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.