As I slice up my hundredth slobbering alien beast with ease whilst playing Dead Space, I wonder to myself: has the survival horror genre forgotten that it has the word ‘survival’ in it?
The term ‘survival horror’ seems to be used very lightly when it comes to labeling games in which the enemies shuffle towards you instead of walking. Survival horror games should have a strict and oppressive focus on the player keeping the characters alive against an onslaught of deadly, threatening enemies. I mentioned Dead Space because I heard the space-based chop-em-up described as survival horror. How can a game in which the protagonist, who is far more powerful than his enemies, dices the monstrosities into bite-size chunks from the comfort of an armored space-suit whilst being accompanied by an abundant amount of ammo be considered ‘survival horror’? The emphasis clearly isn’t on survival but on combat. There is nothing inherently wrong with the Dead Space series and that brand of horror game, but can I suggest instead of lazily slapping the ‘survival horror’ tag onto it just because every now and then something attempts to startle the player, how about devising a new label, like action-horror: a game that seeks to blend the visceral combat of an action game with the terror of a horror game.
So, what makes a horror game ‘survival horror’ and not ‘action horror’. There are several aspects of a game that can tilt the focus of the gameplay towards survival rather than action. One way is to make the protagonist underpowered and frightened like one of us fleshy, introverted gamers. This is a method competently employed by the Silent Hill series, in which the protagonist is normally your average citizen who lacks the S.A.S. training that game protagonists normally possess, and instead of blowing holes in blundering baddies with double-barrel shotguns, they swing melee weapons incompetently in the direction of their gruesome enemies. The protagonist’s incompetence, which granted could be down to the dodgy combat mechanics that have become a trademark of the Silent Hill series, mean that the player dreads every encounter. It means the atmosphere is edgy and overbearing, and given the option, the player would rather avoid or hide from potential danger rather than run in head-first with a Molotov cocktail between their teeth. Having a mortal, the incompetent protagonist also raises immersion, because you can relate with a terrified man rocking back and forth in a cupboard because no matter what may happen in your dreams, that’s exactly how you would react. Yes, that’s right, I’m talking to you. I defy anyone to find common ground with Chris Redfield – ‘Wow, I can totally understand his anguish, because he has ahead, and so do I!’
Another way of emphasizing survival over action is to make ammo scarce and valuable. If the main character has an assault rifle with plenty of rounds on standby, any fear that the enemies you face may initially provoke fades to nothing when you’re effectively gunning through legions of them with ease. When I first saw a necromorph, I was simultaneously disgusted and frightened, but by the second chapter of Dead Space, I was dispatching them with the same amount of dread that stomping goombas instills in me.
An exemplar of the third way to tilt a game towards an emphasis on survival comes in the form of Ubisoft’s fantastic first-person horror title, ZombiU. It doesn’t have a well-characterised protagonist for us to care about, as the USP of the fantastic Wii-U launch title is that each time your character dies, you start again embodying a new character. The people you play as are relatable in the sense that they are vulnerable, normal, everyday men and women, but they don’t last long enough for the player to grow close to them in the same way that I grew to love Francis York Morgan of Deadly Premonition fame. If the character you happen to be playing as stumbles across a lone zombie, then they can bludgeon the undead offender with their trusty cricket bat with ease. If the character enters a room with two zombies, then they must adopt a strategy in order to survive the encounter with all their body parts. If the main character is cornered in an alley way by a crowd of zombies, they might as well sit down and cover themselves in barbecue sauce. The result is an almost painfully tense and immensely nerve-wracking experience, which is impressive in light of the fact that gamers are completely desensitised to zombies.
Although following the instructions of your pleasingly northern guide, ‘The Prepper’, is high on your list of priorities, there is one priority that sits high above all your other goals, emblazoned in red, and that is: SURVIVE. In ‘action-horror’ games as they should be known, death usually provokes an exasperating sigh from me as I reload from my checkpoint to tackle the baddies once more. In ZombiU, when I die I literally yell ‘NOOOO!’ at the top of my voice as I slump back defeated, knowing all too well that I had lost everything and that I’d have to start again. That is how you do survival horror.
I suppose the point is that if you are going to employ genres, labelling a game like Dead Space or any recent Resident Evil game ‘Survival Horror’ is just misleading. Games that belong in that particular genre focus on tenseness, vulnerability and (the clue is in the name) survival. If you can blast through waves of mutants willy-nilly then where’s the survival aspect? Capcom apparently had a similar train of thought and dubbed the latest instalment, Resident Evil 6, as‘dramatic horror’, so we’re making progress. As I said earlier, some action-horror games are great, and the popularity of the Dead Space series illustrates that, it’s just that you could never imagine Isaac Clarke huddled into a space-closet crying and sucking his space-thumb.