What Happened To The Survival Horror Genre?

I mentioned in a previous article that I felt the horror genre as a whole “has trended away from its bearings in the real world towards crazy shoot-em-ups like RE5 and Dead Space. These are both fine games, but they lack the grounding and thus much of the horror element of their predecessors.” I feel like this deserves more discussion than I gave it at the time. Just to be clear, RE4 is one of my all-time favorite games. But it isn’t a survival horror game by any stretch of the imagination – just a creative shooter. Previous RE games were, as they had you conserving scarce ammo supplies like your life depended on it (it did), and evading enemies who would end you in seconds if they got their decaying mitts on you.

This is the defining element of survival horror games, and for good reason: once you’re armed to the teeth and can kill anything that is set in front of you (albeit with some difficulty at times), the game isn’t scary anymore. It becomes a shooting gallery in which you move from target to target. If you die, it isn’t because you were caught by an unstoppable monstrosity, it’s because you didn’t put enough bullets into your enemies. Having to evade enemies provides much more tension. When you dispatch a foe, you no longer have to worry about it. When you run away from a foe, it’s still out there somewhere, and this knowledge makes you much more cautious.

Zombies in particular have fallen out of the survival horror genre. More and more games feature the little shamblers, and fewer and fewer games present them as anything but dumb, shuffling targets. Zombies have been something of a cliche for a while, but games have really been overdoing it lately. You can find them everywhere, from Crackdown 2 to Uncharted. Even games that have nothing to do with the undead will often through in a bonus mode or DLC to cram them in (see: CoD: World at War, Red Dead Redemption, and Borderlands). This is probably because zombies provide an outlet for guilt-free killing, but unlike other perennial favorites like Nazis or robots, they can provide some really incredibly gory guilt-free killing. I don’t think that Zombies are a lost cause for horror games, but they would require a fresh presentation / re-imagining at this point to make them scary again.

In order to put the horror back into games, you need limits. Not only limits on ammo, which we’ve touched on, but also limits on movement. After all, things aren’t going to be that frightening (or realistic) if you can double jump over threats or run faster than the zombie dogs that are chasing you. RE4 tried this with its weird gun-turret characters, which was fun when you got used to it and succeeded in making the slow zombies a threat. The Silent Hill series for its own part has had god-awful controls, which works in a weird way to get you to run away from everything, but isn’t much fun to play. Limiting movement beyond what a normal person would be able to do is a bit silly, though, and can be jarring. I can walk backwards or to the side while aiming, so why can’t my character? Limiting movement by putting the player into close quarters seems more realistic and more effective to me. You might be able to run faster than a zombie, but if 20 of them are coming down a narrow hallway toward you, and you only have three bullets, you’re going to have to make some decisions, fast.

This might be scary if it wasn't broad daylight...and you weren't a walking armory.

Personally, I think that a first-person view is the most conducive to a scary experience. In a third person game, you’re more distanced from the action – things are happening to your avatar on screen as you tell him/her what to do. The first person is not only more immersive in this instance, but it also restricts your field of vision more – you can’t see what’s behind or to the sides of you, for instance. This is obviously great for a horror game: the unknown /unseen is usually the scariest of all. However, such an approach might mandate an upper limit on look sensitivity to prevent the sort of whipping around that most FPS players tend to do to check their surroundings.

Realism is tantamount to making a frightening game, and most developers in the genre have abandoned this. RE5 was a cavalcade of truly absurd shit, from its action-movie protagonists and quick-time events to Wesker, who was less a monster and more a superhuman. Silent Hill has always had crazy monsters, but they remain creepy because they have identifiable parts (like baby heads!). These games only stop being scary to me when you inevitably leave the real-world settings and enter the funhouse version of the town where everything is blood red. As an example, in Silent Hill 4: The Room (not the most popular installment, I know, but the one I’m most familiar with), the scariest parts were those that took place in your own apartment, because it was such a realistic and relatable setting that horrifying things were happening in.

I’d love to see somebody put the “survival” back into “survival horror.” What if there was a game that took the eternal question, “What would you do in a zombie apocalypse?”, and posed it to the player? If the game started out with your character waking up in the middle of the night to chaos, and you had to find your way to safety, build barricades, improvise weapons, scavenge for food, et cetera? I’m not asking that survival horror games regress to the days of poor controls and haunted houses, but the direction of generic action can’t the best road for these games to continue down. Some food for thought, anyway…or should I say brain food? (No, no I shouldn’t.)

  • Mervyn Robinson

    For me, exploration was the key to the survival horror genre. In Resi and Silent Hill the player was investigating a dangerous location, solving puzzles and collecting items – combat was an interruption, and it was kept tense by the lack of resources. Resi 4 & 5 downplayed this, as you point out, in favor of the action element, and just turned into shoot-em-ups. The Silent Hill series has kept the same formula for years now, but the games have lost any sense of originality or surprise.
    The best example of the genre is Dead Space – a bit combat-heavy, but it has an oppressive setting, scarce ammo and a sense of exploration. Can’t wait for the sequel…

  • Brian Heitzenrater (FrehleyzComet)

    Wow! Nice read! I totally agree with you on this. I loved RE5, but it wasn’t scary at all. Now Dead Space, that sucker put the fear of the dark into me again! 😀

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  • wow i totally agree. all these “survival horror” games that have came out lately, just arent really what they use to be. thats a good idea tho for a game what you put at the you start in a city, u dont have guns right away, cuz obviously u werent prepared for a zombia apocolypse. so you have to break into a gun store. grocery store etc.and make the focus of the game, trying to escape the city. a bitttt cliche, but with the right developer it could be sick

  • Dirtbaggrif

    Bravo, my friend, bravo. I wish they let the Resident Evil IP die gracefully instead of trying to keep it alive with the new crap. I miss the days of not knowing if there was something around the next corner, knowing if you head down the wrong corridor you’ll just be wasting ammo so you have no chance by the time you find the right direction. Today it’s just run forward and stop to shoot occasionally. 

    Dead Space had the regenerating monster that hunted you, that was survival. You just couldn’t kill it. You had to run and pray that it didn’t catch you. Same with the Nemesis and Mr. X in RE 2&3.