Is Action the Death of Horror?

Pow! Take that, traditional horror games!

Site regular and forums member death2all recently e-mailed me with a simple question: do I think that the proliferation of “action-horror” games is the death knell for the survival horror genre? Will games that put an emphasis on action, such as Resident Evil 4 and Dead Space, replace the traditional survival horror recipe of item puzzles, slow paced traversal, and vulnerable protagonists?

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 bad

Did not destroy horror games.

thing 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 for

Bicultural kids are always hot.

such 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.

20 thoughts on “Is Action the Death of Horror?

  1. This is all just a phase, it will pass and hopefully these newer actions games will help horror games no longer be so obscure. A lot of people missed out on the good ones like Clock Tower. I’m thankful for this time and as I write this I’m watching a friend play Dead Space and I really can’t wait to see what else devs can bring to us in the future.

  2. I like a wide range of horror games, whether they are more action heavy or with an emphasis rather on suspense. Even if for some odd reason the later type became extinct, there are so many of them that already exist now that I love, and wouldn’t mind playing them over and over in the absence of new releases.

  3. Good article. I believe action horror is the future. If survival horror doesn’t evolve it will suffer the same fate as the adventure genre which spawned it.

  4. Thank you for the great post! I found your reading of the “evolution” of the survival horror genre particularly insightful. Even though I started my “gamer career” with King’s and Space Quest, I never thought about Resident Evil as an evolution/a descendant of the adventure genre – but it seems to make perfect sense.
    It also explains for me why there are puzzles in RE/SH in the first place, because I always rather thought of them as a flaw in those games’ design instead of a core mechanic (what do they add to the horror, anyway?).

    Looking at the genre from this perspective, I don’t fully agree with those who claim “action” to be the future – it just rather seems that puzzles are the past.

    As a somewhat ad hoc hypothesis, I would guess this has to do with the relationship between these two mechanics and narrative, which I think lies at the centre of horror games.
    Action seems to be very “narrative-compatible”, a very simple but effective way to advance/create the narrative of the protagonist; while puzzles seem to be quite incompatible with, even disruptive of narrative.
    You know: the narrative only continues when you solved the puzzle; the next chapter of the narrative is “only” your reward for solving a problem that has no temporal dimension itself. Whereas action can be designed to tie in with the narrative.

    This would lead to the question what other mechanics there are which could possibly replace puzzles, other than action – or which could complement action.

    PS I would love to see Chris or someone else go back one step further and look at where adventure games came from in evolution terms. Are they really puzzle games with a story tacked on? Or (interactive) stories with puzzles tacked on?

    PPS What makes you think that robots cannot type “survival horror”? Anyways, I prefer the term “synthetic person”. πŸ˜€

  5. Well, I mostly agree with Zarkumo above me. If you look at evolution in the real world than a species branches into multiple directions. If action really is the only way to evolve a video game genre, this would only mean that video games are fairly limited as an art form.

    I however think/hope that a genre, especially survival horror, could evolve in other directions without resorting solely to action. Emphasizing the action is in my opinion either a lazy way out for conceiving a game, as action has always been a tried and true formula, or developers feel a coercion to make a game action-heavy as the market place doesn’t allow otherwise in these days.

    I think puzzles could change the narrative, if for example a puzzle allowed multiple solutions or puzzles would be solved in a different order. Resident Evil 3 tried something similar or in the newest Alone In The Dark, you could activate the horn while starting a car, which would draw more enemies to your presence – It’s not much but a start…

  6. Generally I prefer little action in survival horror games.
    The story is important to me, and the conflicts of the story are set up in different ways, either with enemies or puzzles.
    A good mixture of both would be great, and I think games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill use enemies and puzzles very harmoniously.
    (i.e. In order to get a key/object to be used in a puzzle you must defeat a boss first. )
    As a gamer action alone doesn’t satisfy me as much as adventure/puzzle solving does.
    The genre won’t abandon it’s older branches and start releasing only one type of horror game, but of course the mainstream will make a majority of whatever type sells. I’m interested to see what new elements can be added to create new ways to scare gamers, especially with the ability and recognition that games can be much more cinematic on the current consoles.

    “This isn’t the end of the genre, it’s a step in the evolutionary cycle”.

    I agree.
    I just hope that the failed experiments make there way out quickly and they can move on to better forms of horror compounds.

    I would hate to see nothing but first person shooter action “horror” titles without any real horror substance for the next ten years.
    Unfortunately, It looks like they’re on the rise.

    Great Article! Thanks for the response. It really helped broaden my view on the issue. I didn’t ever consider the examples from the past.

    As of now I don’t believe action “horror” titles will have a take over, its just sad for me to think we will be getting four more “Dead Spaces” over “Sirens” or “Fatal Frames”.

    Thankfully there is a little light of hope that just flickered back on in my gaming soul.

    Thanks Again!


  8. Chris,

    I think this rise in more action-based games is simply due to ease of play. Most casual players I know aren’t into adventure games because they are ‘slow’ and you can’t play them for just minutes at a time.

    The action appeals to a much wider audience and since the industry has discovered this it is trying to capitalize on it. Once enough games like this are produced consumers will get sick of them and maybe then we’ll see a more mainstream affection for ‘traditional’ horror games.

  9. It hardly matters what the subject is. Whether it be games, music or politics. If something is seen as the forerunner of a whole topic or genre, everybody just starts up their own sub-genre and runs it into the earth. Then the next generation that learns of it then thinks the sub-genre is the thing that really rules the roost. All the while, they are forgetting where it all started, and the innovation it carried…

  10. To Zarkumo…

    The origins of the adventure genre lie in the lack of horsepower many early computers had. The classic adventure genre began life in the late 70’s, early 80’s. Most home computers back then didn’t have enough juice to do traditional side scrolling. So the character often moved in a non-scrolling screen by screen basis. Nothing wrong with that, but the adventure genre stayed that way for almost 15 years.

    When the mid-ninties came 2d/3d, acceleration became common place and new CPUs allowed for massive increases in processing power. These advances allowed for new types of game play like FPSes. The adventure genre never figured out how to use those improvements. When FPSes started telling stories on par with adventure games, well it was the beginning of the end of the classic point and click adventure genre.

    I also blame some of the fans of the adventure game community, when change came they resisted it, many would rather have their beloved genre die then watch it change and survive.

    I feel the same thing is happening today, namely in the Silent Hill fandom community.

  11. Mhh…
    Resident Evil 4 survival horror style is the easy way to catch casual gamers than Forbidden Siren style. I really enjoyed the new Alone in the dark and Dead Space but they are not scaring… this is the reason cos I prefer last PS2 survival horror: Haunting Ground and Project Zero 3. Maybe, another reason of sh death, it’s the lack of originality. Look the free roaming in AITD 5, the virtual world is more realistic than RE’s one.. cool! …but old RE2 was more scary. Maybe it’s just that we played too much sh (from AITD 1 to Dead Space, so we saw whole genre evolution) ? Money, evolution, experience… what a mess! Btw everytime that lil gems (like Doom 3, Dead Space, Forbidden Siren, Haunting Ground) will be released I’ll be happy πŸ™‚


  12. I think your kinda write in some ways Scissorman. Most of us here have are battle hardened survival horror veterans, thus our viewpoint can be skewed at times. The flip side is some us are old enough to remember what happens when a genre refuses to change.

  13. Survival Horror is really just horror games that place an emphasis on other means or method’s of survival opposed to action. The original Resident Evil games were a delicate balance. Action Horror pushes it over the edge so it is no longer survival horror, not that it is necessarily a bad thing (although it can be frustrating for certain Resident Evil fans who enjoyed that balance).

    However I feel that survival horror is stronger as horror.

    The far (survival-ish) end of survival horror are games like Haunting Ground and Clock Tower, while the other end are games like Siren 2 and Resident Evil 3.

  14. What’s really bugging me the most about the “change” going on is really more so the attitude of dividing it into either “change everything or watch the series die!”. Looking at it that way only makes one of the extremes happy – you generally only please the people who liked the original game or the people who hated it by looking at it in that method. You can update a game without ruining the original feel for it, or focus so much on one aspect (for one example, action) that it’s not even the same series anymore.

    If you have changed the series so much that it’s no longer true to its original self just to please a current fad then it has in a sense already died.


    Survival Horror is really just horror games that place an emphasis on other means or method’s of survival opposed to action. The original Resident Evil games were a delicate balance. Action Horror pushes it over the edge so it is no longer survival horror, not that it is necessarily a bad thing (although it can be frustrating for certain Resident Evil fans who enjoyed that balance).

    However I feel that survival horror is stronger as horror.

    The far (survival-ish) end of survival horror are games like Haunting Ground and Clock Tower, while the other end are games like Siren 2 and Resident Evil 3.

    I completely agree with you Ceru. Survival horror is a more pure horror which for me makes it much better then Action/Horror Titles.

  16. the problem is that no developers have figured out how to synthesize straight action and horror… horror-themed games will never die, but slow-paced games that focus on atmosphere and tension-buildup will and – I would argue – already have.

    The problem with this is that we now have games that are both uneven and completely un-scary, i.e. almost everything released in the post-RE4 world.

    Sure, there are outliers like Dementium, but their unprofitable nature only serves to make them second tier games that lack the polish and resources to truly shine.

    So my answer is, um, kind of. yes.

  17. So Ali are you saying that action horror is going to kill the genre or save it? I’m kinda confused by your last post…

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