival horror, I see checkpoints and auto-saves as a crutch.
In an old Resident Evil, if a player wanted to progress and explore, he or she would have to plan out a route to take and either hope a save point would be found later, or plan on backtracking to the current one. The safety of an auto-save never existed, and the value it represented was a constant level of tension that's no longer present in modern survival horror. If the player knows that the only penalty of death is respawning just seconds prior to a fatal encounter, there's nothing on the line. Pressure is lifted. When pressure goes out the window, fear often does as well.
Although it's true that Resident Evil 4 was a drastic turning point in terms of survival horror and action coming together, it managed to strike a fine balance with its limited controls, set-pieces and enemy encounters to bring out fear when it needed to. It also ramped things into intense action at climactic moments, while not rushing the player along with its pacing—it actually encouraged exploration in its environments. On the other hand, Resident Evil 5 completely blew most survival horror aspects out the window.
Contrary to the knife and gun of yesteryear, Resident Evil 5 stocks the player with upgradable weapons, plenty of ammo, and grenades. How are players supposed to be scared when they're carrying enough ordinance to start a war? Furthermore, the addition of a partner to help in battle further destroys any potential for fear. Adding a second player, whether they're AI-controlled or human-controlled, immediately takes isolation out of any situation, and loneliness is a catalyst for fear.
Now Electronic Arts is piggybacking on the co-op concept with Dead Space 3 and adding a partner because the game was "too scary" before, according to a Gamasutra interview with EA's VP of marketing, Laura Miele. I find this to be a strange decision because I've never found Dead Space to be genuinely frightening. Most of the "scary" moments in the series arise from being trapped in a room with a wave of enemies to kill before the next door unlocks, or from getting caught off-guard by monsters jumping out of vents. These situations are rarely scary because they become the norm for scenarios early on. Dead Space uses jump scares so much that they become completely ineffective due to sheer repetition. If every "dead" enemy on the ground jumps up and attacks when the player walks past, it becomes routine and kills the surprise.
I'd like to see Dead Space's developer practice the notion that the only thing scarier than something jumping out is something not jumping out. The heightened awareness from preparing for something to happen creates an on-edge feeling until something actually does happen. If terror strikes during a supposed "safe" moment, something effective is happening. If a feeling of true safety is never there, a survival-horror game is doing its job.
Looking at the games I've mentioned, the issue of pacing was one of the first casualties to go in a switch towards more action-oriented development. For example, instead of loading every room with ten enemies to kill, spread them out and actually give the player time to develop some fear. Give them some quiet time to let their guard down, or to start getting paranoid about when the next thing was going to come around the corner. Silent Hill 2 and Condemned: Criminal Origins both mastered this.
In both games, the main dish is the solving of a mystery, and combat is served on the side. Current "survival horror" games reverse it and deliver the action front-and-center because they're afraid players will lapse into a coma of boredom if they're not killing something every 15 seconds. Again, the plague of developers chasing shooter fans creeps in.
Some might consider Silent Hill 2 slow, but I'd suggest that paces it itself into a scream that builds over time. The game isn't about action, so it doesn't force that down the player's throat. It plays to its strengths—story, environments and character relationships. Unlike contemporary games that ease the player in with handholding tutorials, Silent Hill 2 just puts them behind the wheel from the beginning. It's just the player, the protagonist, and whatever the two can make of Silent Hill with no hints, no pop-up text, and no ridiculous loading screen tips.
Following this emphasis on immersion, one of the series' most notable features is its separate universes – the normal world and the nightmarish otherworld. In Silent Hill 2, protagonist James Sunderland doesn't even dip into the otherworld until a few hours in, after he's already explored a lot of the town and a couple of lengthy indoor sections. Because the otherworld is used in measured quantities, when it does appear, the player knows that an alarming scenario is about to play out. The developers don't cram artificial fear down the players' throats in the form of waves of enemies or cheap jump-scares; they let fear and claustrophobia slowly take hold, at the player's own pace, like a dream turning into a nightmare. The sparse use of the otherworld makes it that much more serious.
In Condemned's case, its stellar story might not be quite as compelling as Silent Hill 2's, but it's fortunate enough to have satisfying combat in addition to solid writing.
The combat is mostly melee-based, which ultimately means pipes, boards, locker doors and other items will be used to bash the teeth out of enemies' faces. The main character, Ethan, is established as a forensics field agent, so it follows that he wouldn't be able to do any fancy combos or wrestling moves. This lack of combat supremacy adds to the game's tension. Every single fight could bring death if the player isn't fast enough. Enemies attack with relentless blind cheap-shots and occasionally run away mid-fight in attempt to return for a surprise hit. A feeling of safety is rarely present in Condemned because there could be an enemy in every shadow waiting to bash Ethan in the head with a mannequin arm, but unlike Dead Space, there isn't. The surprise of unexpected enemies never becomes routine.
However, even though combat is a focus in Condemned, it isn't the entire game. It paces itself with unhurried explorations of dank environments and forensics investigation segments, which require Ethan to use tools and gather evidence at crime scenes. These segments are fantastic for heightening anticipation of encountering the game's ultimate antagonist.
In the final stretch, Ethan searches a multi-story house for this antagonist, who is simultaneously pursuing him. It's just Ethan and a serial murderer in a house, each hunting the other from the attic down to the basement, and is perhaps the most intense cat-and-mouse segment a game has ever offered. I've never encountered anything that intense in recent survival horror games.
Because triple-A developers are straying from the type of gameplay the survival horror genre was founded on, it seems as though independent studios have lately taken on the task of inducing fear. Thanks to some internet buzz about a return to traditional survival horror values, I recently tried Slender—a game that's more of a beta than anything.
The premise of the game is simple—it offers a first-person perspective of someone in a stretch of woods exploring the area in search of 8 notebook pages. Slender piggybacks off an urban legend of a lanky, suit-wearing, semi-faceless man who causes insanity as he gets in proximity. When he gets too close, it's over. So, it's the character, the flashlight and a wooded area.
Slender preys on several facets of fear. The character's alone, defenseless, isn't capable of combat, and is in danger. If the Slenderman gets too close, it's game over, back to the beginning. If the player spots him in the distance, the screen blurs as insanity sets in. The player is stuck in a terrifying situation where he or she must explore to find the pages, yet has to stay on the lookout for Slenderman to stay alive. It presents a frightening balance of choices similar to the previously-mentioned "avoid enemies/scavenge for resources."
This balancing act is genuinely terrifying. I sat down with Slender for about 20 minutes and left more frightened than I was in Dead Space 1, 2, Silent Hill: Homecoming, Silent Hill: Downpour, Resident Evil 5 and 6 combined. Slender certainly doesn't offer a triple-A experience with 10 hours of gameplay and online multiplayer, but not every game has to. Instead, it focuses on elements in the horror genre that have been left by the wayside by bigger developers, and elegantly points out what they've been missing.
After my chilling time with Slender, I'm left to wonder how long will it be until the next great survival horror console experience surfaces? I'm not a fan of mouse and keyboard, so if triple-A studios are too frightened to leave shooter territory, where does that leave survival horror for players like me? If nothing else, I can replay Silent Hill 2 and Condemned: Criminal Origins to remember how great the genre was, but I'm hoping developers of scary games will go back to their roots sooner rather than later.
—by Corey Motley
- True to life: IL-2 Sturmovik Preview - August 15, 2014
- Interview with Danganronpa Producer Yoshinori Terasawa - February 23, 2014
- Dishonored: The Brigmore Witches Review - December 3, 2013