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Have developers given up on Survival Horror?

on 30 September 2012

I can remember back when the term Survival Horror actually meant something. Ten years ago, the genre was undeniably at its peak; Resident Evil and Resident Evil Zero had shambled onto Nintendo GameCube, Silent Hill 2 soiled sofas across the globe and Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem injected its own unique breed of horror into the proceedings by having your character go insane before your very eyes. In what started out as a niche market populated by the likes of Alone in the Dark and Clock Tower, the genre soon found a place on the consciousness of mainstream players worldwide thanks to Capcom’s pioneering Resident Evil franchise. Survival Horror played with the big boys back then, mixing it up with the Call of Duty’s and FIFA of its day.

Hard it is to conceive, then, that the genre which endured so much popularity in its heyday has all but died a miserable, unceremonious death. Games that popularised the genre have either changed irrevocably or sunk without trace. Even the series that catapulted the genre to mainstream success has all but abandoned its roots in favour of a more action-oriented path. Hell, even Dead Space, which single-handily reinvigorated Survival Horror a few years back, has begun its adoption of the dreaded bro-dude mentality with its inclusion of co-op and cover shooting. Sure, we’ve had the glimmer of hope in titles like Siren: Blood Curse, but the odd downloadable game or handheld spin-off isn’t enough to satisfy long-time followers.

As a long-time Resident Evil nut, I have to ponder whether or not developers – Capcom included – even know how to craft the quintessential Survival Horror experience in this day and age. Resident Evil 6 has been touted as returning to form, but a quick butcher’s at the myriad of demos doing the rounds does not give much hope to this assurance. Sure, zombies are back, and there’s a few dark environments to creep around, but even Capcom has labelled the sequel as ‘Dramatic Horror,’ clearly differentiating itself from its humble beginnings. These days, in the post-RE4 landscape, there’s very little evidence of what made the genre so unique in the first place. Many contain elements of old-school traditions, but the much of it has been diluted for mainstream consumption, peer pressure or pursuit of cracking new markets. Or all of the above. Capcom is desperately trying to cater to all types of fans with RE6 by offering three missions of varying gameplay styles, but in doing so loses a cohesion you would expect from the brand. It’s almost as if they’re saying ‘Have a bit of this, or try this and see what you think.’ Almost as if Capcom themselves have no bloody clue where they want to take the franchise.

Survival Horror, at its core, is all about placing an individual, or several individuals, in a position of overwhelming odds where survival – you know, as the name implies – is the name of the game. Notice there I gave an option for several individuals; co-op has widely been criticised by onlookers as a main contributing factor to the genre’s downfall, but I don’t believe this to be the case. Resident Evil Revelations and Resident Evil Zero all featured a partner character, and still managed to deliver a suitably pant-wetting experience regardless of an extra meat sack in the room. Sure, the sense of isolation and helplessness that solo play brings is more or less eschewed in co-op, but this can’t be blamed entirely for the genre’s demise. Look at RE: Outbreak, which was an online co-op experience where gamers had to work tirelessly together in order to manage the valuable stash of resources such as ammo and healing items while fending off hordes of zombies and B.O.W.s. At times the game required meticulous planning and was a brutal affair, but is that a bad thing? No, that’s exactly how it should be.

Take a look at the classic Resident Evil games, modern outings like Siren: Blood Curse and indeed golden oldies such as Alone in the Dark, Silent Hill and Dino Crisis. Then compare them to titles such as RE4, RE5 and Dead Space 2. It doesn’t matter what series we’re talking about, but that first crop of games I mentioned are as close to defining survival horror as you can get. Players are limited in terms of ammunition and weaponry, fights must be chosen wisely, items managed carefully and exploration and puzzle solving is key to progression. Playing it smart will get you through, not blasting everything in sight; you have to pick your battles, and learn to walk away when the odds are against you. These elements are inherent qualities of the genre that recent titles have all but failed to adhere to. On the flip side, RE4 and its contemporaries – of which there are many – put you in a position of overwhelming power, where protagonists such as Leon S. Kennedy are able to lug around an arsenal of guns and ammo in their huge clown’s pocket, gunning down foes all over the shop. In fact, RE4 altered the entire Survival Horror paradigm; rather than encouraging users to flee from fights and pick their battles, gamers are actually required to take down a certain number of foes in order to progress through a given area. In addition, most of the ammo you’ll pick up in the game is dropped by defeated enemies, you are effectively spending bullets in fights only to reclaim them after you mop up the latest batch of slobbering villagers. What used to be a tense, foreboding experience immediately becomes your standard third-person shooter. Throw in the ability to purchase weapons and even First-Aid Sprays, and it really does cross the line.

The fact is Survival Horror can still flourish in this day and age, updating its mechanics while not compromising all that made it special in the first place. The thing about the old Resi games, there are a number of intrinsic elements that simply wouldn’t work in this day and age. Pre-rendered backgrounds, tank controls and the inability to aim anywhere you like were bread-and-butter for Capcom’s zombie horror series back in the day, but this would be commercial suicide in 2012. I love the old games as much as the next RE fanatic, but it would be disingenuous of me to suggest these aspects should be reinstated in order for Survival Horror to be exhumed from an early grave. Sure, they helped create that classic horror atmosphere – as did Silent Hill’s plodding combat and exploration – but they aren’t a necessity. Look at modern interpretations like RE: Revelations and Silent Hill: Downpour. These games are probably the best examples of Survival Horror you’re going to find, and both do a stellar job at offering a contemporary take on the genre while still sticking to those core components. Revelations over-the-shoulder aiming, the ability to move and shoot, plus Downpour’s streamlined inventory help bring the genre out of the '90s while still staying true to its roots.

Downpour in particular excels at perpetuating a fear of the unknown; that slow, gut-wrenching knot that builds the more you play. If ever there was a staple of Survival Horror, this is it. The game doesn’t force combat down your throat, and requires you to manage your ammo and health levels pretty diligently so you don’t get screwed over later. Best of all, it strikes a genuine equilibrium between puzzle solving, exploration and combat; there’s not too much of one thing, and the balance is just right, making for a rewarding, methodical package. By comparison, RE4, 5 and even Dead Space lack the cerebral challenge of their forefathers, with gun battles taking up a significant chunk of the action and riddles neglected to the odd ‘shove this in the right place’ or ‘fit this in the lock provided to open’ variety. In fact, the puzzles in the latter RE games feel like they were cooked up by a 6-year-old, an afterthought that barely succeeds in punctuating the gratuitous violence that makes up most of the game.

So, where does Survival Horror go from here? Given the obvious commercial appeal of games like Call of Duty, it wouldn’t make business sense for developers to go back to the niche trappings of old, not when they can fill their pockets with the action-oriented approach titles are going lately. However, there’s still room for an authentic survival horror experience. Sure, we won’t ever likely see the return of pre-rendered backgrounds and tank controls, but the core experience – namely, a cohesive blend of riddles, ammo conservation and exploration – can still exist in today’s run-and-gun saturated market.

The question is not can developers cut it anymore – because as evidenced in some recent gems, they can if they try – but do they want to? Right now, it doesn’t look like it, but hopefully one day that urge will rear its head like a decomposing corpse rising from the grave, thirsting for blood. Until that day comes, I recommend you pop on over to the PlayStation Store and snap up a couple of PSOne Classics on the cheap to remind you of the days when Survival Horror ruled the roost.