I love being scared. Movies, games - if it'll terrify me, I'm in. And while I enjoy some of the cheap startles and shocks scattered throughout a lot of so-called scary stuff, nothing keeps me on the edge of my seat (and my nerves) quite like good survival horror. The tension, the slowly-creeping dread, that feeling of being on the razor-thin edge between life and death ... there's nothing better.
At its core, The Oregon Trail is about fear, doubt, desperation - it's about survival.
It's a little disappointing how long it's been since I've gotten that from a game. Not for lack of trying - Dead Island, Dead Rising, Dead Space: Nothing has really delivered on the promise of its title. Despite our repeated efforts, survival horror itself seems to be in, well, a bit of a dead spot.
Oddly, the way out is backwards. While Resident Evil is credited with originating the "survival horror" label, I'm talking even further back. We've had a stellar example of simple, but compelling survival horror staring us in the face for over 25 years now: MECC's The Oregon Trail. On its surface, the game is a quasi-historical dramatization of the trials and tribulations of settlers in the mid-1800's, but at its core, this game is about fear, doubt, desperation - it's about survival.
What can this dated educational game teach us about survival horror? The answers are in a few basics The Oregon Trail got exactly right (which we're largely getting wrong, or only half-right, now):
We're Focusing on the Wrong Enemy
Most games share a basic structure: Introduce an enemy, equip you to face that enemy, and set you on your path to or through that enemy. Lately, we've been bombarded with zombies, mutants, robots, and all manner of monsters in the quest to (unsuccessfully) create horror in games. Opposition creates conflict, but we're given the wrong kind of both.
So who is the villain in The Oregon Trail? We could say there are none (with the notable exception of dysentery) but really the game just skips the more convenient and obvious "bad guys" in favor of two of mankind's oldest and deadliest foes: Scarcity and Entropy.
These two forces drive all of our most basic impulses. Eventually, everything runs out and everything breaks - including us. Scarcity and Entropy are the world's timekeepers, and survival is our (ultimately losing) battle to cram just a bit more sand in the hourglass.
In The Oregon Trail, these two insidious fiends lurk behind your back from the very beginning. You start the game with $1600 (don't pretend you played as anything but the "banker") for supplies. You've got to ration that for food, clothing, bullets, oxen, and repair supplies for the entire journey.
Once you've played a few times, you learn (through painful experience) that axles can break, food can spoil, oxen can die, thieves can pilfer, and rivers can sweep away any of these few, prized possessions on a whim. There is nothing you can do about it and almost no way to resupply.
Scarcity and Entropy are harrowing forces, able to reach in and wake our most primitive fears. They make us feel powerless. They use our own needs as their weapons. They cannot be defeated. They also conveniently require very little in the way of art resources or dialogue, but when properly used, they can create more tension and drama than any monster, robot, Elder God, or zombie out there.
Contrast this with a game like Dead Rising, which features Entropy (stuff breaks) but not Scarcity (just go get another katana). The game has some great moments of tension, but it becomes easy to plan ahead to avoid them. When one of our two "villains" is missing, we often find ways to work around the other. Together, though, they're an unstoppable team.