Horror Games Extinct Due to Evolution?

Jim Sterling has an interesting article over at Destructoid called How Survival Horror Evolved Itself Into Extinction. In it he argues that as games have become more technically advanced, the key features that made PS1- and PS2-era horror games scary have been, well, fixed. Sterling talks about the difficulty of having to deal with awkward controls and fixed camera angles as key elements of the survival horror formula, and in his estimation, the post-Resident Evil 4 world won’t abide by those types of mechanics.

Though the piece is well written and well thought-out, I don’t agree with Sterling’s conclusions because I don’t think that awkward controls and fixed camera angles are the key design elements of good horror games. Shot composition is definitely extremely important, but we’ve had well-composited moving cameras since the original Silent Hill. Control problems are something I’ve discussed here at some length, but fundamentally I don’t think there’s any reason that an easy-to-control game can’t be scary (see also: games like Siren, Clock Tower: The First Fear, etc).

Sterling does have a point when it comes to the lack of horror games this generation (I mean, excepting Alone in the Dark 5, Dead Space, Resident Evil 5, Silent Hill 5, Siren: New Translation, F.E.A.R., Condemned 1 and 2, and Fatal Frame 4, though to be fair I think that Jim would discount all of those games except Fatal Frame and Siren as being too action-oriented to be considered classic survival horror). And I even think he’s not too far off in his estimation that the mainstream-ification of games has something to do with the dearth of horror games currently available.

But I don’t think it’s quite as simple as “players are used to Halo and Resident Evil 4 and won’t accept anything else.” I think a better answer is “publishers don’t believe that anything other than Halo and Rock Band will sell, and it costs so much to make games nowadays that there’s no way they are going to take a risk on a niche genre.” This is another well covered topic on this site, and while I hate to be the guy who beats the stuffing out of this particular dead horse, it’s true: the market climate that next-gen consoles create is one of conservatism and risk-aversion. You can’t double and triple development costs while erasing the installed base without some creative casualties, and genres like survival horror sound like risky bets to most publishers. Resident Evil is not like Halo, and it’s not like GTA, and it’s not like Metal Gear Solid or Gran Turismo or Madden or any of the other top-tier games from the last few years (publishers have a pretty short memory), and therefore it’s weird. So, their reaction is pretty logical: change the format to something more like other things that have sold well recently.

This doesn’t mean that gamers themselves are tired of the format, or that they are unwilling to accept last-gen controls or game systems. In fact, most other genres haven’t changed one bit from the previous generation when it comes to control; it’s still just as hard to shoot people in GTA as it was last time around. But publishers see too much risk because next gen costs are so high, so they take the safe position of believing in whatever is currently the rage. The result, unfortunately, is a contraction of available genres.

The way to solve this problem is to lower development costs and expand the audience. However, Microsoft and Sony are both failing to do that; their machines cost too much at retail and making a competitive next-gen game is an increasingly expensive proposition. Nintendo has the right idea, which is probably why we’ve seen a number of horror games announced for that platform (Fatal Frame 4 is out, there’s also Cursed Mountain, Sadness, and a couple of others).

It’s not that gamers’ tastes have changed with the times or that advancing technology has left survival horror games behind, it’s that the genre itself is too niche to warrant developing for at the moment. Those games that do make it to market will be the ones that publishers feel comfortable with, which is to say that they will resemble last year’s hits. This isn’t an extinction, it’s a pause while we wait for the installed base of next-gen consoles to grow to such a size that niche genres like survival horror are not viewed as risky.

9 thoughts on “Horror Games Extinct Due to Evolution?

  1. Actually I almost 100% agree with the article on Destructoid. Sadly, it’s often arbitrary obstacles that make a game scary (limited saves/savepoints, scarce resources, low accuracy, bad camera angle). The best thing Resident Evil 4 ever did was remove all of those annoyances and presto! instant classic. On the other hand it lost its “survival horror” tag. Try playing Resident Evil Outbreak File 2 instead. It’s almost 100% annoyances (which makes the game near-unplayable) but I was stressed out of my wits trying to survive on very hard.

    Another point is that horror is often about originality and finding new ways to scare the player. Often, this doesn’t even have to be a real gameplay element (Silent Hill has lots of those, remember that pulsating flesh wall, anyone?). Any game is more fun when it’s innovative, but FP shooters don’t suffer as much as horror. I can’t be scared at the edge of my seat if I always have a “been there, done that” impression.

  2. The genre’s in a weak state, there’s no denying that.

    Honestly, your comments about how niche genres aren’t getting love due to costs is really making me have more hope for the Wii. I can honestly see it eventually starting to get a healthy wave of more niche and experimental games in the future due to its low development costs. We can only hope to see some new Survival Horror classics rise from them.

  3. I never viewed the camera angles in the RE games as obstacles. There is huge artistry in those framings and angles and how they’re edited together that grew out of nearly a century’s practice in cinema. It was a fantastic thing that only existed for survival horror, in gaming. The absence of that particular design is the only thing I can guarantee I will miss in future, no matter which way the games go in general.

    Advances in technology don’t have to make things obsolete, but I believe the mania for the new style of something often results in conservatism and habits that are bad for art. A recent example of what I’m talking about that comes to mind is Quantum of Solace. I found the direction and editing disgustingly jerky, obfuscating. Go back only 10 years and you’ll find James Bond films with long held shots of the action. There’s not one in Quantum. Faster and faster cutting styles have emerged in films, and part of that is the digital editing suites which make them easy to pull off. Now someone directing a Bond film could simply choose to hold a shot of action for a long time to show everything that happened, and we know from 20+ other Bond films that it would wow people. But they’re not going to. Pointlessly fast cutting has come in, it’s possible, people are used to it, it’s tied in to the idea that the technology that enables it is newer and must be better, so in a mainstream context it’s gonna stay. This pretty much ties in to the idea about conservatism in game-making now that so much money is involved.

    The cube RE versions were awesome. Throw in more memory and graphic handling abilities again (or even don’t) and I’d love to see more now-gen static camera angle games, but I can tell I’m not going to.

  4. I think that the direction that several recent sh games have taken towards an action-centric focus is a fairly natural evolution that has been fostered by the current market.

    For many people (myself included) clunky controls and inopportune camera angles were my chief frustration with the sh genre. I loved it in spite of these limitations. I think many people felt this way, and the recent trend is an attempt to correct this in order to expand the market. It’s just that it’s an over-correction that misses the mark.

    I believe that modern games should have effective and intuitive controls and sensible cameras that don’t evoke fear solely through their power to arbitrarily and unrealistically conceal the source of danger. I would feel much more afraid if I had complete control over all of my faculties and STILL couldn’t defeat the Shambling Horror that has suddenly emerged from the shadows in front of me. Give me full range of movement, sight, and the ability to fight realistically and effectively but make the monsters realistically tough and threatening. The problem isn’t the technical improvement in camera angles and controls, but a lack of imagination and vision in story and game design. The broken controls were never an element of previous sh games’ successes, but an actual hindrance to it that was overlooked by players who were powerfully moved by the stories they became a part of.

    I am actually optimistic at the future of sh gaming because for the first time I see a chance for a great game with stunning visuals to have good controls. I may not like the direction they are currently heading, but I’m certain they will come around when they find out that fixing the controls was only half of the battle.

  5. Actually I almost 100% agree with the article on Destructoid. Sadly, it’s often arbitrary obstacles that make a game scary (limited saves/savepoints, scarce resources, low accuracy, bad camera angle).

    I guess that this is the point that I disagree with the most. Part of the horror formula is difficulty, and while arbitrary obstacles served to increase difficulty, they are not the only way. I think the method is valid without relying on dated game mechanics.

  6. I think it’s more about the general pace of our consumption medias than anything in the genre.
    Take any slower paced genre such as adventure games or turn based anything be it rpgs or strategy games and we’ll see the same thing.
    It’s not a lack of ideas from what I can see by looking at the projects we make at university I study at at the moment. Out of the twenty groups only one group presented a game idea that was fast paced and five of the groups presented slow paced, atmosphere based horror games with some nice ideas (one was an idea where you play as a cat trying to save your family or one co-op idea where you share a flashlight and a wooden club and have to co-ordinate your movement and get back to safety).
    Some of the “problems” with old horror games aren’t problems in it’s setting. It’s problems for people who play them like fast paced action titles. I think it whould be better to work on how to explain to the player the avoid-and-conserve-ammo system works rather than giving players so much ammo. Some players don’t like the resourcemanagement that is the ammo/health/current enemy/upcomming enemy. But then not evryone likes every genre, I personaly never play any sports or racing games.
    As for the static cameras I can’t recall having problems with it very often when playing the old resident evil games or havn’t had much in SH2 that I’m slowly playing through right now. Most of the time it gives you even more information about your surroundings than a fist person view whould and the cameras position often tips the player off of what is about to come.

    It’s also funny how people see savepoints as a problem but fon’t see a problem with spamming F5 and F9 every fight to quicksave/quickload instead. Also in a genre that relies a lot on atmosphere its good to have savepoints if balanced corectly (long enough from the next important point to provide a bit of time to get the first through player to get back into the atmosphere if the player had saved and resumed at a later time but close enough to let the player who died at say a boss to get back to try again quickly enough not to be annoying).
    The whole obstacle thing is also annoying me. I find them a fun thing most of the time as they break up the action. I don’t know about the rest of you but I don’t find combat in games to be scary at all. In a horrorgame I find it to be more of a tool to work with. That thing out there that is stalking you is a lot more scary if you know you might have to fight or flee from it than it just being there. It feels like most modern games excpect me to be scared by the grossest monster they can think off jumping up in my face. It will most likey startle me but after that it will become just another moster sort unless it has a very dangerous ability.
    To much combat leaves me with the adrenaline pumping and any chill that was running down my spine is long gone. That happend to me with Bioshock. I found it atmospheric and loads of fun but not scary.

  7. Latest times I read you about this particular subject, Chris, I always have the same thought: you always make an assumption (in my opinion, a wrong one) that Survival Horror games and Horror games are the same. I think you overlook the word Survival, that defines, for me, a genre in itself, independent of that of the Horror games.

    One game can be a horror game and not a Survival game. And viceversa. Examples of the first, well, lots in our days. Examples of the last, well, Parasite Eve II comes to mind. I wasn’t scared in this title, but it was survival indeed, and a lot lot fun. Then, when a game is a horror game besides a survival game, that’s even more fun.

    So my final point (excuse my bad english) is that what it’s being slowly but firmly lost is the SURVIVAL genre, being it horror or not horror. You don’t find nowadays those game mechanics that stressed you 10 years ago. It can be horror, but not stress, that’s the difference for me.

    And I liked and like that kind of game a lot, but it’s dissapearing.

    So, when you say “I don’t think that awkward controls and fixed camera angles are the key design elements of good horror games”, you may want to say “I don’t think that awkward controls and fixed camera angles are the key design elements of good Survival games”, being them horror or not. As your site is called “Survival Horror Quest” and not just “Horror Quest”, I think the difference should be treated accordingly.

  8. I think it’s just a trend question. FPS were about to be forget some years ago, now there are a lot of good titles. I think something similar is happening to Survival Horror genre. Let’s wait…

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