‘You are dead’: the death of Survival Horror

Saturday, 6 October 2012 11:28 GMT By Dave Cook

Survival Horror appears to be stuck in a rut. VG247′s Dave Cook asks if the genre has turned into a husk, or if our expectations have merely shifted.

It all started back in 1996 with a big glass window, a pair of zombified Dobermans, and a near-fatal heart attack. You remember the scene in the first Resident Evil right? It’s the one where you walk down the mansion corridor and a pair of dogs bursts though the window unexpectedly.

Now, you probably wouldn’t bat an eyelid at a scene like that today, but back then, no console developer had ever delivered such a startling set piece before – well, not that I can recall anyway – and for me, that was the moment Survival Horror was truly born.

It was a true masterclass in set-piece design that is so bloody simple when you think about it, yet no one else was doing it back then – with the exception of Alone in the Dark of course. (I haven’t forgotten about you, PC fans).

“Everyone has their own perception of fear, so you’re never going to find an experience – be it a game, novel or movie – that seems scary to everyone who consumes it.”

Today it’s all about bombast, shouting soldiers and an endless barrage of gunfire that hurts my head just thinking about it. The original Resident Evil was more powerful for being muted and subtle, rather than the in-your-face attempts at horror I see on a yearly basis.

What makes a game scary? Is it those classic jump out your seat moments that pierce through stretches of eerie silence when you least expect it? Perhaps it’s a feeling of sheer vulnerability, and being painfully under-resourced against enemies you don’t quite understand?

Or maybe it’s a sustained sense of dread and menace that scratches at the mind like nails down a chalkboard? All of these methods of creating suspense and shocking people have been employed in games before, but those days feel like a distant memory.

Everyone has their own perception of fear, so you’re never going to find an experience – be it a game, novel or movie – that seems scary to everyone who consumes it. But there is growing concern among gamers that the horror genre at large has fallen on hard times.

Resident Evil 6 just came out to mixed reviews. Some slated the game for failing to recapture the glory days of the franchise, and for pandering to the Call of Duty generation. Others appreciated the shift in tone and applauded Capcom’s attempts to modernise the series.

It’s a tricky genre to master because everything that made it so endearing back in the mid-’90s now goes so strongly against everything we know about slick triple-a titles today. Sadly, publishers today want what’s in and relevant, not dusty and old. To them your nostalgia is getting in the way of progress.

“It a feeling of tension that felt so exciting and fresh back in 1996, so why – with all of our technical resources, ties to the film industry and hardware clout – can’t developers recapture that vibe today?”

Think back to the first Resident Evil. The acting made Scary Movie look like high art, the tank controls were god awful, and the shooting mechanic now feels horrid by today’s standards.

But it worked. The inability to turn tail and flee like some lubricated athlete meant you were trudging slowly and clumsily around zombies and other creatures. You felt weak and exposed to their grabbing hands, and gnashing teeth.

It worked, and the shit acting just lent the game a cool B-movie vibe that stands up today. I mean, ‘Jill sandwich?’ Come on, don’t tell me you aren’t at least hearing Barry Burton saying it in your mind as you read this.

Then of course you had a cripplingly low supply of ammo, limited inventory space and a finite assortment of green herbs to heal your wounds. Everything was against you, and you were constantly on the backfoot.

It a feeling of tension that felt so exciting and fresh back in 1996, so why – with all of our technical resources, ties to the film industry and hardware clout – can’t developers recapture that vibe today?

Today huge firepower, almost infinite ammo, slick controls and Hollywood-grade acting are the true desires of many publishers. They genuinely feel that this is what you want, and anything less than that is seen a potential recipe for failure.

It’s funny though, because Survival Horror was – in the eyes of many gamers – birthed by the original Clock Tower, or Alone in the Dark, which was of course, a PC title. While console developers repeatedly drop the ball when making new horror games, the PC market is making it flourish again.

Take Amnesia: The Dark Descent for example. It’s brutal, uncompromising, scary as all hell, and yes, you feel like a weak baby as you stumble through the dark halls of the game’s labyrinthine castle. It’s awesome, and if you like horror you need to try it out.

Slow and clunky, weak and vulnerable, under-resourced and restricted. Can you think of any new console games that actively promote these values besides obvious titles like Dark Souls?

“We’ll see it come around on consoles again I’m sure, we just have to wait until Resident Evil 4 director Shinji Mikami brings out his new horror game, before everyone else remembers how it’s done properly.”

It’s because these are all negative words in an industry that promises you the ultimate power trip. It’s this idea that we all want to self-indulge in some sort of power fantasy, and be the ultimate badass, rather than a weakling at odds with the world.

But that is what makes Survival Horror games scary, among other things. Sometimes I want trudge clumsily around Silent Hill armed with just a plank of wood and a shite flashlight, while fighting against some mutated flesh beast twice my size.

Make my character some sort of walking hard-on superhero with a belt-fed M60 and all of a sudden I don’t feel threatened by the darkness or the unidentifiable horrors lurking in the shadows. Why would I if I can just shoot them to bits?

So is Survival Horror dead? Nah not at all, it’s just that the console side is in a state of flux right now thanks to the pressures of money, design by committee and sale pressure.

The PC market with its indie sensibilities has more license to tinker with the genre, and there are ace horror games in that space if you want them, especially games like DayZ that try new things with the format.

We’ll see it come around on consoles again I’m sure, we just have to wait until Resident Evil 4 director Shinji Mikami brings out his new horror game to remind console devs of how it’s done properly.

It helps that Mikami is actively making this game to address the weakened state of the genre, so it’ll be interesting to see how the project turns out.

Come on Shinji, we’re counting on you. Make us learn to fear again.

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