Whatever Happened to Survival Horror?

I’m quite a long term fan of survival horror. My first experience of it was back in 2000 or 2001. I had a friend with a Playstation, and he had it chipped to play copied American games in black and white on a crappy old TV. We’d spend hours doing a level a time in Syphon Filter, Akuji the Heartless, and some of the early Smackdown games. But the one that really intrigued me was the first Silent Hill. We never got far in it. It’s pretty weird to think, but games didn’t come with tutorials back then, you had to learn all the controls from reading the manual. Copied games came with no manual, and you try figuring out that the attack combination is R2 and X. But that opening sequence in the alley, growing darker and darker as sirens blare, leading up to the discovery of a grizzly body crucified on barbed wire was enough to hook me.

I didn’t really think about it again until Christmas of 2003. I was pretty much a PC gamer up to that point, but I remember asking for a Playstation 2 and “some games”. What I got was an esoteric pile, the kind only a mother shopping for a teenager could pick out I think. The ones that stick out most prominently are Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (oh dear), Star Wars: Bounty Hunter (surprisingly good), 007 Nightfire (no idea), Medal of Honour: Frontline (probably competent), and nestled towards the bottom of the pile somewhere, Silent Hill 2.

Silent Hill 2 was the hidden gem of that auspicious selection, and everything from that isolated walk down the forest path through to the final confrontation in the Lakeview Hotel was as gripping to me as any film I’d ever seen. To this day it is my favourite game, and cemented me as a fan of survival horror for life. Unfortunately, in the ten years since then, it would seem I have outlived the genre.

I was partly motivated to write this post after reading about the upcoming reboot of the Thief franchise. It seems all my worst fears have been realised, and they are turning what was previously an open stealth game into a linear action game where combat is a viable option and Garrett is a badass hero. Not to sound too cynical or elitist, but it seems that a lot of the modern gaming audience want the illusion of difficulty. They’ve heard about how hardcore the old Thief games are, so they’ll go into the new one, blast through it in a way that was simply not possible in the original games, then show off about how good they are at stealth games without actually having to exert themselves. Okay, so that was pretty elitist, I’m sorry.

The point of all this is that I think the same thing happened to my beloved survival horror. The recent announcement of Creative Assembly’s Alien Isolation combined with the upcoming release of The Evil Within has been met with cries about AAA survival horror being back. But I’m not convinced it is.

“Huh. Genre… What’s going on with this genre?”

For me, this modern crop of horror games excel at creating an atmosphere of unease and discomfort, probably just as well as the older games did. While there is a lot to be said for third person views and fixed cameras, which allowed the developer to control what the player is seeing at any given time and therefore tighten up the experience, I also don’t think the move to more first person games is necessarily a bad thing either.

Where these games fall down for me (and where we conveniently come back to simplification) is the reduced emphasis on the survival aspect, to the point where it could be said to have been removed entirely. Taking out combat for games such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a good short term fix to really amp up the horror. But it also takes out a big part of those games; resource conservation. Hoarding those oh so rare shotgun shells just in case there was a tougher enemy around the next corner, keeping hold of med kits and health drinks because there might be a hard boss battle coming up… These are all experiences necessary, in my opinion, for the survival part of the survival horror genre to remain intact. Remove that, and you’ve streamlined the player’s options down to one: run. It might allow for a more visceral gameplay experience, but it’s also an easier one. There’s no need to consider what the character is carrying, what supplies can be used now, or whether to risk a close up attack with a knife because those ten bullets might be the last ones for the next hour or so. Taking all that away is analogous to making Thief a linear action game. The barrier for entry is reduced, and we’re left with the illusion of survival horror rather than the real thing.

However, I am more than open to being proved wrong. It’s no secret that, due to my lack of a solid gaming PC, my experience with these modern horror games is somewhat lacking. I’m excited to try the upcoming PS4 release of Outlast, as well as digging into future releases like The Evil Within, Alien Isolation, and Soma. I’d also like to go back to some classics, like those first couple of Silent Hill and Resident Evil games, the Project Zero trilogy, and perhaps some more modern attempts at the genre like Dead Space and Deadly Premonition.

My hope in all of this is to make this a sort of regular feature. I don’t want to put a number on it like I did last year with 50 Books, 365 Days but to just return to one of these games when the time is right for me, and hopefully provide some form of critical analysis, sorely missing from the screaming idiocy of Youtube videos of games like Slender (with apologies to any PewDiePie fans reading).

So, with that in mind, are there any games you’d like to see me cover? If so, drop a recommendation in the comments, or message me on Twitter. I can, as ever, be found at @scnjedi. Thanks for reading.

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