I recently picked up a copy of Resident Evil: Revelations for the 3DS (which so far has proven to be my only reason to own a 3DS outside of Ocarina of Time, but anyway), and between solving puzzles and massacring zombies, it seemed a bit strange to me how insignificant the combat system was in crafting my “survival-horror” experience. Now, I use that term extremely loosely, as it seems that everyone and their brother has a new idea of what it means. The real fear came from my choices, my fight or flight kicking in, and then subsequently doubting itself. Every swing that came my way had me ducking for cover, even though there was no real fear to be had. I had some irrational fear that I was actually in danger, and that’s where true horror in games can come from.
I’ve had lots of opinions throughout the years about how choice affects video games as a whole. But in reality, everything that is set out by developers stems from the idea of player interaction. Pick up a key here, shoot a Russian there, etc. Player interaction includes choice, game-play mechanics, and everything that leads up to what we the public dub a game.
That being said, survival-horror games have struggled to achieve successful player interaction for years. There’s a fine line between unplayable and difficult. We’re talking extremely fine here, and recently, most developers when crafting a “classic survival-horror” experience have had tendencies to cross into unplayable territory. The Silent Hill series has struggled for years with keeping a tense environment, gripping story and tight controls — but that’s just the nature of the beast. Tight controls lead to easy play and make tense situations less tense. While Silent Hill 2 was praised back in the day, by today’s standards its controls are absolute crap. That’s just a fact — but back in 2002, that control scheme led to those intense moments with Pyramid Head, and the painful noises of the incoming nurses. That’s just how survival horror worked back then. But times have changed. And developer mentality needs to change, too.
Dead Space was a large leap in what became the broadening of the survival-horror genre. There are still forum arguments you can find debating whether or not it fits the category, so for the sake of this article, I’m going to steer clear of anything that falls closer to “action survival horror.” Having tight controls and combat that works would be useless if those mechanics weren’t used, and this leads to the word “action” being tacked out front. So let’s nix these.
When creating a horror game, it can no longer be about tension. Silent Hill 2 was created with the idea of tension in mind, and while it still remains a core aspect of what creates a great survival horror game, it can’t be the main focus. Tension will come out of something that is referred to in the performing world as “suspension of disbelief.” I’m going to take that idea and bend it a little to fit my needs. Players need to believe that they are in danger. They need to feel what the character they are controlling is feeling. Haunted houses scare people because of this idea, and The Notebook makes people cry for the same reason. They feel like it’s happening, actually happening in their reality. And though that might seem like an incredibly simple concept, implementing a blurring of realities can be difficult.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent was highly praised by gamers all over the world as the first successful survival horror game in years. Many have attributed it to the tension and absolute helplessness of the main character, and although those two
things do play a role, it all parts off of the idea that the player truly believes they are in danger. With every corner, and every dark corridor, Amnesia creates an impending sense of doom. The first-person perspective helps with this, and really throws the player into the world. With each increasing level of insanity, the player grows paranoid, both in-game and out. The screen begins to blur and hallucinations begin to creep in. This is accentuated by the fact that Daniel (the game’s protagonist) is mirroring these feelings by creating them in his reality, the game. It’s almost as if he is driving the player’s emotion by subtly hinting that this is what they should be feeling. It’s nasty, but it works. And before long, the player has begun quivering in their seat, waiting for the next scare, waiting for the monster to finally appear. This is what horror needs in the current day.
With the incredible advancements that have been made with technology, players no longer stand for camera systems or controls like those that made Silent Hill 2 famous. Things have progressed. But we don’t have to give up on survival-horror games. Tension can be created without making it a core game mechanic. All it takes is a connection to the player. I’m not saying it’s easy. For ages, games have struggled with connecting to players through a controller or keyboard. It might be years before this is made into a science. If the idea of how to create a survival-horror game is shifted, the games themselves will be better. It’s just a matter of time.