Spoiler: Reading this is not worth your time.
I want to take a tangent. Shamus brings up how different games are striving for different kinds of fear, while residing under a single banner of "survival horror." Being scared, startled, horrified, nervous, anxious... These are important distinctions, and for the purposes of talking about them, I put them all under the label of tension rather than fear; fear itself, I think, is only part of the picture, and the part more seldom sought by developers.
The single most critical distinction between the effects of tension in a game is whether that tension is experienced by a player immersed in the world, acting as their agent within the game, or whether that tension is felt externally, as the player alone and in spite of the character. While there's nothing saying there can't be a great deal of overlap, in reality games have tended to cleave fully to one or the other.
I can't speak to Haunted House or Alone in the Dark. But while either of those games may have begun the survival horror genre in spirit, Resident Evil, for better or worse (and I think you'll figure out pretty quickly which I believe it to be), was the title that fully and truly implanted the idea of a distinct genre based on fear into the collective conscious of gamers, and I don't think it's coincidence that, despite coining the term, the series has always been under fierce contention regarding whether it is even a valid example of the genre it established. I think this can be blamed entirely upon Resident Evil's design philosophy: from the very start, the series was completely, totally, intractably rooted in meta-tension. Simply by striving toward this one ideal and not the other, the series distinguished itself starkly from the alternative and, very importantly, locked out the audience that wanted to feel fear as a character rather than a player. Because this audience had no other name but survival horror to recognize their distinct desire, this has centered the genre on the dilemma for twenty years.
Resident Evil's mechanics, the means by which it establishes and maintains tension, are entirely non-diegetic. They arise from arbitrary restraints of the mechanics and visual design imposed by the developer upon the player, rather than natural restrictions and odds imposed by the setting itself. The ways in which Resident Evil establishes meta-tension are multitude, and are familiar hallmarks of holy wars regarding the games' validity as horror titles. They won't shock you as I recount them: the discretely controlled, slot- and stack-based inventory that sharply limits the supplies you can carry, and treats keys and other tiny objects the same as handguns, fire extinguishers, and what have you; camera angles that conceal from the player threats that would be visible to the player-character; restricted saves, reliant on a consumable item; environments and puzzles structured in bizarre, often nonsensical ways; characters, good and evil alike, whose actions do not portray them as the acme of rational thought; a narrative, both within a title and carried among them, that cannot keep any given detail straight for five minutes and is liable to be rewritten or reframed entirely with every entry.
These things, apologists of the series are well-used to saying by now, are either necessary to the fear created by the titles, or immaterial to it. And they're right. Resident Evil's chief tool in creating tension is character death, and the loss of progress. The threat of player death is real and immediate. Resource scarcity and inventory restrictions make survival less likely, and the limited saves inflate the progress the player will lose. Many puzzles, if solved incorrectly or slowly, will harm or kill the player. Mortal threats are introduced without warning or placed strategically just off-camera to keep the threat of unexpected death real and present. All tension in Resident Evil loops back the to the death of the player character: an entirely non-diegetic punishment that creates meta-tension, and only meta-tension. The fear in Resident Evil is always and solely the fear that the player's last twenty minutes of progress will be invalidated by a poorly-abetted combat, an unexpected attack, or an unforeseen trap. Resident Evil benefits nothing from immersion in or verisimilitude of narrative, of environment design, or of characters' knowledge or capabilities, because the series is already dedicated thoroughly and earnestly to a core design philosophy that fatally disrupts immersion and cannot benefit from it.
When people play Resident Evil for psychological horror and receive only meta-tension, they resent it. I suspect a great deal of the series' detraction comes less from any failure to live up to its own intentions and standards of design, but from superficially resembling, while diverging fundamentally from, psychological horror.
[Note: I dislike the term psychological horror. I dislike it for the same reason Shamus disdains the phrase "thinking man's shooter." It's inaccurate and dismissive; all horror is psychological. There can be no other kind, by definition. A machine can play Pong, but it cannot feel tension, diegetic or non. I feel like psychological horror, as a label, is used to categorically dismiss anything not to the individual speaker's tastes, regarding as lesser what is merely unlike. But for the purpose of this unfocused diatribe, I will acquiesce, and use this term for the sake of clarity and contrast.]
While Resident Evil (the early series, anyway, but let's not get ahead of ourselves) isn't my cup of tea, I don't resent its existence, anymore than I entertain any other egotistical, totalitarian notions that whatever resources are wasted on other people's interests would have better been spent on my own.
But I do resent its position of primacy within survival horror as it developed as a genre. While Resident Evil's mechanical and philosophical directives served it well and cemented its place in gaming's annals, they became the de facto standards of design for anything that followed into the genre that it codified, regardless of their intentions of following or diverging from Resident Evil philosophically. What Resident Evil cannot be blamed for, however, is the conservative, iterative nature of AAA game development that enforced this standard. By calcifying a host of mechanical, stylistic, narrative, and visual expectations for the nascent survival horror genre, every game that followed was compelled to work within or against these expectations, and still today have failed to completely obviate them.
This presented, and still presents, a significant hurdle for the genre for two reasons. First, Resident Evil was, frankly, a pretty damn janky series at the best of times. A derivative of a jank-ball schematic can't help but be jank-ball itself without a luminary designer correcting or mitigating that design. But as alluded to above, and far more importantly, it imported Resident Evil's purpose-built, non-diegetic assumptions of horror into games that may have desired a tone and experience inherently hostile to that design. Resident Evil didn't just seat survival horror on the throne; it tangibly restrained psychological horror's competing design philosophy. Obviously, there are successful psychological horror games, though. (Though there aren't as many as I'd like, grumble scoff snark grumble.) By way of comparison, I'd like to present a series that forged its own destiny in spite of its roots, and my choice will not surprise many: Silent Hill.
I say that Silent Hill succeeded in spite of its roots- specifically, in spite of its roots in the traditions created by Resident Evil. Of course, it's old hat that the second title is the most beloved, but the original, I think, was an even bigger step away from what had come before than its successor was to the first title, and therefore an even more unlikely success. While Silent Hill 2 was bold in forging its own identity, it refined the work of its predecessor more often than it diverged from it, and it was this new ground for iteration that Silent Hill deserves credit for.
The lineage from Resident Evil to Silent Hill is easily visible. You play a lone character trapped in an unfamiliar location. The game is third-person, and features tank controls. The plot is based in a mystery. Gameplay is based in exploration, in puzzle solving, and in combat. The combat is designed to be dangerous rather than fun. Resources are scarce, and the player is wise not to waste them. Peripheral characters are few, and are met incidentally over the course of the narrative, rather than remaining with the player-character.
In truth, Silent Hill likely accords with Resident Evil in at least as many ways as it diverges. But the diversions it chose to make were critical, and fundamentally alter the assumptions of the game's threats and how they relate to the player and player-character. Most dramatic, possibly, is the categorical shift in context. In the wise words of Mumbles Peaches Keensford-Chambers, there's a big difference between a monster story and a ghost story. In contrast to the monster story of Resident Evil, Silent Hill was a ghost story. The mechanical difference is nearly nil, actually; the player still encounters and defeats monsters, and they are still defeated by mundane means. But Silent Hill recontextualizes the underlying threat from a physical, mundane threat to an unknown, paranormal hostility that the player cannot immediately apprehend.
There are a host of tweaks that recontextualize the mechanics without necessarily altering them. Resident Evil often presented the opportunity to flee from or bypass monsters, but the narrow corridors of the mansion made this a much greater gamble; the player had to either dart past within a monster's reach, or alter their route to bypass the monster through another (hopefully less hazardous) room. Silent Hill's wide streets and hallways, by contrast, made running past monsters much more viable. While Silent Hill and Resident Evil are both fixed camera, Silent Hill transitioned from pre-rendered 2D backgrounds to 3D environments; while Resident Evil's camera was used to frame the environment cinematically while selectively limiting the player's environmental awareness- often to their detriment- Silent Hill's camera follows the player-character more reliably, and is more gracious in informing the player rather than in creatively disinforming them. While resources themselves are limited, the player's capacity to carry items in Silent Hill is never infringed by mechanical limitations such as stack size or slot limits. While melee was technically an option in Resident Evil, it was a tool of last resort reserved only for desperate players who had expended their resources and would likely soon be mauled, or master players who are toying with the system for fun at the game's expense. In Silent Hill, by contrast, melee forms half of the player-character's capabilities; guns have the advantage of keeping the player out of the monsters' reach, but the player's resource concerns tempt the player into choosing to fight in melee when possible, despite the greater risk. Resident Evil created tension with the threat of unexpected attack, either by monsters spawning unexpectedly or lingering just off the present camera angle, where the player-character would find themselves face-to-face with the monster the instant the camera angle changes. Silent Hill instead gives the player-character a radio that gives clear early warning of the presence of enemies. While Silent Hill maintains Resident Evil's focus on puzzles, it eschews the frequent puzzle-as-deathtrap challenges of Resident Evil and focuses more on riddles. Finally, Silent Hill allows the player to save whenever they want, provided they can reach a savepoint; how much progress the player risks by proceeding through the game is a choice of their own.
What you might notice is that almost all of these changes make Silent Hill less punishing. Silent Hill intentionally backs away from the constant, high threat of death and the loss of player progress.
Silent Hill also diverged from Resident Evil in its writing. As stated before, both games are centered on a mystery. Resident Evil was rooted in the mystery of the monsters' origin and nature. Because this mystery was the focus of the narrative, the solution to this mystery becomes material. Because the solution to the mystery was, famously, the stuff of B-movie schlock, the solution likewise contextualizes the narrative in this manner. I refer specifically to Resident Evil, the first title, in this regard; its posterity ignores this, and redoubles their focus on the player-characters' escape and survival. Solving the mystery of Silent Hill, meanwhile, is a means to a personal end: finding the player-character's daughter. The mystery of the setting and the events surrounding Cheryl remains important, but not paramount; rather, it is whether or not Harry rescues her that creates the tension in the narrative, and uncovering the mystery informs that tension. Because the mystery of Silent Hill is rooted in the supernatural and informs, rather than forms, the basis of tension for the narrative, there is much more liberty for vagueness or writer fiat in this mystery- though reasonable minds may differ, of course.
These differences, taken together, represent something other than a mere refinement of Resident Evil's design, but a discrete and deliberate shift away from it. Beyond these changes, there's the famous hallmarks of the series itself: the dark, grotesque environments, the symbolism found in the environment, and the abiding sense of isolation. But what fans of the games, and of psychological horror in general, will often tell you of the game's successes, and of what they seek in horror, is this: it achieves immersion. With its mechanics and its presentation and writing, it minimized the ways in which and the frequency with which it pushed the player out of the world, and maximized its efforts in drawing the player in, making their mind, desires, and dreads the same as those of their agent within the world. This, I think, represents the critical difference between the survival horror of Resident Evil and its progeny and the psychological horror of Silent Hill and its ilk. Resident Evil's survival horror is focused exclusively upon just that: survival, where death is a non-diegetic punishment of the player necessarily opposed by system mastery, foreknowledge, and meta-gaming. Silent Hill is something else entirely.
I deliberate at length on subsets of horror here, but without rehashing that diatribe, Resident Evil was focused primarily on the threat to life and limb, while Silent Hill demoted that threat in favor of the threat to the player-character's family and to his faith in his understanding of the world's nature. If you remember one thing I've written here, let it be these three words: Horror is disempowerment. Resident Evil focuses solely on disempowering the player by threat to the player-character's life and limb, and elevates its brand of disempowerment by amplifying this threat. It did this through the total abdication of immersion, relying on a world with no verisimilitude founded on arbitrary mechanical and systemic abstractions and impositions, demanding a total divorce of the perspective, knowledge, and mindset of the player and player-character. It's for this reason that I never enjoyed classic Resident Evil. It's also the reason I find Resident Evil's design lacking, even as a redoubtable proponent of meta-tension as a design goal: Resident Evil's only tool to create this meta-tension is the threat of death, and following through on this threat invariably trivializes the stakes. Each time Resident Evil follows through on its threat to kill the player by starving them of healing and ammunition, by dropping an unexpected monster through a window, or by springing a deathtrap as punishment for failing to understand the moon logic inherited from its adventure game forebears, it inures the player to the one persistent source of tension and builds their tolerance up. A player easily learns not to fear the game, either becoming too frustrated or too bored to care or by learning to stop worrying and love the meta-game, treating the game not on its own ostensible horror terms, but solely as a system to be mastered; both of these are failure modes that nullify the only form of disempowerment the game is capable of, and, therefore, the only horror potential the games possess. I oppose this not because the games are too hard- often, the opposite is true- but because they are clumsy, shallow, and narrowly exclusionary. Resident Evil not only alienates gamers looking to become immersed and experience a different kind of horror, but also players whose experience with the game does not fall within the precise tolerances of the games' systems: either failing to threaten the player often enough to establish tension, or breaking this tension through abuse.
Silent Hill, by embracing immersion, threatens the player not only with the threat to the player-character's life and limb, but seduces the player to share in the player-character's personal and existential fears. Immersion opens the door for games to disempower the player by threatening things other than their time. This is a trick, of course. All horror is a trick, because the disempowerment that creates it is illusionary. To quote an ancient philosopher, "You can't spend what you ain't got, can't lose what you never had." It's absurd that a work of fiction can create genuine fear in a player by creating an artificial world where their proxy stands to lose someone dear, or by threatening their agent's understanding or peace of mind by discovering a world whose nature accords with our fears. But this is the magic of immersion, and by pinning its aspirations in this immersion and persevering, Silent Hill staked its claim to a formidable, if fading, legacy. Of course, games that actually succeed in capitalizing on this remain rare, for a variety of reasons. I allege above that the genre is still today held back by the conservative, iterative nature of mainstream game design and the genre's origins in a deceptively similar counterpart. But even more than that, it is simply a difficult and unpredictable discipline.
Immersion is a trick, and you can't fool all of the people, all of the time. Even the best horror games are highly reliant on the audience's subjective susceptibility to its illusion; I was simply bored by Amnesia: The Dark Descent, for instance, despite its nominal representation of everything I desire in a horror game. More than that, though, the accomplishment of a persistent immersion capable of creating and sustaining dread is not contained in a single mechanic or aesthetic. It requires a unified design, one in which all parts work together to serve a difficult, protean goal. Psychological horror represents not merely the skillful iteration on a subset of mechanics, not merely on an artistic and atmospheric conceit, nor merely skillful and subtle writing craft, but the synthesis of all parts of a game into a whole that serves the end of manipulating the intelligence and emotions of its audience without their conscious recognition, a task further hampered by the unpredictable nature of this audience and the guarded and critical attitude many will inevitably bring with them. It is one of the most difficult goals of game design traditions not generally well suited to its accomplishment, and even when everything seems right on paper, it can still fail. But because of the mastery of the art that a successful product represents, and because of the inimitable sensation that experiencing immersive psychological horror produces, I cannot help but maintain interest and enthusiasm in the genre, no matter how much more often I have been let down by it. The successes are worth more than the cost.
I was going to diverge into talking about Dead Space (and Resident Evil 4, and Dino Crisis 2), and the anomalous position they took relative to their horror peers, but I'll leave it here for now.