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Where have all the survival horror games gone?

During a ‘Making Of’ documentary for his most recent game--The Evil Within--veteran developer Shinji Mikami said a curious thing: “There aren’t any real survival horror games in the world right now”. The man who created Resident Evil 4 thinks horror games have become “all action”, and that, with his first game from his new Tango Gameworks studio, he's motivated to create a pure survival horror game. And that got us thinking. Where have all the survival horror games gone?

A large part of us agrees with Mikami--games like Dead Space 3 and Resident Evil 5 & 6 have taken the survival horror genre, loaded it up with as many guns as it can carry, and told it to start shooting. Sure the shocks and scares are still present, but much of the psychological menace has drained away from them. Quite simply, when you’ve been given enough ammo and firepower to level a small European nation, there’s little reason to run away. In fact, ask yourself this: When was the last time you ran away in a game? Not just to hide behind cover and let your shield recharge, but actually ran away because you were out-matched and terrified?

Throughout the ‘Making Of’ documentary for The Evil Within, Mikami and his team reiterate that creating a proper survival horror is incredibly tough. You need to create those moments where the last bullet really counts, where you genuinely have to choose between fight and flight… but without making the game prohibitively tough. In recent years Demon / Dark Souls is the series that has really nailed a similar kind of tension, but a survival horror game it is not.

In fact, throughout gaming history, there have been fewer true horror titles than you’d think. There’s a decent argument for a point-and-click adventure called Uninvited (1986) being the first survival horror title, but many regard Capcom’s Sweet Home (1989) as the first game in the genre that we’d recognise as ‘horror’ today. There then followed a decade of classic, chilling games like Alone in the Dark, Dark Seed, I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream, Resident Evil, and Silent Hill. You can catch all the highlights in CVG's excellent history of horror.

However, following the release of Silent Hill 2 (2001) there was a dramatic decline in true survival horror games. Ironically, the release of Resident Evil 4 (2005), all but killed the genre. Instead of following the templates of previous Resi games, number four underwent a serious redesign--at the hands of Mikami--to become more action game than horror. Since, we’ve either had action games with horror themes or pale imitations of past glories like Alone In The Dark and Silent Hill Homecoming.

Part of the reason is undoubtedly down to tech. Silent Hill 2 (a game this writer sees as the greatest survival horror ever made) enjoyed the happy coincidence that the PS2 needed to shroud the town in fog because of memory limitations, and that lower resolution textures guaranteed terrifyingly ambiguous monsters. Since the dawn of HD, there has been little reason to restrict the vision of our gaming protagonists because developers can show things off in crisp 1080p. In fact, tech allows developers to show off and that’s precisely what many have done; most opting for shock set-pieces rather than levels that create slow, deliberate dread. Even Alan Wake, which gave us some creepy forest environments and ghostly town-settings, couldn't resist the opportunity to show off via strange set-pieces like its 'rock concert'.

Marketing is another reason why--on console at least--horror has fallen from favour. It’s tough to demonstrate how terrifying a game is in a 20 second TV commercial, or even a three-minute demo at E3. You’ll never wrestle attention away from Nathan Drake blowing up half of Shambala with a dark room that may--or may not--have something sinister crawling across it. And as for a protagonist who has murdered his wife and made demons manifest through his sexual frustrations and desires? If James Sunderland and the rest of Silent Hill 2 was pitched to a board now, it’d be laughed out of the office.

29 comments

  • Technodude - May 25, 2013 1:39 a.m.

    Having read the first portion of the article I was wondering if the PC market had been completely forgotten. The horror genre is very much alive on PC - new games come out all the time. They may all have similar concepts, but nevertheless they're there. In fact the sequal to Amnesia: The Dark Descent is set for a Q2 release which should be very soon, and that is arguably the scariest game I've ever played. The problem, I believe, is that none of the games give you a sense of helplessness. Amnesia works well because the point is you CAN'T harm the monsters, so your only option is to leg it when one comes near, hide and pray to god they don't hear you (if anyone hasn't played it by the way I highly recommend it, well worth £7!). Dead Space worked in the beginning because it was a new concept and the story fitted the atmosphere, since Isaac had to use tools around him to navigate. Then it got worse from there because it wasn't believable. But whenever you weaponise anything it takes all that tension away, because you know you can survive. That's why these games lose character.
  • carlos-gallegos - May 7, 2013 8:55 p.m.

    then you guys should stop being so annoying about Nintendo and play ZOMBIE U! it is for far the best survival-horror game!
  • Elgyem - April 28, 2013 3:47 p.m.

    Call me strange, but I think Minecraft does the idea of survival-horror better than a lot of other recent games. Think about it, early on, you're constantly afraid that a skeleton or creeper can sneak up and destroy you. Not only that, but there is a certain kind of panic you get when lava starts to flow in and you drown in the stuff. The isolated atmosphere makes it all the more unnerving.
  • AtlanteanLancer - April 27, 2013 3:08 a.m.

    i think having a character that controls like a crappy tank is conducive to the survival-horror genre the modern games have refined controls to the point it's quite straightforward to deal with any threats, back in the PS1 era just turning around was a monumental effort while some horrific creature is chewing your leg of.
  • jackthemenace - April 27, 2013 2:31 a.m.

    I really enjoyed this and it made me realise how much I actually do enjoy the honestly terrified feeling I get playing Amnesia and Lone Survivor (not Slender, though. That was god awful). I'd definitely like to see the feeling recreated in a big budget release- not just blood and gore and dismemberment like Dead Space, but honest-to-goodness skin-crawling tension.
  • Churchy99 - April 27, 2013 12:01 a.m.

    I'm glad the writer of the article acknowledged the independent scene as far as horror goes. There have been several great titles in recent years which can truly scare or give you that uneasy feeling. Shinji Mikami's words feel a little short sighted to me. I would disagree that more exposure leads to less creative risks and fewer shocks. When Resident Evil 2 and 3 came out, they were very high profile games. They both outsold the original and went on to be among the best-selling PlayStation games of all time. But today, I would say that it's more down to the decision makers of larger publishers whose main concern is simple: money. Since gaming has become the money maker it has, a lot of larger companies are solely focused on that above all else. A lot of creativity and new ideas are often sacrificed so that games companies can pander to the audience and dish out the same thing again and again and again. This leads to focusing on very few demographics and simply packing in as much action as possible without thinking about why it's there. Of course you don't want to take risks on everything (and action is a fun genre in itself) but I feel the more creative edge has been lost in the last 5 years or so for the sake of profit, leaving no variety. They see horror as unprofitable and, ironically, are afraid of taking a risk on it.
  • yuukiterumi1 - April 26, 2013 6:38 p.m.

    I found silent hill downpour to be pretty creepy and scary at some points. Resident evil 2 and 3 need to be remade on to current and next gen consoles, but keeping the dark atmosphere and fixed camera angles and creepy hallways.
  • PatHan-bHai - April 26, 2013 3:37 p.m.

    Last game which scared me into running away??? Vampire : The Masquerade - Bloodlines GTA 3 Silent Hill and a few others
  • debiate5 - April 29, 2013 10:52 a.m.

    For me, it would be Dishonored and Far Cry 3.
  • winner2 - April 26, 2013 3:05 p.m.

    Horror games are the one genre I can't play, I could not do amnesia, and I refuse to play this game. I am eager for the youtube reactions compilations though
  • Ravenbom - April 26, 2013 1:09 p.m.

    Outlast looks to be another shit-your-pants game like Amnesia, which I refuse to play any time but in the dead of night, alone with no light on but my computer screen and because it scares the shit out of me (and because I have to go to bed and wake up really early now I still haven't finished it.
  • gilgamesh310 - April 26, 2013 11:52 a.m.

    Horror has gone the way of stealth. It's turned into action with the only pure games in each genre being indie games.
  • shawksta - April 26, 2013 10:50 a.m.

    Of course, its turned into "ZOMBIES LET'S SHOOT EM". We need the.genre back, maybe the evil within can fix it and give us real scares, maybe it won't, time will tell. Would be nice to have a sequel to Eternal Darkness
  • Swedish_Chef - April 26, 2013 10:14 a.m.

    If Capcom made a new RE game in the style of Revelations with Nemesis returning to hunt you I would personally fly to Japan and throw money at the CEO of Capcom Japan.
  • db1331 - April 26, 2013 12:14 p.m.

    "Unkillable" enemies like Nemesis and the thing from the first Dead Space game terrify the absolute shit out of me. It's like they activate some kind of primal fear in my brain. Any time I get to a point in a game where all you can do is run while an enemy follows you relentlessly it damn near gives me a heart attack. I can't play something like the One Tough Zombie mode in the GC REmake because I feel like I might die irl. The last games to actually scare me were the first Dead Space and Amnesia. I used to sit at my computer for 5 minutes trying to psych myself up to even turn it on and play DS. I still haven't even been able to make it to the first monster in Amnesia. I've started it 3 different times now, and every time I get back to where I left off and no longer know what's behind the next door, I say, "OK THIS IS A GOOD STOPPING POINT" and save and quit.
  • SDHoneymonster - April 27, 2013 2:40 p.m.

    That regenerator in Dead Space is a great example of what the writer is talking about, though. So terrifying in the first game, recycled for the second, then they just chucked more of them at you in DS3. Lost all its power and just became an annoyance.
  • Rhymenocerous - April 26, 2013 10:02 a.m.

    "Key Demographics"......... Kids. These days (for whatever reason/s) they're too impatient to appreciate the struggle of a true survival horror, or puzzle adventure, or turn-based strategy etc. Too used to the spectacle of tightly-scripted CoD explode-a-thins and multiplayer scream-fests to just sit down, keep the hell off twitter/facebook/youtube/online walkthroughs, and play a game that truly demands your complete attention. So yeah... F@**in spoilt kids control industry direction - or at least have a significant amount of clout as a mainstream audience knd of sense.
  • obviouslyadouche - April 26, 2013 10:11 a.m.

    This may have just been me, but despite the fact I hated horror movies, even as a Kid I loved scary games.
  • Rhymenocerous - April 27, 2013 10:17 a.m.

    Me too. The modern generation of kids though? Not so much... (I should also point out this is a generalisation, and I'm sure there are some smart kids out there who can appreciate great gameplay, and the sense of achievement a survival horror experience can bring)

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