The Survival of Survival Horror

There’s a pretty great article over at GameTopius called The Survival of Survival Horror about the way that modern survival horror games resemble their predecessors. The author, Thomas Cross, draws a line in the sand between games like Dead Space and Resident Evil 5, and Siren: New Translation and Silent Hill 5. His point–which is one I’ve attempted to make here before as well–is that the difference between these two types of games has less to do with the way that they are controlled or the amount of action they contain than the pacing and moment-to-moment game strategy that these games encourage. Cross also expertly points out that while both RE5 and Dead Space are action-oriented, Dead Space is very clearly designed to scare the player (though it’s success in that respect is sometimes damaged by its approach to combat pacing).

This is a very important distinction, and I like how Cross has called RE5 and Dead Space a new “quadrant” of survival horror. As we discuss the evolution of the modern survival horror game (which has been a hot topic here lately), I think that noting that these new games differ dramatically from each other (and from those of the past) is key to understanding how the genre is changing.

Give Cross’ article a read. It’s well-thought-out and quite timely.

18 thoughts on “The Survival of Survival Horror

  1. I still miss the system of RE1/2/3. I hope Capcom will make the remakes of them.

    i loved the re1 remake for gamecube. i really do hope they remake 2 and 3 in this style some day.

  2. I totally agree with the above comments although the likelihood of it is quite slim since they just released RE5 for the PS3/XBOX360 and now they’re focusing on a new game on the Wii. If its any consolation, Darkside Chronicles is sort of a remake, although we all know we prefer if it wasn’t on-rail.

    Maybe once this generation of survival horror reaches classic status, the direction of the genre will revive back some of the foundational aspects of its pioneers.

    I just realized there’s been absolutely no mention of Left 4 Dead on this site, ever. It’s the best horror title I’ve played in recent memory, although it’s definitely a step away from the exploration-based games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill. I feel like there’s a good amount of tension, I enjoy being able to play it with a couple of friends, and a session lasts between an hour and five hours, depending on the difficulty. I’d enjoy a longer, exploration based game built around this same concept. After playing this, the demo for RE5 (while totally pretty) seemed slow and boring in compairison, and not at all scary!
    Chris, what’s up? going to give Left 4 Dead a go?

  4. Although I know fear is a subjective thing, I really don’t personally feel like Left 4 Dead was designed to scare the player. Although I do think it’s a fun game, I don’t really think it belongs in the same category as Resident Evil and Silent Hill. It’s much too light-hearted and fast paced.

  5. @dantheboredman
    I think RE5 and L4D belong in the same category, but I don’t think it’s the same category as Silent Hill, Fatal Frame, etc. They’re a different genre now. Action Horror.. or something. I think the FEAR games may belong in this category also.

    I think the problem of categorization comes from the fact that people use the original REgame as a template for what fits the genre. Obviously you’ll never have a game quite like it. Even RE2 could be considered a deviation from the Survival Horror Genre if you are picky enough.

    Left 4 dead is a definite Horror game, there’s plenty of blood and gore all around. You have to Survive with 3 teammates and death is always around the corner. It generates a different fear than a slower paced Fatal Frame, but its still a fear.

    Subcategories are fine if you need some form of distinction, but arguements like “It didn’t scare me, so it’s not SH” don’t float.

    I think Chris’s requirement of scare-intention is flawed from the get-go, because it’s still subjective and thus no definite list can be compiled and any attempt will degrade into a personal compilation most will disagree with. I think Chris wrote this on his site as well.

    Survival Horror games should only (by defintion) include a lifethreatening situation and a horrific element. That’s all.

  7. @Amanuan

    I agree with all of your points.

    The reason I like to categorize survival horrors is mostly because of the gameplay, not the horror aspect. Since it’s a game, how it plays is just as important as whether or not it’s “scary” (which is all subjective, so let’s just stick with “horror atmosphere” and handwave the rest).

    To me, classic RE, classic Alone in the Dark, SH, and even Fatal Frame belong in the same category. That is, slow gameplay with emphasis on exploration and trying to make your character feel alone, outnumbered, and generally vulnerable. This is typical Survival Horror.

    FEAR, RE4 + RE5, AitD5, Doom 3, Left 4 Dead, and Dead Space belong in another category, which I dub Action Horror. These games don’t follow the general “less is more” rule that most survival horror games adhere to. Because of this, the game plays like your typical shooter, and all fear associated with its creatures is removed. It still has horrific situations and atmosphere, but the reaction it instills when you happen upon an enemy is “Kill them all!” not “Run away!”

    There are also games which I call Escape Horror, which are mostly the Clock Tower games and Haunting Ground. In these games you control a character which is so vulnerable that they’re not even allowed to wield a permanent weapon (just stuff you find lying around for a single use attack, like a mop), and the game forces you to hide from the enemy rather than fight. In most of these games, the enemy appears at random, so the feeling of vulnerability is compounded by the fact that you never know when they’ll appear next. The games also tend to be puzzle heavy.

    That’s all I can think of right now. Can you guys think of any other categories?

    Glad you agreed. I’m more of an “Include them all, then create subcategories”-guy as well.

    If you are going by your classification, might I suggest some minor adjustments.

    If they are all subcategories of the main overshadowing “Survival Horror” category, you might want to change your ‘Survival Horror’ selection into the ‘Classic Survival Horror’ selection.

    I think it’s a pretty solid distinction you have there, but there are a few problems. The line between your Action Horror and ‘Survival Horror’ is pretty thin. The classic RE could be considered Action horror as well, as you basically have enough ammo to kill everything in the entire game and fighting is encouraged.

    Fatal Frame isn’t so ‘run away!’ either as the game awards you by fighting ghosts, not by succesfully escaping them. I think Dead Space and RE(1) have about the same actionlevel and mood although Dead Space runs at a quicker pace.

    But I do think with some minor adjustments, your classification could work. Long as you take in account ALL subcategories. For instance, I consider Dead Rising the nigh-perfect Survival Horror game, and yet classification’s like Chris’s leave it out.

  9. I love how well you reviewed Dead Space, a technical wonder which somehow lacks soul. For some reason it’s quite hard to breathe soul into a FPS; the only outstanding example I can think of is Deus Ex.

    For me one of the major kicks of Survival Horror is the feeling of being overwelmed in hostile territory (a haunted house or a whole infected city). I’m not so afraid of the individual zombies as of the whole hopeless situation. Like one of these funny nightmares where you find yourself escaping from monster doing the most incredible things, like climbing trees or jumping through windows.

    All the recent alleged Survival Horror games I’ve played don’t feel nightmarish in that way.

    Keep up your wonderful work. Visiting this blog is always interesting.

  10. @Amanuan

    Hmm. Again you make good points.

    However, I should correct a mistake I made earlier. What I should have said is that survival horror, action horror, and escape horror are subgenres of the “horror” genre, not “survival horror”. It’s just a force of habit to type “survival horror” all the time. Hehe.

    As for what separates survival horror and action horror is primarily the exploration and puzzle aspect of survival horrors. They tend to have a lot of backtracking and accidentally getting lost moments. Action horrors tend to be very linear. You just run from point A to point B as quickly as you can, killing everything in the way.

    Hell, Dead Space even has a “Where the @#$% am I supposed to go now?” button, and RE5 has the exact pixel you need to stand on in order to proceed the story always marked on the map. You can’t get much more run & gun than that.

    Because of this difference in gameplay, that’s why I grouped the games the way that I did. I hope that makes more sense.

    As for Dead Rising, I would definitely consider that action horror. IMO, if a game has a horror setting, it makes it a horror game, regardless of whether the game “is intended to be scary”. Saying a game is only horror if it’s scary is like me saying the Wayans Brothers movies aren’t comedies just because *I* don’t find them funny.

    Here’s another comparison that makes games like Dead Rising count as a horror game: Shaun of the Dead. It’s a comedy, but it’s about zombies and has lots of blood and almost-but-not-quite scary situations. I don’t see how anyone couldn’t classify it as a horror movie also. Therefore, I feel that Dead Rising is the videogame version of Shaun of the Dead.

  11. I will say only this.

    Categorization is a waste of time. For any categorization scheme you can come up with, I can supply a counter example.

    I don’t care about game play style. I don’t care about “horrific themes” (whatever that means). I don’t care about puzzles, or combat, or any of those things except when they affect the game’s ability to scare you, the player. My only real metric is that a game must attempt to be scary. Even this is an imperfect categorization, but it’s what is correct for this site. As I’ve mentioned all over the site, my goal is to understand how horror games can be scary. To that end, my only real requirement is that they try. If somebody made a horror racing game, and it tried to be scary, I’d include it.

    But trying to come up with a perfect partitioning scheme that will correctly sort all games into correct categories is an impossible task, and even if you could do it it doesn’t actually tell you anything about the games themselves. Where does Crimson Room fit? You can’t actually lose that game. Or The 7th Guest? Or Castlevania? That’s full of horrific themes, right? How about Glass Rose or Trace Memory? Those have pre-rendered backgrounds, an emphasis on item puzzles, backtracking and all that jazz. What’s the difference between F.E.A.R. and Half-Life 2? Or Doom 1 and Doom 3? Or Might and Magic and Doom 1? Resident Evil and Devil May Cry? Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden?

    This is an exercise that is destined for failure. Even talking about it is a waste of time, so this is my last comment on the topic.

  12. @Chris

    Yes, I realize that you can’t finely place every since game into single categories. This is the same with all game genres, and movie genres, and music genres, etc. I’m not so stupid to as to not realize that.

    However, I disagree that it’s a waste of time. IMO, simply calling a game a “survival horror” and leaving it at that does not provide enough information about a game. If it’s enough for you, then I’m happy for you, but it isn’t for me.

    To me, having a blanket genre like that is like lumping all RPGs into a single category (Mass Effect plays exactly like Final Fantasy Tactics, right?), or adventure games (Monkey Island and the Legend of Zelda are practically identical), racing games (Burnout Paradise and Gran Turismo are almost clones), and sports games (Tennis, Football, shouldn’t matter, right?).

    What I’m getting at is that if RPGs get to have subgenres (MMOs, SRPGs, Action RPGs, JRPGs, WRPGs, etc), then why not horror games? There are obvious groupings within the horror game genre, with the biggest one being “survival horror” (aka Alone in the Dark/Resident Evil clones), but as of late it seems to me that a new genre of “action horror” games has been appearing. The fact that gamers are lamenting that there seems to be no more old school survival horrors solidifies the fact that a distinction between the two should be made. Otherwise you get fans of Alone in the Dark 1 – 4 buying AitD5 and being severely pissed.

    Anyway, I don’t expect you to respond, but I wanted to clarify why I felt it wasn’t a waste of time as you stated.

    @ Chris

    I fully disagree that it’s a waste of time. I feel the videogame horror genre is one gravely under researched, both psychologically and technically. The interactivity combined with one of the basic human emotion (and the most succesful one to be mimiced by digital media) would provide plenty of interesting results. So I truly understand your Quest for scary games. To investigate them for your benefit.

    But your site seems to be build on the idea that categorization is possible. You make a distinct selection of what is included and what-not. So to wave away discussions which could ease the divide sounds a bit contradicting.

    I believe that even your “Scare-Attempt”-requirement is flawed. Many games attempt to be scary aren’t on the list. And if the search is for how videogame horror is created, then why stop for only full-horror games, why not include moments from Non-horror games which provide scary moments (Max Payne for example). Perhaps you tire of these inclusion arguements, but until there’s a distinct foundation in this genre (and I believe there isn’t yet) it will be a hot topic.

    At Tayruh,

    I truly feel your search for categorization and you have a solid arguement, although I once again want to underline the idea that Survival Horror should be the overshrouding title and the distinction should be in what TYPE of survival the game is.

    I honestly believe Gears Of War and games as such can be considered Survival Horror as well, even if they are large deviations from the norm.

    It’s the same with horror movies (the easiest analogy). There’s plenty of subcategories within it, and even crossroads with other genres (Shaun of the Dead anyone?) so why not within Survival Horror?

  14. I agree with Chris on this one. This argument is tiring. Calling two games “horror games” does NOT imply that those games are going to be exactly the same…or that those games won’t have any difference in the way they are played. Subgenres do not fix this, Oblivion and Mass Effect are both WRPGs, so they should be very similiar to each other since they both fall into the same category, correct?

    What constitutes something as “frightening” is so subjective and argument-inducing that your best bet is to reach for the least-biased measuring stick we have, which is whether or not the game (and the people who developed it) intend to be frightening to the player.

    And, more importantly, this is the way Chris has decided to categorize his list. He sees this method fit. That should be the bottom line here. I think it’s important to respect his choice regardless of the flaws. In this instance any categorization system is flawed in one way or another.

    Personally I’ve liked the genre ever since I was 18. I recently played Left 4 Dead and if there was no attempt to make it scary it would not deal with an infection, zombies, and escaping.

    If you play Left 4 dead “the horde” can suddenly jump out of nowhere and attack you at any time. More powerful zombies are also random so instead of players expecting “the boss” at the end of every mission you do not have that predictable reassurance.

    Lastly the characters in Left 4 dead are a vietnam war vet with a limp, a geek girl who just so happened to watch lots of horror movies, an optimistic accountant, and a tattooed rebel without a cause. These people are not some elite secret mercenary group. They are like us so you feel sympathetic to their struggles to make it out alive.

    I equally love RE 5 but though it has aspects of horror I see it more as a “thriller” because instead of trying to escape you are an elite soldier sent in to “clean up the mess”. That sort of defeats the “helpless” motif in games like clock tower or the “average joe” motif in games such as Silent Hill.

    It was sort of like that with RE 4 too. Leon was so epic he was sent in to save the president’s daughter all by himself. Admittedly the areas were more spooky in RE 4 than in RE 5. However, when infected started using automatic machine guns on Saddler’s island it broke the haunting spell we felt in the Ganado village earliar on.

    RE cannot really be considered the franchise by which all other horror games are measured anymore. Even in RE 3 Nemesis you finished off the meanest creature with a rocket launcher once it became a blob of all things.

    This is still your site Chris. You are entitled to run things as you wish. I enjoy your articles too. Very insightful stuff!

    But in my mind if you are going to question Left 4 dead belonging here you might as well qustion if RE 5 and RE 4 belong here as well as games such as Parasite Eve which come close to horror but are moreso modern science fiction action role playing games in which the main protagonist is empowered by psychic abilities.

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