What the Survival Horror Genre needs to Survive

There's been a lot of talk lately about how Surival Horror is dead. Most games are now focusing on mainstream action and adventure roles while Survival Horror games grow increasingly obscure and out matched. Even the series that invented the genre has shifted away from it and begun to focus on a more Action route.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how Surival Horror is dead. Most games are now focusing on mainstream action and adventure roles while Survival Horror games grow increasingly obscure and out matched. Even the series that invented the genre has shifted away from it and begun to focus on a more Action route. While Resident Evil tried to play homeage to it’s roots with the recent 3DS Exclusive “Resident Evil Revelations”, it still focused on the more action heavy gameplay the series is curently known for.

Many fans of the genre yearn for games of yester year with lots of exploration, lots of creepy atmosphere, brain cramping puzzles and tons of scares. But, even the big wig developers have stated that Surival Horror just isn’t profitable anymore. Games like Call of Duty rake in the sales year after year and appeal to such a wide audience, something a Survival Horror game can’t seem to even come close to. So that leaves most to effectively consider Survival Horror dead.

But, is the genre really done and over with it? It is really unprofitable? Is there no way to make it appeal to the mainstream without losing it’s focus and becoming an action adventure trollop? The answer to all of those is flat out “No”. Survival Horror isn’t dead and it doesn’t need to lose itself to appeal to a broader audience. It simply needs to re-evaluate itself and focus on actual ‘Survival’ Horror instead of trying to rely on outdated mechanics and tropes.

So here I’m going to tell you exactly what the developers need to do to make Survival Horror a successful formula again. It’s not very hard, it’s actually quite simple.

“Focus on ‘Survival’ Horror”

The key point of Survival Horror is the Survival aspect. The game doesn’t need typewriters, mansions, puzzles or tank controls to make it a SH game. It simply needs the Surival Aspect. The whole point is to make your character feel almost helpless against whatever impending doom is lurching upon them. When you equip your player with enough weapons and ammo to start their own private war, that feeling is lost and there’s very little to be scared of since you’re confident in being able to deal with virtually any threat with ease and comfort.

However, many developers have indeed tried this approach and failed miserably at appealing to the mainstream with it. But, that’s because of how they went about it, not because the approach itself is flawed. If you take a game like Silent Hill for example, from one standpoint it would seem it has the ideal approach. You’re put into the role of an every man who only gets a few weapons with very little ammo and relies heavily on breakable melee weapons to get him through with more focus on running away than actually fighting.

The problem here isn’t the approach itself so much as the battle system. Even the most die-hard Silent Hill fan can admit that the battle system in most Silent Hill games are pretty terrible and bluntly put, boring. There’s no diversity, no depth, and the systems themselves are pretty shoddy in general. It worked back on the ps1 when these games were new and fresh, but, in this day and age, those clunky systems are outdated and there’s no sense of reward taken from any battles. Mindlessly swinging a pipe at a monster until it falls over isn’t exactly thrilling or exciting, especially when that’s the extent of what you can do in battle against it.

That’s why the games often rely on you ‘running’ rather than fighting. But, even that is shoddily done in the majority of games since they require you doing little more than running a few feet until the enemy loses sight of you and turns away and lets you go free. There’s nothing to it. And therein lies the problem.

If the game wants to focus more heavily on ‘flight’ over ‘fight’ than it should have a system in place that actually makes the ‘flight’ part of the game interesting and challenging. Having enemies actually chase you down relentlessly until you actually ‘lose’ them by cleverly ducking and turning or hiding behind something etc. Have a stamina bar in place that prevents you from simply running forever with no consequence. Make the environment interactive by allowing you to toss things in the way to slow your persuer down, allow you to hide in lockers or closets or behind things or use items to distract or block their path from you.

Silent Hill Shattered Memories and Downpour tried to incorporate this in a way but, it’s done in scripted and haphazard ways to the point where it becomes tedious and redundant as there’s no actual variety or control involved. The ‘chase’ events simply happen at set times and are very linear. Actually allowing the player control over ‘how’ they escape and when and giving them a variety of options allows each chase to feel fresh and exciting and keep the player engaged.

Back to the ‘Fight’ part though, if the game has mutated monsters charging at me, it’s rather unbelievable and actually boring to have my character just standing their trading blows with it. Battle systems should be more involved focusing on avoiding their attacks, using the environment or items I have to stun or disorient the beast so that I can open it up to ‘safely’ be stabbed with a knife and so forth. Enemies should be more menacing in this regard, meaning that if they swipe me with those razor sharp claws, I shouldn’t just stand there and lose a piece of health and that’s it. I should fear each attack by the monster and actively make it my mission to avoid taking any hits much like you would in reality if you were to go face to face with such a beast.

And that’s the next part of making a proper Survival Horror game, making it feel as close to reality as possible in terms of the player. Yes, in a Survival Horror game we’re going to be dealing with zombies, chainsaw maniacs, ghosts and all other kinds of out of this world crap. So focusing on ‘reality’ might seem stupid. However, the entire point of SH as mentioned is on the Survival. And the best way to push that point home is through fear. Making the player actually scared and fearful of their life is the key ingredient. If you know you can trade blows without much worry, there’s nothing stopping you from being wreckless and going toe to toe with the monster. There’s no fear involved. If you know you can die and repawn immediatley at a checkpoint 30 seconds away, there’s no consequence involved in throwing yourself face first into armies of the undead.

The closer the player feels to reality, the scarier the game will be. You don’t need dogs jumping out of windows or fog encompassing¬† a town with mutilated bodies to bring fear to a player. That type of fear only works the first time through and becomes predictable. True fear relies on making the player feel helpless and vulnerable at all times. In Resident Evil 3 Nemesis, when Nemesis first shows up, you feel tense and scared, equally so when he chases you through the first room. However, once you know he only goes into certain rooms, only shows up at certain times, and know that he won’t actually kill you when he grabs you unless you’re low on health, the fear begins to wain and later encounters never have the same impact.

The Idea of Nemesis is great in theory, but, doesn’t hold up in execution because of how limited he is. Having a hulking mutated monster chase you relentlessly needs to deliver on it’s premise. The monster should indeed relentlessly hunt you down, actually attempt to kill you every time it sees you without holding back, and there shouldn’t be any rooms that are ‘safe’ from it. Clock Tower is a great example of this type of idea and it works rather well, even if it’s gameplay itself is rather redundant and simplistic. But, despite it’s flaws, Clock Tower is a great example of how Survival Horror should be done.

Clock Tower has you focus on ‘flight’ as mentioned earlier where using the environment is your key weapon, not guns or knives. Hiding in boxes or closets to avoid Scissorman while you desperately try to find a way out to escape is your goal. You have a fear meter which increases your heartbeat the more often you encounter Scissorman. If your heartbeat becomes too high, he will find you even when you’re hiding away and rightfully so, he will immediately kill you the second he’s given the chance. There’s no swipe and a piece of your health bar goes down. No, Scissorman outright kills you on the spot the second you’re within range. This makes you outright fear Scissorman and creates tension all throughout your encounters with him.

Many gamers might scoff at the idea of instant deaths, lack of combat ability etc. However, that leads to the final point, appealing to the mainstream. We’ve discussed all the concepts we need to make a truly scary game that encompasses the epitome of Survival Horror, but, we none of that sounds like it would really go over well with casuals. So how do we make it appeal to them and be profitable?

It’s actually quite simple, Online Multiplayer. Yes, you might be rolling your eyes right now but hear me out. Online Multiplayer is the key to appealing to the masses. Resident Evil Outbreak is an abysmal and boring game when played offline. It gives a lot of the ideas mentioned above, but, it’s just a really boring game overall. However, all of that changes the second you go online with it. The entire caliber of the game becomes something entirely different and the experience is unforgetable. Working together with other players to actively ‘survive’ is the focus and the unpredictability of your partners leads right back to the ‘reality’ aspect mentioned before.

You don’t know if your partners are gonna run off on their own, cooperate, betray you, or require you to hold their hand through the game. It makes each game different and exciting from the last. However, you might question why then Outbreak didn’t do so well. Well, that’s due to it being released at a time when online was not a universal commodity for gaming. It required a seperate Network Adapter just to get online and a broadband connection. Something many people didn’t have at the time. The game itself was also riddled with many bugs and a lot of lag.

However, a game today that allows 4-5 players to take on the roles of a bunch of teens or early 20’s chars together and play online where the entire goal is for them to survive by any means necessary while a serial killer chases them down, or undead zombies yearn for their flesh would go over extremely well if marketed properly.

If the game allows people to play together and actively work together to survive, the whole ‘helplessness’ becomes less of a problem for the players to moan about. Dying easily or being vulnerable isn’t as much of a challenge when you have other players to help you through. It also adds to the excitement of trying to help each other or deal with a traitor while everyone is scared out of their mind hoping not to die and protect each other.

Imagine a game that allows you to play as different characters, each with their own unique abilities and try to survive against a Jason Voorhies like character who actively hunts them down. If someone gets injured, they might have to limp or crawl until they get medical attention, adding to the drama and tension. A bunch of players might decide to make a stand against the killer only for one of them to abandon them and run off, using them as a distraction to get away and lessening the teams chances of survival. Now imagine if the game allows a player to actually play the role of the Jason type killer as well and hunt down the other players, while the other players try to band together to take him down or outlast him.

Or, Imagine a game where zombies have overtaken a town and instead of the game focusing on them being cannon fodder for you to kill and dismember at your leisure, these zombies are actually ruthless and will eat you alive and outnumber you easily if given the chance. So the game focuses on you and the other players barricading doors, climbing on top of lockers and into air shafts, scavaging for food, arming yourselves with anything and everything you can find to push the zombies back or escape from imminent death while you look for a way to escape.

The whole point is on ‘surviving’ and the game actually allowing you to do that by focusing on that instead of relying on puzzles, rocket launchers, overarching storylines or gimmicks. The game doesn’t need some hollywood level storyline with intricate cut scenes to be successful. It simply needs to allow for full control of the player to interact and focus on Survival while having a huge online element to incorporate others into the mix.

The whole point of a scary movie is to scare you. We all shout at the screen all the time at the characters for their stupid actions, and we always think about what we would do in that situation and how we would survive. Well that’s the point, put those players in that situation and let them perform those actions to survive. The game doesn’t need to be linear and progress through various stages and levels. Create a set piece whether it’s a cabin in the woods, an abandoned factory, or a small isolated town and run with it. Allow free roam of that set piece and allow full interaction with the environments surrounding it, add in your horrific threat and let the game itself do the rest of the work.

You’d be surprised at the sheer amount of replayability, diversity and fun that can be had simply trying to survive against a killer. And online multiplayer allows for that to never get tiring or boring.

A game that’s easy to jump into and lets you simply focus on trying to keep yourself alive while playing with other players has so much potential. There’s so much variety to be had from players who would enjoy helping others, to players who would enjoy simply trying to survive on their own, to players who would enjoy taking risks to try and kill the enemies despite the odds, to players who would enjoy being the enemy and trying to kill everyone themselves. There’s so much room for things to go wrong in a good way. A well coordinated team who gets ambushed and heavily injured and has to go back for a struggling ally or leave them behind, or gets split up and picked off one by one.

Despite the simple premise, the game would have so much room for things to be different and fresh each game, that it’d be an exciting and addictive experience that would go over well with casuals. There’s no longing backstory for them to be alienated by, there’s no level gaps to seperate them, the game is easy to jump into and the replayability is through the roof. Word of mouth alone could easily sell the game.

It’s just up to the developers to actually get it right.

You may disagree but, this is the single best way to retain Survival Horror and get the masses involved for an exciting and fun game that for once actually makes you feel like you’re in that horror movie and in control of the protagonists as you see fit without the game dictating the ending or how things play out.

Here’s to hoping some developer actually gets the balls to do it.

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About Mike McSulla

Long time Survival Horror and Fighting game fan, Mike is a jack of all trades and well known on gamefaqs, capcom-unity and many other sites. Mike is the creator of the ever popular, one and only Resident Evil 5 Versus Guide.