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Can Survival Horror Survive?

Survival Horror is gone now - Silent Hill 2

When Brian recently flagged up Lone Survivor, I was intrigued, not only by the game itself but by the thought that I hadn’t seen a survival horror title gain a lot of press attention in recent years, and that the genre was on something of a downward slope. A quick google search later I discovered that I’m very far from the only person to have been struck by this observation. Other commentators have put out some well constructed arguments blaming the evolution of intuitive gameplay and the fashion for action shooters, or the ascension of western-style horror over the Japanese version. But those are slightly out of date now, and, inevitably, I had my own opinions that I felt the need to share. And seeing as it’s Friday the 13th today, it seemed a good time to do it.

I can’t claim to be a genuine survival horror fanboy. Of the classic games in the genre I have only played the first two Silent Hill and Resident Evil titles. And I have to admit that I was always slightly surprised that Resident Evil got quite the plaudits and success that it did. Not that it’s a poor game by any stretch of the imagination, rather that its subject matter and shock tactics were so very well-worn from horror films and books even by the time it came out. Zombies as a byproduct of bioweapons research was a dreadful cliche even in 1996. Mad scientists and tyrannical corporations even more so and it didn’t help that the game did cringe-worthy things like using the acronym STARS for a special ops team and naming a female character Valentine to further cheapen the mood. But whilst the basis for the scares of claustrophobic environments and things jumping out from dark corners was equally unoriginal that aspect was pulled off with undeniable skill and made the games well worth playing.

In most respects I was rather more impressed with Silent Hill. I’m not sure there have ever been games that messed with my head in the same way that those first two titles in this series did. In the first one, the simple but extraordinary emotion of a father’s’ love for a helpless, suffering child is leveraged with uncanny brilliance to make the player care in a way that I don’t think any game has managed before or since. The second was less intense but more intimate in the manner in which it cast the player as a person who had committed a terrible, and yet entirely sympathetic, act, forcing you to confront the complexities of morality and human nature. I’m not the only one to have been deeply affected by the content of Silent Hill. The team behind it released the extraordinary Book of Lost Memories to detail, in appropriately artistic terms, their creative process while even more bizarrely one fan was moved to write a 130,000 word analysis of the series, which actually turned out to be a lot more interesting than you might expect someone deranged enough to write it would have managed.

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And yet in terms of pure gameplay, I have to give Resident Evil the edge. It was simply more thrilling, more focussed and it lacked the kind of frustrating sequences that I alluded to a couple of weeks ago where you ran around a monster-infested town looking for things that could be, well, anywhere at all. Basically, killing grotesque things with heavy weaponry pushes at your primal excitement buttons rather better than complex plots involving syncretic religions and existential guilt. Developers and designers know this: that’s why so many modern big-budget games have heavy shooter elements, because the big budgets mean that studios can’t afford to fail with their designs, and they know from experience that extreme violence sells. And because those top-dollar designs can’t afford to fail, they can’t afford to be difficult, which is another vital feature of the survival horror genre, because without difficulty, you’re going to have trouble generating an appropriately fearful response in the player. And so in Resident Evil we see a gradual shift in this direction through the course of the series, culminating in Resident Evil 4 which was more of a shmup with horror elements than a proper survival horror game, but which was brilliant nonetheless. And that brilliance sowed the seeds of destruction for the genre because if you can have a great game that looks like a survival horror title but can guarantee top-grade sales, why bother making proper survival horror for an increasingly niche audience any more?

Cliver Barker's Undying screenshot - atmospheric and unsettling
At least this is the way the conventional analysis goes, and it’s hard to argue with its basic tenets. However the presupposition seems to be that you can’t build a game that combines exciting combat sequences with genuine horror: offer the player too much firepower, too much capacity to deal with and control the hostile environment in which they find themselves and they won’t get scared. This is the bit I don’t get, because I’ve experienced otherwise, in at least three games.

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Exhibits A and B are relatively obscure shooter Clive Barker’s Undying, and Half-Life 2. Both are in most respects fairly standard, if well above average in terms of quality, first-person shooters. Neither has a clear connection to survival horror, having bountiful levels of ammunition and nothing more than the occasional set-piece scare to keep you on your toes. And yet both feature what are, to my mind, some of the most extraordinarily memorable horror sequences of my gaming career. Undying featured a level set in a snow-shrouded ruin, through which the ghosts of monks flitted in the eerie half-light of a full moon, another in a hellishly bizarre otherworld, Oneiros. It also featured a “Scrye” mechanic in which you could look through the real world into the supernatural one to uncover clues and often, rather horrific surprises into the bargain, giving the player the constant sense that there was a whole gallery of unseen menace lurking just underneath the veneer of normality. In Half-Life 2 it was the intense feeling of sympathy the game generated for the appalling fates of the residents of Ravenholm and Nova Prospekt. In both cases, I was genuinely horrified. In both cases all that did this was carefully crafted environments and emotional responses. That’s all it takes to introduce horror into an otherwise standard action game of extreme violence.

They Hunger Survival Horror mod for Half Life screenshot
Exhibit C is a series of free mods for the original Half-Life called They Hunger. It’s you against the zombies again, that same tired old formula but I challenge you to play one of the games and and tell me that they’re tired, or in fact that they’re anything other than a living example of exactly what’s commonly held to be impossible: a survival horror game in the guise of a shooter. Ammunition is so dreadfully scarce that it got the point where I hated finding new weapons because I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep it supplied and would be worrying constantly as to whether I dared use it now in case something even worse was round the corner. The game rejected set-pieces scares and closed environments in favour of simply being overwhelmingly, oppressively dark. Not the pointlessly impenetrable blackness of Doom 3, but a perpetual inky twilight through which you could see half-shapes, suggestions of creeping movement that would have you desperately blasting with your limited ammunition at harmless bats while what was groaning in the blackness would suddenly come upon you from behind. And yet for all this disempowerment and terror it was still a shooter. Combat was fluid, skillful, exciting and satisfying. And it had the standard open-ended save model of old first-person shooters, so as long as you saved your game frequently, success was assured. Yet the game was so utterly emotionally gruelling that in some respects I couldn’t wait for it to finish, and what surer sign of a genuine horror experience is there than that?

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Survival Horror as we knew it may be dead for good. But just as the best writers continue to find ingenious ways to keep our favourite horror villains coming back from the dead for installment after installment, there’s no reason why, with a little more vision, talented designers and developers couldn’t perform similar necromancy over the corpse of this seminal and much-loved genre.

Matt Thrower

Matt is a board gamer who plays video games when he can't find anyone similarly obsessive to play against, which is frequently. The inability to get out and play after the birth of his first child lead him to start writing about games as a substitute for playing them. He founded and writes there and at

19 thoughts to “Can Survival Horror Survive?”

  1. Resident Evil has never, ever been scary. Spider designs were creepy, it can be tense. That’s it. Well, Lisa Trevor was pretty awesome in the REmake, but that’s it! I love it because it is so horror movie trope-y. Hey, shotgun, hey zombie, hey ridiculous plot! I love all these things.

    I do like good horror though. You hit on Clive Barker’s Undying, bless you, the scariest goddamn game I have ever played. I could only play it like half an hour at a time because it used to freak me out so badly. Was fabulous.

    They Hunger was consistently fun and spooky. In terms of console survivor horror, the first two Fatal Frames are incredibly creepy. System Shock manages some chilling moments in both games, and I love how much atmosphere The Lurking Horror conjures up even though it’s just a text adventure. The setting is so good though.

    I think Survival Horror is dying, but we’ll still get horror in some form, which is nice. Also Yahtzee’s 5 Days A Stranger is a fantastic example of graphic adventure horror. Even more effective given how minimalist it is. The first three games in the series are all great, really.

  2. Fans love to talk about all fourth wall-breaking techniques Eternal Darkness used to mess with players’ heads, to the point where I think people overlook how tense and unsettling the game’s atmosphere was to begin with. My first session with that game filled the 90-minutes right before going to bed that night, and the dreams it provoked were so intense that I’m still not entirely sure which parts of those opening hours happened on the screen.

    Nothing compares to Fatal Frame II, though. Nothing. I’ve quit games out of frustration, boredom, and shrugging indifference, but that’s the only one I’ve ever been forced to abandon because I was too scared to continue.

    Damn that game.

    1. Eternal Darkness is so crazy good.

      Not super creepy but some of the mansion sequences are tense, definitely.

      Fatal Frame II is a real classic, I also had trouble with it. The whole village/ritual scenario plays out so terribly that it is both horrific and wonderful all at once.

      1. I may have to get Fatal Frame 2 for my Xbox. And yes, I still have an original Xbox. I play Morrowind on it on occasion.

      2. Eternal Darkness was brilliant (never did finish it :/
        I knew about the “fourth wall-breaking” stuff before going in and it still caught me off guard several times. Definitely one of the most interesting pieces of gamedesign out there, but it never really scared me that much, to be honest.

    2. Eternal Darkness is just fantastic. Not only was it incredibly atmospheric and often scary, it was genuinely fun to play. They managed to have characters that used magic, melee weapons, or assault rifles and they all worked. The format of multiple characters in different places in time was brilliant as well because it allowed them to actually kill off some of your characters without making it feel like you “lost”.

      I never made it to Fatal Frame II because I couldn’t get through the first Fatal Frame. People who talk about scary games but have never played Fatal Frame just don’t know what they are talking about.

      I have never, in my many years of gaming (my fist system was a PONG, bitches) found myself so terrified while playing a game. I’m not just talking about startled, I’m talking about deep, lingering dread about what horrible thing I will be forced to face next. I remember standing outside some little outdoor shrine just too afraid to open the door. I knew something horrible would happen but I knew I had to go in there to continue the game. So I ended up popping open the door and running in as fast as I could… as if I could somehow outrun the game trigger.


      1. LOL, my “first” system was a pong. Not my “fist” system. I don’t want to know what a fist system is.

    3. Yeah, I loved Eternal Darkness! Penny Arcade has a funny comic about how Silicon Knights has to mine through three levels of Too Human before it can get to the mother lode of Eternal Darkness . . .

      Has anybody played Amnesia? That game was really unsettling.

  3. If you want to talk horror elements superimposed onto other genres, play the Thief games, particularly the original. They’re both available for dirt cheap on Good Old Games recently. I defy you to play the undead missions of Thief 1 alone, at night with the lights off. The frailty of your main character in combat, which gives the game its sneaking around gameplay focus, is amplified tenfold when dealing with the undead enemies, especially the Hammer Haunts. Those guys gave me nightmares back in the day. Thief 3 wasn’t terribly good, but there was one shining example of this atmosphere in the asylum level. That was a moment of brilliance in an otherwise bland experience, which as a side note is a horrible thing to have to say about a Thief game considering that the main thing the original two are remembered for is their absolutely incredible atmosphere. If you want a true sequel to the original games, try the Thief 2 fan mod Shadows of the Metal Age. It’s good enough to actually be called the unofficial Thief 3.

    1. The Thief series is amazing.

      Looking Glass, taken too soon.

      The orphanage/asylum was indeed incredible.

      I am playing Eternal Darkness again this year.

    2. I’m not big on horror (games, movies, whatever), but I played Thief 3 (on XBox) and the first two REs. The orphanage scared the crap out of me. My girlfriend (wife now) gave me crap for weeks about that area.

    3. The undead missions in Thief 1 instilled me with a deep terror of zombies. This served to make the first few hours of RE1 very stressful and genuinely scary for me. That wore off somewhere between RE1 and RE2. The Shalebridge Cradle level of Thief 3 brought the terror right back. It’s something like an abandoned insane asylum AND orphanage where everyone died in a tragic fire. Talk about stacking the deck. Probably my favorite series ever.

  4. I’m going to have to write up an article-length response to avoid a TL;DR post here, but a couple of major points-

    – One of the reasons that the first RE (and Devil May Cry for that matter) is so successful is that it’s about a specific _place_. The place becomes a character evidenced by its layout, its furnishings, the fixed camera angles guiding your eye, the weird puzzles, and overall atmosphere. Arklay Mansion is the main character in RE. RE2 had the police station and RE: Revelation had the cruise ship…but most of the other titles aren’t so much about _places_. I think that’s significant. Some of this comes, very specifically, from the influence of Alone in the Dark.

    – Developers today are scared to death of upsetting players. The concepts of limited mobility, viewpoint, ammunition, and so forth that are key to survival horror are anathema to the AAA playbook. As is exploration. When was the last time you played a AAA title and got lost, died repeatedly, or ran out of ammo? AAA games are about empowerment, survival horror is about disempowerment.

    – Metro 2033 and Dark Souls are totally survival horror influenced. They’re also more niche games that are quite demanding. They’re also slower paced. We’re well into box office poison territory at this point.

    – Undying was brilliant. I’d love to play that again. Eternal Darkness too…the blue screen of death and the fake ending (“Thanks for playing!”) were strokes of genius.

    – One day I’ll play the other Silent Hill games…the first one was so good, I never wanted to see the others for fear that they wouldn’t be as sophisticated or chilling.

  5. I actually had a great survival horror experience recently. I finally got around to playing Metro 2033, and I have a terrible condition whereby I must always play on the highest possible difficulty. On Ranger Hardcore you lose the entire HUD and crosshair. To check your supplies you have to open your journal and that includes ammo. It actually had me favoring weapons whose ammo was more visible on the exterior. Plus, it takes so little to kill you and so much more to take down most enemies that it forces you to find alternative solutions to problems. Not to mention the entire ammo as currency mechanic.

    (One caveat, with the Ranger DLC you can actually find the Volt Driver near the beginning of the game. It is so powerful and the ammo so cheap as to rather ruin the effect. I recommend leaving it where it lies as it also sells for so much as to make you far too wealthy.)

    I was constantly moving as quietly and cautiously as possible. Avoiding every possible confrontation and doing my damnedest to minimize the noise and duration of any encounter. One of my favorite parts occured on the surface, the first time I noticed a nosalis stand up on a busted up truck on his hind legs and look around. I immediately found myself thinking, “He looks like he’s scouting.” I got curious. I switched to an unsilenced weapon and shot him in the head. I was suddenly set upon by a pack of the things. I loaded the game and this time used a silenced pistol. Nothing. I go tearing across the open area to where he was and, Pack Attack! I reloaded. This time I drop him silently but sneak across the area staying to the outside and moving quietly. Nothing happens. You could avoid entire confrontations just by playing smart. It was amazing! Plus the game ending was far more survival horror than shooter.

  6. “Survival Horror as we knew it may be dead for good.”

    We can only hope.

    Mind you, I loved survival horror, but the genre has been stale for years. Konami keeps trying to remake Silent Hill 2, and Capcom has convinced itself that the genre is no longer financially viable, when both companies should have been trying to move forward with new ideas and mechanics. I’ve had enough of esoteric puzzles and sluggish controls.

    Building from the above comment, games that aren’t usually considered survival horror are doing more to advance the genre. Heck, I encountered a few points in I Am Alive that were ripe for Silent Hill.

    1. Esoteric puzzles do suck, but they have their place.

      There was a lamp puzzle in Silent Hill Shattered Memories that was a total ‘survival horror’ puzzle, but one of the best/most unique puzzles I ever played in a horror game. Great implementation.

  7. The Silent Hill is one of the holes in my gaming history. It’s one of those titles I really regret never having had the chance to experience.
    I did, however, play a couple of the Resident Evil games, and I am glad I did.

    I never found Half-Life 2 scary at all. Valve games, with their formulaic level design (don’t know how else to put it) never give me a sense of place. So, Ravenholm was just another level to me. I like Valve games for other reasons ^^.
    Speaking of Source mods, there is one called The Hidden. And it is also a kind of survival horror mod, where several players with guns are pitched against this superhuman, near-invisible, player. He can jump high and far, cling to walls, and make scary noises. It is quite an experience.

    I guess the point in this article is to say that the AAA examples of survival horror are gone, particular the Japanese ones, but that is not to say you cannot get your fix any longer. Penumbra and Amnesia come to mind, as well as the somewhat obscure Cryostasis.
    With strong elements of survival horror we have Metro2033 as McCrapShot pointed out, and STALKER.

    I find it’s a shame though that we don’t have further high budget developments in this genre any more.
    There are so many fascinating aspects of game design you can play with when making a survival horror game. In the best case sound, graphics, art style, narrative, level design etc, all come together to form this psychologically challenging and intellectually demanding experience.
    They could do so much with the technology we have nowadays. When I see what emotions a game like Journey evokes in people, I have to imagine what an equivalent horror game could do.

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