I played through Resident Evil 5 with my best bud over seven times since we started college, and the only horror I had to survive through was the reality that I wasn’t playing a true survival horror game. But that’s ridiculous, right? I mean, I’m playing a Resident Evil title—the godfather of the survival horror genre. Instead, we fought our way through African shanty towns on a sunny day, swamps with a partly cloudy forecast, ruins that vaguely remind of the set from Legends of the Hidden Temple, and a cargo ship all in a hail of shotgun blast and boulder punching nonstop action. Granted, I would be rocking back in forth in fetal position if I ever found myself in a Ugandan shanty town, but in the context of what is supposed to be a survival horror game, it just doesn’t work. Don’t get me wrong, I love Resident Evil 5 and all of its campy cheesiness, but it seems like someone got their Gears of War in my Resident Evil and I refuse to call it survival horror. Resident Evil isn’t the only franchise to deviate from its roots. Survival horror is an endangered species on today’s current generation of consoles.
What’s pushing the genre into nostalgic memories and half-assed HD collections? At the crippling old age of 21, I can still remember in the last console generation you couldn’t even browse through a game store without tripping over copies of Fatal Frame spilling off the shelf. Resident Evil, Fatal Frame, Silent Hill, Siren, Alone In The Dark, Rule Of Rose—survival horror games were everywhere, but suddenly they all went dark.
Most survival horror purist blames Resident Evil 4 for its combat oriented gameplay, but I have my finger pointed at the success of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Seriously, this isn’t cheap shot at Activision, I promise. The video game industry has become the top dog in entertainment media. Bioware’s latest MMO The Old Republic has been said to have had a $200 million budget in development, not a far cry from James Cameron’s Avatar official $237 million development budget. Gaming isn’t just a niche hobby anymore. Publishers want to reach a broader audience than days of yore, and what’s more successful than the Call Of Duty franchise? Yeah, have a good ol’ bowl of fun trying to name one. This pretty much answers why the market is oversaturated with shooters and why we see a focus gunplay in genres we normally wouldn’t associate with shooters. Think this is just the ruminations paranoid fan-boy hopped up on Red Bull and broken dreams? Take a look at this statement Resident Evil producer Masachika Kawatai issued to Gamasutra on Capcom taking Resident Evil down a more action oriented route:
“Looking at the marketing data [for survival horror games]… the market is small, compared to the number of units Call of Duty and all those action games sell,” he said. “A survival horror Resident Evil doesn’t seem like it’d be able to sell those kind of numbers.”
Yes, I know; it was hours before I abated the vomiting. I have no qualms with Capcom wanting to maximize profits. They’re a business and businesses want to make money. Capcom’s statement doesn’t make much sense to me. Survival horror games shouldn’t have to compete with action games; they’re two different genres. That’s like if Wes Craven decides that Nightmare on Elm Street needs to compete with action blockbusters, so he cast Arnold Schwarzenegger as Freddy Krueger, and instead of haunting your dreams he’s commandeering helicopters and hunts down the parents responsible for his murder with a rocket launcher. Each genre has its place in the industry, there isn’t a reason they should have to compete with each other.
Survival horror is like that one girl you were sweet on in the 7th grade. You know, the one with the pigtails you used to hang out with all the time and laugh at each other’s stupid jokes. That is until you come back from summer vacation and she isn’t exactly the way you remember. Now she wears makeup, the puberty fairy granted her boobs, and she’s with hanging out with that jerk-faced, self-proclaimed cool guy, Greg. Yeah…it’s a lot like that. I’m aware that horror theme video games do exist on current generation consoles, but they lack the elements required to turn a horror title into a survival horror title. I’m not the leading authority on survival horror nor will I ever claim to be. These are the elements that I find are persistent in every solid survival horror title:
Let’s examine recent horror titles, shall we? I already beat Resident Evil 5 senselessly for its lack of a creepy atmosphere so I’m going to pummel it some more. The linear layouts of RE5’s levels don’t leave room for much in the way of exploration. In fact, you move from one end of a level to the other until you’ve killed enough baddies or found the right key to move on to the next stage. In many ways, exploration is a staple of the survival horror genre. The Silent Hill franchise has you exploring the town of Silent Hill without much restriction in where you can wander. Similarly, you spend most of your time in Resident Evil 2 and 3 cautiously making your way through Raccoon City. In both examples you’re free to go back to areas you’ve previously visited or simply roam around sketchy dark allies to your heart’s content. Most of the time, the game never directly tells you where to go, which leads me into investigation.
Resident Evil 5 and Dead Space both utilize some sort of navigation system to hold the player’s hand to the next objective. In that regard, Silent Hill 2 is like the parent who sends their toddler out to do groceries; you never know where the hell you need to go. Yeah, you know James wants to check out the apartment, but you don’t know what to do when you get there until you perform a thorough investigation of the area. I remember being frustrated in the apartment section of Silent Hill 2 when I was walking around with a box of juice wondering why the hell the game insisted I’d have it. After an hour (I kid you not) of avoiding another Pyramid Head rape encounter, I tried using the juice box on the garbage shoot in a room I remember passing earlier, which in turn loosened a coin that fell out the other end outside of the apartment building, thus replacing one useless item with another useless item. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time the coin would be relevant in another puzzle later on. The most RE5 does to give you a mental sweat is making you track down pieces of an emblem to unlock a door, allowing you to feel like a Sudoku savant when gather the pieces and fit them together. Going into an area blind means you never know what to expect,and combining that with an unsettling atmosphere is key in a pure survival horror experience.
Your hero must be limited in combat, something which current supposed survival horror titles completely ignore. Alex Shepard from Silent Hill: Homecoming is a soldier coming home from war. Combat prowess doesn’t make sense when the big twist is revealed and the game lacks suspense when you can handle any foe. I guess Dead Space tries to paint Isaac Clark as your run of the mill engineer, but give the guy a conveniently weaponized mining tools and he might as well be a space marine. Limitation in combat doesn’t necessarily mean every survival horror protagonist has to have Harry Mason’s craptastic accuracy with a pistol. The marksmen protagonist of early Resident Evil titles were constantly aching for ammo and forced players to pick their shots wisely when running away wasn’t an option. The key word is option; a survival horror game doesn’t force you in to combat. For the most part it’s better to run away from rape face monsters and save your ammo for bigger threats. That’s what pains me so much about Dead Space. The dark corridors of the USG Ishimura echo fear and the monster designs are unique and grotesque. If only the gameplay didn’t have such a heavy focus on combat, we’d be looking at a game that embodies the survival horror spirit. The suspense draws from the hopelessness you feel when you can’t defend yourself appropriately.
Survival Horror may be a dying breed, but it still has a pulse. Contrary to Capcom turning the Resident Evil franchise into an action/horror fest they coined as “dramatic horror”, Resident Evil: Revelations on the 3DS harkens back to its predecessor’s creepy atmosphere, free form exploration and unforgiving ammo distribution. Though it had mixed reviews, Silent Hill: Downpour returned the series to investigation and puzzles rather than the slick combat system seen in Silent Hill: Homecoming. Frictional Games’ Amnesia: The Dark Decent doesn’t give the player a fighting chance. Players advance through an ominous by solving physics based puzzles, running away from faceless creatures, and keep within the glow of a light source before the darkness consumes their sanity. Recent Resident Evil 6 trailers show a more traditional survival horror treatment for Leon’s section of the game. If that isn’t enough to satisfy those looking for a pure survival horror experience, father of Resident Evil, Shinji Mikami, is developing a new survival horror title under his Tango Gameworks studio under the codename Zwei.
Horror titles like Dead Rising, Left 4 Dead, or Dead Space, aren’t bad games and I am in no way aiming to make that claim. Actually they’re pretty awesome titles and some of my favorites of this generation. As a fan of the survival horror, I don’t want to see it die off and become an old school relic in the way of the arcade beat ‘em ups. If codename Zwei truly is a survival horror game to its core, it will be the first pure survival horror game on consoles this generation and could possibly lead to the resurgence of the genre.