Adam Rant: Can Survival Horror Make A Mainstream Comeback?

By Adam Ma on May 20, 2012, 4:51PM EDT

So Capcom's latest round of boasting includes their expected sales figures for Resident Evil 6, which they expect to hit around 7 million copies and everyone is all abuzz about Shinji Mikami (the designer behind the original Resident Evil title) creating a true survival horror experience instead. When looking a bit further afield, we've had some pretty decent survival horror games recently too. Dead Space 2, Left 4 Dead 2, and F.E.A.R. 3 were all enjoyable enough games, and at times scary in their own right. But are these titles are hardly representative of the state of survival horror, and Resident Evil's success shouldn't be taken as a sign that the genre is flourishing amongst the masses. Quite the opposite, it feels like each new generation of horror games does more to streamline the fear and do away with all of the limiting factors that make survival horror games so much fun to play. So where do we turn to for games that are more psychological thrillers than they are shoot em up? Why the indie scene of course.

It's rough to say, but for as well designed as a lot of these new age horror games are, none of them seem to really understand what makes playing a horror game so much fun. Absurd amounts of violence and gore, splattered amongst a wave of FPS/TPS action is fine every now and then, but to create a true psychological thriller developers need to be prepared to take away elements of gameplay that most players are comfortable with.

Take a look at the aforementioned games and what parts of them were so damn memorable amongst horror enthusiasts as a prime example of where the industry always seems to fall short.

Dead Space is a series known for its roller coaster style experience, one that delivers gruesome ultra violence in cutscenes that prompt the player only a few seconds to escape. Each scare isn't inherently frightening, but they try to create a essence of desperation. Walking down a silent hallway, players know after a certain period of time that something is likely to jump out at them, or grab them from behind. This constant state of paranoia becomes more relaxed as players get power-ups, new weapons, better armor, and the scares almost all being cutscenes are no longer something to fear. Instead, they're seen as a reward for progressing through the game.

When getting scared becomes the reward, it's no longer really scary, simply violent. Left 4 Dead takes a similar approach as players work together to deal with waves of zombies, the truly scary experiences are left when the zombies actually catch players off guard. In multiplayer this can be quite frequent, but as each level is meant to be experienced as quickly as possible due to its arcade style nature, memorization of key points and ambush spots becomes the new game. Again, too much control left in the hands of players on each side.

F.E.A.R. 3, in my opinion, is the only one of the trio that comes closest to really meeting the criteria for a true survival horror experience.

It's not really the storyline that does it, nor the co-op mode, but rather the literal wall of death that players can try to outrun online. The goal is simple, avoid the wall of death, work together with teammates you kill enemies while constantly moving away. By not only removing a line of retreat, but acting as a slow force of anxiety in itself, the wall accomplishes in many ways what Resident Evil 5 failed to in so many others. This isn't to say that RE5 failed as a game, it obviously sold (and reviewed) well enough for the series to go on, but how was it in any way a horror experience?

I haven't forgotten about Silent Hill as a series either, but there's been too much hope riding for far too long on that series. Each new release fans are hoping that it will be the next great game that will finally take the concept of a thriller back to its Silent Hill 2 prime. It's not as though they don't experiment after all, nor has the series ever been afraid to take things away from the player. Where Silent Hill falters is in its sense of realism. Often times developers take advantage of the fact that Silent Hill is inherently supposed to be a silent place, when what made it so unnerving wasn't the fact that the town was scary, but rather the atmosphere; the two concepts can at times, often hold hands but they never mean the same thing. It would be like saying a Silent Hill movie will be scary simply because fans know frightening things happen there, and sure enough that logic fell short there too.

Fact of the matter is that the only developers that have taken chances have been independent ones, which may be exactly what the genre needs. Between games like Lone Survivor and Amnesia: The Dark Descent we have all the elements that have been largely missing from the mainstream market.

At the end of the day it's the limiting experiences of both of these titles that have made them such awesome hits in the horror community, and they've both managed to leave a positive impression without state of the art graphics and weaponry as their primary feature. The fact that Tango Gameworks is spending so much time showing off the dramatic art, the atmosphere and vibe of their game fills me with hope, but we've been burned in the past. The dark, dramatic fixed camera Resident Evil 4 never came to be after all, and it wouldn't be the first time that concept art held the bar higher than the final product could ever realize. If Mikami is truly looking to set his sights on the survival horror genre then we need to start hearing more about the world and more about what the players won't be able to do that will keep the action so thrilling.

In the same way that a horror game that largely just features shooting is really just a 'spooky fps', a survival horror game without any real survival elements outside of 'do not die' isn't really survival, it's just a game with a creepy setting. It would be absolutely wonderful to see Mikami turn things around and somehow make a horror game that really opens the mind of mainstream developers, something that would not only give a clear indication that the so called 'professional' side of the industry really understands the medium more than they let on, but would also highlight what a disappointment these other horror games really are. Take some of the hints these independent developers are dropping, and start taking chances. It's the smaller developers that are taking all the big risks after all, surely the likes of Tango Gameworks can stand to take a few small ones. With any luck that won't be too much to ask from a 'master' of the survival horror genre.

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