I often think back to the first horror games I played with my bro as a kid, in the same room, passing the controller to each other, the old life by life & level by level swap scenario in games like Resident Evil. The earlier Resiís, Silent Hillís & further back games like Konamiís Snatcher all had instilled in their design the notion of pleasurable tension. The limited inventory which forced the player into balancing resources & the more literal save points that you had to make it to whatever state you were in.
Technology to some extent dictated some of these mechanics but along with a sense of foreboding atmosphere, puzzle solving and prescribed scares pleasurable tension was effectively established. Iíll come back to the old school horror genre & discuss modern indie horror games later but first I want to consider the triple A Ďhorrorí games released in 2012/13 in particular. Iíll start a touch before with Resi 5; a game that moved so far away from its horror roots it was unrecognisable as survival horror but instead virtually straight up action.
Obviously in the current triple A era multiplayer and co-op have become far more of a focus as publishers try to extend the products reach to the broadest possible audience. Resi 5 is a case in point; Sheeva becomes the co-op character & even in single player acts as a co-op NPC. Co-op play for me is a non-sensical addition to any horror game as the moment you enter the fray with a friend all sense of actual horror is lost. Not only that but action sequences then become more prominent, replacing the sense of tension necessary in the horror genre.
Resi 6 is the first in the series I have yet to pre-order or play beyond the demo, this in part due to the poor critical reception the game received. It was clear from early gameplay videos and previews that the franchise had all but shed its survival horror roots in favour of action genre conventions & the inclusion of co-op. Update: I have now succumbed to getting Resi 6 but playing co-op with my bro didnít last long, we got through a few hours of Leonís campaign and havenít gone back to it since. The game isnít just linear its literal corridor to corridor gameplay with enough QTEís to wonder if I was in fact playing a game or playing an interactive TV programme. Itís more Gears of War gone very wrong than any obvious semblance of what made Resident Evil a pinnacle of survival horror.
So why then did Capcom believe it was the way forward to create a third person shooter with the point essentially being co-op & shooting lots of stuff? The original few Resident Evil games laid the template for subsequent survival horrors; tight environments (pre-rendered at the time) in which zombies could easily surround you. This was due in some part to the ever dodgy ďI canít aim unless Iím stood stillĒ player controls. However, level design, skewed fixed camera angles, use of logic puzzles, scripted scary moments, type writer save points and resource management made the foundations for proper Ďsurvivalí horror.
Silent Hill is another highlight of early games in the genre as is its sequel with a free roaming camera in an eerily quiet town. The narrative & use of enigma had much greater focus than Resi; a Twin Peaks esque feel and a suspenseful almost industrial soundscape with that permeating monster alerting radio static. Resident Evil 4 to some is the absolute pinnacle of the genre as its truly successful is conflating the core conventions of the traditional Resi franchise with elements of action. Perhaps this was the beginning of the reimagining of triple A survival horrors to eventual all out action, but the combination in Resi 4 is wonderfully balanced.
The resource management, eerily atmospheric village, often mutating ĎLos Ganadosí, diverse bosses & that over the shoulder camera all helped to redefine & reinvigorate the genre. The problem is that the evolution of the survival horror genre that took place beyond Resi 4 seemed to become less concerned with the scares and more concerned with the body count. Another series to have clearly stepped aside from what originally made it great is Dead Space; the original was in my opinion the finest example of a horror game this generation. It felt tense & pressured; wonderful use of lighting, tight environments, tools used as weapons, balancing ammo & resources.
The protagonist, Issac, does not fulfil the stereotypical space marine character rather the Ďeverymaní displaced in an unfamiliar, hostile & necromorph filled haunted house in space. Dead Space has a setting & aesthetic that harked back to proper survival horror games rather than the obvious tropes of action games. Dead Space 2 while still in essence a horror game had a much more action orientated sensibility with big set pieces replacing the more tense moments & bosses of the original. Dead Space 3 then much like Resident Evil almost entirely shed its survival horror identity in favour of an action focused gameplay experience.
Ammo becomes less scarce & applicable across all weapon types; the appearance of human enemies reduces the tenser necromorph encounters & instils elements of the more generic sci fi shooter. Most importantly the co-op designed levels & interactions along with a lack of any real underlying suspense provide a game devoid of horror. Both of the above franchises have struggled to maintain a unique identity in the wake of the chart topping & all conquering CoD, Battlefield, Gears of War & Halo. Perhaps the survival horror genre doesnít have an audience quite as large as your typical shooter but if you make a quality game in that genre itíll sell & well.
Indie games it seems have in many instances championed the more traditional and robust aspects of the genre but with some unique twists in relation to mechanics. Amnesia: The Dark Descent for instance plays on the suspense of being followed by an unseen antagonist that seemingly canít be harmed. The stark use of shadow & light, visual cues & effects that reflect fear & insanity with scraps of information gained from notes & bits of monologue.
Slender: The Eight Pages, the cult indie success does something akin to Amnesia in the suspense enforced by an often unseen following antagonist, the sense of constantly looking over your shoulder. Notes strewn across an otherwise empty forest environment assert pressured exploration as the player tries to find the notes before slender man appears.
Another interesting Indie horror is The Corridor which employs the same repeated hallway with subtle changes & alterations the further you get. These Indie games donít have to extend product reach to justify development costs so unlike the triple Aís of the genre co-op & multiplayer are not a necessity. There are some small signs of a triple A survival horror revival though; Shinji Mikami the creator of Resident Evil is touting The Evil Within as a mostly horror based experience & there's the possibility of a Resi reboot.
The main point of my post is to question why triple Aís need to enter the shooter arena with altered survival horror franchises. Surely creating a more unique and focused survival horror game would differentiate it from said shooters thus attracting a somewhat forgotten audience. Yes publishers will gain a small percentage of the shooter market & playing longevity but by alienating those who are after proper survival horror they reduce their core audience.
Making a half arsed co-op shooter wonít pull your game above the shooter sales parapet but making an outstanding survival horror will allow it to shine in that more niche of genres. So triple A Ďhorrorí devs stop plundering the over used & tedious tropes of countless generic shooters and get back to scaring the s**t out of me, all Iím scared of at the moment is playing another shooty shooty bang bang clone, oh the horror!