Internet Chestnut #268: Survival Horror vs Action Horror

Today I received an e-mail from a guy named Ryan who, in the last 24 hours or so, has found himself at the center of a major internet debate about the classification of various horror games as either “survival horror” or “action horror.” The source of much internet angst is an collage Ryan assembled and posted on his blog. The image arranges games like Silent Hill, Resident Evil 1, Siren, and Amnesia on one side under the label “Survival Horror,” and places games like Dead Space, The Suffering, Dead Rising, F.E.A.R., and Resident Evil 4 on the opposite side under “Action Horror.” He posted it on Reddit (hey, remember Reddit?) and the comments section went crazy. A few hours later it showed up as an article on Kotaku (hey, remember Kotaku?), where the comments section also went crazy.

It is clear that Ryan has struck a nerve. His selections for the graphic have proved incredibly divisive; the Reddit story has a strong ranking of about 1000 votes, but that’s the result of 3000 up-ranks and 2000 down. Most of the comments there are about games he “missed,” or titles he incorrectly categorized. In his e-mail Ryan asked me to share some thoughts about it, so now I will, probably with about ten times the detail that Ryan was expecting. Seriously, he’s probably going to read this and think, “man, sorry I asked.” I’m not sorry, though, because his interesting graphic gets right to the heart of what this site is all about: understanding how horror games work at a fundamental level.

Vague Descriptors

I think that the argument surrounding Ryan’s graphic has a lot to do with the labels he’s chosen for his two columns: “survival horror” and “acton horror.” The definition of these terms is vague and imprecise, which is the root of many disagreements. For example, what does “survival horror” even mean? As a guy who runs a site with that term in the title, I can tell you from first-hand experience that it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Some associate it exclusively with Resident Evil, since that game coined the term. Others take it literally and apply it only to games where the protagonist is struggling to survive (thus excluding games like Echo Night and Clock Tower: The First Fear because health and saves are not rationed). Some people associate survival horror only with fixed cameras, pre-rendered backgrounds, and tank controls. Still others use it to mean any game with horror themes.

“Action horror” is even worse, as the phrase doesn’t even invoke a particular game. It’s a phrase that is obviously meant to contrast Resident Evil’s “survival horror,” but Resident Evil has tons of action! Almost every game in the series ends with a monster taking a missile to the face and a helicopter speeding away from a giant explosion! It’s not like we’re talking about the difference between The Capital and a Chow Yun Fat movie–the supposed opposite of “action horror” is a game with a lot of action. It’s more like this category is designed to discuss action in minute degrees. In Japan they have a chili oil called (and I shit you not) “Spicy Looking But Not Actually That Spicy Well A Little Bit Spicy Chili Oil.”. I feel like the difference between “survival horror” and “action horror” is like, “Some Action But Not All That Much But Still Actually Quite A Bit Of Action Horror Game.”


This? Totally not action.

I’m saying is, these are lousy terms.

Parsing Horror Design

Still, even if the terms are vague, Ryan’s on to something. There’s clearly a major difference in approach between, say, Amnesia: The Dark Descent and F.E.A.R. 3, even though both are first person horror games. There might be others ways to parse these games in order to better understand why they are different. In fact, that’s what this site is all about.

Turns out, there are a whole lot of ways to skin the horror design cat. Let’s take a look at a couple.

One way is to consider the frailty of the protagonist. The games on the left side of Ryan’s chart tend to star characters that are not particularly powerful, while those on the right tend to feature unstoppable muscle-bound agents of death. It stands to reason that frail, vulnerable characters can be put in danger more easily, and thus give rise to game mechanics that are more often flight than fight. Back in 2005 I wrote an article about this very topic. The problem with this approach is that all effective horror games, be they action-heavy or not, need to be able to put the protagonist (or, rarely, other characters) in danger. Even if the protagonist is a killing machine. Games like Resident Evil 4 and Dead Space do it by having increasingly huge, bombastic enemies. Leon is plagued by the unstoppable Chainsaw Man because that’s what it takes to put a badass like Leon in danger. So while frailty of the protagonist is certainly an interesting trait, it exists in almost every horror game to some degree, and thus isn’t a good candidate for categorization.

Perhaps a better way to parse these games is the system I’ve suggested before: “challenge format.” The idea is that some games challenge you to figure out what the next appropriate action is, while other games challenge you to actually complete that action. David Cage calls this “Journey and Mechanics,” and I’ve called it “Cognitive vs Mechanical challenges.” Another way to put it might be “mostly involving the brain” or “mostly involving the thumbs.” Devil May Cry is all about your thumbs; there’s no puzzle solving or meaningful story involved, just room after room of punishing hack-and-slash. Silent Hill, on the other hand, has combat but never makes it difficult. The challenge is to find your way through the town, to understand what is happening to the characters in the story, and to solve little puzzles along the way; stuff that involves your brain more than your thumbs.

I like the challenge format categorization a lot, but it’s imperfect too. It’s very rare for a game to be entirely mechanical or entirely cognitive in its challenge format; almost all are a blend between the two. An extreme example is Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, which swings wildly between the non-combat exploratory mode (cognitive) to the fast-paced, confusing running escape mode (mechanical). Resident Evil, too, has tons of puzzles and story for your brain to chew on but also features plenty of shooting and timing challenges. Fatal Frame’s combat mode is an entirely mechanical timing challenge, but the rest of the game is all cognitive stuff. The differences are only by degrees.

We might contort the challenge format idea into something about difficulty (e.g. the puzzle-heavy games tend to be harder to lose), but as one Redditor pointed out, many of these games have adjustable difficulty settings which dramatically change the game play. And yeah, we’ve talked about that here before too.

There’s a lot of meat here, and if you wanted to make a much more complicated graphic you could probably start to organize these games in terms of gradations of focus on different types of challenges. It would be some crazy graph and would probably blow your mind. Maybe there’s another angle we could use to approach this problem.

Brands of Horror

The one thing that ties all of these games together is that they fall into the thematic genre of horror. Now, genre in itself is neigh undefinable (quick, is Alien sci-fi or horror?), but let’s just assume we all agree that we’re talking about games that all wave the horror banner. It turns out that there are many different kinds of horror, both within games and in the media at large. Perhaps the real difference between Ryan’s two columns has less to do with interactivity and more to do with the type of fear that the games intend to create.

Resident Evil, for example, is about inducing stress by putting the player in an increasingly dire situation. The nonsensical backstory doesn’t matter much because our primary concern when playing that game is how to get from point A to point B without running out of ammo, using any health items, and not getting killed.

Siren is also about stress, but its brand of horror comes from uncertainty. You know that the shibito will kill you if they find you, and you know that a particularly nasty one with bleeding eyes and a scythe is about to pass by the closet in which you are hiding. Will he open it? Did he see you jump in there a minute ago? This helplessness in the face of impending death is where Siren gets its (considerable) scares.

Silent Hill, on the other hand, isn’t really about combat (fighting isn’t very hard), and there’s rarely any ambiguity about the simulation. Instead, it’s about the implications of the backstory that makes the game tick. The narrative drops just enough clues for your brain to turn the resort town and it’s hellish reflection into a seriously scary place. Often, Silent Hill doesn’t even have to show you anything; they just pitch you the ball and with a little bit of prodding and manipulation, you knock it out of the park on your own.

Horror format is a really interesting way to look at these games. Condemned is about high-stakes, visceral close-quarter combat and descent into increasingly claustrophobic areas. The Thing is about protection and trust of NPC characters (well, it tries anyway). Left 4 Dead is about overwhelming odds. Catherine is about personal failure destroying your life and the line between sex and fear. Fatal Frame is about high-stakes combat combined with classical horror cues about ghosts and curses. Nanashi no Geemu is about personally assaulting you, the player, through the DS. In fact, when looking for a game that might be like some other game that you enjoyed, looking at the horror format (instead of the game play) might be the right way to go.

On the other hand, as a genre classification “brand of horror” is probably too specific. Almost every game has its own unique brand of horror!

The Fallacy of Categorization

This brings me to the one last point to make on this topic before I leave it alone.

Arguing about the correct categorization is ultimately futile because any sort of interesting category is going to be subjective. Arguing about the labels for a category is even more useless because labels change in meaning and popularity over time. You’ve seen the graph describing how the genre called “doom clone” was replaced by “first person shooter”, right?

This reminds me of the time I experimented with a baiting article about the “horror-ness” of Resident Evil 4, and found that people pretty much took the bait across the board.

Instead of deciding which column to file games in, let’s talk about why they are different. Let’s come up with a system, not just a few key phrases, that can identify the common traits of these games objectively. A proper dissection of this fascinating genre requires more than a quick “YOU GOT STALKER WRONG” comment on Reddit; it requires that we actually play these games and understand how they work.

Horror games are a goldmine of interesting ideas. They are worthy of a deeper discussion.

47 thoughts on “Internet Chestnut #268: Survival Horror vs Action Horror

  1. Too long, didn’t read! 🙂

    OK, I’m joking. But man, can you type…

    I spotted Amnesia in the list of survival horror titles to the left. While I’m generally not into PC games, I have heard only good things about it. And the orig. Alone was a classic!

  2. I started reading hoping for some sort of conclusion. Even though I didn’t get one, I finish reading very satisfied. I guess I just like reading your articles.

    This site rocks!

  3. Sorry if it just sort of petered out there–it was getting pretty long and I wrapped it up quickly.

    The conclusion is that arguing about classification is a waste of time. There are tons of other traits that we could be looking at, in these very same games, that would teach us more about why we enjoy (or hate) them. I’m suggesting that is a more worthy pastime, and have provided a couple of examples.

  4. I think the real issue is the action genre has taken over and ruined a lot of things that the genre had done right before. I thought RE5 was a great action game but a not so good horror game. Seems Alone in the Dark and Silent Hill went the same way. I loved The New Nightmare on PS1. It didn’t get good reviews, but I loved it personally and wanted a sequel, as it was interesting. Some 7 years later, I got it but it was crap. The New Nightmare was basically a clone of RE2 but making Alone in the Dark 5 into an unrelated RE4 clone was a bad idea! Now every series is bound to copy RE’s direction. I think Fatal Frame and Clock Tower would much rather stay true to their roots. But I can see Siren being turned into a FPS one day…

  5. Terminology issues aside, Ryan’s list is actually quite good.
    True survival horror games on the left VS. crappy actionshooting games with monsterszombies on the right.

    It’s also notable that games on the left are mostly quite old (with the only exception of Amnesia). It’s really a shame that the genre has mostly died out nowadays 🙁

  6. Kirby36,

    The classification you are using is “I like” and “I don’t like,” which is fine but doesn’t actually tell us anything new about those games. I’m suggesting that rather than discuss our personal preferences, we should use this opportunity to inspect these games a little closer.

    Why is it, do you think, that the games on the right tend to be newer? What aspects of those games separates them from the rest? Certainly it’s not “shooting” or “zombies/monsters,” as plenty of games on the left hand side have those as well.

    Personal taste is great, but it’s not actionable information for the rest of the world. I’m saying, let’s try to identify objective traits that set these games apart.

  7. Really love the academic way in which you approach the whole thing, Chris (and yes that was a personal and subjective post :))

  8. Hello, Chris.
    Personally, i think that Ryan has described the difference very well in the bottom part of the picture.

    Games on the left tend to focus on horror, exploration and story. The point of those games is atmosphere of fear, loneliness ans insanity. Some of those games don’t have any fightingshooting elements at all (D no Shokutaku, Clock Tower, Sweet Home) and others only provide very limited action experience (for example, you can’t even move while shooting in RE, and in Parasite Eve you can’t even shoot until AT-indicator fills up).

    The games on the right focus on action instead. You can shoot anything that moves, and usually the player is much more powerful than any monster. So basically those games aren’t about being scared of monsters – it’s about shooting them.

    I also have to agree with Peter A. It looks like action games are more popular with the general audience – kids don’t like being scared by Scissormans and depressed by suicidal SH2-like stories – they prefer to have fun shooting zombies. So most developers try to focus on action instead of horror for better sales.

  9. Kirby36,

    That’s a very interesting way to approach the problem! Thanks! My goal was to promote this kind of discussion rather than just “X is wrong!”

    I’ll play devil’s advocate for a moment, just to promote further discussion.

    Your argument is that the main difference between the left-hand column and the right-hand column is that the right side has powerful, unstoppable characters with guns. But several of the games on that list don’t fit that description.

    Condemned, for example, features a strong guy but combat is hard and visceral. Rare is the occasion when you come up against an enemy in that game and blow right through them. Even the basic thugs can kill you if you don’t block and parry perfectly. Quite a difference from, say, your Halo or Call of Duty.

    Or take Resident Evil 4. Leon IS a badass who can shoot everybody, but the enemies don’t go down fast, They swarm him in massive numbers, and he is easily overwhelmed. There’s still no moving and shooting, even though this game is on the right hand side. I would argue that all of the RE games star tough, powerful characters who are up against monsters that are even more powerful. In RE4 (and, to some extent, 5), the power of the enemies is in their numbers.

    I’m also going to argue that action is not antithetical to atmosphere or fear. Take The Suffering, which is clearly an action game and has been placed to the right of the middle. It’s got plenty of story, plenty of atmosphere. And it can be damn scary. I’d argue that Dead Space (particularly Dead Space 2) does this as well. The character is badass but the game is designed to place him in situations where he is wholly unprepared.

    As for Isolation, I think The Thing has that feeling down pat. There’s still plenty of shooting going on.

    In summary: I’m going to agree that there’s *some* difference between the games as they are generally grouped, but it’s not as simple as “powerful protagonist, action, and guns.”

    If that’s the case, what is it?

  10. Thanks, Chris.

    I have to agree with you regarding the Condemned. Protagonist there is definitely a tough guy, but most of the time the game still manages to make a player feel underpowered and build up an dark, surreal atmosphere. Although i might say that i personally mostly enjoyed investigation scenes, scenes with only melee combat, and escape scenes (for example, running away from the bear in the second game). Shooting scenes were definitely less tense. I think developers tried to balance the horror and action elements, and to make such type of horror game that could still be popular among general gamers (but as far as i know, Condemned still didn’t sell very well).

    But regarding RE4 and Suffereing, i can’t really say that main focus of these games was to induce fear in the player. Have you seen early RE4 version? It had a definite surreal horror feel. But for some reason developers scrapped it and instead made an action game with entirely different feeling (they even stated “Forget Survival Horror” and marked the genre of the game as “Survival ACTION” on the back of PAL PS2 versions of the game). Personally i can’t say that RE4 was scary at all – it was like the Chili Oil you mention in the article, “a little bit dark, but not really horror” 🙂
    And regarding Suffering – to tell the truth, it always looked like a watered-down action-oriented Silent Hill 2 clone to me. I finished the first Suffering game but wasn’t really impressed by it, and i abandoned the second game somewhere in the middle bacause the generic TPS-action got really boring and repetitive. But that’s just my opinion.

    Now, regarding action and horror. I think they’re not absolutely mutually exclusive – but still very interdependent. For example, the games that i personally find most frightening (Clock Tower, Hellnight, Silent Hill, Siren, Fatal Frame, Haunting Ground, Theresia) usually don’t have any combat at all, or have only very little focus on combat. On the other hand, when game gives the player too many opportunities to fight back – it looses a horror feeling. When you know that you can easily shoot the monster with a shotgun – you don’t fear it anymore. And when main focus of the game is to let the player have fun shooting the monsters (Dead Rising, RE45, Evil Dead, L4D, House of the Dead and so on) – it becomes just an action game. Like Final Fight or Counter-Strike with generic baddies changed to monsters and zombies.

    Oh, by the way – i noticed another interesting thing about Ryan’s list. Games on the left are mostly from japanese developers, and games from the right side – from US and European developers. I think it can have something to do with differences in the game markets (and with cultural difference, perhaps?). In Japan atmospheric story-driven games are usually more popular, and in US and Europe actionshooting games sell much better than anything else. So the cause of key differences between those games may be due to the fact that developers try to adapt to their own game markets.

  11. I think you hit the nail on the head with this article Chris. I know I’ve said this before (I believe I even said it on the “RE4 isn’t really horror”-post you mentioned in the article), but I personally hate the term “Survival Horror” for this very reason. I love horror games but they are all different and terms like “Survival Horror” or “Action Horror” just confuses people. After all, Survival Horror is just a marketing term Capcom came up with for Resident Evil. The important thing to ask is “Are these games intended to scare the player?” THAT is what defines whether a game is horror or not. Now it’s true that not all games succeed, and horror is very personal, we are all scared of different things, but it is the INTENTION of scaring the player that is important.

  12. >Kirby36

    Another thing to consider: rather than splitting these games by the presence or absence of action elements, perhaps we should divide them by the type of horror they peddle. Some of the games on the left deemphasize action because they are going for a format of horror that involves making the player feel helpless. Some of the games on the right go heavy on action because the horror they are after involves danger to others, or a sinister, larger-than-life implication.

    The Suffering is one of those latter types of games. It’s about debating the merits of capital punishment, and finding out if your character, badass as he may be, deserves to live or not. And it goes out of its way to develop other characters who are not badass and put them in danger.

    Or take Dead Rising. It’s clearly a horror game in terms of theme, and there’s the whole overwhelming odds thing, but I don’t think that game takes itself seriously or actively tries to be scary. It’s a different breed, something more like Child’s Play than The Shining.

    What I am saying is, dividing these games into two columns based on “action” is like saying that there are two kinds of music: music with guitars, and music without. It’s a statement that gets argued over because it’s not subtle enough.

    I think what people (including myself) enjoy about the most of the games on the right isn’t the lack of action, it’s the amount of narrative that is possible when the pace is slowed.

  13. >Chris

    Actually many games have different types of horror. Even if we take few games from the left column – for example D no Shokutaku, Clock Tower and Resident Evil – they’re take a quite different approach to the genre. But there one key similarity between the games on the left side – they’re MAIN focus is to evoke the feeling of fear and dread in the player.

    On the other hand, main point of the games on the right isn’t really fear. It’s action. And some of the games take it so far that they couldn’t be even considered horror games anymore – there’s simply nothing scary about them at all. Ofcourse there’s few arguable examples on both lists, but generally it shows the situation quite well.

    Also we noticed that fear-oriented games are mostly old and action-oriented games are mostly new. So we have to ask ourselves: why developers switched to the action instead of horror in recent years?

    Personally i think it’s because they want to secure sales. Developing costs have skyrocketed in the last few years, so developers can’t take any risks. And knowing that actionshooting games sell MUCH better – they’re bound to include actionshooting elements in the game, even though it will most likely ruin the horror mood.

    Ofcourse, there’s still many fear-oriented games produced in Japan. But publishers just don’t want to release them outside, because they know that the sales would be extremely low. For example, Nintendo haven’t even bothered to release Fatal Frame 4. And release of Nanashi no Game was canceled because “focus groups thought it wasn’t good for the market. You couldn’t shoot anything”.

  14. Every time I try to think up a good distinction between “survival horror” and “action horror”, I glance at the collage and I always notice an exception to the rule. Actually, it’s getting increasingly difficult to apply strict genre classifications to any games these days, because there’s so much overlap and mixing and matching. RPG elements routinely pop up in first-person shooters, while some of the most highly acclaimed RPGs of recent years have had very strong shooting elements themselves.

    And yet, there is -something- that differentiates the games on the left from the ones on the right. As others have pointed out, not only is it “old vs. new”, but most of the games on the left were made in Japan, whereas the ones on the right are predominantly Western in design. I looked back to “Chris’s Guide to Understanding Japanese Horror” on this site, and I think it can be applied heavily to this discussion. In particular, I like the following part about horror movies in both cultures:

    “Over the last thirty years American horror film has become increasingly action-oriented; we are often treated to shoot outs, fights, and scenes of monsters mauling victims. Japanese film, on the other hand, has remained mostly understated, relying primarily on mood and pacing rather than blood and guts to achieve scares.”

    I think we’re looking at a similar phenomena here. Japanese games as a whole have fallen out of favor, while Western games dominate the current market. Because of that, we’re seeing fewer and fewer Japanese horror games, with their emphasis on mood and pacing, and more Western titles that rely on a more visceral type of horror. And sadly, as Kirby36 pointed out, when these Japanese games do appear, there’s a good chance they won’t make it to America because no one expects them to sell.

    Of course, there’s always exceptions to the rule, on both sides, but I think this might be a good starting point. Another interesting thing I noticed, and granted I haven’t played too many of the Western games on the right, is that I don’t think any of them let you play as a child character. On the other hand, several of the games on the left have parts where you play as a kid. Some of them, like the first two Fatal Frames, put you in the shoes of a child for the entire game. Just some more food for thought.

  15. I kind of break it down as puzzle based vs platform based. Most games on the left heavily feature puzzles, in that the level design and story act as problems to be solved. While most games on the right are more like plateformers, in that the goal is mainly to go from A to B with the obstacles are challenges that need to be passed. That’s greatly oversimplifying it, but gets to the main way these games are experienced. BT’s point on the shift from Eastern to Western designers is an interesting point, though.

  16. Video Games can be defined both by their mechanics and their aesthetic genre, usually mechanics will take priority. With Survival Horror the term “Survival” is offered as the prevalent mechanic but that term doesn’t really define anything. Most games require you to survive in some sense, but you don’t call Super Mario a “Survival Platformer”. It doesn’t describe any specific game mechanic it just modifies the word Horror. So in my mind Survival Horror is Horror, it’s a genre of video games where the aesthetic of Horror trumps everything else. How it achieves this is irrelevant.

  17. Yeah, I can’t help but think that the problem is pretty much what many people are saying. There is a reliance on the terminology to the point of absurdity. The genre should have never been called survival horror because it becomes exclusionary and vague simultaneously. However, that doesn’t mean that sub-genre classification of horror games should be foregone. Action horror is a perfect description of the games on the right. They are horror games (arguably) that primarily rely on action to convey that sensibility. The category on the left should be more specific, though. Perhaps psychological horror would be adequate as most (again, arguably) are character-driven or at the very least concerned with fewer characters often giving them greater depth. It’s sort of like the difference between Modern Warfare and Black Ops. Modern Warfare deals with large-scale military operations wherein the player-controlled characters are basically ciphers. The player does things but the story is run by the NPCs. On the other hand, Black Ops focused on the main character as the driving mechanism of the plot.

    Also, I’m pretty sure Amy has been panned for reasons associated with this article. People heard horror and assumed Resident Evil only to be annoyed that they didn’t spend all of their time shooting stuff but escorting a helpless character. There may be some mechanical errors with the gameplay on top of that.

  18. The way I see it, for me the difference between “Survival Horror” and “Action Horror” is the situation the player is put in. As in whether you approach the Horror (Action) and whether the Horror comes to you (Survival).
    Let’s take the Resident Evil for an example. In the first game, STARS come to the Raccom Forest to investigate the lost communication with the Alpha Team. They entered the mansion as they run for their lives from those dogs. In RE2, the town gets infested by Zombies, and you quickly look for the Police Station to get help. You soon realize that the best way is to “escape” from the zombie infested town. The third game only pushes that further.
    On the opposite end, in the Resident Evil 4, you get Leo to invade Spain, shoot some zombie-like infected humans, have some brief MGS codec moments in between as they brief you on your mission. Mostly the same can be said about RE5, you invade Africa, knowing what danger (to some degree) lies ahead.
    Of course, that there are exceptions, SH, Fatal Frame (Project Zero), Siren and others do take you into a town or haunted house, but the difference is that the “Survival” ones are more about walking into the unknown horror while the “Action” ones is to face that “Horror” dead on.

  19. I don’t mind action horror games, as such. There are times when I love just shooting the hell outta everything with a heartbeat. Just that I feel the story in some of these “Action Horror” titles leaves a lot to be desired. Like in RE5, what was with the new attitude of Wesker? I mean, seriously now? Games like Siren actually make you think, “what will I do if I get seen by a zombie?” sort of gag, which is why a lot of folk would categorize that as “Survival Horror” or maybe “Stealth Horror” because it involves creeping around like a trooper in enemy territory. But in RE5 and Dead Space, it’s just bang monster, ya dead. Bang another monster, ya dead. Bang, oh shit, ya ran outta ammo so ya definitely dead! You know? Kind of sad, ain’t it? They need to go and play Resident Evil on GameCube and think that it’s how they should do it. 🙂

  20. I second with Peter about Amy. I would really like to know what Chris thinks about the games. The word on the net (reviews) is that the game is the worst. But when I read (or watch on youtube) a review, I can’t shake the feeling that this guy (or gal) would consider “Siren” and “Clock Tower” garbage too.
    I would like to know what Chris… and also the people who comment here what they think of the game. Are the reviews bad because it’s not a “Action Horror” like many other western horror games?

  21. To further elaborate what a previous poster said the term “survival horror” was created from Capcom’s marketing team. From a gameplay perspective RE was only tolerated because it was viewed as an outshoot of the PC adventure genre.

  22. From a gameplay perspective RE was only tolerated because it was viewed as an outshoot of the PC adventure genre.

    I think that’s clear now, but I don’t think the lineage was clear when RE1 shipped. I think people accepted it because it was a super fun game and they’d never played anything like it before. It did like 4M copies which makes it one of the best-selling PS1 titles ever.

    It’s worth noting that Japanese companies make up genres all the time. They just aren’t usually translated into English. Another one that made it to English was Shenmue’s “F.R.E.E.” genre (look it up, it’s a funny acronym). I have games that list their genre as being “Curse Horror” and other things like that. Survival Horror means whatever we wish it to mean.

    Sorry to have been so silent lately, but this discussion is great. Keep it coming!

  23. What I find really interesting about this discussion is the prevalence throughout the whole web. Not always “Survival Horror” but people having nebulous classifications and debating them. I mean, Chris, you showed us a picture of your game collection. Everything was meticulously organized. An example of my own is my comic collection is organized by genre, chronologically, and the order in which I bought them. It’s a system that only makes sense to me. It’s easy to brush this off as the name is just personal preference.

    But “define survival horror” seems a bit more special. Because it’s the popular name for horror games. So you’ve played a game that really fills you with dread and you say clearly THAT is what survival horror is suppose to be, then another that just startles you and you’re left saying it’s close but not the same. We’re athropocening a title that boils down to a game that induces fear, and there already a title for that; horror.

    I think it may have to do with the participial nature of games. That to feel fear while participating you are surviving the ordeal. And that is the main reason for arguing this point. It’s not about sub-classifications as much as it’s about games that work to create a feeling. Like the games-as-art debate, finding true “survival horror” games are a validation of the hobby. These are games that will effect the player on a personal level, the fact that most “survival horror” games focus on atmosphere over gameplay and sometimes over story is proof of it. RE’s story is pretty corny but it conveys a serious threat to the character. The gameplay for SH feels broken but it works and makes you feel underpowered. The gameplay and story are all just window dressing to make you feel scared.

    “Survival horror” works when it elates emotions (fear) from the player it, if it doesn’t then it can’t be “survival horror”. This seems to be the secret cry behind these lists. The ones that get batted between the two camps draw attention to this being personal. But it’s not just about personal tastes and “oh, you played this before that so you didn’t know about this” it’s about the experience. If something moves you, you want it to be validated by having the commonly accepted title for games of this genre.

  24. For Amy, I haven’t played it yet but I get the sense that it’ll end up like Rule of Rose or Haunting Ground in that they’re cult classics that are really only hampered by bad gameplay. But the fact that it’s been number one on the downloads for XBLA shows people CRAVE horror games. Not enough publishers are filling that demand.

    Also, who’s seen the trailer for Resident Evil 6 and their reaction to it was, “Well, looks like I’m going to be in line for another midnight Resident Evil launch.”

  25. Has anybody seen many other horror lists online? They are definitely interesting. I’ve seen Baroque, Galerians: Ash, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer among others mentioned numerous times. Some definitely have horror elements but they largely do not use them to their full potential. Tvtropes even makes a distinction between horror and survival horror by providing a list of both. It lists games that have survival horror elements that probably shouldn’t be included such as Killer7 and The Suffering which may be points of contention for some. Eternal Darkness is listed as not belonging to survival horror because it is primarily psychological in nature. Even more intriguing, the Shin Megami Tensei games are all cited as horror though some of them are so expansive as to almost defy categorization except in terms of mechanics as RPGs. However, to their credit, the site tries to amalgamate aesthetics and mechanics but that leads to Left 4 Dead being mentioned as survival horror which most would disagree with.

    For my personal collection I try to only include those games with horror elements as the primary draw that are not played to a childish extent (thus excluding Luigi’s Mansion and the like), but even that leaves many games teetering on the precipice. A slippery slope is normally the result. For example, the reboot of Splatterhouse was made primarily with horror sensibilities. The type of people that enjoy horror movies will probably appreciate the aesthetics of the game. However, if that’s the case, it’s hard to argue that Onechanbara or Blood Will Tell should be excluded. The idea works similarly with Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain, but I see Heavy Rain as more of a thriller or drama than horror.

  26. They key problem with the term “survival horror” is that horror is a thematic genre. Pretty much any game with blood or monsters might be classified as horror. When we talk about popular horror games, though, we usually mean games that try to be scary, thus excluding games like Dead Rising which, in any other media, would be clearly horror.

    “Tries to be scary” is what we really want, here. That has nothing with survival (though some games make survival difficult in an attempt to be scary), nor horror (as there are horror games that do not try to be scary). But “survival horror” is the term that is popular so we’re stuck with it.

    Cue internet flamewars over terminology ad infinitum. I admit to participating in them with the name of this site: it’s convenient but also not very specific to the types of games I am looking for.

  27. Man, when you think too hard about semantics like this you start doubting such a thing as “Survival Horror” even exists at all.

    Personally I’m content with the term Survival Horror. That a game is defined solely by its thematic genre says a lot about what to expect. If it’s being marketed primarily as a horror game we can assume the designers at least attempt to scare or unnerve the player. If they fail though does that mean their game wasn’t Survival Horror?

  28. The Shin Megami Tensei games have a huge feeling of what a horror RPG would be like… that and Sweet Home.
    Honestly, the SMT are a bit like RE. You can compare the original Persona and the remake for the PSP. The first one, you can imagine it that it is possible to be horror, the remake is clearly focused on a RPG… mostly for the design difference of those two but also the music of the game changes completely the mood. In that way, the 2 games remind me more of Silent Hill. Not to mention that the game starts out in a school infested with zombies, demons, even “kuchisake onna”. Hell, in SMT 1, you fight and are able to recruit “Samael”.
    I think it was about the time Dante (from Devil May Cry) made a cameo in the SMT series that things started to go more action than horror.

    About the curse horror and psychological horror, they are many others. Such as visual novel horror, like “Imabikisou”, the same team who is bringing back “Kamaitachi no yoru” para PlayStation Vita.

    Regarding Resident Evil 6 trailer, I haven’t seen it, I’m really scared how will they damage the franchise even more.

  29. >RPG203

    The Resident Evil 6 trailer didn’t look too bad. It seems like they are taking the action route entirely with this entry making it look more like the Resident Evil movies than the previous games. I have to say, I’m entirely alright with that. I loved most of the movies because they really captured that B-horror vibe without being too campy about it (arguable). They’re good, mindless fun. This also ties back into what Chris said a few posts earlier. In any other medium, Dead Rising would be horror. In video games, it is often debatable because horror elements are typically used as fodder for progression through the story. The necessity of “survival horror” as a genre is to differentiate between horror-themed and scary. However, your mileage may vary from game to game. Additionally, I’m pretty sure they brought Ashley (President’s daughter) back, so it may involve politics more directly this time.

    I agree that the original Persona was a pretty good example of RPG horror, maybe even comparable to Koudelka. The remake did offer a lot of polish to the game that took away from the oppressive feeling of the environments. Though, all of the other Lovecraftian, dissociation, and body horror elements were there so it really becomes a matter of personal discretion as to its classification considering that the primary difference was cosmetic. Anyway, I have to disagree on the game with Dante. Dante appeared as a marketing crossover in Nocturne (later releases replaced him with Raidou from the Devil Summoner series). He was there only because the game dealt with occult references and Devil May Cry was extremely popular at the time. In any case, Nocturne was probably the best example of horror elements in an SMT game. The whole feeling of the game was bleak (the Amala Labyrinth was probably the best example aesthetically) coupled with the threat of imminent death due to the difficulty with a general feeling of confusion and isolation. The entirety of it could be viewed as a discourse on the blending of religious beliefs and indoctrination. It makes no attempt to try to be scary, but it is atmospheric in a sort of scary way. Digital Devil Saga worked much like this, as well, albeit in a smaller capacity and with a much happier ending. I have only played the American releases of the series, so I can’t really say anything about the first two.

    That being said, what does everyone think of Demon’s and/or Dark Souls? I’m sure there were threads in the forum, but with that being gone this is the best place for a discussion.

  30. It’s my impression that the RE6 trailer has the president become a zombie, so whatever political message they’re going for it’ll be camp gold (speaking of zombie presidents, when’s House of Re-Animator going to be released?). Plus it’s directed by the same guy as RE4, so I’m anticipating good things. RE5 rubbed me a bit of the wrong way, Wesker’s plot was stupid and when you found the Lickers there was a note that basically said, they’re a fan favorite so we threw them in here. The franchise hasn’t burnt me too bad, the only one to do that was Terminator with the 3rd film.

    But back on topic, Chris’ point that survival horror is a thematic genre sums up the problem. In film I can really think of horror and thriller to define the thematic types of scary movies but the but there are plenty of sub genres that deal with general techniques or content: body horror, slasher, found footage, camp, torture porn, etc. When we only have one commonly accepted term and it’s based on theme, while most game genres are named after play mechanics, it creates a lot of confusion. Take in my previous point that survival horror to a lot of players means games-are-art, people take the debate to extremes. Right now I use “survival horror”, “psychological horror”, “action horror”, and “panic horror” as sub genres, but these aren’t considered sub genres of horror they’re considered sub genres of survival horror.

    It’s a loaded word. When you try and dissect it it doesn’t reveal itself to you, it becomes mush and you hope your answer meets with other’s approval. It’s the umbrella term for the sub genre of video games in general and the term for a sub genre in that sub genre as well (at least in my book). For some reason just Horror isn’t a popular title. Again, I think it has to do with the participatory nature of video games. Playing the game, and feeling real fear changes everything.

  31. According to what it said on Rely on Horror, RE6 will have co-op for up to 8 people. Wouldn’t that decrease a lot of the scare factors? Either way, I do love co-op horror games just the same. RE5 was a solid affair on single player mode, due mainly to Sheva. But on co-op mode, it was pretty exciting.

  32. It’s worth noting that Japanese companies make up genres all the time. They just aren’t usually translated into English. Another one that made it to English was Shenmue’s “F.R.E.E.” genre (look it up, it’s a funny acronym). I have games that list their genre as being “Curse Horror” and other things like that.

    Do you remember any other weird horror-related genres?

    I’ve checked a few games on my shelf and here’s what i found:
    “Survival Horror” – RE
    “Survival Gun-Shooting” – RE Gun Survivor
    “Survival Action” – RE4
    “Panic Horror” – Dino Crisis
    “Adventure Action” – Dino Crisis 2
    “Cinematic RPG” – Parasite Eve
    “3D Active Adventure” – Overblood
    “Horror Adventure” – Clock Tower First Fear, Clock Tower 2, Silent Hill
    “Dating Horror Adventure” – Hyouryuu Shoujo
    “Deep Sea Horror and Suspence” – Deep Fear
    “Non-Stop Adventure” – Blue Stinger
    “Trap Simulation Game” – Kokumeikan
    “Sound Novel” – Kamaitachi no Yoru

    By the way, what was the “Curse Horror” game?

  33. By the way, what was the “Curse Horror” game?

    Night of Sacrifice lists its genre as “Curse Game,” which is what I was thinking of. There are a couple of others like that–I can’t remember where I saw “Curse Horror,” though.

  34. 8 person co-op?! With the popularity of the Mercenary game, I get the sinking suspicion that they’re trying for some form of Call of Duty style or Left 4 Dead style multiplayer.

  35. An 8-person co-op online could be a good idea, much like RE: Outbreak, but now with a better execution. However, I fear they are just going to make a zombie fest Call of Duty rip off to get all the cash from those genre fans.

  36. Also, regarding the Curse Horror… was it Nanashi no Game?

    I add…

    “Haunted House Simulator” – Ju-On

  37. Hey,I was just wondering who’s seen this?

    They say it’s just a market shift, but that seems to be blatant market testing to me. It looks like Gamestop wants to get out of the physical media resale market and move into the digetal market. That’s mostly speculation on my part. But at this point it look like the “used game market” is looking to get out of the physical media market. It really looks like any physical media market will go completely digital in the next ten to twenty years. Scary fringe times.

  38. Hmmm. In regards to the Gamestop thing, I highly doubt they’re eager to get out of the used games market. They make a huge chunk of their profit from selling used. I don’t know much about retailers in Europe, but I suspect they have a stronger competitor over there. Brick and mortar stores cost a lot to maintain, and digital distribution is more cost effective. Still, the whole world seems to be shifting to the digital model, and it’d be smart of them to establish an infrastructure now, while it’s still early.

    Tying it back to the topic of horror games, and the different categories out there, I wouldn’t mind seeing more games available for download if it meant we had access to a wider variety of titles that publishers consider too risky for mainstream physical release. AMY might not have set the world on fire, but who knows? We might see a resurgence of classic-style “survival horror” titles.

  39. I doubt that we might see a resurgence of classic-style “survival horror” titles. With Amy being so harsh critisized as he was. But it wasn’t just Amy who got nailed by the critics and media. Wasn’t the HD version of Resident Evil: Code Veronica (RE4 in my book) attacked by critics too. Things like how the controls are so bad, and how we have to press (X) to descend a staircase… and what’s with the doors, why can’t I just kick the door down.
    That’s why I wanted to know your opinion (Chris and the rest of the community of the forum) about whether Amy is really a bad game or just being slaughtered for not being a Action Horror game like most of today’s next generation games.

  40. I was very reluctant on buying Amy after seeing all those horrible reviews, but now my attitude has shifted to buying the game anyway when I have some money left, because if it generates a decent amount of sales, other publishers might be more willing to give the genre a chance again.
    It’s only sad that you have to support a (possibly) awful game to achieve this effect, but there seems no other way to show publishers that there is an untapped market of people enjoying slower horror games compared to fast-paced horror-themed action games.

  41. From what I’ve seen the sales are still high. The numbers from Jan. 16th placed Amy at number 8 on XBLA but it looked like it was number 1 the first week of release. It really seems like people want a horror game, and are willing to put up with bad gameplay just for something new.

  42. Hey, Chris.

    Please add the Saw games, Silent Hill: Downpour, The Last of Us, Resident Evil 6, Operation Raccoon City, Revelations and AMY to your database!

    Sadness needs to go in the canceled games section, by the way…

  43. Please add the Saw games, Silent Hill: Downpour, The Last of Us, Resident Evil 6, Operation Raccoon City, Revelations and AMY to your database!

    Sorry that the database is out of date. It takes a while to add a new game, and I’m a bit behind. That said, I’m going to have to see more of the new Resident Evil games before I add them–based on trailers available so far, I have reservations about them meeting my requirements (specifically the “intent to scare” parts). Revelations is probably alright, but it looks a lot like Mercenaries to me (i.e. not trying to be scary). We’ll see.

    In the future, please e-mail me (via the Contact link at the top) rather than posting this in an unrelated post comment. I appreciate the reminder but we should keep the discussion on-topic. Thanks.

  44. OK.

    RE6 looks like RE4 and RE5 though, but Capcom are saying it will be the scariest and most “dramatic” one yet. I’m sure they also said that about RE 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc… =P

    P.S. I have 85% of the games in the quest. I’ve only got 10 more to go, or so. But I’m not gonna bother with Japanese language ones. Why, cos it’s not something I’d understand!

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