What Happened to Survival Horror?
This is a topic I have been meaning to tackle for quite some time and now that I have slightly more perspective on it I feel I can write a coherent assessment of the current state of one of my favourite genres in gaming today: Survival Horror.
I should start by explaining how my love of this genre started. It actually started from another form of media entirely, movies. I grew up watching great movies such as John Carpenter’s “The Thing”, Ridley Scott’s “Alien”, and Paul W.S Anderson’s “Event Horizon” – All of which are undeniable icons of cinema. Because of my experiences in movies my standards when it comes to the genre, in all of its forms, are rather high. When it comes to horror games it becomes much easier for the player to become involved in the proceedings because the experience becomes very cathartic purely because of the interaction involved. It is all good watching autonomous characters navigate their way through supernatural and/or terrifying situations but I think that when the playeris given control of the helm the stakes are greatly raised and the experience becomes immensely immersive. Games are probably the greatest medium for simulating situations of fear, despair, and dread because of this interaction. How many times have you sat down to watch a horror movie and thought internally or out loud what you want the characters to do and what to not do? In games, you are given the liberty to ‘do it yourself’ which is something movies cannot provide and is one of the few great leg-ups games have over their silver screen counterparts.
Lately I have seen a disturbing trend emerging in this great genre, it is selling out and selling out for reasons it really should not have to. With the latest Resident Evil on the horizon everybody’s interest in the genre has resurfaced and going with the crowd I downloaded the Resident Evil 6 demo off of Xbox Live last week and gave it a go. My first impressions of the demo are that it is a game that shows great promise but something still felt really off about the whole experience. It just did not feel like a survival horror game, it really didn’t, and it felt more like a knock-off of an action game akin to Gears of War. The demo featured a few short segments from different ‘campaign modes’ featuring established characters Leon Kennedy and Chris Redfield which results in two vastly different gaming experiences. Leon’s ‘style’ takes the player back to what I believe is genuine survival horror: You are isolated, under-equipped, and vastly outnumbered in a very hostile and atmospheric environment – It felt great and played like the earlier incarnations of the franchise. In stark contrast Chris’s ‘style’ felt like a copy-pasted version of Gears of War: Relentless action, cover & fire mechanics, and emphasis on squad mechanics – It just felt too much like a generic 3rd person shooter for me to ignore. It seems to me that most survival horror games these days are just action games that happen to incorporate minor elements of horror: Left 4 Dead, Dead Rising, Dead Island, Resident Evil, and even my personal favourite series Dead Space has come dangerously close to crossing the line between genuine horror and outright action.
To me, great horror comes as a result of an emphasis placed on human psychology (Something that “Dead Space” does REALLY well, but that’s for another topic!). People will always scare themselves better than other people or other things can, Sky News and tabloids do this on a near-daily basis and it works wonders despite most people not even realizing that it’s happening. If something is unknown or mysterious it frightens us, however once the mystery has been unveiled and the ‘monsters’ have been seen for what they are there is not much else to do than to overcome the issue at hand and in games that usually entails shooting the ever-loving crud out of something. Resident Evil is the prime example of this happening. In the first few instalments of the franchise everything was a mystery to us, we did not understand why zombies were roaming around and we therefore felt compelled to find out why even if the situation was horrifying and potentially dangerous. After a few games though savvy players knew that the Umbrella Corporation are not the most ethical of people and that putting a few rounds in a zombie’s head will put them down. The mystery was gone, we knew what was happening and who was to blame, and so what was there left to do than finding the biggest gun we could find and going to town on the un-dead?
How did this happen? When did this happen? Who is to blame for the bastardization of the genre?
The honest answer is that everyone has had a stake in the outcome. Think about it, 10-15 years ago gamers had not yet experienced the boom of the first person shooter and action genres went through thanks to titles like “Call of Duty” and “Devil May Cry”. Back then the playing field was more level; each genre had a shot at the big time. These days games like the aforementioned are guaranteed to sell well because they have accumulated nautical levels of hype and expectation, this also means that left-field horror games such as “Amnesia: The Dark Descent” are left eating the dust of the latest “Call of Duty” because of the ‘bandwagon effect’. Gamers are to blame for buying into this trend by purchasing every single game in a franchise even if said franchise has clearly run out of ideas and are recycling subject matter and mechanics over and over (Call of Duty, Madden, FIFA etc.). On the flip side of the coin producers and developers are to blame for buying into this trend as well because they are forced to adopt elements of action in order to sell their game.
Because doing so will give investors and the company at large more peace of mind that their game will return a profit. Neither side is more to blame than the other, developers are merely responding to what audiences clearly want to see more of – the sales figures of franchised games do not lie.
Is there hope for the genre in the future? There should be if developers delve into the unknown themselves and come up with innovative spins on established tropes. The continuation of merging survival horror with action will only result in the monsters of horror being eaten by the behemoths of gaming that are action games and shooters.