The Shambling Remains of Survival Horror

I remember when I was about twelve, I was visiting with a friend who had recently installed System Shock 2 on his computer. It wasn’t long before we were both sitting in front of the not-quite-seventeen-inch CRT monitor that put a greenish tinge on everything, stalking alone through the halls of a traumatized ship. Periodically, horrific groans would waft out from around the corners, and my heart would be pumping so fast by the time my friend bashed the affected crewmates to death with his wrench that I would forget to ask why he couldn’t use his gun.

As a video game system deprived youth (my first owned console, aside from always-outdated PCs, was a Nintendo Gamecube), this was my first experience with a variant of a survival horror game, outside of a few glimpses of Silent Hill or Resident Evil 2 at a friend’s or cousin’s house.  As such, the experience stuck with me. Lacking anything useful, we had to prowl the halls looking for alternate routes or bypass switches, harvest our resources greedily, conserve ammunition and try to avoid open combat. To me, this kind of gameplay was incredibly new, and incredibly scary. I was used to running around shooting everything I saw, and damn the low ammo count. In System Shock 2, that was a good way to get you dead. I had a hard time sleeping that night, with the death-groans of the zombified crewmen at the back of my thoughts.

But try as I might, I’ve found that recent games don’t exactly live up to the experience. Much of this can be blamed on the fact that I was twelve, and, being honest, System Shock 2 is much more an RPG than it is a survival horror (much like its recent counterpart, Bioshock). Still, there is a pervasive and continuous horror element alive in both games. Bioshock starts with an excellent beginning, and the first time I was stuck in the bathysphere with a spider slicer intent on getting in and disemboweling me I remember being very tense. The first two hours, in fact, had me on edge. The same can be said for the newest incarnations of Resident Evil: the first two hours, the time your brain is acclimating to the setting, defining patterns and determining what is a bigger threat, are truly scary and memorable. But after a while, with few exceptions, every horror game made in recent years tends to devolve after a while into just another shooter, but with a creepy setting.

If only there were tentacles, it'd give you nightmares

And after about two hours, you get used to it. The enemies and their creepy chanting, while affecting at first, no longer creep you out, because you’re used to them. You start to recognize patterns in the game, begin to tell when a quick-time event might come up, or a mini-boss battle will come up, and it’s no longer scary.

The point here is, after a while, you can’t introduce any more splicers, or any more zombified villagers, and still make the game both playable and frightening. New enemies, like the admittedly creepy spiky, shambling, health-regenerating gray dude in Resident Evil 4 only scare until the pattern of their destruction is found. And then? They’re just another obstacle. And when those obstacles can be met with endless gun upgrades and plentiful ammunition, it’s not much of an obstacle at all. So the game ramps itself up, and falls into the trap of throwing tentacles at you in lieu of actually being spooky.

The problem with the idea of “survival horror” is that the name is hypocritical to begin with. Like most story-driven games, in order to experience the game, you must complete it. And if you must complete it, “survival” doesn’t exist. As creepy and soul-crushing as the death scene in RE4 was, all it really did was magically pop you back into place five minutes in the past, and you could do the whole thing again. Bioshock was even more egregious; the vita-chambers almost guaranteed that at some point, the player will decide that Yes, He can defeat the Big Daddy with three pistol bullets, one health pack and his slightly enhanced wrench. And after being drilled into a wall and left to die in a pool of his own blood, vomit and tears, he returns to the game instantly twenty feet away, with a brand new body and no lasting injuries. In effect, there is no penalty for dying.

pissing this guy off is the last move you'll ever make... before respawning

People are affected by horror movies because good ones are able to make the audience care for a character. We want to see them get through it safe, and we don’t want to see anything horrible happen to them. With games, not only is it more difficult to immerse a person into because of the fact that the environment must be interactive to a point of reasonable expectation (bugs, glitches and the like severely effect immersion, and immersion is a primary element of horror), but the player is a part of the story. But if that player is basically invulnerable, there is nothing to drive the horror.

There are innovative games that have come out that attempt to rectify this, but more often than not a stiff penalty for dying becomes aggravating rather than scary. In order for a huge death penalty to work right, everything in the game must function absolutely perfectly. If a player dies because he gets caught on terrain, it’s annoying. If they die because a door glitches and won’t open or close, annoying. Actually, most deaths when put next to a stiff penalty would most likely result in a cry of “bullshit!” and anger at the game, unless the game is so well made that the player knows it is his own mistake. There are few games out there that can handle this. In fact, one horror game that seemed to go overlooked had some truly unique horror elements: Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth not only had a superbly creepy tone, but there were action set-pieces, boss fights, and hints at the protagonists failing grasp of sanity that were very well done. Throw in doses of HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos and the path is set to horror gold. Unfortunately, because the game was so badly designed it becomes near impossible to play most of the time.

So this begs the question: does survival horror exist any more? Horror seems to be more prevalent in other genres, like RPG, First person shooter, action-RPG and the like, but where’s the survival element? Let me know in the comments.


  • MasCon

    Adam is right, Dead Space was a good horror game, but the survival part of survival horror was lightly done in dead space, I played through the game and found it not that difficult, A good survival horror game that Adam is speaking of is a game that is scary, but also realistic in mechanics and character weakness/lack of defense (ammo) to the point where not only is it scary because something tried to kill you, but even more scary because the arsenal at the players disposal is plausible for reality. Like in the first silent hill, you get to silent hill, its foggy, you can barely see in front of you, and you have no help to indicate what is near other than sight and sound, also the vulnerability of your player, being easy to die and you only have what you can find to defend yourself. That’s a survival horror game. FEAR is more around action horror, plenty of ammo, your guy is much more bullet proof than your enemies, but the game focused on the scare, not the tension. FEAR scared the shit out of me, hands down, but the survival still isn’t there.

    and Rawshark, I respectfully disagree with you that genres never die, they do, but when a flood of them come back into our view, they have been resurrected. A genre can die, but since it is not a physical entity, it can still return. So for the time being, Survival horror is dead in accordance to the true definition of “survival Horror”. Then some day it will return. Same with Stealth Action, that genre is at least mortally wounded, there hasn’t been a game of proper caliber for stealth action since the first few of the metal gear solid series, and the first few games in the splinter cell and hitman series, they are doing as survival horror is doing, not balancing the mixture of genre, they are becoming too action oriented and not playing on the stealth as much as they should. So stealth action is in the process of dieing, soon to be fully dead, but i eagerly await the day these genres will rise once again :P

    Just to add, I agree that demons souls is a good play, Love that game I do. Very very hard and absolutely ruthless to the player, (if you die, you die, too bad, thats what happens when a suit of armor the size of a small chapel slams its tower shield which weighs probably a few tons down into your skull at high velocity. You are dead, you lost your physical body, and without your physical body you are weaker, good luck.) lol Love it

  • Nick

    I think what it really boils down to is accessibility.

    Let’s face it: for the casual gamer the prospect of dying constantly is not fun, it’s frustrating. In order to cater to a wider audience, difficulty (and with it that spooky feeling of vulnerability we’ve come to know and fear) are often dumbed down through the use of frequent respawn points.

    As for “hybrid horror games” (games that are not truly survival horror but include elements of it), one can suppose that these, too, are a matter of audience appeal. I LOVE “Bioshock”, but it can’t be denied that the game is, at heart, a FPS with horror elements rather than a survival horror game. And there’s nothing wrong with that: “Bioshock” is a great game, which appeals to both horror and FPS fans. A game like “Silent Hill”, though, which is very much a survival horror game, does not appeal to the FPS niche. Why? Because it’s not an FPS.

    So, to cut to the chase, does survival horror still exist? Yes. But in my mind, I feel as though its continued survival (heh heh) lies in a return to the genre’s roots. And what’s at the root of survival horror? Well, for me, survival horror is about making choices. Difficult choices. And knowing that, regardless of what choices you make, there are going to be consequences.

    And so I come to my example. I know it’s bad form to suggest something I haven’t played, but I’ve as-of-yet been unable to get my grubby little hands on a copy of this gem. It’s a Russian game called “Pathologic”. From what I’ve seen, the English translation (and voice acting) are notoriously bad, but a fan patch is in the works.

    I’m not well-informed enough to write a detailed synopsis, so instead I’ll direct you to someone else’s review:

    http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2008/04/10/butchering-pathologic-part-1-the-body/

    Might not be your cup of tea, but the concept seems fascinating. I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy.

  • robster707

    Condemned. nuff said. trust me.

  • amnesia

    LOL condemned.

    Try amnesia or penumbra

  • zack

    I feel that fan service and evolution of systems killed the survival aspect in horror games. The amount and access of save points made the user in more control of the game rather than the having the plot unfold the way it was intended too. Also, most titles attributed with the horror genre tend to spawn items when needed completely depriving survival of it’s definition.

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  • Buck

    I believe its mostly due to the fact that true horror games in general have low popularity. Most people now want instant gratification of killing and explosions or action or something, rather than having to truly think things through. But survival horror games are still out there, take Siren and Fatal Frame series for instance. Fatal Frame is more of a Japanese horror movie turned into a game with pop and scare the shit out of you elements though. Well that and your ‘gun’ is a camera

  • me

    Penumbra Series, Amnesia: Dark Descent

  • Morbieus

    Did you ever play F.E.A.R.? It’s immersive and creepy

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  • angryrat

    The Call of Cthulhu was a good game, but I stopped playing after about 30 min, when even while I knew what I needed to do, I couldn’t before the policeman caught me. Penalty for dying will only drive people away from the game – you don’t want to replay 10+ hrs of gameplay just because there’s no save option, and you forgot to check that dark corner. If you can save any time, you are more inclined to explore, to take risks, and hence immerse yourself into the game’s world by discovering hidden places, info, whatever.
    I think the first Alone in the Dark was the perfect survival horror game; dark forces at work, you don’t know what you’re facing, and most of the time you had to get away from the horrors, and even though the graphics looks ridiculous, it scared the heck out of me. (Based on Lovecraft, of course.) The Undying was also a very good shot at this genre, though it was more of a shooter. (I still didn’t want to play it alone.)

  • Adam Franti

    @ angryrat – I understand the inclination toward allowing a player to have more freedom during a game; allowing exploration and investigation and the like can make a game more tolerable to play, certainly. But I don’t think that the genre needs another easy game. I absolutely love Bioshock, but I found the vita-chambers insulting. It was almost easier to just let my character die and respawn than waste time or money for medkits. For that reason, I found that it limited the game for me more than allowed me to explore. Why would I need to, if I could count on the magic fridge in the corner to knit back a perfectly good body with no lasting penalties?

    Increasing the difficulty – take that however you will; making your character die more easily, introducing more powerful enemies, etc. – would, in a game that is made well enough (here’s the rub – whoever makes the game will have to ensure that the difficulty isn’t annoying inherently or annoying because the game is badly designed. See Call of Cthulhu for an example of the latter), actually increase the ability to explore. It would make a player more aware of alternate, possibly easier routes, it would make a player constantly hunting for a couple of extra bullets or a new weapon in order to ensure that you can survive when you encounter a powerful enemy.

    I won’t praise Left 4 Dead 2 for much (I enjoy it and its predecessor, but it’s the epitome of a safe, harmless game experience to me), but its harder difficulties more than illustrate my point: surviving on realism mode is going to hurt, and you need to be prepared for it when it happens.

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  • tareq salah

    dead space 2 kind of reignited it. but yes resident evil needs to come back strong and shows them how its done.

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