What Makes A Horror Game a Survival Horror?


Capcom’s decision to reinvent its flagship Resident Evil series with the fourth entry in 2005 marked the end of the golden age of survival horror, and set the precept of what ‘horror games’ were for the good part of half a decade. True survival horror was swiftly forgotten, buried in favour of the more lucrative survival action genre. It wasn’t until the beginning of the current decade that indie developers saw the potential of a first-person horror experience, and following the release of titles such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010), these hide-and-seek simulators quickly became the standard in the industry. What these developers did not realise – and still don’t seem to comprehend – is that they created an entirely new sub-genre of horror games, completely independent from all that had come before. So what many still call ‘survival horror’, what they believe is the resurgence in popularity of a bye-gone genre, is actually something unique. That isn’t a bad thing, but it is important to distinguish the difference.

‘Survival horror’ is a term thrown around these days like confetti at a wedding. It has got to the point where a 2D side-scrolling, point-and-clink ‘pixel horror’, a third-person, over-the-shoulder shooter, and a first-person hide-and-seek simulator are all grouped together and rather precariously called the same thing. It seems to be common logic that any game that has horror elements, no matter how apparent, is a survival horror. Some take it a step further and state, rather erroneously, though understandably so, that a game that focuses on survival and horror must be survival horror. However, though a lot of people would agree with this assertion, I and a great deal of others do not.

Ultimately, survival horror is a sub-genre of the all-encompassing horror genre, exclusive to video games. For a game to fall within this category it must display the necessary niche characteristics and game mechanics indicative of said subgenre. As such, it is not enough for a game to be horror oriented and contain survival themes to be categorised as survival horror, despite what many may assume. Similar to how the term ‘fantasy’ could, in the purest sense of the word, apply to largely anything fictional – a cowboy western narrative is as much a fantasy as a sci-fi romance – but the genre of fantasy is more specific, a amalgamation of established tropes. The same applies to the survival horror sub-genre. And like all sub-genres, it is even more specific, including gameplay, and covers a niche market of the gaming industry.

The key, deal-making characteristics of a survival horror are loosely based on the action-adventure genre, where early examples of horror games such as Alone in the Dark (1992), Clock Tower (1995), and Resident Evil (1996) drew their inspiration.

For a game to be classed as a true survival horror, it must contain…

1. Vulnerability

The protagonist(s) must be underpowered, weak, or incapable in some capacity to defend themselves against hostiles. This can include a limited inventory, sparse weaponry, and moderate to severe character flaws. The option of ‘fight or flight’ is crucial.

‘Fight or flight’ is often overlooked in a lot of modern horror games that makes me reluctant to call them survival horror. In some, weapons and ammunition are in abundance, so fleeing is rarely a viable option as the player is capable of dispatching any hostile with ease. In others, the ability to fight is completely removed, making flight the only option. To be classed as a survival horror, it is crucial that a game allow the player to defend themselves (in other words, the protagonist will do anything in order to survive, regardless as to their physical capabilities). Some form of defence and offense is required, though not enough to secure the safety of the protagonist. Many games fail to get the balance right. A good example of correct balance is the 2002 remake of Resident Evil.

2. Limitation

The gameplay and perspective must be limiting and, to some extent, frustrating and tense. The player must feel like they do not have complete control over the situation and are helpless. Isolation and a difficult, foreboding location are key. Perspective is not limited to third-person or first-person, though gameplay must be indicative of adventure games. This includes puzzle solving, inventory management, fetch quests, exploration, etc.

There is room for leeway here. Classic survival horror games employed fixed camera angles, which created a dissonance between the player, the character, and the actions on screen. It also limited the players control and view of the environment, making it difficult to know what was round the next corner. Modern survival horror tends to employ the first-person perspective, both to limit the player’s view of the environment and to create a sense of immersion and realism. Both are acceptable.

3. Horror

Perhaps the most obvious; a survival horror game must have an emphasis on horror, drawing inspiration from pre-existing genre tropes already established in other entertainment forms such as books and film. An imbalance towards action would not only nullify this point, but also the first point (that of vulnerability). On the other hand, too great a focus on horror and the game may find itself relinquishing its crucial adventure game mechanics in favour of an interactive haunted house experience – a walking simulator full of tedious jump scares.

The game can follow any form of horror, as long as it is indeed horror (note that there is a difference between something that is horror themed and horror focused; action games such as Resident Evil 6 (2012) – though it uses horror tropes such as zombies, jump scares, and gore – are only horror themed). The pacing is typically slow with an inclination towards environmental story-telling. Setting is also important, as is isolation, for creating a horror atmosphere. It goes without saying that multiplayer is a no-no, unless it is optional.

Though there are those posed to disagree, using the nondescript argument that the sub-genre has ‘evolved’ over time, I believe thus: gameplay is critical when determining the genre of a game. Though the horror genre is vast, and what many consider scary is subjective, when it comes to videos game genres what determines a game’s label is objective. Gameplay is the core, fundamental distinction between a survival horror, a pixel-horror, an action horror, and so forth. Though you can make subtle adjustments to said gameplay, if you strife too far, it becomes something else entirely. If you took Red Dead Redemption (2010), a homage to classic spaghetti-westerns, and had it set in space, it would cease to belong to the western genre. Similarly, if you removed the ability to explore the wilderness at your leisure, it would cease to belong to the open-world sandbox genre.

Despite all the confusion, the popularity of Capcom’s Resident Evil remake, which was rereleased in 2015 (and subsequently became the most downloaded game on Steam for the Japanese developer), has shown that there is a strong desire amongst the horror fan base for a more traditional, proper survival horror experience. I believe the time is right, maybe even overdue, for a resurgence in true survival horror games.

– James –

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