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Back Against the Wall: The Decline of Survival-Horror and Why it Needs Saving
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 04:29pm 09/05/13 | Comments
We explore the survival-horror genre and its decline in recent years to a more action-oriented style of game, and why that's wrong for it. We also talk about Shinji Mikami's The Evil Within and why it might help save survival-horror. Read on for our full thoughts...

I’m not a fan of the horror genre in movies. I’ll deal with it, and when it’s correctly blended into other genres, like sci-fi (such as the Aliens and Predator films), it’s something I’m very into, but as a stand-alone genre, it just works my blood up.

Most horror films have characters that make stupid decisions that land them in deeper trouble. There’s often common-sense ways through scenarios that are utterly ignored, and custom-built tension among human error doesn’t really relate to me -- on a personal level -- very well. The gore side of things is fine, because I can stomach that in drama, action and sci-fi, so it’s not about being uneasy on the visual plane. I guess you could say it’s about the helplessness of any horror situation and how little any of the ‘victims’ do to change that situation; stumbling through to the end victorious (with “end” often represented by a sunrise), by means not specifically of their own doing. You know, machinations being foiled by evil begetting evil and all of that.

Resident Evil 4 still stands as arguably the best survival-horror experience ever crafted

There are exceptions to my frowning at the genre of course. The Shining, Psycho, Carrie, the firsts in this lot: A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, The Omen, The Exorcist and a few others -- all of which I’d argue are genre-defining in their place in film, but on the whole, there hasn’t been a solid entry in the horror flick space in a long time.

On the flipside, I love horror in videogames. There’s just something far more valuable in the survival of an horrific, tense ordeal by way of player interaction, and it’s one of the few genres that actually helps differentiate games and films through contextualised interactivity.

The reasons for this are varied, but they make sense when you think about them. In games, you’re always in control of your own intended fate. In movies, we’re obviously not controlling an avatar, we are, for all intents and purposes, sick voyeurs watching a trainwreck of a situation, only from behind soundproof glass; all the yelling at the screen you can do is not going to change the fate of any of the film’s players and thus you’re left banging your head at the scripted decisions and choices they made to put them in the scenarios they’re in. But in horror games, I can at least try to do things the way I’d hopefully approach them in the real-world, and it’s in this sense of player-choice and decision-making horror makes much more sense in games.

It’s interesting too, because horror also has the survival-horror split, which is a sub-genre very unique to games and one that amplifies the ideas I’m talking about here where it comes to intended player-fate. Unfortunately the once coveted genre has descended into a bit of an action offshoot that maintains the “survival-horror” name through aesthetics alone. The worst culprits here are the last two Resident Evil games proper: Resident Evil 5 and 6 which, in the wake of the pure balance Resident Evil 4 got right between action, horror and survival-horror, represent an ugly shift in direction for where a lot of studios feel the genre needs to head.

In the modern landscape, Resident Evils 1 through 3 don’t really hold up, though they arguably created the sub-genre upon release. Components of all three games are staples that are often overlooked in other supposed survival-horror titles that need to make a return to the genre, but on the whole, they lack player-agency. You’re going through the motions, and so for those games it was more about tension and a sense of dread about every hidden corner of the mansion/city/lab you were in that you couldn’t see because of the clever fixed camera positions the games employed. With that sense of dread in mind, the games worked despite a lack of proper player-freedom, because you had a sense of agency in ammo and health conservation, puzzle-solving and knowing when to run rather than fight.

Remedy's Alan Wake might have just been in development for too long for it to meet its full potential

Alan Wake lost the fight to become the new benchmark franchise in the genre for borrowing too heavily from outdated Resident Evil mechanics without enhancing the player-choice side of things. Despite the city (or town) appearing reasonably open, it was barren and without exploratory purpose beyond the arbitrary pages of the book the game was about. Yep, arbitrary. Moreover, the story itself peaked about three quarters of the way through and the enemy-types were too few and too easy, after a short while. Finally, it’s narrative -- based on an episodic TV formula -- just didn’t work with that agency element I keep mentioning. The end of the game was set the moment you started out and so instead of feeling like you were making choices to keep Alan alive and safe, you were just going through the motions.

There is, of course, the Silent Hill series, which has been an unfortunate ugly sibling to the more popular Resident Evil franchise; living in the shadow of Capcom’s series, Konami’s creepy take on horror in games was more psychological thriller than survival-horror. You’d be splitting hairs, really, exploring why, but for the purpose of this article, I don’t think Silent Hill fits the benchmark of where the modern survival-horror title really sits.

And this brings us to Resident Evil 4 and the true spiritual successor it spawned. Regular readers of this site will know that I hold Resident Evil 4 as not only one of the greatest action games of last generation, but also the best survival-horror title ever produced in how that action was thrown into the mechanics thick of things. Where current games have failed for being overly action-oriented, Resident Evil 4 utilised a handful of actions (often contextual) to enhance player-agency. This was furthered by opening up the play-space, giving players a sense of tactical recourse. However, ammo was always scarce, numbers always great and arenas not always as open as they appeared. It also maintained a heightened sense of classic Resident Evil horror. Shinji Mikami’s stench is still all over that game, and it has reared its head in more recent times with the likes of Vanquish and Shadows of the Damned.

Those last two were not survival-horror titles though, and so the last true entry in the sub-genre, in this journalist’s opinion, was Dead Space 2. The first game was alluded to above as the true spiritual successor to Resident Evil 4 with the added bonus of being in space, but much of the chagrin layered throughout this feature has befallen the series with the third installment, and it’s left many a horror/survival-horror fan wondering where to next for this dying breed of a game.

Enter Tango Gameworks, the Japan-based development studio recently picked up by Bethesda as part of their studios stable expansion. It also happens to be headed up by Mikami-san. Yep, the same man who arguably created the sub-genre, then reinvented it, and he and his studio have a new game I’m hoping will usher in the next proper survival-horror benchmark reset.

Tango Gameworks' The Evil Within looks like a promising prospect to bring survival-horror back to its roots

The Evil Within certainly sounds like it might have the bloody chops to get the job done. We haven’t had a chance to see it first-hand yet, but based on IGN AU’s Lucy O’Brien who had the good fortune of posting up the world exclusive first preview of the game, Mikami and co seem set on re-energising the survival-horror base by maintaining a lot of what makes survival-horror just that, along with some interesting and tantalising new idea.

“Obviously I like horror,” Mikami told O’Brien. “But survival-horror has been drifting away from what makes it survival-horror. And so I want to bring it back. Bring back survival-horror to where it was.”

It’s good news if Tango manages to actually follow through with this claim, and it’ll be interesting to see what Mikami-san can do in the space now to fire it up. As a big fan of survival-horror, and after reading Lucy’s excellent feature article, I realised there are a number of things the game needs to get right just to be in the same company as any of the classic staples, a handful of which I’ve put together below in hopeful deliberation The Evil Within can oblige.

-- RUN! --

Agency for the player exists in tactical recourse, even if it’s reactionary. What the original Resi games did well and what Resi 4 perfected, was give players room to move and evade the enemies (even in close quarters). Couple this with melee and an ever-low ammo count, and you have scenarios that require the player to be on the constant move. Being all-powerful in survival-horror negates the genre title, instead players should feel vulnerable yet capable. Even if they’re hanging on by a thread, giving them room to run away and regroup, whether they eventually die or not, is one of the most important senses of freedom you can offer someone in a life or death situation.

Controls are also really important here. Many people lauded Resident Evil 4 and 5 because you were locked into a stationary stance when aiming down your sights, meaning you couldn’t move around while firing at the bad guys. This was a deliberate decision on Mikami’s part in 4 though, as it added to the tension of facing waves of enemies in his more open environments, and in that game it worked. Controls were unnecessarily complicated in Resident Evil 5 though, which is why Dead Space was a nice breath of fresh air as it incorporated the option to move while aiming, but slowed the character movement right down. It also utilised the weapon’s light as your main light source for dark areas meaning in order to actually see what was around you, you had to aim (locking out a broader, peripheral view of your immediate surroundings) and move quite slowly. Visceral effectively took Mikami’s original point of tension, contextualised it and brought it into the modern. Genius.

Who wouldn't run away from this? Quick feet in survival-horror is the difference between life and death

-- What The?! --

Mystery is one of the biggest draws for survival-horror. Not only is it difficult to stay alive, but you need to understand what it is you’re trying to stay alive from so you can also learn how to beat it. Most of the games I’ve mentioned carried an excellent sense of mystery and intrigue, though Alan Wake failed at really capitalising on its mystery, which it turns out was just the darkness itself. This could have been a far more omnipotent evil and because of its vague nature, an incredible mystery element, but the team just failed to realise its true potential.

Mystery, especially, needs to make a triumphant return to the sub-genre, and The Evil Within is apparently promising this in spades. Moreover, it sounds like they might mess with players’ heads with the environments which, according to O’Brien’s preview, switch around on-the-fly but not all that glaringly. It’s designed to have you second-guessing progression and space, and is apparently inspired by famous the famous Winchester Mystery House. If they can deliver here something similar to the Insanity Effects employed by Silicon Knights for Eternal Darkness, only in a more modern, contextual way, we could be in for one mindfuck of an experience.

-- Eww Gross, Bro --

Despite the sense of desperation and tension needed to elevate a game to survival-horror, it’s important to remember we’re talking about horror. To this end, a balance of most things I’ve mentioned throughout this article will only work if the game delivers on the horrific side of where all this stems from. Zombies were all well and good a long time ago, but by and large, they’ve become the hipster teddy-bears of the modern era -- cool to love, but too lovable to be scary anymore. It’s time horror took on a new, grotesque form; one so uneasy and gruesome, players will run from the scene or monsters they’re facing. We need a horror revolution.

It’s in this area The Evil Within seems to be the most murky. Obviously we’re all light on details yet, and that live-action teaser definitely had horror written all over it, but it’s sentences like “garden variety enemies” that give me pause, though Mikami hasn’t really failed us yet. Even in his tongue-in-cheek collaboration with Suda 51 on Shadows of the Damned there were some pretty out there enemy and character designs, and if that can be reigned in to a more uneasy experience that takes away the cheese in favour of genuine scares and heart skip moments, we could be in for a treat. But I’d be lying if I said I was all the way optimistic on this one. Fingers crossed.

Yep, this guy might be a couple of screws loose, but his nails look intact. More of this designers, please

-- Soul Sole Survivor --

Where Dead Space won over so many of its peers, in my opinion, is in the hapless, solo experience. The addition of Carver in the third game took away so much of what made Isaac a hero and a survivor in the first place, that it came across to many as an affront to their hard work in the first and second games. Other games have also thrown too much in the partner space in survival-horror, including Resident Evil 5 and 6. Resident Evil 4 obviously had Ashley but she was used to heighten tension (despite how annoying she could be at times), and Mikami even threw in a few sections where players were controlling her, and she had no weapons or abilities other than hiding or fleeing.

The Evil Within is looking very good in this department. The game’s setup, that sees a detective pushing through a massacre of his fellow law-enforcers is an ideal way to push the “survival” part of what we’re after. What better way to give the player agency than to say “look at what I already did to a large number of your armed buddies! Do you have what it takes to beat me if they couldn't?”. If The Evil Within can capitalise on tension through solitude, and consistently remind players that they’re dealing with an evil and force powerful enough to render any potential help dead, then the game will be on-track to deliver a true survival experience.

-- Hoarder --

The final piece of the survival-horror puzzle is ammo. Yep, simple ammo. The first Resident Evil games were brilliant for the lack of ammo, which taught players to be precise with each round they used, as well as to be stingy. Another survival-horror entrant, Metro: 2033, took this concept a step further by making ammo an integral part of that game’s currency system, adding a deeper level to ammo conservation and usage. If The Evil Within, which whisks players off to a fantastical horror landscape, can utilise the ammo scarcity factor to help build tension with all of the above, we’ll have a staple entry in the field.

It’s not fully known what Tango’s plans are in this space, though in O’Brien’s feature she cites Mikami himself pointing out that whatever weapons the game’s protagonist Sebastian uses, they’ll need to think about the ammunition involved.

“We’re not giving the player really any extraordinary powers,” Mikami told O’Brien. "But we don’t want to go in the opposite direction and not give them any means of fighting back – that would violate the rules of survival-horror. So we’re looking at appropriate types of weapons with a limited amount of ammunition in order to get them through... if they’re good.”

Using their own modified version of id Tech 5 means we might get visuals out of The Evil Within not seen in the genre before

The survival-horror sub-genre used to be a gaming king. It spawned countless, memorable franchises and gave us recourse to deal with horror in a way we feel we would. It taught players how to manage inventory and work through complex puzzles while avoiding zombie bites, flailing necro blade arms and nefarious scientists. It took us to dark and brooding places, both ancient and modern; each harbouring secrets no normal person should ever hear the truth about. But most importantly, it taught us to survive in horrific circumstances, and when the credits rolled, you knew you had more than a hand in it. We want that back. Deliver us, The Evil Within, from this action-oriented path of buddies, endless ammo and hipster zombies. Please.

Latest Comments
Posted 04:15pm 10/5/13
Occulus Rift will save it
Posted 05:41pm 10/5/13
Occulus adds goddamn nothing to gameplay, just a silly fad

I'm really hoping Evil Within does justice to horror survival
Posted 05:42pm 10/5/13
Occulus adds goddamn nothing to gameplay, just a silly fad
Quoting to preserve for posterity
Posted 12:30pm 11/5/13
For mine the problem tends to come in from 'dumbing down' games.

I REALLY enjoyed Dead Space for what it was (which was written in the same engine as Resi4 from memory) but on the PC it had some pretty glaring issues.
The controls were so 'heavy' [read the mouse was really unresponsive]. I chalked it up to 'the artists impression of how it might be to walk around in such a heavy suit', but it seriously took some getting used to.

Resident Evil isn't innocent in all of this either. Yep Resi4 is very well 'crafted' but gameplay mechanics where you can aim OR move are really pretty painful in the grand scheme of things.

I can't say I've jumped in on the whole 'slender man' side of games/gaming, but the last game that gave me a proper scare was 'plain old DayZ'. It wasn't the grotesque critter following you up that made your skin crawl, it was your [literal] investment in surviving what is ultimately a fickle and harsh 'reality'.

For those with a penchant in indie/concept games, have a look at 'Receiver' on Steam. There is another game that gets your skin crawling and you are only really chased by a couple of bots!
Receivers charm comes from the control scheme (and your dependance on learning how to accurately and appropriately operate the firearm you've been given) and its simplicity.
Posted 03:06pm 11/5/13
I can't say I've jumped in on the whole 'slender man' side of games/gaming, but the last game that gave me a proper scare was 'plain old DayZ'. It wasn't the grotesque critter following you up that made your skin crawl, it was your [literal] investment in surviving what is ultimately a fickle and harsh 'reality'.

This is how I feel too. DayZ has something so unique to survival horror. Flawed as it currently is with bugs and exploits, I can't help but get right in to the atmosphere of it. Skulking around cities trying to avoid zombies and more importantly other people makes for a great and intense gaming session.

I really enjoyed Alan Wake too. I felt it brought something new. The TV series formula worked in it's favour if you asked me.

Also, there are things like Penumbra and Amnesia that are terrifyingly good survival horrors.
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