Is Survival Horror Dead or Just Sleeping?
(This is another edition of </RANT>, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)
Last week, Resident Evil 6 producer Masachika Kawata sparked a little debate with his claim that Resident Evil 6 would not succeed as a traditional survival horror game. According to Kawata, Resident Evil needs to embrace action-oriented gameplay in order to appeal to the world, especially in the North American market. The slow pace and puzzle-focused activities seen in the original Resident Evil games have no place in Capcom’s world anymore, for Capcom wants games that sell as well as Call of Duty.
“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. A ‘survival horror’ Resident Evil doesn’t seem like it’d be able to sell those kind of numbers,” he told Gamasutra, enraging some fans and possibly delighting some others.
As a fan of survival horror, I have long feared this attitude. I grew up obsessed with Resident Evil on the PlayStation, and Silent Hill has become one of my favorite franchises across all media. I love horror games, the scarier the better, and while I adore Resident Evil 4 and always enjoy a good action title, I do miss the days where combat was often a less viable option than fleeing, and a game experience was defined by a haunting atmosphere, rather than how many bodies hit the floor.
The trouble with survival horror is that a lot of what made it scary is now considered criminally unfashionable. Survival horror often relied on poor combat mechanics to weaken the player and raise tension, and limitations on inventory and even data saving, in order to make players feel like every move they made was a significant and deadly risk. Silent Hill 2 had no qualms about wasting a player’s time with lengthy corridors and a requirement to check every single door in an apartment building to find the few unlocked ones. It was confident enough in the power of its environments to let players blindly fumble in the dark. Nowadays, finding games with such confidence is extremely rare, because these old fashioned mechanics are considered dated and undesirable now.
In many ways, survival horror evolved itself out of existence. Like dinosaurs becoming birds, most survival horror games have mutated over the years to take on a completely different form. As Kawata says, Resident Evil is not a survival horror game anymore. It’s an action game with horror elements. Silent Hill has struggled desperately to update itself over the years and compete with combat-heavy games, but most attempts have failed miserably. Modern games such as Dead Space and Metro 2033 have adapted some survival horror elements, with wonderful atmospheres and restrictions on the player’s resources, but they are still heavy on the action and built to engage one’s hands and bloodlust more than the brain. Modern games have no time for puzzles, and no space to build moments of gradual psychological fear. Modern players don’t have time for long corridors that incrementally inflict dread upon their minds.
Modern players also dislike feeling helpless, which was a big part of what made survival horror scary. Despite meeting many modern conventions, newer Resident Evils have been criticized for forcing players to remain stationary when shooting, to the point where it seems players will be able to move and shoot in Resident Evil 6. Another attempt to keep a sense of tension in combat is stripped away, and horror continues to evolve far beyond its original form.
However, is it fair to say that there truly is no room for survival horror anymore? Do gamers really not want a “real” horror experience anymore? I don’t think that’s entirely true. I think there’s plenty of room for survival horror to flourish. They need to update, most certainly, but they do not need to evolve into a completely unrecognizable form like Resident Evil has.
On consoles, the closest compromise I’ve seen to date has been Silent Hill: Downpour. Opinions on the game have been mixed, but I personally think Silent Hill: Downpour is the first truly successful Silent Hill game in years, a game that bravely maintains elements of classic horror games but streamlined the gameplay just enough to meet modern expectations. It was a highly competent balance of old and new, and I believe modern horror developers would do well to look at how Downpour succeeded, and build upon it. There’s certainly room for improvement, with Downpour providing a nice base.
In Downpour, Vatra Games maintained an inefficient combat system, just good enough to allow players to survive, but unpredictable enough to encourage fleeing from enemies whenever such opportunities are available. It wasn’t afraid to leave empty rooms and locked doors around the environment, to allow fear to build in a player’s mind. It brought back the need for puzzles, even providing sidequests devoted entirely to solving riddles and learning some dark backstories to Konami’s iconic town. However, it modernized where needed, making the player character less unwieldy to control, saving fixed camera angles for special moments, and streamlining the inventory menu to make selecting items and healing a lot easier.
While Downpour has plenty of problems (forced combat sequences? Come on!), it does a lot to demonstrate how survival horror can “survive” without sacrificing everything that makes the genre what it is. By simply compromising, rather than throwing out the entire playbook, survival horror can remain in a way that makes them accessible while maintaining plenty of scares and feelings of helplessness. Some of the critics may still harp on about outdated mechanics, but I think horror fans, regardless of their prior gaming experiences, can appreciate the retention of certain gameplay tropes in the name of fear.
But the question arises — can survival horror still sell? For that, I’d point at some of the unconventional games that have sold very well this generation, and request you ask the developers. Alan Wake, while definitely more combat-focused, was also predominantly fixated on story and atmosphere, with quite a few traditional horror elements mixed in. It happened to do quite well, all things considered, and has been deemed popular enough to justify more entries in the series. I needn’t bring up Amnesia: The Dark Descent again, or indeed PC gaming in general, which I have already called the true home of modern horror games. Horror works great on the computer, as I’ve said in the past, and seems to continue doing so. We also have Heavy Rain, which isn’t a horror game, but still sold incredibly well despite its complete lack of conventional, COD-like action. Horror games don’t need to be action-focused to succeed, as far as I’m concerned. There are examples of games that have sold very well while focusing on something else entirely. It just needs an excited fanbase and a publisher confident enough to put the marketing behind it. And yes, I think survival horror can stay alive on consoles as well as computers.
The thing Capcom forgets, and I find it quite ironic, is that Resident Evil was responsible for survival horror becoming a big deal in the first place. The genre was rather niche before Capcom moved in and turned the world onto horror games. For a glorious period in the nineties, survival horror was almost a mainstream endeavor, and it was all thanks to Capcom. Now, the company that turned an obscure genre into a sensation lacks the confidence to keep it a sensation. I find that interesting, and a little sad. Survival horror can be kept alive, and I think it can be popular again. It just needs confidence and compromise.
It’s a shame that those two concepts are on life support as much as any given genre.