Survival Horror is probably my favorite video game genre. I define it as a slightly more action oriented horror game. The protagonist must be weak or feel fairly powerless throughout and their situation must look dire at all times. Unfortunately most Survival Horror games today seem to get the recipe for success wrong. So I have decided to give future game developers and fellow fans of the genre an outline of the 7 most important aspects of Survival Horror.
The idea of being alone is a fundamentally terrifying prospect. Although many of us claim to need space or enjoy ‘me time’, chances are if you were completely abandoned you’d get pretty spooked out after a short amount of time. The best Survival Horror games make full use of this and place the protagonist on a solo survival mission through hell. Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a great example of this as you never come across any other living people. The first Dead Space also did this well despite the occasional run in with a living teammate. It actually helped Dead Space’s spook factor because you’d finally be with someone; feel a sense of relief and then be sent right back off into the heart of the Necromorph infested space ship, Ishimura. The setting itself is also important to the sense of isolation. Being trapped in the Antarctic, in a Zombie infested city or in a derelict ship can certainly heighten that sense of isolation.
2. Scarce Ammo
This is a component of Survival Horror games that has simply died in recent years. I remember being scared to death that I would run out of ammo in the original Resident Evil games and Silent Hill games. Furthermore you really could find yourself with an empty gun if you mismanaged your shots. Older horror games weren’t afraid to let you die as a result of your own failings. It made every moment of those games so much tenser because you could actually die and lose your progress or come up against a foe you couldn’t defeat. In recent years ammo has become candy in Survival Horror games and auto save has all but crushed the fear of losing progress. It’s especially upsetting to see the Resident Evil franchise devolve into a 3rd rate action shooter. Thankfully games like Alan Wake exist and managed to keep your ammo low enough in sections that you felt a twinge of fear throughout.
3. Unstoppable Enemy
True horror comes from facing someone or something that cannot be stopped no matter what is done. Resident Evil 3: Nemesis was the first game I recall coming across an enemy like this. That game is an underrated part of the franchise because no matter how many times you downed Nemesis he managed to come back. There is even a randomization element to the game that causes him to appear in different places scaring the living daylights out of you. He will also chase you through certain doors which was unheard of up to that point in the franchise. The Dead Space franchise had a few great segments where you had to run away from an unstoppable Necromorph that would regenerate its missing limbs in moments so that you could only slow him down. Amnesia didn’t even worry about making any of its enemies vulnerable it just made everything unstoppable.
I don’t care what you say but odds are at some point when you have the lights off in your bedroom at night you thought for a good five minutes that the towel hanging on your door was in fact a soulless hellion from the depths of Hades sent to swallow your face! The darkness is spooky! It makes happy everyday things look menacing! I mean why else would you have to fight it with a flash light in Alan Wake right? The best use of darkness is when a game suddenly cuts the lights off and feeds you the sound of some horrible creature slowly scuttling towards you. Shoot wildly…FOR THE LOVE OF GOD SHOOT WILDLY! Seriously though I don’t care what you say everything is creepier in the darkness. It basically ties into humanities fundamental fear of the unknown because we can’t see what’s in the dark. Any horror game that spends a large amount of time in the daylight just doesn’t manage to creep me out in the same way because I can clearly see any and all enemies coming my way. I can even begin to rationalize what they are as I prepare to blow their mutated butts from here to kingdom come. In the darkness that ability is gone and I’m left…you guessed it…SHOOTING WILDLY.
Oh you want me to go into that tiny dark corridor you say? The area where I can’t maneuver or run from anything if it appears in front of me? The one with the hundred vents that creatures can be hiding in? Oh and that ominous corner that could have an insane serial killer hiding around it waiting to stab me in the eye with an ice pick repeatedly? Nooo, I think I would much rather walk through this giant open meadow over here. See, closed spaces are downright scary. They let the mind play tricks on its self and manage to effectively hinder your ability to fight off enemies. I think the first Dead Space did this better than any survival horror game to date. That’s why it frustrated me when they moved the game out of the close quarters space ship and space station locations onto a giant snowy planet where I could clearly see enemies’ coming at me from a mile away, incidentally my last article was a countdown of the top 5 snow settings in modern gaming. Give it a read good chap…or the woman equivalent of a chap.
Music is one of the most underrated components of great video games. When you feel like a bad ass in an action game? Chances are it’s the music. If you want incontrovertible proof of that last statement play Prince of Persia: the Warrior Within. This is especially true in Survival Horror, where music can literally take the game to another level. Resident Evil 2 had some of the spookiest music I’ve ever heard when you are stuck in the police station. That said the lack of music can be equally frightening. When the two are paired together its nothing short of perfection! Sorry to bring up Dead Space again, as you can tell that’s pretty much my favorite survival horror game although it gives out too much ammo, but that game does wonders with sound as it weaves haunting whispers into the background noise. I mean have you ever seen the twinkle twinkle little star montage play on the main menu…creepyyyy.
As Alan Wake said Stephen King said at the beginning of his self-titled game, “Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear. In a horror story, the victim keeps asking “Why?” But there can be no explanation, and there shouldn’t be one. The unanswered mystery is what stays with us the longest, and it’s what we’ll remember in the end”. That’s why in Dead Space I don’t really want to know where the Markers or their creators came from, and I don’t want to know why they were created. It’s the same reason the Reapers were so awesome in the first Mass Effect. They were mysterious! Silent Hill does this really well too, as the crazy stuff that occurs is seldom given much of an explanation besides…well that’s Silent Hill for you. I have to bring H.P. Lovecraft into another article because many of his stories literally end with his characters grasping the truth or seeing the horrors they’ve only imagined and being driven insane by them. I’d love to see that as a survival horror game ending.
‘Horrifying’ Controls – Early Resident Evils and Silent Hills were scary because you couldn’t escape things thanks to your tank like movements.
Death Animations – The head replacement death in the first Dead Space freaked me out when I first saw it…it just replaced my head like Earthworm Jim man!