This is a legitimate question and I’ve spent some time thinking about my response, but it is also dangerously close to asinine arguments about the appropriate categorization of specific games. So please, in responding to this post, try to keep the topic focused on what the recent rise in action-oriented horror games means for the genre rather than which games merit labels like “action-horror” or “survival horror.”
The short answer to death2all’s question is no, I don’t think that the recent rise of action-oriented horror games means that the survival horror genre is in decline. I don’t think that horror and action are incompatible, and I believe that there are many legitimate formats for horror that can peacefully coexist. In games that star a powerful protagonist, traditional-style fear can still be invoked by making the player responsible for less-capable non-player characters. I think that game reviewers will normally prefer games that they perceive to be “new” and “innovative,” and are more likely reward new formats with higher scores, but that doesn’t mean that “traditional” games are any less fun. The economic environment that new consoles cause is not conducive to niche genres like survival horror, and in less risky environments (like the DS) we see a huge number of “traditional” adventure games, many of which are horror-themed. So no, I think it’s a phase, I think it’s diversification, I don’t think it’s a badthing and I don’t think the genre is going away.
But to really provide a more nuanced answer, I think that it’s worth exploring the assumptions that the question itself is loaded with. The implicit assumption here is that games that focus on action are a recent development, and that they are an indication that the previous format has been left behind. First of all, I don’t think action-oriented horror games began with Resident Evil 4. Of course there are games like The Suffering that merged horror themes with gunplay much earlier than the most recent Resident Evil. But if we go even further back in time, we find games like Zombie Revenge (2000), Nightmare Creatures (1997), and the Splatterhouse series (1990). The advent of this type of game, not to mention hoards of similar titles that employ horror as a visual theme rather than a core design mechanic, did not diminish the quality or popularity of the “traditional” survival horror genre. No, action-oriented horror games are nothing new, and I don’t think there is any reason to believe that this latest round will become the only viable horror format. What is different about more recent action-horror games is that they are actually focused on scaring the player rather than just hijacking familiar horror themes. Consider Condemned. This is a very action-heavy game that is quite an effective horror game despite its emphasis on fisticuffs. Scary content and action are not mutually exclusive, and I think that we’re going to see genre blending to good effect in the future.
What is happening here is not the replacement of one genre with another. Resident Evil 4, and to a lesser extent The Suffering before it, represents a unification of two traditionally opposed styles of game play: PC games vs console games. In fact, this is the second time the Resident Evil series has been the catalyst forsuch a unification. When the original Resident Evil shipped in 1995, it represented a merger of the PC-exclusive Adventure genre with more action-oriented console games. It was one of the first adventure games to support direct control over the protagonist (a norm for console games but much rarer in the point-and-click PC world), and it injected a huge amount of zombie combat into a traditionally puzzle-oriented design. The hybrid format that Resident Evil provided proved popular with gamers from both sides of the aisle, and it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the series created the horror genre as we know it today. But since then, PC games have shifted away from slow-paced adventure games and towards frantic, action-heavy first person shooters. Resident Evil 4 is the result of the merger of console-style horror games (that is, a genre originally based on PC games) with contemporary PC action games. As with the first game in the series, Resident Evil 4 retains aspects from both of its genetic parents, and is appealing to a very wide audience. In that way it is more similar to the original Resident Evil than any other game in the series.
Games are not created in a vacuum; game design is like DNA, combining and mutating with each generation. What we’re seeing now is the result of experimental couplings of different types of genres, and I am encouraged that the results seem to be pretty successful. But like DNA, only strong traits of game designs survive, and I think that the aspects of “traditional” survival horror games will continue to be compelling even if they are paired with unfamiliar game mechanics. This isn’t the end of the genre, it’s a step in the evolutionary cycle, one that we’ve taken several times before. I think that the result will be diversification and improvement: not every experiment will result in success, and some games will appear to have hardly changed, but in the end we’ll have more types of horror games and a wider audience gamers to enjoy them. I can’t see how that’s a bad thing.