Can you remember creeping through the halls of Resident Evil’s mansion for the very first time? Can you remember seeing Silent Hill’s nightmare world unfold before your eyes as you gripped your controller in sweaty anticipation? I can; but the thing I am most afraid of does not lurk in the dark, it’s forgetting what we were so scared of in the first place.
If you look on any big games website and look up the reviews for Resident Evil 6 or Dead Space 3, you will see a raft of people screaming at the top of their voice that survival horror is dead. The tattered flag of previously revered franchises is left flapping at half mast amidst a sea of disdain.
The gaming masses have sang out in a chorus of discontent and I myself have found it hard not to hum along to the catchy tune.
But what was/is survival horror? To find out I decided to go back to the roots.
I remember sitting down in front of my friends Playstation as he popped in the disc for Resident Evil 2; I also remember him telling me that he couldn’t play it at night because he felt too afraid.
As he handed me the controller I jolted as the game threw me in the deep end; I can still recall me pausing the game and asking why I had such little ammo and why everything was trying to kill me so soon.
It was hard to grasp back then, when I was used to Mario and Sonic; games that I had played so many times I could do them blindfolded and without fault. If I shut my eyes and think, I am sure I can still hear that chilling piano as I shuddered across the many rooms of the abandoned police station; I heard moans in the distance and knew that every door could lead to my death.
I can say with certainty that there are not many games that have made me feel that way. This was back when death in a game meant so much more than just being thrown back to your last checkpoint; sometimes an hour lay between me and my last save game, if I died then I would have to go through it all again… it was more than a handful the first time.
Those thoughts are the kind that creep in when you play the old school survival horror games. They even manage it with some truly shoddy graphics (by today’s standards). What is strange is that I actually think the grainy visuals only enhance the tension; your imagination can do things games could only dream of and that’s where even the mighty Unreal engine cannot compete.
Don’t get me wrong, Dead Space, for example, is a beautiful franchise and the fear I felt in the first instalment was down to superb pacing and an electric atmosphere BUT… there is something about not quite knowing what is in the distance that all the fancy lighting in the world could not recreate.
But, is it the graphics that make the horror? Or is it the tension and surprise when something truly makes you jump? The problem you are always going to have is that once you have seen a monster break through a window you will never be as surprised or shocked as you were that first time. That window will never break again quite the way it did.
So is it the developers fault that we gamers are so desensitised to traditional horror tropes? I personally think the idea well is far from dry. Just take a look at, in my opinion, the vastly underrated ZombiU; I can say quite honestly that the scares in that game came from the anxiety of death and the looming shadow of the undead horde. It didn’t need to make me jump to send a shiver down my spine; it just had to cast a shadow in the right place and watch me shake in the dank lighting as it tormented me into panic.
Without getting too poetic though, I think it is that feeling that is sorely lacking from some of the newer titles. Having played all of Dead Space 3 I can tell you it is a throughly well made game and one which I would recommend to any fan of Sci-Fi action… but if someone wanted me to give them something that will keep them up nights… I would tell them to go elsewhere.
It just forgets the basics; you can’t just throw a hundred monsters at me and spam me with cheap deaths. You have to let me stew in the darkness and let me think all is well, you have to show me the light at the end of the tunnel long enough for me to think I can reach it, you have to kill me as quick as I would have killed you and make me learn from my mistakes. It is not enough to be a three headed monster if I only have to sever the one in the middle.
So where do we turn to be truly terrified? I will have to give mention here, to the formidable Amnesia and the low budget chiller Slender. Both of these games understand how to scare you properly. The make you feel truly vulnerable and they do so without having to make you stand and fight. They do the opposite; they make you run for your life; in a world of triple A games all trying to be a swiss army knife of genres it is the indie crowd that are leading the way.
Amnesia sees you drop into insanity and spiral into madness, Slender sees you running through the trees as fast as you can to escape something you don’t fully understand. Resident Evil 6, on the other hand, had you driving through the streets, blowing up cars. It had you gunning down helicopters and desolating entire towns whilst all the while telling me that I should be scared of a few zombies holding guns.
I think they are misunderstanding that not everyone wants the bombastic action of a Call Of Duty game or the brutality of Gears Of War. Some of us like to creep through the shadows with only our wits to keep us safe. Cliffy B, G.O.W creator, has even said recently that he thinks horror games are “the ultimate rental” because people just don’t want to play them more than once. Even Capcom who pioneered the genre said there is no place for Horror within the ranks of the big boys.
They need to take a look at the millions of voices online and in the public that are crying out for something to give them nightmares. They need to take a look to the indie devs who are creating truly frightening games that are worth more time than many of today’s “bigger” releases. Survival Horror isn’t dead, it is lying at the bottom of the gaming pile, rotten and festering in a pool of its own blood, only moving to cough out something fowl when it feels the time is right; I for one hope that it stays there… after all, things are far more terrifying when they stay in the dark.