By: Leigh Alexander
You're picking your way through the destitute skeleton of an abandoned building. All around you, decaying, discarded décor reminds you that people lived and worked here once, just as it prompts you to wonder what happened to them. Strange noises and crawling damp seep through the rotted walls.
Your backpack is stuffed with cryptic objects you inexplicably picked up in your exploration - unsettling to look at and obscure in their application, they somehow hold the solutions to the puzzles that impede your progress, if only you can figure them out.
It's dark, you've got a weak flashlight, a short knife, maybe a length of steel pipe you picked up along your way. And you have a sinking feeling that at the end of the next corridor, death is lurking in the shape of a shambling, deformed monster. But you press on through the dispassionate madness, driven by unravelling mysteries and the unresolved ghosts of your own past.
This is survival horror - does it still exist?
Though it's widely held that 1992 PC title Alone in the Dark laid the groundwork for the way video games treat horror, it was the original Resident Evil that cemented the formula on consoles in particular. The saga of Raccoon City began in 1996, when an entire generation of gamers became invested in the adventures of the Redfield siblings, the sordid Umbrella Corporation, and the S.T.A.R.S special forces. Hallmarked by the moan of soulless zombies, mysterious puzzles in an abandoned mansion, and occasional leap-out-of-your-goddamn-skin moments, it wasn't the kind of thing you'd want to play late at night by yourself.
The original Silent Hill arrived in 1999. Like Resident Evil, it sent the player wandering through eerily deserted locales dismantling black-blooded flesh sacks, but Silent Hill's hallmark was true psychological horror - the eponymous town cloaked in white fog, through increasingly detailed iterations of the series, became a fairly clear allusion to the protagonist's personal Hell, and players could draw metaphors through each phase of the game to the often sordid history of the game's characters.
Resident Evil, Silent Hill and the Fatal Frame series, which takes a particularly Japanese cultural approach to the survival horror formula, could perhaps be called the "triple crown" of survival horror in video games, and along with Clock Tower, Haunting Ground and Siren, each of which put a distinctive spin on the core genre, set in stone the way we chase fear on a video game console.
Don't Fight, Just Run!
Titles like these all have distinct differences, of course, but they all tend to have a few traits in common. First, they largely de-prioritize combat mechanics, favouring challenging the player through elements like on-location puzzles, mazelike game areas, using the environment itself against enemies, and even fleeing and hiding instead of direct combat. The Fatal Frame series eschews actual hand-to-hand fighting, characterized by its use of a camera to banish the game's ghosts; Haunting Ground avoids the issue entirely, creating effective, vaguely perverted fear by casting the player as an exposed, vulnerable girl who must hide while training her dog to defend herself.
Though the inability to directly confront monsters in an effective way ended up enhancing the fear factor for these games, it wasn't likely an entirely deliberate design decision - technology in the nineties didn't allow for multiple kinds of mechanics in one game the way we see today. Back then, a game couldn't easily have an enormous, interactive environment, an inventory-dependent puzzle system, and really good third-person character behaviour and still have a sophisticated combat engine on top of it.
In other words, the only games we had in which the fighting worked well were games in which fighting was the main event. But Silent Hill became a critical and commercial success in spite of decidedly unwieldy combat mechanics - fans didn't play it for the creature-bashing, they played it for the creep factor, perhaps demonstrating to the industry that games didn't need combat to be great, and paving the way for other clever, primarily psychological action titles.
Among its peers, though, Resident Evil was arguably the most successful in terms of combat mechanics, at least in contrast to Silent Hill. Though it wouldn't have held up when compared to, say, Western first-person shooters or action titles as far as how fluidly the player could become a killing machine, it was always largely competent, and the arsenal of available weapons increased with each successive installment of the storied series.
If fighting mechanics remain the weak spot in survival horror, it makes sense that developers would want to evolve them, and again, it makes sense that Resident Evil'd be the one to perfect its combat controls as the years went on. The widely-acclaimed Resident Evil 4 has been called one of the best all-around games of all time, hailed in large part for its good looks and brilliant controls. The action comes fast and messy, and it's outright joyful to play as agile, powerful Leon bringing the wet, snap-popping hurt to a legion of eerily lifelike viral Ganados.
And by all early accounts, Resident Evil 5 will just refine that formula even more. Through all of its pre-release critical checkpoints RE5 has excelled. It looks awesome. It hasn't messed much with RE4's practically perfect controls. It brings the zombie-bashing into a new (if somewhat controversial) arena. It adds partner AI!
Wait, partner AI? Whatever happened to alone in the dark?
You Call This Survival Horror?
When you watch Chris Redfield (who over the years has apparently been lifting a lot of weights) charge through an open village with the camera over his brawny shoulder, toting heavy arms with his tough-sexy partner Sheva by his side, it ought to make you thrill with anticipation for what could be the next great action game.
But it also ought to make you wonder - is this really survival horror?
Electronic Arts' upcoming space splatterhouse Dead Space says it's "survival horror" too. Now, it looks like a good game, to be sure, and it also looks like it'll be quite scary. But with a focus on real-time, non-stop action (literally - you can't use a pause menu) and design that producer Chuck Beaver says is inspired by Half-Life 2, it has few touchstones to survival horror as we know it. "Person all alone in creepy area surrounded by swarms of bad guys" does not a survival horror game make - that's just a basic tenet in nearly all video games. By that definition, hell, even Super Mario Bros. is survival horror.
So whatever happened to our imperfect, psychologically damaged heroes, our creepy little doll rooms, our feeble switchblades, our crawling dread? And why have they been replaced by gun-toting professionals and space marine types - as if gaming needed any more space marines?
How We Lost Our Way
Part of the answer lies in the fact that the video game industry has become big business in a way that perhaps it hadn't yet approached in the early and mid-'90s. These days, whenever you'd like to know why too many games just "follow the leader" instead of innovating, whenever you'd like to know why your favourite kooky series got canned - and, in this case, when we'd like to know why a beloved niche went mainstream, there's a simple, two-word answer that means a lot to game company investors but very little to us: Risk management.
Games with big budgets need to make a lot of money; that's not greed, that's fiscal responsibility. So when planning a project slate, publishers look around and see that the big sellers are Gears of War and Halo — they look at the high performance of RE4 and consider the heavy weapon apocalypse to be the direction that consumers want to go. And to some extent, it is - these titles are shining examples of excellent game design. But faced with these prevailing trends, most publishers will feel the need to see highly detailed gunplay and cover mechanics implemented into the games they greenlight, believing it's a recipe for success - even for games that have historically thrived on other strengths.
The other reason is somewhat more complex. Those beloved survival horror franchises came into prominence at a time when Japanese design and aesthetic sensibilities largely dominated the console market. The very titles that have helped shift Western development to the forefront - the aforementioned Gears, Halo and Half-Life among a good many others - have also brought Western cultural values about action, fear and horror to the fore, where previously the Japanese approach defined the genre.
East Versus West
Resident Evil is said to be born from a Japanese horror movie, "Sweet Home" (which was actually based on an NES game of the same name). Although "Sweet Home" itself took its inspiration in turn from several Western movies, it nonetheless carries with it the strong hallmark of the way Japanese culture treats horror - and that distinctly Japanese fear factor is what made Konami's Silent Hill, Tecmo's Fatal Frame, and Sony Japan's Siren what they are.
The West and the East have distinctly different approaches to creating fear in entertainment media, uniquely rooted in their respective cultural histories. Though it's doubtless had numerous influences from Western films and games - we mentioned Alone in the Dark, for example - the Japanese aesthetic for survival horror video games relies heavily on ghosts, ritual, and the unseen. This results in a fear environment that is primarily psychological, contrasted with a Western approach that is more visceral and action-oriented. Think American slasher fics versus Japanese haunting films for a basic example.
So as Western game design shifts to become the dominant paradigm, it makes sense that action and gore has begun to supersede psychological dread as the primary catalyst in what we call survival horror. Resident Evil creator Capcom is, of course, a Japanese company, but Capcom in particular has been tenaciously successful in learning to balance the needs and interests of a Western audience with a Japanese one, arguably even targeting Western consumers primarily over Japanese audiences with its major releases in recent years.
Going Back To Our Roots
But longtime survival horror fans recognise that there's a distinct loss happening for the genre as the complexities of Japanese fear aesthetics begin to take a back seat. While Resident Evil's shift to a more Western-style action series has been a more gradual, comprehensible transition, by contrast the Silent Hill series has remained largely unadulterated. That's why news that California-based Double Helix would be developing the fifth Silent Hill game, Silent Hill: Homecoming, raised alarm for many series stalwarts, who worried that American developers might not be able to retain the distinctly Japanese spirit of the series.
But perhaps a collaboration between Japanese IP and modern, Western design talent is a key way forward for survival horror. While the Japanese fear aesthetics I've lauded here have resulted in games that take a subtler, more thought-provoking approach to the genre, they can also feel a little surreal and disjointed. The strength of Silent Hill 2 was the fact that its gameplay and environmental elements subtly pointed the way to some dreadful truths about "hero" James Sunderland's sundered mind and deeds — but aside from its problematic combat, its weakness was that it sprawled thematically, leaving many loose ends, unanswered questions, unclear conclusions and unrelated elements.
Japanese horror idealizes the unanswered questions; Western horror wants clearer explanations for motivations, behaviour and symbols. Perhaps the Silent Hill series might have attained still more widespread appeal if it had, to be blunt, made just a little more sense - and if the combat design had been just a little bit better, while still stopping short of becoming a pure-action title where the player felt powerful.
But what if collaborations such as the one between Double Helix and Konami can bring us the best of both worlds?
Such partnerships can merge the established conventions forged around popular franchises originating in the East with the forward-thinking, proven Western recipes for strong design that current trends seem to favour, thus helping historically niche franchises find broader global success - which could mean that survival horror as we once knew it might see a renaissance.
Silent Hill: Homecoming will be seen as the test of this merger between two worlds. And while I'll leave the reviewing here to my Kotaku colleagues, I've spent hours upon hours over the last few days playing it for my Variety Magazine review, and I'll just say that in my opinion, it passes the test with flying colours. Yes, Silent Hill fans, you will be happy.
Here's hoping it forges the start of a return to familiar form for survival horror — real survival horror.
If you're interested in reading more on this subject, I recommend the following links:
Chris' Guide To Japanese Horror: Chris maintains an extensive database on the survival horror game genre and has done a great deal of writing and research on it, and in this article he gives a succinct explanation of some key hallmarks of Japanese horror, how it differs from Western horror and how it has influenced entertainment.
History of Resident Evil: Writers Justin Speer and Cliff O'Neill go in-depth on the genesis and evolution of Capcom's baby.
Sweet Home at Wikipedia: Wikipedia article on the Sweet Home game and film with relevant links.
Leigh Alexander is news director for Gamasutra, freelances and reviews often for a variety of outlets including Variety and Paste, and maintains her gaming blog, Sexy Videogameland. Her monthly column at Kotaku deals with cultural issues surrounding games and gamers. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.