The Horror of Survival Horror
Increasingly over time, the genre of survival horror has become more ambiguous; its definition becoming lost in history. No longer do horror games clasp at our fears in tenuous silence, or overload our senses with the strange and mysterious. No, we are now subject to the old ‘boo’ noise, after a monster has jumped out the closet. Borderline parody, this is the state of horror games in the industry currently, with games such as Dead Space and the more recent Resident Evil games, having no control over the genre as their predecessors had, and have already started to lose their finesse.
To make it clear, there is nothing wrong with a series trying to reinvent itself, in fact it should be celebrated and even congratulated if done well. When playing most recent horror games however, you cannot help but feel the real intentions hidden behind all of the work the developers have put in are towards trying to make the game part survival horror, part action horror. Resident Evil 6 – specifically Leon’s campaign – clearly composes itself in a way with a posture that reflects that it wants to be frightening and engage you with tension, but utterly fails to do so on seemingly basic levels. This is where this article’s criticism takes root, that these games aren’t simply trying to reinvent themselves, but they are quite simply failing at that which they originally set out to do; whether partially or holistically.
Resident Evil began this genre transition after it had released Resident Evil 4, the defining moment where the main releases of the franchise had moved away from its survival horror roots, and transformed into what it has now become. There’s an abundance of articles online however, that take this modern approach to the problem by criticising the more recent games and not looking back at their origins. So rather than bash Resident Evil 4 onwards, and rather than complain about Dead Space’s approach to horror, I’d rather take a look back at what the genre did right, rather than examine what went wrong.
It all starts with the original Alone in the Dark, one of the very few early games to embrace 3D polygons and introduce genuine atmosphere into a game. This game was what gave inspiration to the creators of Resident Evil, ultimately leading them away from making a FPS horror game, and adopt the same ‘room security camera’ angle style of Alone in the Dark. The original Resident Evil placed the roots that would eventually become the staple for every major Resident Evil game to be released in the following years, even if the ‘tank’ movement controls weren’t to everyone’s tastes. What the first three games did have that was to everyone’s tastes however was an incredibly effective feedback system which relied on the notion that less is more.
Think about the most tenuous and atmospheric moments you’ve had in gaming, quite consistently these should – in some form or another – be minimalist moments in the sense of sound and any kind of feedback at all. After all, that’s what horror relies on; lack of feedback. The feeling you get from seeing a dark corner in an alley, not knowing what lies within it. That’s where true fear lies, in the unknown. The tension comes from not knowing what’s in the closet, not from the actual reveal of the monster in question.
These glorious moments of horror are also brought to fruition through encouragement of silence within the audio design, sometimes a rhythmic drip of water droplets on a metal pipe are enough to give atmosphere and mood to an otherwise inanimate/static scene, or solely hearing the footsteps of your character echo through the environment. Foreign sounds in Resident Evil are enough to send chills down a spine, simply because you have an idea of what’s coming ahead, but are still unsure whether it is what you expect or not. Mystery is the key factor here.
Pyramid Head from the Silent Hill series is effective because we don’t understand him. Why is he wearing a pyramid helmet, why does he drag his blade around and walk in that twisted manner, how can he walk around without being able to see? These are all questions which need to be left unanswered, simply because it’s this unknown mystery that adds confusion to the characters themselves, which ultimately leaves us not understanding them. That lack of understanding, is what underpins most of our basic and primal human fears. Think of the thick fog that layers itself all over the town of Silent hill – an unintentional but highly effective design decision, due to the limitations of the PS1′s draw distance! –.
The great thing about the less is more approach is that it applies to gameplay as well. The less control you have over your character, the more fundamentally difficult it is for you to escape a situation, which in turn leaves you with feelings of helplessness. Resident Evil and most survival horror games from the PS1 era did so well because of this gameplay limitation. They created tension purely because of their ‘tank’ controls. It was hard to navigate and in some ways nearly ruined the games as a result of an ineffective control system, but it led to some interesting design results. Not only were you unable to navigate quickly around the scene, but the fact that you were always moving forward made it notoriously difficult to move backwards and correct yourself if you stepped too far ahead of yourself.
The latest Resident Evil games lose some of their atmosphere purely on the fact that you can escape a situation in a multitude of ways. You can roll/dodge out of harm’s way, cripple the enemy by shooting their feet, melee them backwards, or simply sprint away. They lose all of their effectiveness at creating fear by placing you in control, but more importantly, they fail by giving you options/choices which in turn creates a sense of safety through more control. Bullets are another factor, whereas early PS1 games would make bullets a scarce and valuable commodity, the latest endeavours into the genre have given not only an abundance of ammunition, but also a vast array of weapons to choose from – again, more choice –.
The most efficient way to view these contrasts would be to look at the Dino Crisis series,. The last Dino Crisis game (Dino Crisis 3) was a great example of a poor quality game in terms of how it dealt with the genre. As an action game, it was a mediocre experience at best, as a survival horror game, it was downright awful. Adopting a survival horror camera style made it incredibly difficult to play it as an action game, as some of the action would take place off-screen or at awkward angles. Jetpack thrusters and – again – and array of weaponry and plenty of ammunition, crippled any chance it had of being a frightening experience.
Dino Crisis 1 was a completely 100% survival horror game, proudly part of a pedigree which owes it to the likes of Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil for its effective presentation. This game had everything I’ve mentioned up until now: very little feedback; minimalistic sound design; a lack of ammunition lying around. Then we had Dino Crisis 2, adding a much faster pace to the series, and bringing in elements of action into the mix, even going so far as to add a high score system that showed up on the screen, allowing you to spend points on new weapons/items and refill ammunition. Dino Crisis 2 maintained a fair amount of tension and still managed to create atmosphere, but it was definitely a subtle transition into becoming action horror.
The staples of a survival game, are to make the player feel vulnerable, low on supplies, and test their abilities under these conditions in an atmosphere that exaggerates these emotions, whilst also placing them in a kind of mental isolation. Having other human characters around is fine, but their interactions and placement in the story should be kept at a minimum, in order for the player to be tested and put on trial throughout, having to rely only on themselves. A great deal of the fear the player feels, comes from a lack of understanding about the challenge itself. This uneasiness and lack of outside help is what places them in the world of horror, and keeps them there, alienated.
Dino Crisis and early Resident Evil games do this well, as well as Alone in the Dark amongst others. Recent games however, who try to emulate this success within the genre, have failed miserably. Amnesia and Slender are two of the most talked about games within the genre recently, and rightly so, as the survival horror genre is dependant on games like these two. Both practice and indulge themselves with the techniques and tropes I’ve mentioned throughout, which are also methods that were not only employed by film-makers but were conceived by them, alongside writers throughout history.
Had the last two Resident Evil games and three Dead Space games tried to play to their strengths, and maintained solidarity in their portrayal of being action horror, maybe there wouldn’t be as much criticism to be had – after all, they would be redesigning themselves, and thus not failing to be survival horror –. What I can’t shake the feeling off of however, is that they’re still trying to be frightening by attempting to become their predecessors, which simply cannot happen when the player is given control, power, and choices.