I've expressed many times how disappointed I was with the horror genre in the last generation, but allow me to recap to those who are unfamilar:
I can name the number of genuine survival horror games on PS3 and Xbox 360 on one hand. There was Condemned 1 and 2, Siren: Blood Curse and... nope that pretty much covers it.
There were plenty of horror shooters, such as Dead Space or Resident Evil 5 and 6, but those never captured the essence of the survival horror genre. The idea that any enemy could be the one to land the lucky shot that does you in, or counting your bullets and making strategic choices about whether to fight or run were pretty much absent.
But luckily the genre has been making a comeback of sorts with two fantastic games: Alien Isolation and Resident Evil 7. Both recapture the magic of survival horror games of old while modernizing them for new audiences.
So let's talk about four ways these two games embrace their survival horror roots.
In Resident Evil 7 the Baker family are your primary antagonists. There's Jack, a loving father who has a fondness for crafting exceedingly unnecessary killing impliments. Marguerite, who makes friends with bugs. Finally there's Lucas, who seems like the most sane one, but uses his sanity to craft increasingly elaborate traps to kill anyone who wanders near the residence.
While there are additional enemies in RE7, for the most part you'll be dealing with the Bakers. Even then, there aren't that many lower-tier enemies in comparison to previous titles, which had you gunning down hundreds of almost-zombies. Here, you'll probably find a dozen in just the main house.
The Bakers make one hell of a first-impression.
In Alien Isolation you're hunted by the titular alien. Like RE7, there are common enemies, like humans, who are incredibly territorial and often don't pick a fight unless you get near them, and the androids, which are incredibly durable but lumber around slowly. All three enemy types can be played off of one another. Lure humans towards androids and the two will try to kill each other. Get in a gunfight with humans and the sound will draw the alien, which will often go after anything it sees.
Both games have just a few hard-to-kill enemies that it establishes are incredibly dangerous, while also giving the player less threatening and more manageable enemies. Regardless, in both games enemies are few and far between. While in games like Dead Space where you may kill a dozen enemies in each room, in Alien Isolation or RE7 there may only be a dozen enemies per area.
The lower number of enemies establishes each of them as more of a threat. In Alien, human enemies can spread out and hunt you down, and their patterns and behaviours are completely different from the other two enemy types. In RE7 it only takes two Molded ganging up on you for you to become overwhelmed.
And of course the main enemies, the Bakers and the alien, are usually the most threatening and dangerous ones. None can be killed. The Bakers can be temporarily stunned to allow for a few minutes of relaxation, while the alien can be scared away by fire, though it will often return shortly afterwards. All of these enemies are incredibly lethal, and establish themselves as brutal killing machines.
In most games nowadays you see the same auto-saving checkpoints that return you to where you were, no more than a few minutes away at best. In most typical games, even horror ones, you never have to redo more than a minute or two of progress. Saving as a mechanic to terrify the player has become a non-issue, as consoles can reliably autosave and return players progress pretty quickly.
RE7 and Alien aren't interested in that.
Alien started this trend, with savepoints that required the player to stand straight up for three seconds to save. If you died, you would only be returned to the last place you saved.
Saving accomplished two things: it established the retro-futurism of needing a big-chunky keycard and a phone-booth-esque save station in order to record your progress, and it made saving a risk. The game will warn you if enemies are nearby, but it won't prevent you from saving. Standing straight up can make you a target for any androids or aliens nearby, and if the alien spots you while saving, you will hear its thudding footsteps as it barrels towards you and catches its easy prey.
We honestly haven't seen a save system like this since Resident Evil's typewriter saving, where saving the game requires a one-time-use ink ribbon. Gathering ink ribbons and using them only when you could justify making enough progress to save was a huge choice. Likewise in Alien, you need to check around and make sure you're in a safe spot before saving. In both games, saving isn't a background mechanic, but an active choice that requires thought.
RE7 brings limited saves back, though only in the harder Madhouse difficulty. In this mode auto-saves and checkpoints are basically turned off, and the game distributes a limited number of cassette tapes throughout the map to save your game. Early on saves are limited, but once you start making progress there's usually just enough that the player can make casual saves every half hour. It establishes that progress is something that needs to be earned, and can easily be lost. It brings back a sense of terror that few games can provide, by making a simple game mechanic complex and systemizes it in a way that makes the game more challenging, while providing genuine tension. There's been a few times where I've made decent progress, to decide "well, give me one more area and then save, that way if I die after that point I have less progress to redo" only to die and have to redo all of it anyway.
Old survival horror games placed an importance on exploring the environment to search for additional ammunition, healing items or save items. If you were lucky, maybe you could find a neat secret you didn't notice in your first playthrough.
For example, in RE2 you can use a hidden wire you find to rewire the shutters in the police station, so zombies can't break through them later, but you can only use it on one set of shutters, meaning you need to make a choice of which area you want to be safe.
Or maybe you just find a neat gun that helps you on your journey. In Silent Hill 2, exploring the nightmare world can yield Pyramid Head's butcher's knife, a colossal weapon that's pretty impractical, but still pretty neat.
Alien and RE7 both make exploration important by limiting the number of items along the critical path.
To find the grenade launcher, you need to get the crow key and return to the first mansion.
While Resident Evil 4 gave us the merchant, the loveable guy who provided weapons and upgrades to the player for a price, RE7 reasonably decides to avoid that route. Instead when you leave the first mansion you find an area filled with bird-cages. Each cage has a number on them associated with the cost of the item inside. To purchase the gun or item inside you need to deposit antique coins you find littered throughout the Baker estate. These coins are hidden in strange places or sometimes discarded in piles of refuse. It gets players to closely examine their environment to better equip themselves for the challenges they face.
Getting players to search around creates a more immersive atmosphere. If you were stuck in a mansion filled with zombies, I'm sure you'd probably be scrambling around to find weapons or things that could be useful in your survival. Likewise in RE7 and Alien, searching for additional items is a necessity for your survival.
While most people hate the trend of games adopting crafting systems, in Alien I don't mind it. You don't find molotov cocktails or explosives, but instead you need to make them yourself out of items you find lying around. In-game it makes sense, since Ripley is an engineer and can follow a blueprint to put together distraction devices and improvised explosives.
Finding crafting materials instead of ammo or explosives does a lot of things. First, it establishes environmental storytelling. You can raid abandoned stores and living units for sensors and alcohol, but in areas where humans put up a fight against the alien, you might find a completed explosive, or blueprints to craft a new item. It also creates a new layer of choice, since supplies can frequently be used for more than one thing. Do you use the last of your materials to make a molotov to scare the alien away? Or do you use them to craft a healing item?
Admittedly this is something RE7 does a bit better than Alien. Alien was criticized for its extended length, but I don't know if that's the true issue with the game. I think one of the underlying problems with that, and it's something RE7 does really well, is tension and release.
Tension and release is a term used to describe the flow and rhythm of horror games. Horror games don't constantly scare you, rather they give you moments where you're in great danger and are supposed to be scared, but then let's off and gives the player room to breathe.
Silent Hill games follow a very set formula that follows tension and release closely. When you're outside, in the foggy overworld, things are generally calm. Whereas once you're in the hospital, or school or any indoor location, that's when the enemies begin to ramp up and the thudding and ricketing soundtrack steps in.
RE7 gives you big moments of calm after defeating difficult enemies. After defeating a boss, generally their respective area of the game temporarily becomes safer. Enemies stop spawning and you can generally explore areas you might have avoided due to monsters appearing.
The save rooms in RE7 provide a moment to think, put your items away and listen to the calming music.
This is tension and release. Giving the players moments when they're put in danger and are supposed to feel scared, then easing back and giving them a few moments to feel safer.
Alien suffers because it creates a high level of tension but doesn't ease back as much as it should. Save points can help break the tension by solidifying the players' progress, but don't necessarily make a soothing atmosphere in the same way RE7's save rooms do.
There are moments in Alien that are genuinely less terrifying that slow the pace and dangerous tone down overall. There's a significant chapter mid-way through the game where the alien disappears for a while, and it's a good way to let the player reset and adapt to a different enemy type for a while. Likewise during the story you also find the Marshall's Bureau, where some survivors are camped out and you are reunited with your allies and some friendly faces.
Then, later in the game, the bureau is attacked by the alien and basically everyone is killed. It's a fantastic moment because it sets up this safe space and then destroys it to elicit more fear.
Both games ramp up the action in their final chapters, for better or worse. I don't necessarily mind, because the player can generally stop worrying about their ammo count and worry more about the growing threats around them. I won't spoil anything, but both games throw more deadly foes in the final moments of the game that sets up the final conflict.
And that's four ways RE7 and Alien manage to bring back the survival horror genre. I hope both games get some form of sequels, even if they're more spiritual than direct ones. The horror genre took a massive hit, and anyone looking to play a genuine survival horror experience was better off backtracking to the PS2.
So let's hope games learn the lessons RE7 and Alien learned, and embrace the slow, plodding and tense ways of survival horror to craft terrifying and memorable experiences that last for years.
Because let's face it, we'll still be talking about RE7 and Alien Isolation for a while. RE6 and Dead Space 3? Not in a positive way at least.