I’ve always had a special attachment to the horror genre. My parents divorced when I was a little kid, so I only really saw my father during summers and holidays. He was a big horror movie fan, and we would marathon scary movies together every time I visited. I guess I’ve always associated horror media with those father-son kind of moments, and I’ve held a love for the genre ever since. Since I also grew up playing video games, this fondness naturally extended to the survival horror genre. The problem is, I can’t help but feel that the survival horror genre has lost sight of itself over the past few years. It seems harder and harder to find survival horror games that don’t focus on lighting up zombies with gold-plated AK-47s. The mainstays of the genre, like Resident Evil and Silent Hill, are the most noticeable examples of this shift that has transformed survival horror into survival action.
The shift really began once Resident Evil 4 hit the market to critical and commercial acclaim. It was definitely a great game, and it was refreshing to play a Resident Evil game that was willing to try something new with its gameplay mechanics and setting. It did so well that other series in the survival horror genre sought to imitate it, especially the tighter focus on action-oriented gameplay. The actual horror elements of the genre ended up becoming less of a focus, while aspects like enemy combat and action set-pieces were given the spotlight.
Capcom followed this up with Resident Evil 5, a game that featured quicktime events against motorcycle-riding infected people and a boss fight that pitted a Humvee’s mounted turret against a giant bipedal monster. I know not everyone is scared of the same things, but does anyone really find these things horrifying? Are these games marketed toward some kind of demographic that can’t sit through Die Hard without shitting its pants? I know the first few Resident Evil games had their flaws, but it was obvious that a large part of the game’s design focused on setting up a decent horror-themed environment. The first Resident Evil mansion had a well-established horror atmosphere, where zombies trapped outside pounded lethargically against windows. The locations were appropriately dark and dangerous, adding to the player’s discomfort at being forced to navigate through them to escape.
Resident Evil may have started the trend, but the worst culprit is arguably the Silent Hill series. This could be mainly due to Team Silent no longer developing the current Silent Hill games, but I think my point still stands. The series was initially praised for its focus on psychological character-driven stories. The characters were people with deep personal flaws that the cursed town exploited to create monsters. The emphasis in the design was clearly placed on exploring these character’s back-stories and their attempt to escape from the haunting fog-covered town. Combat existed, but you weren’t actively encouraged to fight against the monsters. Once Silent Hill: Homecoming hit the scene, combat became the main focus, exemplified by the main character’s dodge rolls and melee combos. The popular monsters from Silent Hill 2 lost their contextual meaning and became generic monsters to be encountered, a hollow attempt to capitalize on the marketability and popularity of the creature designs. The famous Pyramid Head creature is probably the most notable example of this: In Silent Hill 2, the creature represented the main character’s feelings of guilt and desire for punishment. Now, Pyramid Head kind of just shows up to wink at the camera.
The Silent Hill 1 re-imagining, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, went back toward the psychological horror setting by trying a unique mechanic that would alter the game based on various psychological tests given to the player. However, Shattered Memories was treated more like a spin-off to the main series and was only released on the Wii, PlayStation 2 and PlayStation Portable. It never met the kind of commercial success needed for the Silent Hill series’ creators to reconsider the merits of psychological horror focused gameplay.
“Horror” games that make horror the main focus of the experience feel like they’re becoming few and far between. Amnesia: The Dark Descent, for example, was praised for its immersive atmosphere and setting. There were no cheap jump scares and no combat mechanics. The player is actively encouraged to run away from any monsters they encounter. You can’t even look at them without starting to lose your sanity, keeping all of the monster’s features a mystery. To me, that’s what horror is all about at its core: the fear of the unknown. It’s about the nervous and unsettling feeling you get when you’re walking home late at night by yourself. It’s why you’d have a hard time trying to find someone that would want to explore an abandoned hospital with you at night, even though you know nothing is really going to be waiting for you there. It’s about feeling vulnerable to something you don’t quite understand and is threatening to you. The feeling of fear and horror is somewhat diminished when the majority of a game is spent blowing away dozens of expendable monsters.
These kinds of feelings are what the survival horror genre should try to evoke in the player. For example, take a look at Clock Tower for the SNES and PlayStation. (Clock Tower was never released in any English-speaking countries, but was translated by fans of the game.) In Clock Tower, you play as Jennifer, a young girl who has been adopted with three of her friends by a wealthy family that isn’t quite what it seems. The atmosphere is built up by long periods of silence and methodical movement. This is used to contrast the horror of encountering the Scissorman, an invincible serial killer that stalks Jennifer throughout the mansion. These chase scenes are intense, giving you a real feeling of urgency to escape when the music suddenly ramps up and this killer is chasing you. There is no Magnum to grab and blow his head off with – you’re expected to either outrun him or hide until he gives up and goes to look for you somewhere else. You’re repeatedly forced to try to survive as you solve the mystery of the family’s history.
I hope the horror aspect of the genre will be given more attention as time goes on. With the greater focus on setting up firefights and brawls with monsters, however, a large part of what makes survival horror unique is lost. There’s plenty of other game genres you can go to if you’re looking for straight-up action, but not if you’re looking to be scared. For now, it looks like the prominent series in the genre are going to keep moving toward their new focus on action-oriented gameplay. The recently released spin-off Resident Evil: Raccoon City Operations has gone all-out action, becoming a cooperative cover-based shooter. Trailers and details of Resident Evil 6 suggest that Capcom is trying to find the best of both worlds by featuring multiple characters, each with his or her own perspective. One side will be the action-oriented soldier scenario and the other will be the more methodical and atmospheric approach.
I truly believe horror games have a huge potential they haven’t realized yet. A large part of the horror genre is based on exploiting psychological fears, and the horror genre has the potential to explore symbolism and psychosis in ways that other genres don’t usually touch. Hopefully, the horror elements of the genre will regain their prominence in the future, because without it, we would end up with a genre that only differs from action shooters because you’re shooting monsters instead of soldiers. Honestly, we’re pretty much already there, so unless things change, we can all look forward to the inevitable Resident Evil 15: Rocket Launcher Outbreak.