Are the demands of the modern-day gamer ruining survival horror?
For me, survival horror gaming has always been a family affair – oddly enough. I can vividly remember cowering behind my older brother as he guided the polygonal Harry Mason deeper and deeper into the rolling fog and depravity of a little known town called Silent Hill. To me, the chilling images of abandoned wheelchairs in decrepit hospitals, deserted streets and eerie fairgrounds are strangely fond and familiar. It is for these reasons that, like most fans of the franchise, I’m always left feeling somewhat ‘washed out’ by the more recent offerings (cue the likes of Silent Hill Downpour and Resident Evil 6).
Now, maybe I’m just a sucker for the franchises, but I don’t actually believe that sequels like these are necessarily bad games (shock horror! Someone call the internet police!). More likely, they’re unsuccessful attempts by developers to compete with the mass appeal of AAA games like Call of Duty and Uncharted. Games like these inevitably disappoint because developers are trying to shoe in elements from big sellers in order to draw larger audiences into what is ultimately a more alternative niche of the gaming world. Most critics acknowledge, for example, that Leon’s campaign in the latest Resident Evil installment is the best of a bad bunch, offering a slightly more subtle play on survival horror staples, deliberately harkening back to his debut in Resident Evil 2. Similarly, Downpour offers an enigmatic story and some interesting mechanics (think about the chase sequences, the weapon system etc.), all of which give brief glimpses of a game that could have been great, but fell vastly short of the mark.
The demands of the average modern day gamer are simply too heavy a burden to bear.
However all too soon the siren blares, the walls peel off and us gamers find ourselves stranded in the ‘Otherworld’ of attempted AAA gaming mediocrity. But what is it exactly that’s holding these games back? I think that the demands of the average modern day gamer are simply too heavy a burden to bear, and developers are struggling under the financial pressure to market these games to a wider audience. Now I’m not saying here that this is everything wrong with survival horror in a nutshell, but below you’ll find 5 examples of AAA gaming demands that simply don’t mix well in the survival horror genre.
5. Chilling Choice
Choice is one of gaming’s biggest demands of late; it infiltrates a variety of genres on multiple levels, and is a particular killer for survival horror. It’s all well and good making black and white decisions that propel you towards one of two bipolar endings but seemingly have little effect on story progression (inFamous: Second Son, looking at you). Both Downpour and Silent Hill: Homecoming offer the player moral dilemmas, with their choices leading very obviously to one of three or four endings. Again, however, these choices are moronically obvious, and do little to develop character empathy. I say bring back Silent Hill 2/3, where the ending was based on your subconscious actions throughout the game.
But gamers still demand more, they want customisation, levelling up, and the ability to choose everything from haircuts to cereal. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with this, if you’re going to pay £45-£50 for a game you have every right to ask for a more personalised, tailored experience. But true survival horror hinges on the deprivation of choice, or rather the illusion of it. Resident Evil forced players to choose between a green herb or some bullets, a roll of ink tape or the trusty knife. The fear of the game rested on the very limited amount of choices available to the player. Survival horror loses its emphasis on ‘surviving’ when you can tackle a situation in loads of different ways.
4. Open World Nightmare
I guess this might come under the umbrella of ‘choice’, but it’s a large enough threat that I think it deserves its own heading. Once again, open world gaming seems to be a natural progression; players don’t want a scripted series of events and that’s fair enough. But I guess my main gripe here is why it would be appropriate for survival horror. Silent Hill for example isn’t a place you want to hang around in! Downpour’s Murphy is a convict on the run, desperately trying to escape his own demons, and some actual real ones. So why would he spend his time trying to free birds from cages or collecting fine art?! Good survival horror it seems rests on the urgency to escape a particular situation, not the desire to see the sights and buy a t-shirt.
3. Multiplayer Murder
To illustrate this one, I’m going to do a little script.
Jill: Hey Chris, I’ve got a good idea.
Chris: What’s that Jill?
Jill: Instead of splitting up and searching this creepy mansion by ourselves, why don’t we think about it logically and stick together? You know, strength in numbers an’ all that?
Chris: Gee Jill, what a great idea! And you can use up all my health items at really inappropriate times, and I’ll just flail about with a knife and my huge muscles.
Case in point, Resident Evil 5. Any situation is much less scary if you’re playing with a friend – the same is true of real life. If you do insist on wrangling in another character, make them vulnerable and useless, similar to the James/Maria dynamic in Silent Hill 2.
2. Control Freaks
Anyone old enough to have played a PS1 remembers the clunky, awkward and at times downright frustrating ‘3D’ control scheme. I’m not even sure how it was supposed to be three dimensional. But the point stands that it was almost made for survival horror gaming. Whether you were trekking down a foggy mountain path, or navigating a shady corridor jam packed with zombies, the sheer difficulty of mastering ‘3D’ controls meant that simply moving around was always suspenseful. The over-shoulder cam most notably used in Resident Evil 4 works well, but almost feels too user-friendly, it detracts from the utter panic induced when you eventually need to turn and run.
Furthermore a lot of survival horror franchises (Silent Hill, Siren) opt for a deliberately clunky control system which better emphasises the civilian nature of their protagonists. However, in recent iterations, controls and combat mechanics have come under fire for being too awkward. The point being here that user friendliness seems to be being prioritised over realistic controls; developers are forgoing the fear aroused by depriving players of options by putting so much control in their hands (excuse the pun).
1. Hollywood Horror
Last but by no means least, the increasing influence of Hollywood (and by that I mean cinema) on gaming is more and more apparent year on year. Franchises such as COD and Uncharted provide gamers with pristine action heroes, high octane chases, and more explosions than a Die Hard movie marathon. But once again this doesn’t really fit in so well with the survival horror crowd. The elephant in the room here is clearly Resident Evil 6, which offered rooftop motorbike chases, high-end visuals, and cover-based shooting mechanics. All of these gimmicks, however, did little to mask the fact that the franchise had lost its fright factor long ago – instead opting to thrill gamers with needless spectacle and on-the-rails set pieces. Even Homecoming represented a move towards western developers Double Helix, and with that a departure from eerie Japanese psychological horror.
Where to Now, Then?
As you can probably tell, the games discussed here are largely from more mainstream franchises, and in no way reflect the breadth of the genre. If you’re interested in further exploration, I’d definitely recommend PC conversion titles such as Outlast and Amnesia (neither of which I’ve had the stones to finish). And if you feel like dipping your toe into the particularly weird, try Siren or Deadly Premonition.
In terms of consoles, I’d finish by going back on everything I’ve just said, and suggest the future looks bright for us survival horror fans. There are high hopes for The Evil Within, from the horror idol Shinji Mikami (Resident 4), which is said to be a return to old school horror. And if the absolute dream team of Kojima (Metal Gear franchise), Guillermo Del Toro (Pans Labyrinth, The Orphanage) and Norman Reedus (The Walking Dead) can’t resurrect Silent Hill, well then perhaps we are all doomed after all.