Survival Horror is Dead. Long Live Survival Horror.
I’ve been digging through my backlog (aren’t we all?) polishing off some titles that have sat on the backburner for a while. In the course of doing so, I came across Resident Evil 6. Remember that game? I remember being fairly excited for the it at the time and enjoying the demo. I also remember chuckling at all the jokes people made about the logo. More importantly though, I remember a conversation surrounding whether the series had abandoned its roots becoming more prominent between RE5 and RE6. At the time I hadn’t realized that the conversation had been going on a lot longer or that a large undercurrent of it was rooted in the concepts of “survival horror” and “action horror” and how the new titles fit (or didn’t fit) into those categories.
The New Age Horror
Once I learned more about what these complaints actually were I grew confused. What do you mean RE4 wasn’t survival horror? You have zombies and all manner of biological abominations you need to contend with - and you’re likely doing so with just a pistol and a knife. Combat was visceral and nuanced. You had better make every round count - ammo wasn’t exactly plentiful and health was worse. For the first time since Dark Cloud, I actually paid meaningful attention to and lovingly managed my inventory. The stakes were always being raised and the game had a lovable quirkiness about it. If this is what Resident Evil looks like now, what’s the problem? Do you hate fun!?
Then Resident Evil 5 was announced. It was edgy. It started out having to contend with allegations of racism. I was torn on where to stand with that last one but hell if it wasn’t a fun ride. The gameplay didn’t seem to change too much from the previous iteration and it was starting to show. You gave me tank controls, but I’m being confronted with faster enemies that can easily swarm me when I stop to aim on a consistent basis. Is the dodge still tied to a context sensitive, nigh inhumanely timed QTE? I guess that’s part of the challenge this time around. It’s a shame that neither the attache inventory nor spooky atmosphere returned in full effect. More’s the pity.
And then there was Resident Evil 6. Suddenly Leon “Bad Enough Dude To Save The President's Daughter But Gentlemanly Enough To Not Seduce Her” Kennedy is making a reappearance, I have a improved mobility options and a spookier atmosphere. About this time I came to a realization. While I didn’t dislike the game like some did, it felt like an amalgamation of the previous two entries in the series. I could see the inspirations from the previous two titles and the iterations made upon them. But it was too different for comfort. I was starting to wonder if this is how fans of old school Resident Evil titles felt about Resident Evil 4.
Recently I discovered Chris’ Survival Horror Quest. If you aren’t familiar with his blog, you should scoot on over there and give it a gander. Chris Pruett has been doing horror analysis for at least a decade (and even has a VR horror game Dead Secret that released on March 28th) and helped me put my feelings into tangible words. What is survival horror? Is the genre flexible enough to accommodate all of the Resident Evil titles? Does it have to?
Survival Horror Then
Survival horror didn’t enter the general lexicon until 1996 when Capcom used the descriptor to market their new horror title, Resident Evil. The game took place in a mansion in fictional Racoon Forest. Enemies included the likes of zombies, giant snakes, mutant dogs and even hostile plants. Combat was tough and risky as ammunition was scarce and your knife put you within grabbing range. It had a heavy emphasis on exploration, through which logs on the backstory and access to further portions of the mansion was granted. Combat and exploration were both made more difficult due to the limited inventory size - forcing the player to constantly backtrack to safe rooms or previous areas and exacerbating any ammo and health item shortages
The term “survival horror” was then retroactively applied to previous games with similar elements such as Project Firestart and Resident Evil’s spiritual predecessor, Sweet Home. New titles arose taking cues from Capcom’s horror hit, such as Parasite Eve and Silent Hill. The genre’s heyday is widely considered to be the late nineties - prior to the release of the new age titles like Resident Evil 4 and Doom 3.
Survival Horror Now
The turn of the century brought with it some notable changes. All though there had been prior games (within the Resident Evil series, no less) that strayed from general survival horror form such as Dino Crisis (Capcom tagged it “Panic Horror”) and the Gun Survivor spinoffs, questions about the state of the genre didn’t start until around the release of Resident Evil 4. The advent of new perspectives, more direct, nuanced combat, varying degrees of departure from exploratory puzzles and reliance upon new types of horror had spurred some hesitancy in fans of the survival horror classics. While undeniably horror, many noticed a bit more action than was supposedly the precedent for the genre. The likes of Resident Evil 4, F.E.A.R., Dead Space and The Suffering are often referred to as “action horror” as a result. Needless to say, there wasn’t too much agreement on where to place games within this new comparison paradigm.
Putting It All Together
Chris argues that “survival horror” and “action horror” are faulty ways to categorize horror games. To a large extent, I can agree. Not because there aren’t a deluge of games we can pour into either category, but rather because once you start trying to unpack their meanings, they start to fall apart - especially if you’re trying to maintain some sense of purity anchored in the genre’s golden age. I’d like to think that we took a game and then erected a genre around it. That’s not a bad thing. It’s just that it seems as though this was built around a holistic experience, not a concise set of mechanics or themes. Unfortunately, such freedom allows each person to pull a different aspect of this experience out and hold it up as the most important. I know that Splatoon is just as much a shooter as Call of Duty because of the emphasis on a shared mechanic: shooting. I can argue that Portal is a shooter because of how it utilizes a form of shooting. But what is that concise requirement for survival horror? Are the static cinematic camera angles the most important? Is it the key collecting? Is it the weapons (or lack thereof)?
One suggestion is that it’s a sense of uncertainty and a degree of helplessness in the face of a threat. But isn’t that a core tenet of horror anyway? It’s also a theme that can be expressed both in narrative and mechanically. Movies handle this in their own way because characters live or die by the narrative the author weaves. Indirect characterization that expresses a threat or creates tension through failure on the victims part and success on the threat’s part don’t pose the risk of hindering a movie. Games have that pesky interaction thing, though. You have to have the player do stuff. In a game, failure (in the traditional sense) leads to a state that kicks you out and makes you restart the simulation. The challenge, then, is to empower the player reasonably enough to traverse the simulation and also make sure they are at the mercy of whatever the threat of the week is. But there’s multiple ways to do this. A schoolgirl fighting ghosts with a camera can invoke just as much tension as a government agent dodging a masked maniac with a chainsaw. Having your strength fail you can inject just as much helplessness as knowing you didn’t stand a chance in the first place.
To me “Survival Horror” is best used as a legacy term to reference certain titles from the horror game heydays of the 80’s and 90’s just as “Action Horror” would be for certain titles post millennia. The comparative nature of these terms and the change in horror trends that spurred them are definitely valid. Unfortunately, the vagueness of the terms don’t help us understand these differences very well. Directly comparing mechanics, instead of vague thematic descriptors would be better. For example, Resident Evil and Resident Evil 4 both separate mobility and offense, lack an active defense option and encourage a mingling of melee and ranged combat. Resident Evil, however, has limited combat options (either shoot or slash/stab). Resident Evil 4 allows you to aim where you want to shoot/stab since damage elicits different reactions based on where your attack hits. It goes further by allowing you to exploit this reaction with a special melee attack.
So, if you just have to categorize horror games, those bland terms based on mechanics are likely the way to go.