Is Survival Horror Dead?

Horror isn’t dead. It’s just limited by our waning understanding of what makes things scary in the first place. A nice atmosphere is great, but without the proper mechanics, characterization and game-play to back it up, it won’t provide that real, visceral experience you come to the horror genre for.

As much as I love the them, the Silent Hill and Resident Evil series have done a lot to mess with horror… particularly their own sequels. The original games succeeded in producing emotional responses so well, in part, because of their novelty, but they were so aesthetically unified that it became difficult to discern what parts of the game were the source of that fear. So, the future titles simply borrowed or copied parts of the originals.

This was the mistake. You can’t change a portion of an aesthetically unified whole and expect the same result. Look at Silent Hill Downpour; it was so close to being perfect, but a few choices ruined the entire experience. The fight sequences were gritty and rang true to the overall feeling of the metaphor that was being projected. This wasn’t the dodging, rogue-like combat of Homecoming; it was brutal and trying. The weapons degraded, which reflected the destructive and brutal nature of the combat itself. That seems great but combat is inextricably linked to the design of the opponents.

So, when the opponents, or monsters, have design flaws, the effectiveness of combat is hampered. The problems were small, but troublesome. To begin with, there were only a few monsters. This was a result of the larger, free-roaming areas that have been classically present in most titles. You can’t have many unique monsters when you want to create a large over-world. However, would you want a large over-world? Wouldn’t your overall metaphorical aesthetic be better served by a feeling of claustrophobia? The town was supposed to represent both freedom and the chains themselves, so you could go either way, but “free”-roaming did very little to improve the game. Maybe it was supposed to make us feel chained to a silly quest-puzzle-system, but I doubt they went that meta with it.

Many of the monsters made sense, but others didn’t. The giant bat creatures were a good idea, but not in this combat system. Metaphorically, they might have represented the limitation of vision presented by the (trying not to spoil anything) opening cinematics. That’s not the issue, though. Having a large, powerful monster that pursues the player is a good idea, and a great way to increase feelings of helplessness, but when it jumps up and down from floor to ceiling in predictable patterns, and when it scurries about like that, it really clashes with the brutal, prison-esque feeling of combat that the game spent so long trying to develop. It increases game difficulty slightly, and produces some panicked moments of frustrated digging, but it clashes. You can either make them powerful or make them run away, but without linking it directly to something reasonable in your overall aesthetic, it’s just going to muddy the waters.

Silent Hill 2 was an aesthetic masterpiece. It wasn’t, objectively, the greatest for game-play, but it fit together, all of it, really well. The limit on monster-types reflected the personal projections of the main character. It made the town smaller, but also, in its execution, a large and disturbing force of unfathomable power and evil. Downpour showed us a Silent Hill that was larger than the main character and even made us well aware that the worlds of the characters were similar. So, then the world should reflect it. Why the storm hags?! Did the main character beat up his mother in the shower? If it’s a projection of the other characters, then shouldn’t there be more of them? Silent Hill 2 blatantly told us that the characters see different… drastically different, versions of the town. Downpour seems to be suggesting a synthesis of the many worlds… or at least of the monster projections. If that’s the case, and the monsters, bats, hags, brawlers, prisoners, are projections of the other characters, then why a limited variety? Why aren’t the other fights as brutal? I think they missed a huge chance in monster design.

If they went for the multiple-character-monster-projection idea, then they missed their opportunity to make it relevant to the player. We care about SH2’s James Sunderland because we spend all game playing him and getting to know him, so his projections have an impact on us. That guy who was standing outside of the caves in Downpour? I only started to care a bit after I found out what he had to go through. At that point, it was too late to go back and re-experience those monsters from that perspective. The time had come and gone.

See what I mean? Over-world, story, combat, characterization, character development, number of monsters… Monsters may be only one part of the world, but the choices made in their production affect all other areas of the game. Conversely, all of those choices reflect intensely on how we experience the creatures themselves. A good aesthetic is a unified aesthetic, unless dispersal is what you are going for, but then it’s still unified under an idea.

Coming back to the point, in order for your players to get the experience you’re trying to give them, you need to craft carefully and deliberately. Crafting is limiting possibility to expand meaning and function. If we want to create good horror, then we need to focus on unifying all parts of the game so that they flow into each other, but mostly into the goal: horror.

Emotional response relies on getting your audience to immerse themselves in the experience and care about it. But, like the interactions between the uncanny valley and the fusiform face area, it’s easy to tell when something’s a little off and it’ll ruin the whole experience. See Clocktower 3 for examples (Great game, but the magical transforming girl bits kind of choked the horror). Or the dialogue in Resident Evil.

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2 Responses to “Is Survival Horror Dead?”

  1. Caution: Wall of Text ahead…

    Certainly an interesting read. In the interest of full disclosure regarding where I’m commenting from, I haven’t actually played a Silent Hill game since The Room. Unfortunately that game managed to kill the series for me at the time, and I’ve never managed to get back to it. I did pick up a dirt cheap copy of Homecoming to have a go at, but just haven’t had the motivation to put the disc in and play it. So my comments are based on my observations of reviews, gameplay videos, and discussions with friends who have been playing the games.

    What I find most interesting about the idea of the suggested shared monster projections in Downpour is that it could very easily be used as a bandaid solution for something I’ve perceived as a flaw in the series stretching right back to Silent Hill 2. The issue I had appears to be the same as your problem, in that they seemed to establish the fact that the monsters were projections of elements from the character’s troubled psyche, which would logically lead to different, but then promptly ignored it when they decided they wanted to use some of the enemies again. For example, the nurses in the second game were clearly meant to be sexually suggestive, relating back to James’ subconcious/supressed sexual desires during his wife’s illness. So why do sexy nurse enemies suddenly start popping up everywhere? Are we to believe that all of the people experiencing Silent Hill are sexually repressed to the point of it causing severe psychological trauma?

    That said, as to the main point of the post, about Survival Horror potentially being dead, I’d have to say I think it’s still alive and kicking, I think it’s just rarer to find a game that fits into the original idea of what survival horror is. The majority of survival horror games have moved towards a more action packed nature so as to appeal to a wider audience. As an example, Dead Space. Don’t get me wrong, I love Dead Space, and I enjoyed Dead Space 2 even more. They terrified me, and in my personal opinion did an excellent job of creating atmosphere and tension (that said, I know many people who will disagree entirely with me and claim that Dead Space is evidence that Survival Horror has in fact failed to survive). I love the body horror aspects of it, and the mythology behind it. But it’s very much action based survival horror. Yes supplies can be a bit scarce, but just keep on running and fighting and you should be okay. Unless of course you’re playing the second game on Hardcore mode, in which case, abandon all hope, you’re never getting out alive. There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s just a change to the genre, much like the way RPG video games have changed over the years. However, you can still find some true survival horror games, mostly amongst the titles put out by independent studios. Amnesia: The Dark Descent springs to mind, a game where you pretty much can’t fight back. What’s that, someone’s outside the room you’re in? Stay quiet, stay still, hope like hell they go away, but for the love of god, be ready to run for your life…

    Anyway, that’s just my two cents on the matter. My apologies for the wall of text, once something gets me writing, the only way to stop me before I’m good and ready is to get a crowbar between me and the keyboard. Hopefully you at least found my thoughts on the matter interesting.

    • Oh, I agree. I started this post by stating as much in a round-about way. While many of the larger developers are harder to sway from current methodologies, the independent sector is busily experimenting with different directions. The larger the company, the more inertia it has behind it, so the harder it is to sway from a safe course. I enjoyed Dead Space, and even found it frightening at times, but it had pacing problems, story problems and a ceaseless need to try and jump-scare us. Small problems compared to the honey-smeared strudel the rest of the game represented, though.

      The nurses thing is weird, but I can’t say that I haven’t had the odd bout of sexual repression or a nurse fetish, either. My most recent post touched on the problem of factory-stamped enemies, but I think it’s part of a prevailing attitude in gaming that’s so deeply ingrained in the concept that it’s hard to eradicate. Combat games seem to need fodder, and that’s alright, but using them appropriately is an issue. I enjoyed Silent Hill 4’s first half, and most of Homecoming, but they lacked the polished, unified appeal of Silent Hill 2, or even SH1. I loved Amnesia’s approach, and I’ve been thinking about reviewing it, but, so far, I can’t think of anything that hasn’t been said already.

      Write all you want. That’s what we’re here for.

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