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Survival Horror: The Roots and Evolution of a Genre

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In 1996 Bill Clinton began his second term as President, MSN revealed Hotmail as a free email client, the 26th Olympic games were held in Atlanta Ga., and MTV started a second television channel which promised to be “more about the music.” However, if you were a gamer fiddling with a PS1 controller in 1996, you may have missed a great portion of these events because you were trying to guide Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine through an inventive maze of puzzles and an unrelenting hoard of undead created by the now infamous Umbrella Corporation.

As gamers we all have that one title we look back to and say: “that was the one; the game that made me realize I wanted to devote hours on end to holding a controller.” Final Fantasy VII, Doom, Zelda, Tomb Raider, GTA...any of these might be your poison. For me the game-changer was Resident Evil, hands down. There was something about this game when it released in 1996 that made me realize gaming had shifted for the better. Come to find out, RE not only changed gaming, it became a catalyst for the genre we now readily call “Survival Horror;” a category that would become one of the most heavily followed varieties in the video game landscape.

So, having already taken a demented tour through the Sprawl in Dead Space 2 earlier this year, and with Fear 3, Dead Island, and a list of other possibilities just released or still to come, I decided to take a look back at the complex, inventive, and awesome history of the survival horror genre. *Please note: there is no way for me to cover every game in this expansive genre...I know, I know, you’re pissed your favorite title isn’t included and I’m certain you have a strong argument for its inclusion... but unless you want to throw some money my way for me to write a book on the topic, I don’t see how everything could realistically be included. Thanks for understanding!

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Survival Horror in gaming can trace its roots back to archetypes found in early horror fiction: journeys into darkened depths, narratives filled with investigations, and protagonists with a strong mental dexterity being forced into confrontations with antagonists of physical prowess. The interesting thing about this genre, however, lies in its inventiveness. Since games in the PS1/Sega/N64 generation were mostly developed in Japan, but dually marketed toward American audiences, the games in that generation had to draw themes from both sources. Therefore, Survival Horror games never became dominated by the Western (American) approach of primeval, action-oriented, slasher horror, or the Eastern (Japanese) use of psychological themes which sought to disturb the audience at an emotional level. Instead, gamers got the best of both worlds: a happy little marriage of gore and mental disturbance that kept our sweaty palms wrapped around a controller for hours at a time.

As previously mentioned, many video game junkies look to Resident Evil as the catalyst for defining this genre, but that’s not to say there were no other SH games before this title. In fact, games such as Haunted House (1982), and Sweet Home (1989), the game that is looked to as the inspiration for Resident Evil, both had characteristics which we now ascribe to games in the Survival Horror realm. However, with RE we also had a new third-person style of gameplay which presented developers with an ability to present thrilling moments in an incredibly creepy fashion. Because the player controlled the in-game character from a mixture of 3rd person and fixed camera points of view the game developers could place unseen monstrosities around corners, allowing us to hear them scratching the walls, knowing they were there, but now knowing where. Correspondingly, the game dev’s were also known to use these camera angles (something that could never be accomplished in a top-down point of view game) to intensify the gameplay with elements of surprise (just like directors would do in horror film). For anyone wanting to take a 10 min walk down memory lane, or for those who never played the game (shame on you), take a peek at the video below and have a good laugh at what used to keep us up at night.

Obviously, the gameplay mechanics of Survival Horror games are key. Officially deemed a sub-genre of the Action-Adventure genre, a type of game obviously focused on fast-paced gameplay, Survival Horror places gamers in the midst of events and environments for which the characters are almost always inadequately prepared. Yes, there are knives, guns, and all varieties of weapons. But the focus of SH gaming is not to shoot everything in sight. This is one of the most defining attributes in the genre: players must use their intellect to get out alive. Correspondingly, non-combat challenges make up a great portion of the game’s experience...solving puzzles and remembering clues from earlier in the game became an essential skill set for surviving the horror. Case in point: Techmo’s 2001 title Fatal Frame.

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Seriously, all I have is a camera? $#!T

Fatal Frame received a great deal of acclaim and, in fact, has come to have a reputation as one of the most distinctive and best-written survival horror games ever made. Why? Because you were stuck in a mansion full of ghosts looking for your brother and the only weapon you had was the friggin’ “Camera Obscura.” Oh yeah, that’s right, your only way to see and/or get rid of ghosts was by snapping pictures of them. The game played on everyone’s childhood fear of the scary dark basement...except the “basement” here was a hell of a lot bigger and a hell of a lot scarier…

All in all, this game could make you honestly debate wearing Depends while playing. I know guys who watch horror movies like it’s their job (some of them it is their job) and they repot having moments when they had to stop playing and walk away.

Here’s a bit of humor: watch this montage of folks playing the game...

Now, obviously no Survival Horror gaming article would be complete without mentions of Alone in the Dark, Left 4 Dead, Amnesia, Bioshock, Dead Rising, or any of the games included in the Silent Hill series, the Condemned series, the Fear series, and the Clock Tower series. However, for the sake of time and attention span, let’s watch a top 10 video and shift our attention to a trend in the genre that has seemed to take a firm hold upon Survival Horror in the past few years.

As of late, many Survival Horror game releases have been criticized for not staying true to the genre. Many recent games released within this genre have eased the controls, shifted the spooky third person camera angle to an over-the-shoulder perspective, and placed a greater emphasis on action elements of gameplay. Some believe that this shift has effectively eliminated the “horror” from survival horror.

In fact, the aforementioned Resident Evil series, a title which we have already discussed as being a namesake for the entire genre itself, has been focused on as a landmark in this debate. With the release of Resident Evil 4, many critics and gamers alike felt that the formula for survival horror had been changed. Many argued that the game was no longer about horror, instead describing the game as fitting into a generic “action game” category with some horror overtones. Sadly, Resident Evil 5 would only further fortify this feeling of ill will amongst a large population of folks as well.

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Too much gun play… too little horror?

So, is action bad for the survival horror gaming experience? I would argue not. The horror elements of the genre are what keep us, as gamers who enjoy that type of thing, on the edge of our proverbial seat... it’s what makes us shell out cash for the game. However, the action elements offer a welcome break from our constant lack of agency in the game’s situation. These moments, the times when we get to grab a shotgun and pump a few rounds into a zombie’s face (and what could be more satisfying than that!?) ultimately give us a sense of control and catharsis amongst a seemingly un-survivable situation.

What is important in this relatively new-formed debate is balance. Both elements (horror and action) have a necessary place in the Survival Horror realm, but neither can be out of balance if a game is to stay true to the genre. Subsequently, let’s glance at a game which received a great deal of acclaim (along with a bit of criticism) for seeking to achieve a merry balance of horror and action: Visceral Games’ Dead Space.

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Of course, there's always one more lurking behind you…

For those of you who have been on a safari for the past couple of years, I’ll cover a bit of background...Within Dead Space you play as the one and only Issac Clark, an engineer who is armed with improvised mining tools as weapons and forced to fight his way through a mining starship infested with hostile, “reanimated human corpses” called Necromorphs in an attempt to save his love, Nichole. This craft, which just so happened to have discovered an object called the Marker (a center piece for a new human religion) while illegally mining a distant planet is the setting for quite an interesting and horrific adventure (see how I used the two terms together there? I told you Dead Space merged things together well...) Anyway, this series retains a balance between psychological strife and gore as well. Players are forced to deal with Issac’s worsening dementia while simultaneously dismembering Necromorphs, which you must do in order to completely kill them.

All this makes the Dead Space series a pretty good representation of what the modern survival horror title has evolved into: the inclusion of action and combat, an emphasis on puzzle-solving for survival, and the preservation a horrific atmosphere which has always defined the genre.

All the same, it seems as if we have found ourselves in a debate of definition for what Survival Horror was, is, and is yet to be. So, let’s pose a few questions:

1) Where does all this action vs. horror rhetoric land us as gamers who love the genre of survival horror?

2) Can we have action in our horror without tearing apart the definition of a genre that was set roughly 20-22 years ago?

3) Is there a strong argument to be had, that the genre of survival horror is simply being reinvented alongside innovations on the platforms for which the games are created?

All in all...who the hell knows? What I do know is that I am excited to see where this little “sub-genre” of Action-Adventure gaming will take us in the years to come. We still have several games releasing this year that I'm sure will shed light for us all. Undoubtedly, there will be issues and debates surrounding these releases about how the games are directing and defining the genre. But, nothing is ever for certain, everything ebbs and flows, and I’m sure Survival Horror will be around for a long time to come.

What we all know that fear is a natural human emotion, although one which most people tend to try and keep out of their lives. However, for those of us who deliberately invite fear into our lives, let’s hope game developers stay the course and continue to feed our hunger for horror.


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Twitter: @JohnnyWayne_

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Updated 03-03-2012 at 10:22 PM by JohnnyWayne_

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  1. 's Avatar
    Interesting read. Thanks for sharing
  2. darthballsac's Avatar
    Great article.

    I love the genre and have played many titles. I liked RE5 and the originals are just classic. I heard so many good things about Dead Space and bought it blindly. I must say it was a great purchase and I've been playing through it a second time.
  3. Dusty B's Avatar
    A great read. I was just packing up all my games and noticed out of all of them, horror makes up the bulk of them, along with racing games. Still haven't been able to play Dead Space yet but I will someday.

    One game that I think successfully mixes action and horror wonderfully is The Suffering which isn't as well known nowadays. It's from the last gen systems and seems to have been brushed aside when the new systems moved in. It had intense action with monsters that really unnerved you paired with a dark storyline in a setting with just tons of creepy history. I loved that game. There was a sequel but I haven't gotten around to checking it out so I can't vouch for that one, but the original I would place among my favorites.