Article by contributor Michael Scoggins.
Spring, 1998. My younger brother has brought home this odd little game console which I had never heard of, a PlayStation. The only game he had purchased for it is titled Resident Evil 2. I wasn’t overly impressed with the box art and didn’t give either the game or his fancy new system much thought. All that changed when, being a bored teenager, I sat down and fired up RE2. The game did a superb job of setting up the zombie apocalypse survival setting. There were hordes of undead roaming the streets, an undead trucker, explosions; the intro sequence was surprisingly exhilarating! The first time I got a look at a “licker,” I was genuinely scared to move down that hallway, and I jumped out of my seat when that quadruped nightmare jumped through the office window and attacked. I was hooked!
I’m sure every fan of the survival horror genre vividly remembers his first encounter. Resident Evil 2 was my introduction. Though I had been playing “horror” games since I was a kid, does anyone else remember the intense action of trying to save all the camp counselors in Friday the 13th on the NES? Nothing could have prepared me for my first foray into this dark and atmospheric genre. Coming from playing Sega Genesis titles like Sonic the Hedgehog and Ecco the Dolphin, the PlayStation and Resident Evil 2 opened up a whole new world of gaming for me. The goriest game I had played at that point had been Splatterhouse 2 on the Sega Genesis. I went from smashing 16-bit sprites to head stomping zombies for fear that they would reach out and grab me as I walked by.
Unfortunately, over a decade later, I am left wondering what happened to one of my favorite genres. Yes, you can still find plenty of horror titles to play. However, it seems like, with few exceptions, the teeth have been removed from the survival horror genre. That is not to say that the games aren’t good. In fact, some of them are great! What they don’t deliver are those genuinely heart-pumping moments of fear — those times, such as witnessing a bunch of zombie dogs burst through a row of windows for the first time, where you forget for a minute that you are playing a game and cry out in abject terror. That is what I want from a horror game.
In recent years, Silent Hill: Downpour is the only franchise title that has attempted to stay true to its roots. The original Silent Hill took the emerging survival horror genre in an entirely new direction. Where Resident Evil featured a protagonist with some kind of combat training facing off against hordes of T-Virus infected citizens, Silent Hill was all about “Joe Everyman” thrust into an impossible nightmare situation and trying to cope with it. The SH series makes excellent use of atmosphere and genuinely disturbing imagery to generate its sense of fear and dread. The hinted-at tragedies and personal stories of the main characters always leave you wondering just what is really going on and why this fog-shrouded mountain town will forever be a place of personal torment and darkness. In short, Silent Hill has always been a giant mindf*ck!
Don’t get me wrong, I love both the Resident Evil and Silent Hill series. I have even enjoyed the last several Resident Evil titles. The difference is that RE 4, 5, and 6 are more action-oriented, with horror elements sprinkled throughout. There are still moments of “what the hell was that?” contained in them, but the gameplay is definitely seated comfortably in the action category. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it does diminish the “horror” factor in a series that pioneered the survival horror genre.
Fatal Frame, an often overlooked gem, represents, in my mind at least, the glory days of the survival horror game. If you haven’t played this one, go get it from the PlayStation store now! Released in 2002 on the PlayStation 2, this game scared the pants off me. Set in rural Japan, the main character is searching for his lost sister in a creepy old mansion. Sounds kind of familiar, right? Here is the catch: the only thing you have to defend against the horrible spirits that haunt this place is a camera. This game was so scary–I only played it once and turned on every light in the house on my way to bed afterwards, and they stayed on until morning. I never went back and finished it.
Back in 2008, EA took the genre into the cold and unforgiving depths of the stars with Dead Space. Even though the new series took players away from the normal terrestrial settings, the game still managed to capture the essence of survival horror. The dark and claustrophobic setting only helped to heighten the tension and made the scares much more intense. Play the first five minutes of the game, and you will understand how Ripley must have felt aboard the Nostromo. Even the sequel, the aptly named Dead Space 2, manages to successfully recreate the creepy atmosphere and genuinely frightening moments that characterized the first game. Was anyone else absolutely repulsed by the nursery school area of the Sprawl? Yeah, me too.
The third, and to-date last, entry in the Dead Space franchise, Dead Space 3, doesn’t hold a candle to what its predecessors accomplished. The series took a sharp left turn into action country. Please don’t misunderstand, the DS series is one of my personal favorites, and the third entry tied up everything quite nicely. However, the game favored action above horror. The tense moments in the third act of the franchise come more from the action happening around the protagonist as opposed to the sense of fear of the unknown, as in the first two installments. Again, this was a great game in its own right; it just isn’t a great, or even good, horror game.
I can understand why companies like EA and Capcom would make gameplay design changes to the Resident Evil and Dead Space series. The general idea is to grow their fan base. Video game companies are in the business of entertainment, and part of that is making money. If you can sell more of a product, you can make more money. How do you do that? You attempt to appeal to a broader audience. The trouble is that in order to achieve a broader appeal, you have to entice players who enjoy other genres. However, when you start adding more action elements to a horror game, a la Resident Evil 6, you begin to lose that savory horror flavor that the fans of the genre have come to expect.
Let’s be honest. The survival horror genre is a relatively niche market. According to data released by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), in 2012 “adventure” titles constituted 8.3% of all sales. Given that the survival horror genre is considered a sub-genre of the adventure category, it would be reasonable to assume that horror games’ contribution to that 8.3% is rather small. The big blockbuster titles are, for the most part, of the action/adventure and first-person shooter variety. In recent memory, The Last of Us is probably the biggest survival horror title of the last decade. The question we must ask ourselves is, why does it have to be this way? Is there not a way to put the bite back into horror and still achieve success? The answer, at this point, is unclear.
So where are we now? Has the horror genre managed to claw its way to a glorious re-emergence? The honest answer is: we don’t know. There is hope, however. Over the last year or so, there seems to be a quiet resurgence brewing, particularly in the indie scene. In the mainstream, games like The Last of Us and Telltale’s The Walking Dead series have brought the fetid breath of the genre partially to the forefront.
Telltale Games managed to bring the thrill of a zombie apocalypse to (un)life in their 2012 episodic game, The Walking Dead. The game is reminiscent of old school point-and-click adventure games. While not officially labeled a “survival horror” game, I still feel it is worth mentioning. The Walking Dead did a fantastic job of creating a real sense of terror within what I’m sure many would consider an outdated gameplay format. Unlike most games of the horror genre, TWD did not rely on enclosed spaces, dark alleyways, or any of the usual tropes. The fear and tension comes from the interaction between the game’s protagonist and the group of characters that surrounds him, much like the comic book upon which the game is based.
Looking at a blockbuster title, Naughty Dog, creators of such iconic games as Crash Bandicoot and Uncharted, rocked the gaming community with their 2013 opus, The Last of Us. Beyond the masterfully executed marketing strategy, the game’s story drives the elements of horror. The fear and anxiety when trying to face down a group of Clickers is brought about because you know that your chances of successfully blasting your way through them is slim to none. The saga of Joel & Ellie is, at its core, a survival horror game with action elements sprinkled throughout. This, in this writer’s humble opinion, is the way a survival horror title should be!
Right now, it seems that the indie games scene is where the horror genre is thriving. Games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent and its follow up Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs have both done very well on the PC. Amnesia, first released in 2010, has achieved well over one million sales. Other PC titles that have garnered notice include One Late Night, Doorways, and Outlast. How have these independent games managed success where the “big boys” have, in recent years, barely been able to tread water? Having experienced a few of these games myself; the answer is fairly simple. Games like Amnesia and Outlast give the survival horror fans exactly what we want, a truly frightening gaming experience that doesn’t water down the scares or try to throw in an arsenal of exotic weapons to defend yourself.
Outlast in particular is a prime example of how a true survival horror game should be. Like Fatal Frame mentioned earlier, your character is armed with a camera. However, there are no combat elements in this game. Correction, there are no combat elements in this game which allow your character to go toe-to-toe with the baddies. Your only course of action as your work your way through the asylum is to run, hide, and vigorously pray that the horrible thing chasing you doesn’t discover you’re hiding spot. The wonderfully horrifying experience is about to get an expansion, The Whistleblower, which gives gamers a look at the events that led up to the terror of Outlast.
Please don’t take the success of a few indie games as a sign that we are out of the woods (rim shot!). For the survival horror genre itself to survive, there needs to be more quality games. No, not every game can be a Last of Us or Outlast. However, there is plenty of room for quality survival horror titles of both the independent and blockbuster variety, as long as the studios making them don’t try to water down the experience to appeal to the masses.
Looking forward, there are some interesting titles on the horizon. Alien: Isolation, developed by Creative Assembly, looks like it is on the right track. Admittedly, the Alien franchise has been a bit of a non-starter when it comes to its video game adaptations. Then again, people go into a game based off a beloved franchise like Alien and have certain expectations. Those expectations usually include dark and lonely corridors, a flamethrower, and being hunted by a horrible monster that wants to eat your face. Thus far, we have yet to truly experience this. Isolation, based purely on the information currently available and a trailer, looks like the gaming gods have finally answered our calls for a good Aliens game.
Perhaps the most interesting entry soon to be released in the genre is The Evil Within. I think this game has a lot riding on it. It is from the mind that gave us the original Resident Evil, Shinji Mikami. This guy helped to define the survival horror genre. Should this game become a successful franchise, perhaps we will see a return to the “roots” of the genre and not a continuation of the current trend of watering down the horror. While I haven’t had a chance to play the game, it does look amazing. The imagery shown in trailers and screenshots is gritty and disturbing. There appears to be some action in the game by way of combat, but hopefully that won’t overshadow the game’s dark and terrifying tone.
Along the lines of Amnesia or Outlast, Daylight, developed by Zombie Studios, looks to be another no-nonsense horror-filled romp through an abandoned hospital. The game doesn’t seem to feature any combat, and lots of running and hiding. While it does bear striking similarities to Outlast with its dilapidated hospital setting, hopefully Daylight offers a surprising twist or two on the established hide-and-seek-or-die formula.
With these games and more on the not-so-distant horizon, could 2014 be the year we see the survival horror genre regain some if its lost shine? I would like to think so. It is past time that this genre was taken seriously again. There have been major improvements given the success of games like The Last of Us, Outlast, and The Walking Dead. But there is still a long road ahead…and there is something terrible right behind us!