The Survival Horror Genre is a Mess

The Survival Horror Genre is a Mess

To be fair, the Survival Horror genre has always been a mess, because nobody can agree on when it began, what games it includes, or even what its characteristics are.

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To me, Survival Horror implies a particular emphasis on the survival element - as in, having to contend with limited resources to maximize your chances of making it through the current scenario. This jives with what most people call 'survival games', in which you have to manage your limited resources to survive, just with the added twist of horror elements.

So Resident Evil, for all it's tonal issues, and Silent Hill are good examples of Survival Horror, because resource scarcity made surviving the horror parts questionable.

To balance against that, you have Resident evil 5/6, or Dead space, where resources are bountiful enough that just fighting your way through everything is basically a given. So Action Horror would be more applicable there.

FNAF1 could ostensibly be considered survival horror, in that managing your power level while also trying to keep the animatronics at bay was core to the gameplay, and failing to properly manage your resources pretty much ensured your demise. The subsequent games however emphasized the resource management progressively less until 4, in which it was purely about your ability to perceive the threat and have good timing, resource-based survival wasn't involved. In that, it's much like the Resident Evil franchise: started as survival horror, and then shifted away into a different horror sub-genre.

What of the contributions from Bloodborne and, to a lesser extent, Dark Souls? Although they do not market themselves as survival horror, they play out as a horrific fight for survival. Bloodborne is highly concentrated in its' dark themes also.

Areloch:
To me, Survival Horror implies a particular emphasis on the survival element - as in, having to contend with limited resources to maximize your chances of making it through the current scenario. This jives with what most people call 'survival games', in which you have to manage your limited resources to survive, just with the added twist of horror elements.

So Resident Evil, for all it's tonal issues, and Silent Hill are good examples of Survival Horror, because resource scarcity made surviving the horror parts questionable.

To balance against that, you have Resident evil 5/6, or Dead space, where resources are bountiful enough that just fighting your way through everything is basically a given. So Action Horror would be more applicable there.

FNAF1 could ostensibly be considered survival horror, in that managing your power level while also trying to keep the animatronics at bay was core to the gameplay, and failing to properly manage your resources pretty much ensured your demise. The subsequent games however emphasized the resource management progressively less until 4, in which it was purely about your ability to perceive the threat and have good timing, resource-based survival wasn't involved. In that, it's much like the Resident Evil franchise: started as survival horror, and then shifted away into a different horror sub-genre.

This is a really good post. People conflate 'survival horror' with 'every horror game', when they really shouldn't. I would not classify the Slendermen games or Until Dawn as survival horror, despite the fact that you're technically trying to survive; nearly every horror concept involves life or death decisions. If there's no critical resource management aspect, it shouldn't have the 'survival' tag prefixed to any other descriptor. We wouldn't call Battlefield a 'survival shooter' even though you have to manage your ammunition, because that management is not a core mechanic of the game but a side aspect of the shooter.

Shamus Young:

"Amnesia: The Dark Descent took this idea even further by stripping out the combat and giving us a game that was almost entirely psychological.

Sorry to say, Shamus, but it was the Penumbra "trilogy" from Frictional that you might want to refer to instead of Amnesia.

Amnesia is actually their downfall due to getting popularity through youtubers like PewDiePie, ending up completely stagnating the "FPS horror" genre in a measly few years. I'm sorry to have to criticise like this, but as an expert I'm sure you can talk to us about the real bread and butter, not just what chimes with the overall crowd.

EDIT.

I just noticed that your original title is "What is a survival horror game", while the title is much more clickbaity and calling it a mess. I'd really like that Vanderwall (Encaen?) started to drop these absurd article title changes!

Xsjadoblayde:
What of the contributions from Bloodborne and, to a lesser extent, Dark Souls? Although they do not market themselves as survival horror, they play out as a horrific fight for survival. Bloodborne is highly concentrated in its' dark themes also.

Souls games are nothing more than action games with a focus on sudden deaths and keeping an eye on your stamina. They're mostly great, of course, but the whole "Souls games are difficult" is as much an oxymoron as it is that they're in any way horror. My opinion, of course, not objective truth.

Areloch:
To me, Survival Horror implies a particular emphasis on the survival element - as in, having to contend with limited resources to maximize your chances of making it through the current scenario. This jives with what most people call 'survival games', in which you have to manage your limited resources to survive, just with the added twist of horror elements.

So Resident Evil, for all it's tonal issues, and Silent Hill are good examples of Survival Horror, because resource scarcity made surviving the horror parts questionable.

To balance against that, you have Resident evil 5/6, or Dead space, where resources are bountiful enough that just fighting your way through everything is basically a given. So Action Horror would be more applicable there.

FNAF1 could ostensibly be considered survival horror, in that managing your power level while also trying to keep the animatronics at bay was core to the gameplay, and failing to properly manage your resources pretty much ensured your demise. The subsequent games however emphasized the resource management progressively less until 4, in which it was purely about your ability to perceive the threat and have good timing, resource-based survival wasn't involved. In that, it's much like the Resident Evil franchise: started as survival horror, and then shifted away into a different horror sub-genre.

I agree with this, for some reason people call every horror game survival horror when the name implies a survival game rooted in horror. I don't think horror is really a game genre on it's own any more than fantasy is. Horror just describes the tone. It's a survival horror, puzzle horror, action horror ect.

I see the key trait of Survival Horror as vulnerability - you are a small, insignificant being amidst much greater terrors that you can't hope to fight. Anything that empowers the player, like the ability to fight off and defeat monsters, makes it so that it's no longer survival horror.

To me, the components of a horror game are typically in line with the maturity of its subject matter and of the developers. It takes a special grasp on fear as a concept to come up with something like the Penumbra games and those that followed in Frictional's stable, and it takes another kind of understanding to produce something along the lines of the Dead Space series - which has always felt like a proper version of the Future segments of Hellraiser: Bloodline, to me - along with its oodles of stylistic nods to the first two Alien flicks. Different things scare different people, and not everyone is at the same stage in their life.

Unfortunately, for every horror game that at least has a grasp on what it's trying to convey (a specific form of terror), there's still droves of Steam Greenlight hopefuls that haven't honestly taken a look at the genre and that still tried to come up with their own interpretation of it. All they see is easily sold copies of their slipshod Unity Engine project thanks to whatever YouTube reaction cam specialist decides to play it.

So on one end of the spectrum, you have something along the lines of "Evil" (see ModDB for info) and the other end holds up most of Frictional's stable, along with its related and smartly assembled projects. Alien Isolation deserves a spot there, in my book.

That opposition is still fairly surprising to me, honestly. How do you go from playing a few brilliant gems in the genre to thinking that slapping Korn references and snippets of Shaye St. John videos inside broken level designs is actually going to work?

http://www.moddb.com/games/evil

ThinRedLine:

Shamus Young:

"Amnesia: The Dark Descent took this idea even further by stripping out the combat and giving us a game that was almost entirely psychological.

Sorry to say, Shamus, but it was the Penumbra "trilogy" from Frictional that you might want to refer to instead of Amnesia.

Amnesia is actually their downfall due to getting popularity through youtubers like PewDiePie, ending up completely stagnating the "FPS horror" genre in a measly few years. I'm sorry to have to criticise like this, but as an expert I'm sure you can talk to us about the real bread and butter, not just what chimes with the overall crowd.

The reason Amnesia caught on while Penumbra did not is because Amnesia is superior to Penumbra in nearly every way. Heck, the first Penumbra game had combat in it (technically). Your criticism is utterly invalid and absurd. It is NOT Frictional's fault (nor have they even had a downfall, people love SOMA) that people grabbed onto Amnesia like it was horror's final hope.

WiseBass:
I see the key trait of Survival Horror as vulnerability - you are a small, insignificant being amidst much greater terrors that you can't hope to fight. Anything that empowers the player, like the ability to fight off and defeat monsters, makes it so that it's no longer survival horror.

Well, how vulnerable a player is is actually a pretty complex notion. For example, say you have an axe that you could kill enemies with, but if they hit you once, you die. It's fair to say that even though they have a moderately effective means of defense, they're still really vulnerable if the enemies are smart or high density. This is pretty common in the better-done zombie media. "Sure you have a gun, but there are a million zombies from literally all sides. It doesn't mean much here"

Another example is the horror game I'm working on. You have a melee weapon that can temporarily fend off the monster stalking you, but unlike the kitschy stylings of the Slender games, where the monster stalking you is largely built for 'turn around and he's there' jumpscares, the monster in this is able to blend into the environment amongst innocuous items that are strewn throughout.

So sure, the player can potentially fend the monster off if they get a solid hit in, but most of the time is spent fretting over where the monster is, is he in the room, is it waiting for me to turn around then it'll attack so I don't have time to defend, etc. In this, the player, even with a defense mechanism, is inherently vulnerable, though largely due to self-instilled paranoia and not being ABLE to be sure where the threat is. (That said, as per my above personal definition, I wouldn't consider this SURVIVAL horror, as resource management isn't really intrinsic to succeeding, but makes for a decent example of alternative vulnerability)

So yeah, vulnerability as a concept is multi-faceted and pretty complex, but I feel it goes beyond simply whether or not the player has a means to defend themselves.

ThinRedLine:

Shamus Young:

"Amnesia: The Dark Descent took this idea even further by stripping out the combat and giving us a game that was almost entirely psychological.

Sorry to say, Shamus, but it was the Penumbra "trilogy" from Frictional that you might want to refer to instead of Amnesia.

I just noticed that your original title is "What is a survival horror game", while the title is much more clickbaity and calling it a mess. I'd really like that Vanderwall (Encaen?) started to drop these absurd article title changes!

Yes, Penumbra was "first", but Amnesia is WAY more well known. And Penumbra had sorta-combat at times, which made it a less clear example of what I was talking about. I DID put this disclaimer - two of them, really - about how you shouldn't get too worked up about which titles did or did make this super-short list.

Also, the title was my fault this time around. And I don't see how it's clickbait. I think I made a pretty good case that the genre is a mess.

I think horror films have a similar problem as well except they have the fortune to have developed sub-genres that people in the know will utilise. (i.e. slasher, gorn, psychological horror, monster, horror comedy etc.)

I've had several experiences watching good horror films with people who afterwards claim "I wasn't scared therefore it was crap"... once with "Cabin in the Woods" as the subject for that comment.

Who expects to have a similar experience watching "The Orphanage", "Drag me to Hell", "Aliens", "Carrie" and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre"?

Shamus Young:
The Survival Horror Genre is a Mess

To be fair, the Survival Horror genre has always been a mess, because nobody can agree on when it began, what games it includes, or even what its characteristics are.

Interestingly the first game to scare the pants off me was Doom. My friend broke his chair playing in the dark, he turned around and saw an imp had crept up on him. He was so shocked he fell off his chair.

With the better graphics and audio you would think that would be much easier to do with modern tech but it does not seem to be the case. Is this because we are desensitised?

Im surprised you didnt mention Alan Wake. It seems to fit into the survival horror genre in a similar space as resident evil. Only the pacing was creepy with tension building slowly. Lots of time where really, nothing happens but thats what builds the tension. It also had great acting and voice work. It blatantly went for the Twightlight Zone meets Steven King.

For me that was the last true survival horror game I've played. Would you consider Left4Dead Survival horror? It lacked horror for me.

Zombies do not equal horror.

I'm guessing it was because Shamus never played them, but the clock tower series is also pretty defining of the Survival Horror 'genre' but they're a bit less known.

I always felt Fatal Frame never got the respect it deserves as a horror game with survival type mechanics. It had well realized psychological horror, in both in your face and subtle ways which are, to me, the most important things in any horror-type media (not including B-rate horror, a totally different style). Also the camera aesthetic/mechanic is beautiful. I'm really psyched for the WiiU release because the camera mechanic and the tablet controller fit together perfectly.

I love Fatal Frame and its one of the admittedly few games or any media that has creeped into my psyche and absolutely chilled me. Psychological horror and survival mechanics are very hard to balance but if they're done right I can absolutely get behind a game like that.

On the subject of psychological horror, I've got to bring up The 7th Guest. Mechanically speaking the game is meh, but the surrounding story and the atmosphere is very well done. I'd love to see a game crafted in that fashion of nerve-wracking creeping horror. Maybe a walking simulator style game with puzzle mechanics that aren't esoteric or downright stupid logic... things that once put together give you a real sense of dread and causes goosebumps. I've got some ideas and I've been toying with Unity... I may just try to do this myself.

As I've said a few times before I think the problem is that "horror" involves taking people outside of their comfort zone, regardless of how it is done. Only a comparitively few people really enjoy (usually retroactively) being scared and unsettled, and will seek out such experiences. This is the conundrum with horror, as most of those it "gets" will become offended and set out to destroy whatever it is in question, rather than them embracing it. It also needs to be understood that horror fans become increasingly jaded so it takes more and more to get the same results and capture their imagination after a while, which of course leads to increasingly extreme material aimed at the serious horror fan. As a general rule the only really "safe" way to do horror with something intended for mass consumerism is the jump scare/triggering the startle reflex, which tends to be something else entirely, as a result a lot of horror movies and video games tend to be the rough equivalent of some guy in a rubber mask coming around the corner in a scarehouse going "booga booga" and hoping to get you from an angle your not expecting. A subset of this is of course what I like to call "Halloween Horror" which is simply when a bunch of images and cornball monsters are shown that are quintessentially considered to be scary but have long ago lost all meaning. A witch flying in front of a full moon for example has become cute more than terrifying.

Video games and movies nowadays tend to not want to take people out of their actual comfort zone, they go through the checklist of "safe" material and hope for a jump scare or two. You can generally recognize real horror when you have people insisting "it's not scary, just disgusting" or something similar, or when you see public outrage against whatever it is, that means it took people outside of their comfort area. Of course sometimes this can be hard to recognize because the people doing the crusading won't admit it scared them, if not talking about how it's "just gross" than playing the "think of the children" card as a misdirection.

That's my opinions and experiences at any rate. I think that in today's market it's increasingly difficult to produce horror material, unless your willing to ignore public criticism entirely, and understand your catering to a niche audience.

Shamus Young:
The real problem is that this genre isn't actually a genre at all. It's three or four different genres all flying under the same flag. It's like if Call of Duty, Metroid, and Geometry Wars were all called "shooters" because they all involved shooting.

This right here is the crux of it.

The problem ultimately comes down to how we define genres for video games. In other mediums like literature, film or television genres are generally divided based on their themes or the mood they try to evoke. So we have comedy, drama, horror, thriller, etc. For video games however genres tend to be divided based on the mechanics the game has. So we get First-Person Shooters, Platformers, Puzzle Games, Simulation Games, etc.

Survival Horror is this strange thing for video games genres, it's a weird mixture of the mechanical genre and the more traditional (for lack of a better word) thematic genre. I think the solution to this is to simultaneously label games based on their mechanical genre and their more traditional thematic genre which is something we already do. Monkey Island is a comedy adventure game, Until Dawn a horror adventure game, Snatcher is a Sci-Fi adventure game, etc. Personally I prefer to just call horror games "horror games" and drop the survival part altogether. Because not all horror games fit with the mechanics generally associated with survival horror.

Still despite the problems there may be with how we currently divide up genres, I think we can all agree that it is much better than just calling games Doom clones, Resident Evil clones and GTA clones.

I think one of the things that may be a problem when it comes to horror movies and games is that it's something that seems to be more subjective than most genres. What scares one person doesn't mean it will scare another.

I tend to have a preference for the kind of horror where the emphasis is more on the atmosphere rather than throwing jump scares at you every five seconds. This is partially because I have the tendency to make things much worse for myself than they actually are so a tense atmosphere takes advantage of that much better than jump scares or extreme gore. However, my sister actually prefers gore and jump scares to an extent.

Honestly, Until Dawn is probably one of the scarier games I've played recently but that's primarily due to the second half managing to successfully hit all of my horror buttons.

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.

Xsjadoblayde:
What of the contributions from Bloodborne and, to a lesser extent, Dark Souls? Although they do not market themselves as survival horror, they play out as a horrific fight for survival. Bloodborne is highly concentrated in its' dark themes also.

Actually, your example surprised me and makes a lot of sense. The games I would classify as Survival Horror always held the tension of being screwed if you're not careful. Though the horror themes are undeniable in 'Dead Space' I didn't feel the kind of challenging stress I get when playing 'Dark Souls' or 'Bloodborne'. I also got this feeling in the 'Fatal Frame/Project Zero' and 'Siren' games.

All of those work more on a psychological level with the consequences of the respective stories slowly creeping up on you (just check out Fatal Frame 2's endings...). For me, this works much better than jump scares and dramatic escape scenes.

ThinRedLine:

Xsjadoblayde:
What of the contributions from Bloodborne and, to a lesser extent, Dark Souls? Although they do not market themselves as survival horror, they play out as a horrific fight for survival. Bloodborne is highly concentrated in its' dark themes also.

Souls games are nothing more than action games with a focus on sudden deaths and keeping an eye on your stamina. They're mostly great, of course, but the whole "Souls games are difficult" is as much an oxymoron as it is that they're in any way horror. My opinion, of course, not objective truth.

Counterpoint! There are definite overtures of Horror in the Souls games, and by the nature of the beast it's survival horror.

Consider the first area, hordes of hollowed husks most of whom don't even attack you at first, all leading to the first bonfire and the first boss. Yeah Asylum Demon is easy but having a 20 foot tall demon suddenly drop on you? The best way to handle that fight (for a new player) is to just make a beeline for the escape route. Then you have stuff like the Catacombs, completely dark area, dangerous to walk around let alone fight in and oh look! Enormous skeleton out of nowhere! Or Seath's library where he works out how the darksign works and locks you in a cell you "can't" escape from, only to then discover weeping blue snake creatures who are prooooobably remains of people.

I mean, fuck, BLIGHTTOWN.

There is an action element to the game and that is how you handle things, but the enemies are meant to inspire fear in some degree, and it isn't the lazy 'ooh spooky eyes and pale skin' type it's 'shit, that thing is 20 feet tall and running at me' or 'oh it's a cute snake head and OH GOD NO, ARE THOSE RIBS OR TEETH!?'. Add into this weapon degradation and the fact you AREN'T the special chosen hero (just about everything is as good at killing you as you are at killing it) and it really does earn that survival horror status.

Plus, Bloodborne is a genuinely transhuman horror show with people turning into Lovecraftian horrors.

Wouldn't the solution be to, like you said, have video game genre be set up like this: [how it feels], [how it plays]. Then get into subgenres through a second complication? It's very messy, but it's more accurate. Like how CoD is a 'thriller, FPS' or 'popcorn thriller, military fps'. It's super descriptive and you know exactly what you're getting.

I think the main problem is that we can't all be universally scary of something in particular. I mean, of course there's such things like fear of death but this isn't something that you can easily simulate.
Some people aren't afraid of the dark, so one major theme instantly drops out. See what I mean?
To further prove my point, let's pick a recent 'horror' game - Evil Within. To me, it isn't scary, it's a fun run'n'gun shooter with annoying moments that supposed to scare you. To others it's genuinely creepy and scary.

Another problem within the genre is that it became too reliant on jumpscares. It can startle, but that's all there's to it. Being surprised or startled isn't scary nor is it too hard to achieve. Creating an atmosphere of fear and terror is a very difficult task that very few can achieve. Making it believable is even harder.
Take Outlast for example. Sure, it can be scary at times. But more often than not it's annoying. Annoying because you can't defend yourself even if it's perfectly reasonable for you to be able to. The game itself shows that main character (in cutscenes) can dispatch of his pursuers, that they are not invincible (except one but that's spoilers). This ruins the immersion completely making it extremely annoying.

Well, I am aware that it's very difficult to create a good balance between action and horror and easy way is to take away means to protect yourself. But it's not working if there's no good reason behind that decision other than easy way out for game designers. In many cases that option breaks away the horror, i.e. Dead Space. Once you get your weapon you get completely numb to all attempts of the game at being scary. You dispatch zombies by the dozens and your backpack is full of medkits, ammo and shit. Why am I should be afraid? There are many of them but a little caution and they will not be able to even get close, let alone hit me.
There's another way of dealing with this as shown in Alien: Isolation and (surprise!) Resident Evil 4.
Alien manages this by giving you weapons but renders them useless - your enemy is invincible! Of course game doesn't tell you that so you can unload your shotgun to no avail, but that's the beauty of it! You are the victim in the slasher movie and villan (as he should be) shrugs off everything until the end. Yes this is a good way but also a little cheap.
That's where RE4 comes into play. Until you reach middle of the story game is pretty straightforward. You shoot them - they die. Some (Dr.Salvador) can take more punishment than others but that only means that you should shoot them more than usual. A little tense but nothing unusual. And then it hits the scene. THAT. ONE. MOB. Low-key creepy ambient music. You shoot him, blast his limbs off, but he keeps coming. Yes, he can be defeated but it's a little trick that needs to be uncovered first. And before that you're caught unguarded. That moment is genuinely scary, even if you have a grenade launcher.
And lastly, there's likes of System Shock, Silent Hill and Cry of Fear. They manage to be scary all the way through - even when you have a small arsenal of big guns.

So I'd say making a scary game is a very difficult business.

The real problem is that this genre isn't actually a genre at all. It's three or four different genres all flying under the same flag. It's like if Call of Duty, Metroid, and Geometry Wars were all called "shooters" because they all involved shooting.

Well the problem is, for starters, trying to classify games with a single label. Those are shooters. But you should also say that one is a metroidvania shooter, first person shooter, top-down shooter, action shooter or whatever.

On the other hand, you are applying a composite label (survival horror) to a whole bunch of games that aren't necessarily both. Shelter or NEO scavenger are survival games. They aren't necessarily horror games. Dead Space is a horror game, but it isn't necessarily a survival game (and before you say "but things try to kill you!", yeah, like in any other shooter, ever). A survival game is that where you have to conduct actions to avoid nature killing you. Sleep, eat, stitch wounds, etc. None of those is present in Dead Space or Resident Evil. Hence they are horror shooters, not survival horror.

Xsjadoblayde:
What of the contributions from Bloodborne and, to a lesser extent, Dark Souls? Although they do not market themselves as survival horror, they play out as a horrific fight for survival. Bloodborne is highly concentrated in its' dark themes also.

They have horror elements, but horrfying you isn't a main gameplay consideration. I would call them "grim" or "dark fantasy".

DementedSheep:

I agree with this, for some reason people call every horror game survival horror when the name implies a survival game rooted in horror. I don't think horror is really a game genre on it's own any more than fantasy is. Horror just describes the tone. It's a survival horror, puzzle horror, action horror ect.

Exactly. You can have survival games that aren't horror (or not mainly at least), and you can have horror games that aren't about survival. So many people have trouble understanding that not everything where you try to survive falls into the survival genre...

Shamus Young:
Snip

You make good points, thanks for the reply.

I disagree about the clickbait title, but thanks for the info that it was yourself this time, not your editor.

 

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