The Quest Hall

The Cyclical Rise and Descent of Survival Horror

[ By Andrew Goh ]

Stephen King once defined horror as ‘that moment at which one sees the creature/aberration that causes terror or suspense’, calling it a ‘shock value’ of sorts, while describing terror as ‘the suspenseful moment in horror before the actual monster is revealed’. Together, the two concepts form the keystone of a major part of video gaming — namely, survival horror, a genre that stretches way back beyond its modern incarnation as we know it with Resident Evil, and to date shows no signs of stopping.

Usually featuring a lone protagonist and set in claustrophobic, brooding environments with little, if any, resources, survival horror is a novel attempt at game immersion; where other games might try their hand at crafting realistic, breathtaking worlds, survival horror games attempt to immerse the player by scaring them. Graphical quality is sometimes secondary; games like Dead Space, F.E.A.R., Amnesia and Silent Hill had dated graphics, but were still more than capable of maximum spookiness.

Silent Hill had dated, somewhat blocky graphics, yet still managed to set the benchmark for survival horror 16 years ago.

Silent Hill had dated, somewhat blocky graphics, yet still managed to set the benchmark for survival horror 16 years ago.

However, in recent years, such games more often than not have undergone a shift in their approach to horror. Instead of a subtle, creeping terror interspersed with brief but intense flashes of horror, survival horror games have instead become more action-based, more about fight than flight — sequels like Dead Space 3 and F.E.A.R. 3 are reminiscent of action shooter games, even going so far as to feature co-op gameplay, while Dead Space 2 had a multiplayer option. Even other games have changed, their in-game combat systems becoming more dynamic, more fluid and in turn, empowering the player character.

In response to this, gamers everywhere have begun lambasting what they see as the ‘death’, or perhaps more accurately, bastardization of survival horror; even Shinji Mikami, the creator of Resident Evil and arguably survival horror’s ‘father’, stated his disappointment in the increased detail to action in the games championing the genre — his reaction was to produce and release The Evil Within, which was an attempt to bring survival horror back to its roots, as in his own words, ‘there aren’t any real survival horror games in the world right now’.

All well and good — but is such criticism fair, when viewed in a wider context beyond that of simple gameplay features? The sequel to the first Amnesia, A Machine for Pigs, continued much in a similar mold to the first, while recent releases such as Outlast and Alien: Isolation placed emphasis on the protagonist evading, rather than confronting their enemies, while the playable teaser of Silent Hill indicates a more classical approach.

Despite the rising popularity of ‘actionized’ survival horror, games like Alien: Isolation continue to emphasize survival over a ‘guns blazing’ approach. Perhaps a hopeful sign that classical survival horror may yet make a comeback?

Despite the rising popularity of ‘actionized’ survival horror, games like Alien: Isolation continue to emphasize survival over a ‘guns blazing’ approach. Perhaps a hopeful sign that classical survival horror may yet make a comeback?

Perhaps the problem of survival horror gradually becoming more ‘actionized’ lies with the sequels to those games that broke new ground; it’s hard to be terrified, let alone horrified by something you’ve spent hours playing against in a previous installation of the series. Stare into something scary, and over time you get used to it. Such a concept — desensitization — is not alien in social science and psychology.

The question of profits may also come into it; if one becomes inured to fear in a game, it becomes predictable, hence the shift towards a less ‘horrifying’ approach. After all, if you can’t make someone scared of your monster, you might as well give him or her a gun and blast the monster into smithereens. Catharsis – whether provoked through intense fear or aggression – works much the same way, after all.

Ultimately, for those connoisseurs of classic survival horror, the answer might not lie with already-existing series, but with those yet to be made, those new to the craft who inevitably bring new innovations of their own. To use the analogy of the surfer and the wave, perhaps it’s not about riding one continuous wave, but catching a new one whenever the first begins to wane.

And as a gamer – isn’t that so much more fun?

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