Surviving the Horror of Modern Progress

This iconic scene from Resident Evil 4 scared the shit out of doberman pinschers everywhere.

This iconic scene from Resident Evil 4 scared the shit out of Doberman Pinschers everywhere.

If Resident Evil 4 killed survival horror, then it was little more than the mercy killing of a genre suffering from a terminal affliction: unsustainable gameplay mechanics that were completely at odds with the level of ease and accessibility that is expected of all games released this—and to a lesser degree that—generation. It certainly acted as a fine political statement: a series with firm and monumentally influential roots in the survival horror genre being treated with enough foresight to see that the future of horror was to be a future without survival being so intrinsically attached to its title.

But what exactly does the survival of survival horror denote? It’s no easier to define than horror (should Quake be considered a horror game; Serious Sam? Certainly, Doom is; along with its claim to being science fiction), but the meaning of the word survival has romantic video game connotations to it: the player surviving in an oppressive atmosphere against all odds; and arguably it is this which is missing once the survival has been removed from the horror. While Resident Evil 4 was dripping with an incredibly tense atmosphere, and the odds often did seem insurmountable; one still felt in control of one’s own fate.

And this feeling of being control is present because the player quite literally is! Unlike in previous Resident Evil games which set about making controlling the series’ protagonists feel like driving a tank, Leon could move through Resident Evil 4′s levels and run from enemies with consummate ease. Sure, he had to stop to shoot; but that was an excellent mechanic which helped to meter the tempo of the battles and the pace of the action—it was limiting, sure, but the player always remained in control.

Even if one was to panic—perhaps shocked by a jump scare or simply overwhelmed—the very fact that one could so easily run away meant that even when the player had lost control; they had not in the literal sense. In the previous Resident Evil games? Panic was often fatal thanks to the tank-like controls and shifting camera angles which meant that running blindly into the path of oncoming zombies was all too easy. Strangely, no one seems to miss this much.

But it was a vital part of the tension. It allowed the oppressive atmosphere (which was not a whole lot less strong in Resident Evil 4) to be directly expressed in the gameplay mechanics thus making the atmosphere all the more frightening and effective. Without the player having to struggle with how the game played, a level of tension—and thus fear—is immediately removed from the experience. There have been a few games this generation that have faithfully tried to recreate such mechanics (Shattered Memories; Fatal Frame and Siren immediately come to mind), but all have been met with a somewhat mixed response from both critics and players alike.

Anyone for some honeycomb?

Mmm…honeycomb…

But this attempt at expressing horror through the gameplay itself can be found even in modern blockbusters. While the Resident Evil series may have completely left behind its horror roots to focus all but entirely on action—with vague horror and science fiction themes—to the point where the series should be considered in the same space that games such as Doom inhabit, there have been some very big genuine horror titles released.

Dead Space made sure that the tension of the dark, dirty and claustrophobic spaceship was immediately illustrated in the gameplay by way of suffocating corridors; Isaac’s heavy, slow movement; and the slow, awkward aiming. It might not be quite on the level of tank controls, but if one were to play Binary Domain or Gears of War and then Dead Space, it would be a similarly jarring experience when compared to moving from Tomb Raider to Resident Evil just a few generations ago. Because the expected level of accessibility is so high in modern gaming, developers can only drop below it so far before receiving criticism for the atmosphere they have created, rather than praise. And Dead Space benefits immensely from dropping dangerously close to the core mechanics almost feeling frustrating and uncouth.

But perhaps the most highly innovative horror game of recent years is Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It’s the game that Frictional Games, Inc. seem to have been building up to with their preceding trilogy, Penumbra. But the reason it is worth mentioning is because of the way it manages to illicit such a powerful feeling of tension and fear from the player. It does so through the gameplay, of course, but not through archaic, uncomfortable mechanics as used by Resident Evil and modernised by Dead Space.

Instead, it makes the player—at times—completely and utterly powerless; forcing them to hide from a monster instead of trying to outrun it; let alone trying to kill it! And even if one successfully hides in a dark place—temporarily safe from the monster—one is still in genuine danger; the protagonist’s sanity slowly drifting away. It’s a seemingly inevitable fate that can be stopped by putting oneself in the danger of lit areas or carrying a torch. And sanity only returns as the player makes progress through the level such as unlocking a previously found locked door.

This means that no matter what the player is doing, they are always in danger; always being punished in some tangible way so that the effects of the tension can be felt in the gameplay, even if the first person movement and physics manipulation mechanics are perfectly accessible and easily controlled. It’s a clever system that has unsurprisingly received much acclaim.

Things can get pretty intense in the laneways of King's Cross.

Things can get pretty hairy in the laneways of King’s Cross.

Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that there is something appealing about tank controls; shifting cameras; and linear, limited worlds that must be struggled through as much as explored. As tangible as the tension in both Amnesia and Dead Space is, one still feels in control; even if one is deliberately scared through the gameplay. With the dwindling list of survival horror releases, and the great strides forwards for the genre made by the likes of Dead Space and Amnesia, it’s unlikely that we will see a traditional survival horror game by a big studio in the foreseeable future.

But, there is hope! The death of survival horror has followed in a similar pattern to point and click adventure games; except that adventure games never truly died. The reason for this was simple: it was very easy for even an amateur game designer to make a good point and click adventure game, and casual adventure/puzzle games have never gone out of fashion. This meant that the demand for adventure games once they had left the mainstream was easy to meet, even if the market was but a small niche.

Obviously it is unviable for most smaller developers that were so ready to take on the niche of adventure games to take on the survival horror genre in the same way due to the high level of visual and aural design that is so important to the genre’s atmosphere, and cannot be achieved quite so easily as finding a good background and character artist; script writer; and voice actors. Even if pre-rendered, the backgrounds need to be traversable by both player and enemies in a dynamic way, and the sound design needs to go beyond voice acting and include high quality sound effects, which requires a much larger investment in terms of money; skills; and time for a small developer.

But what of the future? There is no rule that says that horror games need a high level of visual and aural fidelity if the artistry behind the pixels and bleeps is good enough. Silent Hill remains an incredibly tense, terrifying experience to this day, and achieves this all with little more than a few blocky pixels and a lot of fog. Obviously we cannot reasonably expect any professional developers to put together a game with such an outdated look, but where are the amateur designers? There appears to be great demand for such an experience, with myriad gamers complaining that survival horror is dead. Well, it’s up to us to bring it back to life!

Until we are blessed with such a game, at least we can play Surgeon Simulator 2013 which is perhaps the most disturbing survival horror game of the generation. It features almost unplayable controls, and an incredible amount of gore—the gameplay boiling down to a sadistic surgeon slowly and clumsily mutilating an unconscious patient until he or she is dead.

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