The Doc Speaks: Can Survival Horror… Survive Itself?

action vs survival horror


As many other writers have mentioned, the video game genre of “survival horror” has struggled immensely; especially in the last few years. Is the genre gone for good? Certainly not! We’ve had quite a few entries to entertain and terrify in the past few years alone. That said, survival horror has mostly faded into obscurity, as its fandom has been equally brushed to the side. So, what gives? Why is everything about hyper-graphic action horror rather than atmospheric horror with a more psychological tinge? Let’s welcome ourselves back to a world of survival horror!

Survival horror as a genre has been credited with countless games as the founder of the genre. Alone in the Dark and Clock Tower are looked as the origins of the genre, though some could trace it to Atari’s Haunted House! In terms of the former two, these games were point-and-click adventure games; a style that was popular with gaming at the time. Their focus was on a helpless individual fighting against a dreadful environment. While Alone gave you a chance to defend yourself in an attempt to escape, Clock Tower was a tad more merciless. Your only escape was solving a puzzle and quickly running. The trial-and-error gameplay of both helped to feed into the heavy decision factor of the genre. As the 1990s progressed, teasers were released involving a new horror experience that updated aspects of Clock Tower and Alone in the Dark for the next generation! While these games had many limitations, these helped with making the player feel vulnerable to what awaits you around the next corner. Capcom’s “Resident Evil” took the tight hallways and lurking monsters and brought them into the third dimension. This time, the setting was an abandoned mansion and your foes are the living dead! While you could try to fight back, the enemies will always fight harder! On top of that, you were always outnumbered. Your only option was to fight with your wits and dexterity. Konami jumped on board this bandwagon with Silent Hill, a deeply psychological alternative to RE. This series traded B-Movie motifs for something more disturbing, the dark depths of the human psyche! You weren’t fighting zombies, but someone’s inner-demons; and typically, they were your own! With the success of both franchises, you got an assortment of pretenders and contenders that never really matched up to what made these two series great in the first place, except for a few greats on the image above that still stand pretty strong today!

Fast forward to the early/mid 2000s, the action packed first person shooter was beginning to dominate the market and gaming limitations weren’t as brutal on programming. Franchises like Call of Duty and Halo were quickly taking hold of the games industry and interest in survival horror games was beginning to fade. The novelty of limited mechanics wasn’t as relevant in an age where the shooter was “perfected”, according to many gamers. As such, companies abandoned mechanics that weakened the player in favor of empowering mechanics that played to typical player fantasies. One of the major stakes in the heart was the lack of appeal for Resident Evil Zero, a prequel that helped to tell the fate of the team that Jill Valentine, Chris Redfield, and Barry Burton discovered during the “Mansion Incident.” All around, it wasn’t a bad game. It certainly didn’t carry the “Star Wars Prequel Effect”. Sure, it wasn’t as awesome as 1, 2, 3, and even Veronica, but it was still a damn fine title. However, many argued that Resident Evil (along with the rest of survival horror) had lost its appeal and was becoming stale. Combining this with rising popularity of high octane action shooters, the decision for progressing the series was clear. It was time to dump old style mechanics and subtle environments to inject tons of splatter and heavy weaponry everywhere instead. As such, games like Resident Evil 4 and Silent Hill Homecoming took both major franchises in an action-oriented delivery. By no means are these bad games (at least in Resident Evil 4’s case), but they were a departure from the style and roots of the genre they came from. But, this method of different genre reboot isn’t new. For example, take the Fallout games jump from traditional RPG to Shooter with RPG elements in Fallout 3. To this day, debates in the Fallout fandom surge over this movement as well as other decisions. But I digress, games following Homecoming and RE4 tended to continue along this trend. While Dead Space billed itself as a survival horror game (complete with an awesome grindhouse style trailer), its tension was created through repetitive environments and jump scares, rewarding with graphic violence and visceral horror. Some could say this methodology is very cliche in the Hollywood approach to horror, which typically creates films in the same manner.

The result of gore, jump scare, and gimmick based action games resulted in a lot of dismay from horror fans; perhaps rightfully so. As such, many of these fans ventured into game design and created many independent titles to appeal to the survival horror enthusiast. Titles such as S.T.A.L.K.E.R., BioShock, Hardcore Mode in Fallout New Vegas – Dead Money (never again), and Eternal Darkness Sanity’s Requiem took heavily from the survival horror titles of the past to deliver frightening experiences of their own. Meanwhile, titles like Amnesia the Dark Descent (and its sequel), Outlast, Alien: Isolation, The Evil Within, and even Five Nights at Freddy’s are modern takes on the genre with more up to date mechanics. Most of these modern games go a step further by removing combat entirely, honing back to the true defenselessness of Clock Tower. Just like in original Clock Tower, your means of survival depend on the ability to solve puzzles, outsmart your foe, and run really fast!

If I may dive deeper into the latest entries of survival horror, each of them does their own unique method of preserving the classic genre. Five Nights pits you in a small surveillance room in a run down Chuck-E-Cheese knockoff. Here, you’re told to watch over the restaurant and make sure the chaotic animatronics don’t try to get you… and it’s a lot harder than it sounds, as you’re running on reserve power while your actions against the rogue machines drain power. Amnesia pits you in a dark castle with a darker secret. The main character has drugged himself to forget everything he witnessed at the hands of the home’s cruel owner! (Pardon the spoilers, but this game has been out for a while now.) Now, he must try to escape the house of madness while avoiding its dark residents. Your only methods of survival are simply hiding and hoping they don’t notice you. When the Grunt tries to claw into a closet you’re in, it’s nerve wracking! Outlast gives you a camera as you document the horrors around you. There isn’t much chance to defend yourself, as the camera only provides so much benefit. Finally, Alien: Isolation acts as a sequel to the first Alien movie. You’re the daughter of Ripley sent to a station that has evidence involving your mother’s disappearance. Needless to say, some familiar old horrors lurk on board the panicked space craft… And no, you can’t kill the horrors on board! At most, you can push them back for a brief moment and hope you can get away in time! All in all, these are just a small handful of what fans are doing to continue the genre. The Evil Within takes a cliche story of investigating an old mental institute and runs amok with it! Terrifying vignettes perfectly illustrate the broken state of an ill mind, as assortments of tough obstacles haunt the hallways. At least in the case of Alien Isolation and Evil Within, these are projects from big name developers who were passionate about delivering a top notch horror product. So, while the indy circuit has taken hold of the genre, there is still small sparks of hope for a return to form within the mainstream.

So, while “Hollywood Horror” remains the prime topic among developers, survival horror lives on as a niche genre. Since there are no limits on developers anymore, it is unlikely that a major developer will make a classic style survival horror game if they can help it. After all, Capcom bluntly stated that “Resident Evil 6 has become too big of a name to be survival horror anymore.” They’re only partially right. Perhaps current releases like Alien Isolation and Evil Within, as well as upcoming remakes of Alone in the Dark as well as the new game Soma, might have something to say about survival horror’s relevance.

Perhaps its critics like Jim Sterling, who said statements like “survival horror can’t evolve and will die” that pushed for a resurgence. Perhaps this was a reaction to that notion that survival horror was only powered by stale mechanics. Many horror games entering the market have brought new and creative ideas to the table, in order to scare gamers of all types. Plus, much time has passed since 2008, which was a time of considerable drought for the genre. That said, subsequent years have resulted in the voices of fans being slowly heard, as outcry against “actionization” has become more apparent. Now, even if the possible “survival horror revival” is minor, it’s a return to form for a terrifying tradition in interactive storytelling.

So who knows? Maybe the future will be significantly more creepy if these games and more prove to be successful among players everywhere. If not, at least the genre will continue to achieve a modest cult following.

Image Source: Kotaku

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