What defines a horror game as survival horror? What aspects differentiate the genres? I wanted to take a look at how people view the survival horror genre in whole. I’ve sent out a request to several people behind horror games to find a common ground. I wanted to see the differences and similarities in their definitions, and perhaps figure out what the genre means to them. This is all in hopes to analyze the aspects of what makes a survival horror game.
This article will be somewhat “episodic”. Overtime I will post another response from a different developer on what they think about the genre. Hit the jump for the full article.
Vice President of Tripwire Interactive.
Known for: Killing Floor
Being pedantic, just divide it up into the constituent parts – “Survival” and “Horror”. For the horror part to work, you need a good combination of setting, monsters, shock, surprise and some suspense. Doesn’t really matter what the monsters are – zombies, vampires, the large hairy tentacle thing from Call of Cthulu. And the setting doesn’t matter that much either. It is how you use the setting. To get a good “horror” feel, it needs those peaceful moments, combined with the suspense – you just know something is going to happen and, when it does, it should be a shock. Rather than “slower” paced, I reckon it is more about varying the pace. Amnesia: The Dark Descent, for example, does it by keeping the base feeling slow and unhurried. But dark corners, noises off, spooky hints all go to build the suspense. You just know stuff is going to happen, but you can’t tell when and how. And when it does, it is often sudden – so it is shocking. Just hiding in a corner gets scary. Combination of sound, helplessness, dark corners – it gets scary. It is horror. There are times when you feel perfectly safe – but that is just the start point.
Then, “Survival”. You have to veer between feeling safe and feeling like you are genuinely threatened. If there isn’t any credible threat, how can there be any big buzz in “surviving”? The horror elements certainly should amplify that feeling. When I’m under pressure from a bunch of monsters in Killing Floor, a crawler popping out of a ventilator or somewhere, or a stalker uncloaking behind me, can still make me jump. The surprise/shock immediately amplifies the “survival” part, with a lot of “crapohcrapohcrap” suddenly in my skull. The tricky balance is to induce moments of pure panic – but they have to be survivable, or they are just “give up and walk away” moments, when they should really lead to “Woahhhh – how DID I get out of that?”.
Alan brings up several points at keeping a horror game in a survival zone. The threat of death must be apparent when enemies arise. He also says the threat must be accompanied by peace. The player must feel isolated and alone for the incoming threat to be scary. Whatever threat it may be, it must be substantial and strong enough as to get the drop on the player. He also mentions that a pure feeling of accomplishment must arise when the threat has been dealt with.
This is starting to sound right. Classic survival horror games were plentiful in this respect. Resident Evil pits you against sudden powerful zombies after numerous quite areas. Silent Hill did the same, but in a supernatural aspect. The feeling of isolation being suddenly ended by an encounter with a beast much stronger than your protagonist is what many attribute to survival horror. Killing Floor contains many of these aspects, but I’m sure many will be quick to call it an action horror game due to it’s large arsenal of weapons and multiplayer.
Producer at Konami
Known for: Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, Silent Hill: Downpour
Survival Horror is a specific type of horror where the player character is underpowered and vulnerable. The player should feel like their death is a very possible risk. To accomplish this, enemies need to be threatening in a real way—not just scary looking or deformed, but actually able to kill the player. In most action games you are only “afraid” of the enemies if your life is low. In a Survival Horror title, you should be afraid as soon as you spot the enemy. (It’s not Survival Horror per se, but Left 4 Dead’s special infected do this really really well. As soon as you hear a Witch or Tank, your flight response kicks in and you are scared.) But it goes deeper than just the actual, concrete threats—in a Survival Horror game players need to feel like the world itself is against them. This means heavy, suffocating atmosphere. No mushrooms in question blocks here—if you find a weapon or health pack it’s because you lucked out, and you’d better hold onto it because you’re going to desperately need it.
Tomm stresses preservation just like Alan did. The need to survive is what makes a survival horror game; not complicated since survival is part of the title right?
The two both bring to light that survival horror enemies must be stronger than the protagonist. Their presence must bring terror due to their strength. Both Alan and Tomm mention that the appearance of the enemy does not have to be disturbing or monstrous to be terrifying if these survival horror elements are apparent.
Think about this for a second; what games have you played where the enemies were incredibly strong and your only way of advancement was to be sneaky and by conserving your available resources. Personally, Minecraft comes to mind. This cutesy building block game was not meant to be a horror title, but when the nighttime creatures appear, and you’re resources are extremely low, there is a strong sense of fear and anxiety. Now take this simple mechanic of vulnerability, and add some intense ambiance, disturbing visuals, a great story, and voila, you have something resembling a survival horror game. But is it really that simple?
Director at Access Games
Know for: Deadly Premonition
Survival horror is an exercise in escapism, but the player must furthermore escape from the world he has escaped to.
It’s sort of a self-contradiction. I think this is the fascinating thing that really appeals to its audience.
Here we can see SWERY’s definition of the genre, while shorter than the others, he touches on the symbolic aspects. We have discussed the gameplay with Alan and Tomm and their ideas met in most areas. But here we have SWERY, the man behind one of the strangest games this generation. His views accentuate the the meaning behind a survival horror game and the core emotional aspect which is created to disorient the player.
This quote brings to mind Silent Hill; the players leave their world behind and in turn must escape this new place which they have wound up in; perhaps this is what SWERY means. In Deadly Premonition York enters this strange “otherworld” which he seems to never disclose to anyone else. He enters this place and must proceed to escape. Not to mention Greenvale; York arrives at this small town in hopes to find a killer and in turn must solve the mystery that somehow relates to his own past. Only then can he leave this new place. York’s previous cases were in cities, and he expected this small town mystery to be relaxing, but the story was much deeper than anticipated. Here we can see in some way what SWERY meant. Escape the old, arrive at new, escape the new.
I also asked some fans of survival horror what they thought the genre meant. Nearly everyone mentions weak weapons to non at all.
“A nice mixture of disturbing scares and jump out scares (we know we love the latter). Also greater focus on weak weapons, scarce ammo and when the enemies should be frightening as one enemy just as much as large groups.” says Manuel. He later calls Amnesia a “near perfect” horror game due to absolutely no weapons and being completely powerless even when hiding. Manuel pushes for powerlessness just as Tomm and Alan stated.
Ryan and Cody both state that sound is key to a survival horror game. That the atmosphere must produce an orchestra of sounds to envelop you -the player- into the world of the game. Erasing all ties to the real world and genre awareness, just the pure sense of anxiety and fear is what a horror game should be.
Sound design and visuals are becoming part of the definition. Along with SWERY’s symbolic interpretation of the genre, I am starting to see more and more sides of this aging genre. In the next part of Defining Survival Horror, I talk to Devin Shatsky, the producer behind Silent Hill: Downpour.
Producer at Konami
Known for: Silent Hill: Downpour
Sur-viv-al –noun: the act of surviving, especially under adverse or unusual circumstances.
Hor-ror – noun: an overwhelming and painful feeling caused by something frightfully shocking, terrifying, or revolting.
The label Survival Horror specifically refers to the emotions that a game is intending to arouse inside the player. I think it’s one of those things that’s fairly easy to define, or quantify. Yet extremely difficult to actually execute on or qualify. I believe the main reason for this is because fear is completely subjective. The kinds of things that scare me may not scare you, and vice versa. So the results of the experience completely differ from each perspective. I’ve talked about this in past interviews, and I want to reiterate it here, that reality is a necessary component of horror for me. Things need to fall somewhere into the realm of believability for it to really have an effect (on me). I like to be able to immerse myself completely in a horror game or movie, and really try to identify with the main character(s). I want to be able to feel that “what would I do?” feeling during the experience.
Surviving, is the key word to define a proper Survival Horror experience. It’s not the environment, its not the setting, it’s not the atmosphere that’s most important. It’s that overwhelming anxiety that one can only experience when they are inches away from a horrific moment. So, the crux of the equation is ‘empowerment’. How powerful does the player feel at the moment of truth. If the degree of empowerment is little to none, I believe THAT is when Survival Horror is truly experienced. This can be experienced in a sandbox at a childrens park, or it can be experienced in a dark alley. All it takes is the proper equation. Dangerous Antagonist + Powerless Protagonist = Survival Horror. Of course adding a foggy, quiet town into the equation never hurts.
Thanks for asking!
A great definition by Devin Shatsky. He immediately jumps into the core component of Survival Horror, and that is surviving. Alan, Tomm and Devin all agree that empowerment is key to extracting horror from a survival situation. An immediate sense of incoming deadly situations are what unnerves the player and reminds them that their protagonist is just as frail as any other human being. If one of us were to be attacked by some shrieking beast, would we really have the ability to stomp its legs off without breaking a sweat? Perhaps not. Instead most of us would be ripped apart in seconds, unless we ran. The same should apply for a Survival Game.
The protagonist of a game within the Survival Horror genre should be an everyman (or woman). I don’t mean this in the sense of occupation, or social status, but by actual physical limitations. Classic Survival Horror games were downright hard. This was due to your character being highly susceptible to damage. Before Chris Redfield was punching boulders, he was as weak as any other human. Several zombie attacks and he would be down for the count. Same with Jill Valentine in Resident Evil 5; before she was a ninja with a breast machine, she was a normal person will very little physical defense. The same can be said for the Silent Hill protagonists. Harry, Heather, James, Henry, and Travis were very easily killed. Alex was a little more defensive due to his “soldier” past, but not many hits were needed to take him out either.
So what about a protagonist that has a little more luck on his side? Perhaps a nice armor suit and a wide variety of weapons? Does his adventure qualify as survival horror? Stay tuned for our next part of Defining Survival Horror with John Calhoun, Producer on Dead Space 2.
Producer at EA
Known for: Dead Space 2
Making good survival horror games is like making a good cocktail: you only need a few ingredients, but they have to be perfectly balanced to hit that sweet spot of “I can’t go on” and “Give me another!” The main ingredient is a protagonist who is less powerful than the threat he faces. In Dead Space, the hero is Isaac Clarke, an engineer by trade who’d be more comfortable fixing a shockpoint drive than dismembering a Necromorph. He’s not a soldier, not a hit man, and definitely not someone who’s trained to confront an undead scourge. When the character you’re controlling has a legitimate reason to doubt his chances of survival, then players are likely to experience similar pangs of fear and dread.
Another key ingredient to survival horror games is a relatable setting. People are very attuned to their surroundings, and can sense when something is wrong or off in a familiar space. The best survival horror games play off this phenomenon. Games like Dead Space 2 feature environments that we can relate to – apartments, schools, churches, hospitals – and effectively toy with players’ expectations. It could be something as simple as having a hallway be eerily quiet, or having a door locked and shuttered for no apparent reason. Players pick up on these small details because they’re both familiar and “not quite right,” and that enhances the horror experience dramatically.
The final ingredients are measured in dashes. You need a couple Boo Moments to keep your heart racing now and then. You need to keep the ammo count down just a bit, so you always have the fear of running out of bullets right when your back’s against the wall. And finally, like a good cocktail, you need to appreciate the experience slowly. Pacing is key to the survival horror genre, and the game should be designed so that players want to creep through it carefully. This lets them appreciate the atmosphere, and soak in the little details that help craft the horror experience. Serve it all up in an attractive package, and you’ve got yourself one hell of a scary game!
John hits the nail on the head. We previously discussed the vulnerable protagonist with Alan, Tomm, and Devin, but John brings us back the realm of what SWERY was talking about. John discusses the other “ingredients” to a survival horror title, which is about the atmosphere: the location of a survival horror game doesn’t take place in an area that is completely foreign to us, instead it’s something we are familiar with. A small resort town, or home, or the city is something we are all familiar with. But when these locations become perverted by monstrosities of either human or supernatural origin then fear become apparent.
Pacing is also a key component to a survival horror game. Running around jumping past enemies is not scary. In my first playthrough of Dead Space 2, it took me around 11 hours to complete the game. After I learned of all the scares and became a powerhouse due to NewGame+ it took me around 5 hours. This is not a bad thing at all. This shows the the game forces players into fulfilling an expected pace. The ambiance and scares considerably slow down players and forces them soak in their environments. An environment must be filled with details that slow the player down because they find something wrong with it; John states this in his definition. The world must seem familiar, yet disturb the player for multiple reasons.
The Dead Space series has gotten some flak for it’s label of survival horror. The sequel, while agreeably great, has been called an action horror title. The accessibility of Dead Space 2 has made many horror purists claim that there was no sense of survival. Isaac Clarke may have a large arsenal of weapons to choose from, but does that make the game any less survival horror? In my own playthrough, I stated that the sense of survival was strong. It has a slightly different air to it than say Silent Hill or Resident Evil, but it contains many of these aspects which we have discussed. Isaac may wear a suit which assists his combat, he may have a wide variety of weapons, and the game may have many action scenes, but does break down the core survival horror aspects?
In the next part of Defining Survival Horror, we talk to Thomas Grip of Frictional Games. He lends us his ideas on why Dead Space 2 is not considered true survival horror to some fans.
Co-Founder of Frictional Games
Known for: Penumbra and Amnesia: The Dark Descent
First of all, I am not that fond of simply discussing if something falls into a certain category or not. This because these kind of categories rarely are very clear (see “no true Scotsman fallacy”) and that it is even very interesting to debate it. Instead what I do find very interesting to discuss, is what kind of feeling a game strives to evoke, and how successful it is at doing this.
Taking Dead Space 2 as an example, I think the first question would be: what are the designers intent with this game? This is of course hard to know, but as long as we focus on something that is a somewhat related to the game, discussions can be very fruitful. For example, say the intent was to make the as scary as possible; does the game live up to this? One can then discuss if the game should really have things like the stores and upgrade benches, and how these affect the end experience.
Now, from what I can tell, being as scary as possible was not the top priority for Dead Space 2, but simply framing the question that way can give rise to a deep and interesting discussion. This regardless of the correctness of our initial assumption.
With the above in mind: Why do people not call Dead Space 2 a survival horror? The answer is then that one need to look deeper then simply answering the straightforward question. It must first be established what players perceive as the intent of the game; did players expect a scary game and so on? The next step is then to find out what it is that make the game fail at living up to these expectations. One can then also wonder if going in with different expectations would make the player enjoy the game more and so on. I find that all sort of interesting things can spring from these kinds of discussions.
Here I had asked Thomas about some people’s issue with calling Dead Space 2 true survival horror. Because of Isaac’s access to many weapons, and his more combative approach to situations, many are left with a feeling that Dead Space 2 resides on the action side of horror. In my personal playthrough of Dead Space 2, I started on the survivalist difficulty. As the name suggests, I did a lot of struggling with surviving. I frequently ran out of ammo, I was killed multiple times a level, and I would run from many encounters to prevent a loss of supplies. Aren’t these the same qualities that we have established as a survival horror game?
Of course not everyone may have jumped into Dead Space 2 on a harder difficulty, but is it fair to call Dead Space 2 action horror with no survival whatsoever? I think the issue is that many believe that because Dead Space arms you appropriately and contains intense scenes of action you are given the upper hand on situations; frequently throughout the game, you are empowered. Empowerment seems to be a violation of the survival horror formula. We’ve discussed weakness with Alan, Tomm, Devin, and John, and for Isaac to even be momentarily empowered, fans become influenced into seeing the game as action oriented. Defining Dead Space 2‘s genre is up to the players it seems. Personally, I considered it a survival horror game in my first playthrough. But Newgame+ gave me a much bigger advantage. What about Hard Core mode? Do I look like a masochist to you?
We’ve received definitions from leading people in the horror gaming world. From Silent Hill to Amnesia, the survival horror genre contains many core qualities, but how it’s executed seems a bit subjective. What we do know now is that the feeling of a survival horror game should bring not just fear, but displacement. The protagonist must also be vulnerable to the world and enemies. Everything that seems familiar to us must be flipped upside down, figuratively (and physically). Survival horror is a dieing breed, but with upcoming games like Silent Hill: Downpour, Dead Island, Resident Evil: Revelation, Amy, etc. We have faith in seeing the genre flourish once more. I hope you enjoyed this long article, and please leave some feedback in the comments!