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Keeping Survival Horror Alive

The survival-horror genre has found itself under increasing scrutiny over the last few years. Once reliable purveyors of nightmare-inducing gameplay experiences have adjusted their focus in the hope of appealing to a ‘broader audience’.

As a result, series’ like Resident Evil, Dead Space and Silent Hill have all toned down the scares and upped the action. Which doesn’t necessarily mean a compromise in quality, but it has made for a pretty sharp decline in the number of genuinely scary triple-A games available.

The popularity and unprecedented success of new IPs like: Outlast, Slender and Amnesia, are clear evidence of an audience of gamers starved for good scares. And slowly but surely, the genre appears to be making a resurgence. You only need to glance at the Steam storefront these days to see just how obsessed the community is with the undead and post-apocalyptic survival.

So with that in mind, what does it take to create a genuinely scary, survival horror experience? Well (at the risk of oversimplifying), there really are only a handful of important points developers need consider if they want to ensure that their survival horrors… are horrifying

Silent Hill 2

Firstly, enemy and NPC design is crucial in creating a terrifying experience for the player. The ‘uncanny valley’ hypothesis held true in cinema years before videogames hit the mainstream. Proving that creating something almost-human, but ‘not-quite-right’, was far more effective at inducing scares and discomfort, than anything altogether ‘alien.’

Take Resident Evil 4, for example. Arguably the most terrifying enemy in the entire game (and for some the entire series) appeared in ‘Resi 4’s opening act. Beautifully simple in his design, ‘Dr. Salvador’ was a Ganado without pretence. What you saw was what you got. And what you got was a man with a sack over his head and chainsaw in his hands, running towards you, screaming. If he caught you, you were dead, and keeping him down was hard.

Sure, the standard issue 9mm dealt with most of El-Pueblos inhabitants well enough, but not Salvador. Leon could unload entire clips down to his very last round at the sack-sporting maniac, and achieve nothing more than pissing the guy off.

And whether you managed to take him down or not before the church-bell tolled; from that point onwards, the sound of a revving chainsaw became your cue to brace yourself, and pray you’d got enough ammunition.

Now let’s compare Dr.S to one of the games later enemies.

In what’s essentially his ‘final form’, the quipping, castellan midget, Ramon Salazar, transforms himself and his right-hand-man, into a giant, tentacled monstrosity. Is he dangerous? Absolutely. Is he tough? More so than most. But is he scary? No. Not in comparison to a maniac with a paunch and a hemp sack over his face. Bigger doesn’t always mean better, and in survival-horror, it certainly doesn’t mean scarier.

resident evil 4

Secondly, guns. Lots of guns. Too many, in fact.

Helplessness is a scary and uncomfortable thing, especially in interactive media. When everything kicks off, lives are on the line, and there’s nothing you can do about it, it’s a scary situation. In 2011’s Dead Space 2, the games’ intro sequence sees protagonist Isaac Clarke, strapped into a straightjacket. Within a few minutes, hospital staff start transforming into necromorphs, and the whole station becomes a bloodbath.

And what can you do, constrained as you are? Nothing. Except run.

You have to get the hell out of there and away from the massacre that’s ensuring all around you. And as you sprint past dying NPCs and newly spawned horrors, all you can do is keep pushing forward on that analogue stick and hope you don’t run into anything unfriendly. The relief that hits once you’re out is palpable, and the game begins proper from there. Now think how different that scene could have been.

Say Isaac had been armed. Lets say he was let loose from the straightjacket, and picked up a conveniently abandoned plasma cutter, or a rifle from a downed guard. You would have run and gunned your way down the hallway, blasting away anything that looked at you sideways. Would it have been anywhere near as scary-an intro? No. It would have been like Dead Space 3.

As soon as the player is tooled and armoured-up enough to take on the world, enemies are no longer a threat. And titles like Outlast have done a great job capitalising on this. Outlast ensured that from start to finish you had no way of fighting back – which meant everyone from the lowliest pipe-wielding crazy, to the Wallrider himself was a threat, and nothing could be taken lightly. For a survival-horror to be scary, the player-character should never feel more dangerous than his enemies.

Outlast

Finally, it’s worth saying that you can’t underestimate the power of good sound design. To this day, Silent Hill 2 stands as one of survival-horrors’ all-time greats, with it’s audio being an excellent example of how to toy with the player.

Akira Yamaoaka’s original score, accompanied by discordant, jarring noises and an oppressive, discomforting ambient track; make for an atmosphere that’s as unpleasant for the player, as it is the protagonist. Throw in the static from your enemy-activated radio and the occasional scraping of Greatknife on metal; and it’s impressive just how much the audio can push you through an area, if only for some respite and silence.

But it’s not like horror-loving gamers have nothing new to look forward to. The resurgence of the genre has paved the way for some very promising new IPs. Bethesda’s ‘The Evil Within’ is looking like it might be the current-gen survival-horror we’ve been waiting for. And in the meantime, the Resident Evil 4: Ultimate HD edition launches on the 28th of this month, which if you haven’t played before (and feel like you’re getting too much sleep) should be well worth picking up.

John Hatfield
There are two things in life John enjoys more than anything else: gaming and writing. In 2014 he decided to combine the two, and Level-Clear was born!

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