(This entry began as a reply to an article on a different web site *GASP*)
I have a problem with this generation's survival-horror games, and that problem is that they are no more about "survival" or "horror" than Gears of War.
Resident Evil 5, and Dead Space... I'm looking at you.
That's not to say they are bad games. RE:5 and Dead Space are both incredibly well made. I enjoyed beating them both immensely. Beautiful visuals, excellent sound design (Dead Space has probably the best sound design of any game since System Shock 2), and memorable set pieces all combine to create a thrilling experience.
But neither of them are particularly frightening.
Dead Space did a better job of terrifying me than RE:5, with it's moody lighting and cramped sets (and particularly, the vaccuum areas where sound cues were reduced to muted thumps) but the scares were outweighed significantly by the carnage.
I tend to play modern Survival Horror at the hardest difficulty (or the hardest difficulty available from the first playthrough*). That can reintroduce the "Survival" aspect, and at least in the case of Dead Space, bring back some of the horror through the constant threat of sudden and violent death.
But the popularisation of video games, and the new design methodology that difficult games = bad game design, is so antithetical to the Survival Horror genre that ironically, most of what defined the genre didn't survive the transition to mainstream.
That's not meant to be some kind of hardcore "I AM TEH GREATEST" elitest gamer attitude. But as a rabid fan of survival horror games, the 'casualisation' of video games can be hugely disappointing when it impacts so heavily on emotional engagement; I'm just not that frightened when there is nothing to be frightened of.
Bioshock is a good example: System Shock 2 being my favorite game of all time, was an absolutely terrifying experience on the harder settings (I completed it on Impossible). Bioshock on the other hand was so stupidly easy, even on the most difficult setting, that it seemed pointless to have a difficulty switch in the first place.
And again, that easiness was so antithetical to the horror aspect of the game that the only 'scares' I got from it were the few cheap thrill jump-out-from-behind-a-box scripted events.
Bioshock might be easy to excuse because its presentation is more First Person Shooter than Survival Horror. But anyone who was experienced with the legacy of System Shock remembers Bioshock being branded as "The spiritual successor to System Shock 2". And unfortunately, it lacked an aweful lot of that spirit.
However, even when the harder game modes are actually difficult (as can be said of Resident Evil 5), the experience as a whole is so often balanced for easier settings that minor flaws in the gameplay or the controls become enormous frustrations at harder settings.
Shiva's AI in RE:5 is guilty of this. On numerous occasions, Shiva would get us killed. And when she wasn't killing us, she was being brainlessly wreckless and leaving me to juggle rescuing her while saving my own ass. On one occasion, Shiva died after I'd boosted her up to a ledge, and she'd moved off screen. This is not okay.
Uncharted 2 (yes I know it's not survival horror, but it's a good example) suffers some similar problems at more difficult settings, mostly with cover mechanics. Sometimes I became snagged on a piece of geometry, or would fruitlessly bounce into and out of cover while being pounded from behind whilst trying to move AROUND something. At easier settings, it's not even noticeable, and even at more difficult settings it is rarely a problem. But when it is, it's insanely frustrating because it feels as though the game's programmers are killing me, versus my own screw ups.
I guess my point with all of this is: Survival Horror RELIES on well constructed difficulty, even if only sporadically, to create a sense of pending danger and constant threat of failure. If I can easily dispatch everything by randomly mashing AXYXABBA in the general direction of tentacles/proboscises/pointybits then I'm not going to be particularly worried about what the next corner may hide.
* And another thing: Why in the hell do most games force me to play through on easier settings BEFORE I can select the hardest difficulty? In the case of Survival Horror, this is completely antithetical to the entire experience. To the point of me wanting to use phrases like "fucking idiotic".
By all means, force me to play through the entire game in easy mode, so that I can be well prepared for anything which MIGHT have scared me at more difficult levels if I could have been experiencing it for the first time.
This culture of replayability confuses me. In my mind, it's no different than expecting someone to watch Lord of the Rings three times at varying brightness levels.