Thursday, 9 August 2012

Survival Horror and how its changed


Back in the olden days of PC gaming when graphics looked amazing if they could manage a rough human shape on screen, developers have tried to scare the shit out of us with the survival horror.  Obviously there have been horror games prior to the 3D graphics card, but those games really didn't scare in the same way, when all you looked at was sprites that awkwardly lurched around the screen.

It looks comical here, but back in '93 this was shit scary
Alone in the dark is one of the first full 3D horror titles to grace gaming and scare players.  Nowadays it looks like ass and would have trouble scaring the average young gamer who has been desensitised by Call of Duty, Gears of war and mortal Kombat.  But the idea was to put the gamer into those life or death situations from slasher movies.  Hiding, running away, carefully managing supplies and health.

Over the years the genre has gone from strength to strength.  The big hitters being games like Resident evil which brought massive popularity to the then new playstation console.  It had terrible voice acting, worse full motion videos sequences and hilarious cutscenes.  Despite the flaws it still remains one of the horror gamers fondest memories. 

Atmosphere was key.  As graphics technology improved so did the chances for scares.  Better lighting effects allowed for a more realistic recreation of shadows as can be seen in Silent hill 2.  Texturing became more realistic so the visual scares increased and even sound became alot crisper and frightening.  In fact sound is one of the key elements of horror and some horror games have really nailed it in titles like dead space, where the Ishimura itself became a character in its own right due to the careful use of sound.
Shadowing effects added alot to the atmosphere and tension

All of these games follow a similar vein.  A protagonist alone against some malevolent force be it zombies, demons, ghosts or horribly modified corpses of some kind.  Many do have their own approach though.  Silent hill prior to the series going downhill preferred the isolated feeling, using sound and atmosphere to scare more than the monsters themselves.  Resident evil as it evolved went to the more action oriented style, giving players more varied weapons to deal with foes and scaring you with jump moments and hordes of monsters. 

Other japanese horror titles went along the vein of J-horrors like Ringu and Ju-on.  The monsters were corrupted people, still capable of everything a normal person can perform but now with a bloodlust and desire to hunt you down.  Fatal frame was truly different, requiring you to use a camera to see the ghosts attacking you and take pictures to harm them. 

As the survival horror genre continued, going from strength to strength the developers needed to expand to keep things interesting.  As new games came out we started to see supporting characters, extra playable characters and new locations.  Where survival horrors would stick to a single locale, newer games would have narratives that would take the protagonist(s) to several different locales, usually to introduce new monsters.  The narratives would begin to take a prominent role with character arcs and callbacks to previous titles.  Games would no longer be stand alone adventures but grand stories of bioweapons, dark rituals and insane corporations.

Resident evil was one of the first to introduce cooperative gaming to its formula and many would count this as the point when resi evil became more action than horror.  Dead space and its first sequel brought survival horror fans some of the classic claustrophobic jump scare gameplay of days past, but even visceral had to keep up so to speak.

OMGZ DEY GOT TOO PLAYAZ!? FUK YU EA!
The negative reaction to dead space 3 and its co-op gameplay is something that really confused me.  The problem with survival horror is that after the first run through of say dead space, it no longer scares you and becomes a kind of third person action game with less ammo and a slower pace to its gameplay.  This can be seen with every survival horror.  How many times can a genre like this really scare you?  Especially if you are one of the genre's die hard fans.  I don't even play a majority of the survival horrors that came out and they have little that actually scares, other than the odd cheap jump scare.

But players really seem down on dead space 3.  Complaints about the ammo being changed to "universal ammo" the co-op and setting are all common and really I wish the developer could just tell them all to personally fuck off.  Honestly the series was scary with its first iteration granted, but the sequel was way more action based so what did these fans expect?  Another return to the Ishimura or another large spaceship with dark corridors and bizarre architecture?  Look at every major horror franchise and you will see that even the developers know that things have to change.  Fans are very fickle when it comes to their cherished memories of being scared when they were younger and the genre was still fresh.  Its made worse when players are trashing something they haven't even played.  If games had to be approved by fans alone based on videos of early levels, many games would never make it past that stage.

Co-op looks to be a big part of horror gaming going forward
I wouldn't say the genre is dead, but the main franchises have moved on.  Resident evil has moved its narrative to encompass globe spanning corporations using bioweapons technology to rule the world, a far cry from the spooky house and zombie virus outbreaks of old.  Its unreasonable to expect Capcom to just keep rehashing the same ideas again and again, because fans would only complain about the lack of innovation instead.

Silent Hill has become more focused on the psychological side of the town and how it manifests for each poor sod who enters it.  Its no longer about listening a radio and avoiding deformed toddlers with knives.  That series has tried to connect its previous titles through some overarching narrative and largely failed due to mishandling by western developers.

Its a fact that in gaming if you don't innovate or adapt you die and it can happen quickly.  Capcom redefined the genre with resident evil 4 and everyone had to play catch up.  There are still places to get your fix of course.  Amnesia the dark descent and penumbra are examples of smaller developers cashing in on classic survival horror formula and its fans. 

I personally look forward to dead space 3 and resident evil 6, while I also get ready to run through Alan wake soon.  Survival horror is an adaptable creature and I am sure it will still be around for decades to come, just with a different face and some new features.

Thanks for reading, and see you tomorrow.

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