I’m sure if anybody reading this tries, they can pinpoint an exact moment when a piece of media directly affected them. It could be the first time a movie made you cry, or the first time a TV show really sucked you in. For me, I can remember the moment that I discovered my love for horror based media.
I was sitting in my parent’s basement, playing my Playstation. It was sometime in February, and I was just eleven years old. My grandparents had just bought me a game the day before, and I was finally getting some time to play it. My brother sat next to me, eager to see what this new game was like. The game came with two disks, one labeled “Leon” and one labeled “Claire.” I tossed in the Leon disk and saw a huge eye pop up with the title splash “RESIDENT EVIL 2.” A creepily enthusiastic man said “Resident Evillllll” after I hit “New Game.” What the next few minutes entail are the what was at the time the scariest moments of my life. The introduction cinematic, the initial gameplay mechanics, and the events at Kendo’s Gun Shop nearly petrified me. I had to shut the game off, when, upon leaving a bus in the very early game, I was greeted with a camera angle of zombies eating a corpse, which then noticed me and begin to shamble and moan in my direction.
My brother, of course, relayed this to my father and both made fun of me for the better part of the year. At one point, my father hid inside my closet and began to make zombie moaning noises when I turned out the light to sleep. But while the game did, in fact, give me nightmares for weeks (I can still hear that moaning noise as clear as day), it awoke something inside of me. I suddenly had this urge to experience as much of this kind of media as I could and thus began my addiction to survival horror.
1996 was the year many games began to move into a convincing 3D space, allowing developers to show consumers fully realized worlds. This isn’t to say that 2D worlds are not convincing (one of my favorites being from Lunar: Silver Star Story), but developers wanted to see how far the current gen hardware could be pushed. Crash Bandicoot, Tomb Raider and the first true “modern” FPS Quake are just a few examples of games leading the forefront of high fidelity, three dimensional games. But one title not only created why I believe to be a gripping and intense atmosphere, but coined that wonderful term “survival horror;” a term that gets thrown around a lot in gaming circles today, ultimately losing its original meaning and genre definition. When I talk about survival horror, I’m mostly referring to games that make the player feel much less in control as, let say, an action game. You, as a player, have limits placed on you. Simple limitations are easy and are crafted into most games to serve its approach on realism; one of the biggest ones in shooters is only being able to carry two or three weapons at a time. However, in these games, you usually play as a super soldier type; highly capable, with regenerating health, perfect accuracy, and the ability to essentially commit genocide on hordes of faceless enemies. True survival horror is stripping away the power fantasy, which is one of the reasons people play games in the first place.
Comfortable? I Think Not
Video games instill a sort of comfort in us these days, with health regeneration, shields, insta-kill melee attacks, and devastating weapons, among other things. What survival horror does is strip these things away and gives the player bare bones; here’s how you move, here’s how you shoot; don’t die. It’s a simple presentation that, most of the time, doesn’t even come with a tutorial. The weapons can still be cool, there can still be melee weapons (or system, depending on the game) but the ease in which they solve problems is lifted. You are not ex special forces, nor are you a demigod; you’re an average person thrust into an extreme situation. The player is left to figure things out through risks, and only the most confident players get to reap the rewards, and the rewards are usually a fantastic presentation in story mixed with an atmosphere that most modern games can’t match.
Control in games is one of the first direct points of opinion someone has. Its a direct presentation of how a game is going to feel and play. There are games that people pick up because they look cool, only to be immediately turned off by the controls, the Monster Hunter series being a prominent example. Monster Hunter has a very obtuse control scheme. A game series that was mostly handheld focused until the release of Monster Hunter World, even seasoned vets of the series complain about the controls from time to time. Given there are still a few camera adjustment options, however, it still retains its fluidity in movement and combat. After a little bit (a few hours or so) of practice, anyone can pick up a Long Sword and begin slashing up Rathlos ankles and mounting Great Jaggis. Survival Horror games look at that, and toss the camera controls out into the dumpster.
Tanks A Lot
Most survival horror use what are fondly known as “Tank Controls.” The idea is that, regardless of camera angle or character orientation, up walks forwards, down walks backwards, and left and right rotate left and right. This kind of set up immediately adds tension and stress on the player, making movement a calculated expenditure rather than something to be forgotten about. You cannot control the exact way your character moves, like in an action game, but more so a set direction. When adding turning to this, you tend to go in more of an arc than a pinpoint motion. Your character can sometimes turn on a dime, but it’s usually assigned to another button. To add to this limit, most characters cannot move and shoot at the same time. You have to hold a button to stop, have your character raise their weapon, then press another button to fire. Even if the game allows you to move and fire, like in Dino Crisis and Silent Hill, this is often a poor choice. Moving around and shooting in these games is often a last ditch effort to save yourself from bad positioning, not to be used as a part of your combat repertoire. It’s not fluid, it’s not intuitive, and it will get you killed, but that’s the point. The idea is to not give the player all of the intended movement options within a play space, making them consider their options carefully before doing something.
Another differentiating feature of survival horror games is resource management. Most games have your typical health management along with another kind of resource, like ammo or mana. Survival Horror games not only have you balancing out your health, but you ammo, healing supplies, puzzle pieces and your weapons. You can usually carry only a limited number of items on your person, so every time you have to switch an item out, it becomes a conundrum. “Do I bring my handgun and shotgun with ammo for each, or do I go it with just one in case I run into more resources?” or “Can I really hold off on using my last health item even though I might be one hit away from death?” Questions like this constantly assault you, combined with the overall rarity of consumables and ammunition. Traditionally, health is usually displayed on the main game screen, so that the player can watch it while they are playing. Survival horror games tend not to have HUDs, so player health is shown in non-traditional ways. Since most of the perspective of the Resident Evil series comes from various camera angles, the developers decided that, after the first game had next to no indicators for player health on the actual model (the only way to check was in the inventory screen), Capcom implemented a quick reference for player injury. If your character was perfectly healthy, they would move around normally. If they were injured, they would hold their side but still move at a normal pace. If they were one hit away from death, they would hold their side and slowly limp around. Dead Space uses the player character’s suit to display not only health, but inventory, maps, ammo count and everything else. Jurassic Park: Trespasser has the player’s health displayed on a tattoo on their player model. These are only so reliable, and for a good reason: dicey numbers when it comes to your character’s life creates tension and atmosphere.
That Feeling in the Air
To be fair, there are plenty of games out there that possess an atmosphere that absolutely amazes. However, with every gaming comfort stripped away from you, you tend to notice the few things that are there. People usually say “quality over quantity,” and survival horror takes that saying to heart. Survival horror has had to be inventive from the very beginning. Games like the original Alone in the Dark or D used a static camera or a first person perspective, respectively. As time went on, other elements and tricks were used, like Team Silent’s famous fog in the Silent Hill series or the pre-rendered backgrounds of the Resident Evil series; both techniques were used to utilize the Playstation hardware the best way. As time went on, the Japanese especially kept pumping the atmosphere higher and higher. Siren mostly takes place in a small Japanese village full of the possessed. Silent Hill 2, arguably the best survival horror game of all time, took the psychological focus of its predecessor and pushed it even further, with enemies inspired by the main character’s trauma, the mystery of the town, and the fleshed out backstory behind all of the characters in the game.
At the same time, a lack of information can push a good atmosphere further into an amazing atmosphere. Capcom’s survival horror games (the Resident Evil series and the Dino Crisis series) all contain characters thrust into situations that are beyond normal, and as the players, it’s up to us to adapt. However, most of these games give the player a framework of a story to work with, keeping a lot of the plot in the shadows. These plot points are either reveled later, shown in the environment, or are scattered in different places in the form of documents. A part of the fun in these games is finding notes, faxes, photographs, lists, diaries, journals, and reports that contain hints at what happened before the arrival of the player. These notes are often off the beaten path or hidden in the levels. Before the age of Wikipedia, players had to either follow guidebooks or attempt to brute force their way into finding all of the hidden data in the game to get the entire story. Finally, visual information in most of these games is also limited, and this mostly comes in the form of perspective placement.
Ready For A Close-up
An action game needs a dynamic and wide camera so that players can view all of the threats around them at any given time. Imagine playing something like Bayonetta with a camera pulled all the way up to behind her shoulders; you wouldn’t be able to see any threats around your immediate 90 degree view. It would, more than likely, be a miserable experience. Survival horror games use this to their advantage, for tension and discomfort. You’ve just entered a room in Dino Crisis; no music is playing, and the camera is facing our hero, Regina. After taking a few steps into the room, you hear a soft purring sound, followed by a his. Suddenly, thunderous running begins to grow louder as you realize something off screen is running directly at you. What kind of reaction does this cause? Would this have been as terrifying or unsettling if we had a camera showing us the Velociraptor the entire time? Dead Space and Resident Evil 4, by extension, have the camera pressed against the protagonist’s shoulder, heightening the claustrophobia and frantic shooting they are known for.
If you’ve read this far, you have a basic understanding of what makes survival horror games unique. So what now? Well play some, of course. Unfortunately, getting a hold of some of the classics is moderately difficult these days, with games like Silent Hill and Resident Evil 2 particularly difficult to find. Your best bet for a start is the amazing (and modern) Resident Evil HD. A remake of a GameCube remake of a Playstation game, it looks amazing, has pre-rendered backgrounds, a lengthy story, intense atmosphere, and a hell of a legacy behind it. It alone explores almost every single topic I have touched on in this essay, and should be at the top of your list when exploring this genre for the first time. So you’re at the end of this; now grab a survival horror game, turn out the lights, and start down the slippery slope I went down so many years ago.