Things That Go Bump in the Night – The Truth Behind Survival-Horror Games

Survival Horror

A Gradual Metamorphosis

It’s a fact:  when I actually attend a movie theater nowadays, it’s to see either an action or horror movie, and even then the odds are that I’ll pick a blood-and-gore fest over an action flick by a wide margin.  I honestly don’t see a reason to spend my admission dollars to see a romantic comedy or an emotion-drenched drama.  Movie theaters are capable of delivering the kind of immersive experience to the viewer that naturally lends itself to the endorphin rushes and pulse-pounding moments of these particular genres.  The same has begun to become more and more a reality in the realm of video games.

When Resident Evil hit the PlayStation in 1996, it defied all current genre classifications and led to a brand-new subset of games finding homes on retail shelves: survival horror games.  Resident Evil certainly wasn’t the first horror game:  elements of horror can be found spread across various other genres, such as 1995′ s PC game Phantasmagoria and its 1996 sequel A Puzzle of Flesh – at their heart they are adventure games, but with a horror-focused plot – and even in 1993’s ultra-popular FPS Doom; while Doom was a shooter through and through, it’s clear that the plot behind the game is a classic science-fiction horror story, as made evident by the fact that it was, in part, inspired by the horror film Aliens.  Its horror roots can also be seen by its 2004 sequel Doom 3, in which the elements of horror have been moved much more to the forefront of gameplay.  Other forerunners of the horror genre in the early 90s include 1992’s Alone in the Dark and 1993’s The 7th Guest.

Meanwhile, the success of Resident Evil led to several successful sequels, as well as other original survival-horror franchises, such as Silent Hill and Fatal Frame.  Each intellectual property brought unique ideas to the table and expanded the growing genre.  As a whole, the series has, thankfully, evolved in many aspects (most notably the seemingly once-standard, often-berated tank-style controls!), making room for niche games such as the PS2’s 2003 game Siren as well as new blockbuster franchises like EA’s Dead Space.  Many of these games now choose to use a more dynamic over-the-shoulder camera instead of static camera angles in each room or area.  This has taken away the developer’s ability to showcase certain aspects of a room’s design or focus your attention in a creative way on one certain detail, but the new fluent camera system has added a frantic element of suspense, as most current survival-horror games ALMOST restrict you to a first-person POV (or in the case of Doom 3 and the Bioshock series literally restricting you to first person), giving you the same blind spot handicaps that your character would have in real life.  No longer can you see what’s around that corner until you actually step around it, and many times the first inclination you have that an enemy is sneaking up behind you is when he buries his deformed claws in your spine!

Survival Horror

An over-the-shoulder shot of Leon facing down a murderous mob

Dark and Twisted Inner Workings

So let me get to the meat and potatoes of this article, and take a look at what makes horror games so appealing for some of us, and possibly find the reason others don’t enjoy them at all!  To begin with, horror is oftentimes synonymous with over-the-top violence and visceral gore, probably second only to fighting games.  The best way to see yourself being eviscerated and skinned alive, next to taking Kung Lao’s hat to the face or being put in the Sektor Kompaktor in the Mortal Kombat series, is to watch a horde of brain-hungry zombies descend upon your kicking and screaming body and tear you limb from limb as you feebly succumb to death in Resident Evil, or watch as one of Dead Space’s Necromorphs spits corrosive acid into your open throat, causing you to vomit up your insides as your body starts to resemble just so much Swiss cheese.  To take your gaming experience up to the next level of gore, horror games is where it’s at!  Not just in on-screen violence, as the Silent Hill games prove ad nauseam, with scores of mutilated corpses strung up, entangled in barbed wire, enmeshed in chain-link fencing, and otherwise being incorporated into the geography of the game world itself.  In fact, a hallmark of that particular series is an otherworldly, disquieting and sickening sense of something gone horribly wrong, twisting living bodies and tissue into nightmarish caricatures of their former selves, with every eye, mouth, and other orifice oozing and pustuling body fluids.  After watching about 10 minutes of gameplay from EA’s Dead Space 2, my baby brother literally felt nauseated from all the blood and bile rupturing from dead bodies getting smashed underfoot and stomped on with authentic crunching and squishing sound effects!

Survival Horror

While not technically “survival horror”, Sierra’s Phantasmagoria took horror to the point-and-click genre in an effective way early on

Another appealing facet of horror games is the dedication required of gamers who play them.  By this I do not mean dedication in the sense that the gameplay is extremely challenging or the difficulty nigh impossible to master.  I’m referring to the suspension of disbelief that is inevitably necessary to truly enjoy the content.  If you’re one of the people who can put themselves “into the moment” and immerse yourself in the game unequivocally, then you are indeed quite a lucky individual.  If, however, your consciousness insists on separating the actual from the fictional and keeps you from allowing yourself to plunge your mind totally into the game experience, then you will likely not enjoy horror games.  (The same is ostensibly true for horror movies, by the way – there’s your dime store psycho-analysis…you’re welcome.)  For the fortuitous few who can let their mind go on its journey of fear without hesitation, modern horror games deliver engrossing characters and twisted plotlines more than ever.  The best of these games deliver a full experience of the world they’re set in, before and after; on one hand bringing you to that other-worldly place via your alien surroundings and tortured, usually malevolent adversaries, on the other hand frightening the pants off you by metamorphosing a seemingly innocuous place like an elementary classroom or a quiescent lakeside cabin into place in which every shadow harbors hidden evil and every soft sound is a whispered promise of violence.  In a good horror game, no place is safe, and I particularly enjoy discovering the destructive forces at work in turning innocent havens of everyday life into dens rife with twisting and harmful evil.  Typically, you do this by finding tape logs, audio diaries, or other common artifacts which tell more of the story of that place; it’s like finding a forgotten layer of brightness underneath a crust of dried blood and pain.  In some ways, seeing this dichotomy is the most frightening part of a horror game experience, if you’re willing to let yourself believe and “live” it.

Survival Horror

The most frightening horror can often be found in the most unlikely of places

The third feature that is a must for the horror-game genre lies in the presentation and pacing of its content.  Let me explain:  we’ve come a long way since the days when the only true “scare” to be had from a game was a cheap jump due to a loud noise or a sudden unexpected enemy appearance.  There’s a reason why this type of jump scare always elicits chuckles and grins from participants: it’s juvenile!  But when a game can truly make me feel frightened and on edge for a prolonged period of time, then it has succeeded in this basic tenet of horror games:  let me anticipate!  I know I’m playing a top-tier horror game when I’m spending more time warily peering into shadows or turning to look behind me with true paranoia again and again than actually jumping from the scare of an enemy popping out of a vent just ahead of me.  Yes, I want you to frighten me with what isn’t even there!  If a gamemaker can succeed at this, then they’ve truly mastered their craft!  Dynamic shadows, carefully designed lighting, and calculated absence of light altogether do wonders if your imagination is tuned in!  I personally prefer to play my horror games without any lights on, at night if possible, to enhance the impact visuals can have in a great horror game.  A vital part of this puzzle is also the sound design of the game.  A cleverly crafted soundscape can ramp up my nerves more than a fearful-looking boss!  Ambient sound effects, clashing musical tones, and misleading sound cues such as offscreen voices or sounds of movement all contribute to a truly hair-raising experience, all without posing any actual gameplay difficulty or harm to you.  Remedy’s 2010 title Alan Wake demonstrates many of the above-mentioned aspects of light and sound design when applied to a horror game.  Right from the very beginning (and for the entirety of the game!), my heart would begin racing and I would almost approach a mental state of panic every time the wind picked up, swaying tree branches and making shadows leap on the ground, gusting and swirling dust around me, and the peaceful ambient night sounds changed to a crescendo of demonic whispering and muttering all around me – even without a single enemy present, I was terrified and would run for safety EVERY TIME!

It’s Only a Game…Right?

Let’s not forget why we play games: to have a blast!  We love to experience emotion, and some of us even enjoy tapping into the normally unpleasant emotion of fear, in the (relative) safety of our living rooms.  And while the horror game genre is relatively new, it’s made some considerable steps forward.  And we gamers are notoriously fickle:  show me nauseating amounts of blood and gore, but leave some things up to my imagination and let me lose myself in the game world for a while.  Show me enough disturbing sights to put me on edge and set the tone, then take away my sense of sight to truly petrify me!  Horror games are as much about what you see and hear as what you don’t, and sudden absences of light or sound can place a blade of fear deeper between my shoulder blades than a sudden crash or other type of “cheap scare”.  Ultimately, I put my horror game to this simple test:  if, after playing my game – at night, with all lights off – on my way from my living room to my bedroom, in a dark house, I find myself stopping dead still and listening acutely at the “sleeping sounds” of my home, and maybe even sheepishly admit to doing a quick single-take back over my shoulder, straining to make my eyes recognize (moving?) shapes behind me…then, yes, my game has absolutely scared me, and I LOVED it!!

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