The Survival of Survival Horror

By Shamus Posted Wednesday Aug 6, 2008

Filed under: Game Design 75 comments

Thanks so much to Double Helix Games for the changes they’re making to the Silent Hill franchise. I’m so glad that the main character in SH5 is going to be “a war veteran” and that “combat in the game will take into account Alex’s experience as a soldier”. Finally. I’m sure everyone agrees that the biggest problem with survival horror games is that the main characters didn’t kick enough ass. Perhaps next time around they can make him a space marine in power armor and give him the BFG 9000. Maybe put in a vehicle section where he can pilot a hovertank along with a wisecracking and flirtatious female sidekick. Oh! Oh! And Pyramid Head could be “re-imagined” as a 20 meter cyborg hunter-killer.

WARNING: The Surgeon General has determined that the preceding paragraph contains toxic levels of sarcasm. If exposed, flush eyes and go read something upbeat and heartwarming.

Actually, saying the main character is a soldier doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker, but in the case of Double Helix I suspect they’re just missing the zombie-stomping point. Their other major project was called Harker, which was a re-imagining of the vampire hunter Johnathan Harker, with a focus on making him “much more efficient and courageous”, which is another way of saying, “more like all the other videogame protagonists we’re trying to mimic”. We already have more than enough square-jawed ex-military heroes and brooding mystic ass-kickers in videogames, but it’s frustrating when the character concept is both cliché and it undermines the point of the game. (i.e. being frightened.)

I wouldn’t even mention this except that the survival horror genre has been whittled down to pretty much a single game at this point, and there is a certain (well justified) concern that this game is going to abandon the defining concepts of the genre. Resident Evil has stopped making survival horror in favor of action comedy. Jericho was an inept action game. (I played the demo. It was about as frightening as the Naked Gun movies, only sillier.) It’s like game designers collectively forgot how to make these games.

I love survival horror. It’s technologically one of the easier sorts of games to produce, but one of the most challenging from a storytelling perspective. In a lot of ways it’s one of the purest forms of game design. Other games have the more simplified goal of “entertain player”, and can sneak by with graphics spectacle and fun gameplay even if their stories and characters are shallow. But with survival horror, the audience is showing up with the expectation of a very specific type of entertainment: being frightened. The experience lives and dies on the strength of the plot, pacing, and immersion.

I really do think that survival horror is a good genre for low-to-mid budget game companies. The competition is pretty thin, and the costs are more manageable.

An example of the cost-cutting available to would-be developers: You don’t need persistent NPC companions with lots of scripting and voice acting. I know NPC companions are all the rage in survival horror these days, but that’s expensive and self-defeating. Sort of like putting an air conditioner on a bicycle. Aside from the drag they put on immersion, there’s the fact that it’s comforting to have company. Alone in the dark, and such. So even if you spend the copious money required to develop a well-written, well-scripted, and well-voiced companion, they’ll just make the game less scary instead of breaking immersion. And they might even do both. (I’ll make an exception for characters like Maria in Silent Hill 2, because she was more or less designed to freak the player out, not help them.)

In these games, it’s fine if the AI is simple. The behavior of zombies and feral monsters is not rocket science, and is a cakewalk compared to coding (say) a squad of supposedly intelligent soldiers who cooperate with each other.

And finally, the slower pace and pervasive darkness in your typical survival horror game means you don’t need to have huge sprawling acres of scenery for the player to explore. You don’t need (and shouldn’t have) expansive outdoor areas that will take ages to produce and tax graphics hardware.

But while you’re cutting all these technological corners, you do need to be exceptionally careful with characterization and pacing. Fear is one of the most difficult emotions to invoke in the context of a game where the player can just put the controller down and go make some nachos. You have to make the player want to continue the game, while simultaneously making them very uncomfortable. The player has to be invested in the fate and feelings of the main character and they need to empathize with them enough to feel both the fear and the need to continue.

But aside from Silent Hill, everyone keeps trying to make horror games with these badass protagonists, characters who are too cool to be afraid of anything. Joe Average with a golf club vs. three zombies can be scary. But Neo and Trinity with automatic weapons vs. a hundred zombies isn’t. Okay, it would be a gleefully hilarious spectacle and I’d probably watch it twice, but it wouldn’t be frightening.

They’re all drawing from the id Software school of laughable fright: Make the player an armor-plated superman with a rocket launcher, and then try to scare them by decorating the levels with goat heads and pentagrams. The end product is fun in a mindless sort of way, but it lacks the narrative deft to reach in and make the player experience anything deeper than the amusement of watching things go boom.


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75 thoughts on “The Survival of Survival Horror

  1. Teppesh says:

    Nice call on the Doom vs. Resident Evil. It’s basically the difference between “Dracula” and “Van Helsing.” “Dracula is a genuine horror story, as it is told from the perspective of flawed mortals dealing with powers far beyond their reach, while “Van Helsing” was an action movie with horror themes, which is what happens any time the protagonist is turned into a fantastic killing machine.

  2. Xinem says:

    Optimistic Possibility: Double Helix is ripping off the plot of Jacob’s Ladder? That would be cool.

    Except for the “combat will take into account the main character’s experience as a soldier.” Cuz’ Jacob Singer didn’t do much (any) fighting; he just wet himself in fear.

  3. Crusader Corim says:

    I love the Resident Evil games that were still survival horror (I enjoyed 4 as well, but for a different reason). But those prove that you can be a bad ass and have an awesome game that scares you. The first one, we have two protagonists from the super-awesome STARS team, and it’s still scary as all get out.

    Of course, my favorite survival horror is still Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, so I’m probably admitting to being slightly wrong in the head. Take with a grain of salt.

  4. Paronomasiac says:

    I submit that ‘survival horror’ is no longer a published genre of games. The shooting galleries that are billed as such have been startling, creepy, suspenseful, and unnerving, but I remember when playing a ‘survival horror’ game in the dark had potential to make even the strong shriek in pure, abject terror.

    Game designers need to remember that running out of ammo in critical scenarios and things jumping through plate-glass windows are not the cornerstones of fear. Fear is created through storytelling, through characterization and atmosphere. Fear isn’t simply startling, it’s forcing the player to assume the role of the character and then scaring that character.

    Rampant bad-assery leads developers into attempting to scare the player when they’ve created a character who is utterly without fear. Bring back the player characters like the girl from ‘Fatal Frame.’ By the time the player assumes control of young Miku, the player is ready to assume the role of a young college girl armed only with a camera in a haunted house. That girl, alone, looking for her brother, can be scared. And playing in the dark, with the lights on, the girl stops wandering the mansion, and the player becomes the one behind the camera. That is survival horror.

  5. Luke Maciak says:

    Well said, and I totally agree! It would actually be interesting to see a new game where you don’t actually kill zombies/monsters but must hide and run away from them. But no – everyone seems to be hell bent on having at least one super-powered mercenary as playable character. :(

    Did you notice though that Hollywood is doing the same exact thing with Zombie movies? Every recent production always have to have the bad-ass super-cop, the ex-mercenary, or a soldier character who can head-shot zombies with deadly efficiency.

    I recently watched a Spanish take on the zombie genre titled [Rec] and it was better than 80% of zombie movies made in Hollywood because all the characters were ordinary people.

  6. Target says:

    I think some of the thrill can actually come from resource management. Take for instance Resident Evil, zombies aren’t terribly scary if you have a shotgun and plenty of shells. However, they become scarier when you are down to your last 3 shells.

  7. Eric says:

    What if the the silent hill part of the game deals with Post traumatic stress disorder, and his back ground in soldering just means he knows how to react in said situations. I actually think it sounds promising, and will stay within the confines of the Silent Hill world.

    Edit: hopefully in this game the monsters stay dead because your a soldier, unlike SH4.

  8. Danath says:

    An excellent survival horror game I thought was the “Obscure” games, and “Obscure: Aftermath”, low budget games, I ended up seeing em for 10-15 dollars brand new on a shelf… figured “why not”. I was pleasantly surprised really, the game pulled off its pacing and such amazingly well, even with a low budget, which pretty much fits with what you said in this article.

    SH5 im on the fence about… YEAH your an ex-military something or other… but from gameplay this doesnt seem to make you superpowered… it just seems that in combat you actually have a “combat stance”, but this is only from videos I watched (stabbing a zombie dog in the head with a metal pipe does strike a chord with me).

  9. Chris says:

    I wouldn’t necessarily blame the developers 100%. I knew plenty of people that refused to touch Resident Evil for more than five minutes because of the awkward controls. One of the things that went hand in hand with Survival Horror was an awkward or poor control scheme, which actually was a very interesting mechanic. The suspense and adrenaline actually built as you hurried to get safe and make do with the awkward controls as an enemy approaches.

    However, plenty of gamers bitched about how the controls suck, and now you have a heavier focus on combat than before. Me, all I want is the ability to pick almost anything up and use it as a weapon (similar to Dead Rising, but not as ridiculous). Alone in the Dark had a lot of excellent concepts, but you’re right, the inclusion of NPC’s removes a lot of the horror from it.

    Just as in your last post, I’m going to have to pimp Dead Space again. It looks like the controls are decent, but even with the guns and ammo you need to be smart. If you just shoot the enemy, you’re wasting ammo. You need to take the time to aim precisely at specific body parts, and it’s not always going to be “shoot ’em in the head”.

    It also helps that the game pulls from various sci-fi sources, and from what I understand the original Alien film and Event Horizon are two primary inspirations in terms of horror. The fact that the character is named Isaac Clarke also shows what kind of literary sources the game could draw from, too. Unfortunately, the comic they keep releasing online suggests a…less than stellar story, or at least in the writing department. I’m hoping the game’s story is executed a lot better, and from the sounds of some audio diary samples they provide it will be.

    Either way, a survival horror in space is something I’ve wanted since the first Playstation, and now it’s coming with some of the most amazing looking gameplay. If you haven’t checked it out, do so. You’re only hurting yourself if you don’t.

  10. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Although I agree with you,I have to point out a few exceptions:

    Alien vs Predator:You did play as a battle hardened uber equiped space marine,but the ambient was scary as hell.What good is a rifle against heavy plated foes that can lurk everywhere?And even if you played as alien,a genetically tailored killing machine,you still had moments of fright.Granted though,as a predator,there was no place for fright.

    Alyx Vance:She did ease the fright sometimes,but she did increase it in a few scenes(episode 1,when the stalker train crashes was pretty scary for the first time).So having a well made NPC can get the player frightened,if not for themselves,then for the NPC.

    Oh,and an old one:X-com.You had a team of well trained,well equiped soldiers,yet those blasted crysalids and shots from the dark can give a fright even today.

  11. Drew says:

    I said it in another thread, but I’ll repeat it here. Things you can see will very rarely frighten you. They might horrify you, but horror and fear are completely different things. It’s horrifying to see a body ripped limb from limb, but it’s not particularly scary. On the other hand, hearing a shambling footstep somewhere but not being able to tell exactly where it’s coming from and not knowing what’s making that noise? That’s frightening.

    “Mr X” in Resident Evil 2 was an example of a frightening character. You always knew he could pop up at any time, and you’d hear him occasionally, but more often than not, he wouldn’t actually appear. And frankly, he wasn’t much to look at, just a really big dude.

    I might be off base, but I think the recent focus on visuals in the video game industry is part of the problem with survival horror, since they want to focus on what you see, and again, that’s just about never going to be scary. The scariest thing you can do with a visual is startle someone by, say, having something bust through a window next to them, but once the initial shock wears off, it’s not scary anymore. Maybe it’s a tense situation, but the fear is gone.

  12. MONKEEYYY says:

    I thought Quake 2 was scary-ish especially nearer to the end where the enemies would be tougher than you ie when facing up against tanks.

    Bioshock was another scary-ish game, but admittedly there were only a few moments where I actually was frightened. The game, however, did make me feel like someone who was frantically trying to save his own hide when splicers would be lunging at me with hooks in their hands, while I would be backstepping for my life, as opposed to an overly smooth hero.

    I suppose the above two games are closer to the thriller genre than they are to horror.

  13. Robyrt says:

    It does seem like “survival horror” has become “action horror” (Bioshock) or “survival action” (Resident Evil 4) these days. I think that it’s difficult to make something genuinely scary when you’re catering to the modern casual/midcore gamer, who has only an hour to play video games today and wants to see at least one explosion.

    On the subject of intentionally difficult control schemes, I think they are a terrible idea. They drove the player base away from fighting games, and they’ll do the same for horror games if you let them.

  14. Nick says:

    While Dead Space looks like an excellent addition to this genre (despite the quick-time-like events), another one recently evoked the same fear. The kind of fear that I didn’t WANT to go down there. I didn’t WANT to go in the basement. Condemned: Criminal Origins. Some of the game was pretty straightforward and non-scary, but the house at the end of the game, now THAT freaked me out.

    Plus, the cradle level in Thief: Deadly Shadows. Any game that has lots of action, then provides a level with ABSOLUTELY NONE just scare the bejeezus out of me. They make me hit Esc and curl up on my bed.


    I think the good recipe for a good survival horror is one where you live or die based on how perceptive you are. So it forces you to look closer. Hunch over. lean into your monitor. Look behind every corner. This allows you to live longer, but still jump 3 feet out of your chair when the supposed safe spot you put your back to turns out to not be so safe.

  15. Martin says:

    Wasn’t Double Helix the name of the Soldier of Fortune 2 game?

  16. Werdna says:

    No-one has mentioned the Penumbra PC games yet. I got a little way into the first one (Penumbra: Overture) before realizing that I just plain don’t LIKE survival horror all that much. But they might be worth a try for you, Shamus, and you can get Overture for 20 bucks new and the sequel Black Plague for 9.99.

  17. Terrible says:

    My memories of playing the System Shock 2 demo were vague, but I remember it being quite effective at creeping me out. I’m not just alone, but completely isolated. I’ve got a handgun with no bullets, a shotgun that’s jammed, and a wrench. I accidentally trigger an alarm. Then I wait for the mutants to come and hope there aren’t too many because I can’t beat them with my wrench without taking damage myself.

    I usually lost.

  18. hotsauce says:

    Eternal Darkness. You too will come to understand fear, as I have.

  19. Changling Bob says:

    Best horror game I’ve played: Ravenholme in Half-Life 2. And its not even a horror game. But poison headcrab zombies breathing freaks me out, even if I’m now at the point where I can crowbar the regular zombies to re-death because I know they won’t hurt me.

  20. Groboclown says:

    Even though it wasn’t a survival-horror game, I thought Thief 1 and 3 each had a mission that was incredibly scary. The haunted house mission in Thief 3 took me three months to finish, just because I couldn’t play it more than 15 minutes without getting a serious case of the willies.

  21. Avaz says:

    I dunno what kind of sadistic sumbishes all you other people are, but I don’t personally gain any satisfaction of getting scared. I don’t want to scare myself on purpose.

    Why? Because IT’S SCARY. Scary=bad. :)

  22. Martin says:

    Groboclown: Shalebridge Cradle. It didn’t live up to the hype, for me.

  23. Kevin says:

    My wife and I got totally freaked out during the T-Rex appearance of the first Tomb Raider game, so maybe I’m not the best judge. However, we fell in love with the first Resident Evil game, and several of it’s follow ups. You might have been a kick-ass STARS member, but that somehow made it even scarier that as well equipped as you were, your opposition was still really out of your league. (It helped a lot that the T-virus was even out of Umbrella’s control so much of the time.)

    Silent Hill was a whole new ball game. We could not play that game without both of us being in the room, and I continually got the willies at my night-shift job. What made that such a great (frightening) game for us was the intense emotional connection you made with the main character. He had suffered loss, he had loved ones in peril, he could have been anyone. Even us.

    Being an ex-soldier doesn’t throw that away, as long as it’s realistically handled. Making him an engine of zombie destruction might make for an interesting game if they can tease something else new out of the medium and keep it from being a rehash of a dozen other games out there, but it certainly won’t be the same game.

    Of course, I stopped playing both Silent Hill and Resident Evil long ago, just because they were the same games.

  24. Rason says:

    Call me a panzy, but Half Life 2 did a very good job of scaring me so bad in parts the only reason I was able to still play was the need to find out everything turns out okay.

  25. Factoid says:

    The original Alone in the Dark was creepy as hell. I was too young to really appreciate the game mechanics back then, so I never did get very far (only a few rooms before I quit in frustration) but the fear was palpable. You’re utterly defenseless, standing is a creepy haunted mansion and all of a sudden a wolf is trying to break in through the window. Your choices are to try and fight it (bad idea) or push an armoir in front of the window.

    I’d never seen a game like this before. Moveable objects? In 3d? And it’s scary?!

    I went back many years later and replayed it. Even though the graphics didn’t age well it was still pretty scary.

    I think it’s probably the only pure survival horror game I’ve ever played start-to-finish. Most of them just don’t work for me, but Alone in the Dark is a classic.

  26. Gary says:

    I have to agree with you there Shamus. That kind of stuff really DOES take the edge off the fear.

    Games like “Call of Cthulu” by Bethesda, while an older game, still have that unnerving factor about them because like you said, there is a story and the main character is just a P.I. and you spend a good deal of the time hiding and running. :)

  27. Factoid says:

    I was looking for a picture of Pyramid head…because he’s ridiculous looking and I wanted a good laugh.

    Check out who’s the number one link on google images.

  28. SkeevetheImpossible says:

    You rag on ID software for not being scary ,but I remember sitting in your room in the basement playing Doom with the lights turned out. I would about poop myself every time a pinky demon ran at my face. Of course I was like 9 at the time. That crap was still scary though.

  29. bryce says:

    One thing to keep in mind is that a good amount of people don’t want to feel helpless and scared in their entertainment anymore. We get enough of that in real life now-a-days. From the underlying fear of terrorism and/or govermental abuse to the sheer survival of being able to afford food and shelter, people are tired of being a victim. It’s kind of natural to see survival horror where one is at mercy and powerless to the world morph into action horror where one actually has the ability to fight back against one’s threats.

    I agree that the tough soldier cliche’ is overused, but hopefully you can see why people now a days would see that as their preferred avatar when they get to step into a role.

    I personally think it would be more cathardic to step into the role of an everyday joe who finally decides to fight back. Think Ellen Ripley in “Aliens” (which is where that franchised ended as far as I’m concerned) or Barbara in the Tom Savini version of “Night of the Living Dead” as opposed to reprising Steven Segal or the like in their emotionally and physically invulnerable killing machines.

  30. Shamus says:

    Oh, I give the original Doom credit: It did indeed scare me. But those were new tricks then. Doom 2, Quake, Quake II, and Doom 3 were mostly* not scary.

    * The first hour or so of Doom III showed a lot of restraint and wasn’t too bad. It was no Silent Hill, but it managed to create a dribble of tension before descending into comedy and handing out the bullet hose and plasma spammer.

  31. Shamus says:

    bryce: Interesting point. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy survival horror so much. You kind of burn out your ability to feel stress. After playing for a few hours, I can step away and really relax.

  32. Nathaniel says:

    Anyone who wants to see how little computing power you need to make a very scary game should download a SNES emulator and Clock Tower. Also, it is certainly in the tradition of having a protagonist who is almost defenceless to help scare the pants off the player. You’re a little orphan girl trapped in a mansion you were visiting with your orphanage and everyone else has disappeared.

    Also, I really want to try Eternal Darkness someday.

  33. Mari says:

    @Drew (11) – I’m so with you on scary sounds and poor lighting. It was, IMO, the redeeming factor in Doom (the original). Maybe it’s because I’m a very auditory person, but with the right soundtrack Sesame Street could probably become somewhat scary. Throw a couple of shriek chords and a dark screen at me and there’s a decent chance of making me…well, shriek.

    But Shamus is right on in most respects. I’m sad to see the slow, shambling demise of the proper survival horror game. With a little bit of luck and some time, maybe it’ll pull a zombie trick and come back from the dead?

  34. mos says:

    If you’ve got a Gamecube lying around (or maybe a Wii, I suppose that’s supposed to work), Eternal Darkness is a wonderful survival horror type game. I specifically bought my Gamecube to play that game.

  35. Eric says:

    One game I believe to be the exception to the aforementioned formula is F.E.A.R.. I was a super soldier in that game, and still had my mind f’ed with. I found it scarier then all the re,sh, any ID game.

    EDIT: The eternal darkness game had interesting ideas, but the implementation of said ideas was lacking, so in turn made the game less scary for me.

  36. Derek K says:

    Fatal Frame was freakin’ scary. I didn’t even finish it.

    Wasn’t there some survival horror type game that messed with your controls, “Broke” your screen, etc?

    I’d love for some old school survival horror to come back. hell, I remember Shadowgate, from my old 512k Mac. It was a point and click, and it was kinda scary…

  37. Dev Null says:

    So I mostly agree with you Shamus, but I have to point out…

    I’m playing Silent Hill 2 at the moment – another one I bought for next-to-nothing based on your and others’ recommends here, and for which I thank you all – and the protagonist does seem to be wearing some sort of army jacket. I know; long stretch from “dude who bought a jacket at army surplus, carrying a stick with a nail through it” to “ex-Navy Seal slab-o-beef with semi-automatic laser-guided rocket launcher”, and we can only hope they stick closer to the former than the latter, but its not _necessarily_ that big of a deviation.

    Mind you, I’m only halfway through SH2, and I’ve played none of the rest of the series, so take my ramblings with sufficient salt, and a little lime.

  38. ngthagg says:

    Everyone’s watched a horror movie where instead of being scared, you laugh at the characters because they do stupid things. This sort of thing comes up because of a poor story. We (the audience) isn’t sold on the character’s motivation for doing something stupid. But when we are sold, that’s when horror works. We start feeling that anxiety long before the bad guy jumps out. We feel before the character takes their first step on the stairs. We feel it as soon as the character decides, and that gives the director lots of time to play on that anxiety.

    Most games suffer from the opposite problem. Rather than screwing up by letting us ask “why in the world would you do that?”, they screw up by letting us ask, “why not?”. The limited resources and poor controls are one way of giving us a very good reason why not to do something. Of course, if the story isn’t there, it goes too far and the player will give up.

    Any good survival horror game has to balance out these two factors. The story needs to be good enough that you want to keep playing (and you want your character to keep going as well!), but the game needs to be dangerous enough that you feel a real sense of jeopardy for the character. This means challenge, but not FPS save/reload challenge. RE2 is my favourite survival horror game, and it worked because I didn’t actually die that often while playing. I just spent most of the time in fear of dying.

  39. Otters34 says:

    I have a similar mindset to some of those above, I don’t like being scared, and generally avoid most anything that plays on fears like nyctophobia and arachnophobia.

    Also, no Silent Hill game has featured Batman, which would be interesting to see how he copes.

    Also, being military may mean cliche, but it also means non-idiot shooting skills.

  40. Derek K says:

    Tangential: I think the scariest movie I’ve seen in quite some time was 28 Days Later. I spent pretty much the entire film tensed up, because I just *knew* something awful was going to happen, and the movie never broke me out with something absurd.

    The best zombie movie I’ve seen lately, though, was Resident Evil 3. Which made no pretense at being scary, really.

  41. Derek K says:

    Edit on my post 36: Amusingly, Chris’ Survival Horror Quest references the exact games I was talking about. And it was Uninvited, not Shadowgate, I was thinking of. Man, nostalgia. Looking at the screenshot in the article, all I could think was “OH GOD SHE’S GOING TO TURN AROUND AND EAT YOUR FACE!” followed by “Do I dissolve her with acid? Or is it the amulet? Or something in the broom closet?”

    Also, Wolves in the Woods?! HOLY MONKEY JESUS that was a flashback and a half to suddenly see that, and have a ton of old memories come flooding back.

  42. NobleBear says:

    Thank you.
    Thank you.
    Thank you.

    I would love to see you twist the knife even further on developers who are turning the S/H genre into plotless action shooters with monsters.

    Even when the dialog is abysmal (RE), the ending sucks (Fatal Frame 2) or it seems writers have run out of ideas to develop the world (SH4), atmosphere, immersion and often interesting gameplay are still there.

    Eternal Darkness
    Re 2 & 3
    Fatal Frame
    SH 1 & 2
    Eternal *freaking* Darkness

    More of these please.

    PS: Please, for the love of Romero, bring back back proper zombies.

  43. I’m amazed that in the side discussion of zombie movies, nobody has yet mentioned Shaun of the Dead. While hysterically funny, it does maintain some tension. Interestingly, *both* the comedy *and* the tension depend on the “everyday bloke” nature of the main characters.

  44. Katy says:

    Did you ever play Siren? The British dub of what was originally a Japanese game isn’t so great, but the game play is pretty freaky, especially when you’re one guy with a wrench versus three shibito (aka “zombies” of a sort) with sniper rifles. It’s all about 1) sneaking through the patrols of the zombies in an area, 2) occasionally beating one down–though none of them actually ever STAY down, which is extra creepy–3) changing objects around using different characters at different times in the game clock (most portions of the game take place out of chronological order), and 4) discovering the reason for the area’s sudden “change”. It’s so great and I think you’d like it–that is, if you haven’t played it yet.

  45. Eldiran says:

    Narrative depth.

    I’d hate to see a perfectly good article be marred by an insignificant mistake only 1 in 100 people will notice and 1 in 10,000 people will be bothered by.

  46. Bryan says:

    Werdna (comment 16) — IMO, Penumbra: Overture was *great*. :-)

    Highly recommended, although you do have to turn down the detail levels a bit on hardware that’s a few generations old. Or at least, I did. (Otherwise the game would start to stutter a *lot* whenever I’d walk into a room that had more than one lamp turned on. Setting AA to 2x instead of 8x helped a lot.)

    I don’t have any reason not to buy Black Plague anymore. And while Overture wasn’t all fun and games (and certainly wasn’t “go kill everything!”), it was not-scary enough that I played through it several times. (I.e., it didn’t scare me off.) Highly engrossing, too.

    I was thinking of spending that $20 (from the Frictional Games site; maybe it’s $9 somewhere else) on RSPOD, but seeing how RSPOD does online activation, that’s not going to happen anymore. ;-)

    So anyway, consider this a recommendation for Penumbra: Overture, and a guarded recommendation for Penumbra: Black Plague (only because I haven’t actually seen it yet).

  47. MRL says:

    I recently played the beginning of Silent Hill 2 (right after watching the movie with some friends, actually), and it set the tone perfectly; I was literally jumping at random sounds during the run down the foggy path, with nary a monster in sight.

    However, the biggest breaker of suspension of disbelief in that game was most definitely the controls. Every time a monster showed up, I was trying desperately to face in the right direction.

    If Silent Hill 5 has improved controls over the other games in the series, I will give it a bit of slack in other areas. Survival horror games really are best, though, if fighting isn’t emphasized – say, if you were in a setting where the monsters really WERE impossible to permanently put down.

  48. Ozy says:

    Although I agree that survival horror seems to be dying, I disagree with the underlying problem Shamus seems to have with them. Being a paragon of human fighting ability doesn’t necessarily make the game less scary, as long as the threats are proportionately stronger and the atmosphere is still there.

    Take Half-Life 2. Ravenholm was scary. Reduce the amount of healthpacks and ammo available and stretch it out longer and you’ve got some quality survival horror, despite the fact that the player character is in fact a one-man army when sufficiently supplied.

    Another poster mentioned Alien vs. Predator. Again, that’s a game in which you can play a literal space marine with an arsenal in your pockets, but that doesn’t make a dark empty research station possibly filled with xenomorphs any less threatening. Indeed, you need to be a space marine just to put the “survival” back into “survival horror.”

    Or FEAR. The fact that you’re supernaturally superhuman yourself doesn’t make the game that much less scary when the game really puts its scary hat on.

    The same principle applies to table-top RPGs. I don’t know if you’ve played any Lovecraftian horror, but it’s generaly agreed that the players shouldn’t be combat experts. In that, I disagree, saying instead that in properly executed Lovecraftian horror, being a combat expert won’t help, at least not for long.

    In general, I find horror much more convincing when the victims actually are fairly competent and level-headed. It detracts from the horror experience, I think, to be able to say, “This entire situation wouldn’t be a problem at all if the people involved weren’t so stupid and weak.” On the other hand, if the situation is still horrifying when the victim is intelligent and strong, it gives the threat much more credibility.

  49. Derek K says:

    Yeah, there’s not a lot of value to being a combat expert in CoC, except that it might mean you can burn books faster.

    Now being a napalm expert with a focus in “paper” would be another thing.

    In CoC, if you require more combat skill than “shaky shots with a revolver” you’re doing it wrong.

  50. Rev_Blacky says:

    I’ve always had this vision of a zombie sandbox game.
    Multi-player capable up to, let’s say, a dozen possible people.
    The idea is simple.
    First, the environment is a small town or suburb.
    Walking dead, or mutants, or scary squid-people, or whatever, as a disease transmittable through a bite (as is now the standard).
    Assume the majority of the population has been infected or eaten.
    Your player(s) wake up to find your family zombified and trying for your brains.
    And that’s it.
    It’s your job to survive!
    You have this whole small town, including shops to loot, cars to try to steal, mall to hide in, whatever, as long as you can survive without being eaten or zombified.
    Multi-players start alone in one of the dozen possible starting houses.
    Maybe they’ll find the other players before they are eaten.
    Maybe they’ll lock themselves in a mall.
    In my fantasy game, it operates on real time, the sky is always dark and overcast with smoke from fires and destruction, though the clock is synched to your PC, so, day is brighter than night, and things like burning cars burn brighter at night.
    Figure, since it is on real time, there is a thirty day (game time, so, if you have to save the game for bed you can pick up where you left it when you load) limit.
    After thirty days (do the math! 30 days at 24 hours a day equals how much game play time?) the zombies die of starvation, or the disease that infects them finishes them off, or there’s a nuke strike from the gov’t (killing players AND zombies)…
    Regardless, the town is an interactive environment with limitless possible ideas on survival, and the zombie AI is simply find living flesh and eat.
    Hell, we can even make things like zombie pets.
    That big fat redneck guy that lived down the street from you is now a zombie, and he is tougher than the skinny little teenie bimbo zombie…
    Can you last 30 days with starving, without being eaten, without passing out from sleep dep, without being zombified?
    Anyway, that’s my idea for a game, simple, scary, challenging, and a classic.
    Of course, since I have none of the skills, knowledge, talents, ability, or finance to make something like this happen, it is just a dream.

  51. Heph says:

    While I’m not a big fan of survival horror, I do see it asa valuable genre, that, like many of my favourite genres, has been sadly abused lately. So, anyway.

    Perhaps – this is my optimism bone peaking through, it’s not what I actually think but a hope one might cling to – the whole “the player character is a super navy SEAL commando unit, strong enough to put down Rambo” might be a way to show how strong the enemies are.
    I mean, in the first few bits, relatively easy enemies you can take out because you’re strong and proficient with a weapon – say, a rabid dog. It’s dangerous, I’d have problems dealing with it, but an armed tough marine shouldn’t be bothered by it.
    Then, you meet the zombies/aliens/bad guys of the week, who won’t go down so easily. They need thinking, tactics, falling back to be able to fight back. If you try to take them head-on, you’re toast, because they’re som inhumanly strong and deadly. Perhaps you can’t actually kill them (until thel ast bit of the game where you luckily discover that fire/water/acid/asparagus will kill them off for good and you make your way to the big bad guy), and have to evade them and find ways ot temporarily immobilize them?

    I don’t really think so, but it’s possible…

  52. NobleBear says:


    I have SIREN and played it to what I presume is the halfway mark. I had to stop at that point as I got bogged down by needing to do the exact same level at least twice with the same character and confused by the open level menu; I could no longer tell where I needed to go next to advance the plot. Also, it was frustrating constantly getting spotted or sniped on certain levels, but oh well.

    That said, I like the concept of seemingly disparate parties drawn to or trapped in this remote village all working to unravel a mystery in the same 72 hour period. I’ll probably try it again when I have a walkthru sitting right next to me.

  53. Justin says:

    A good survival-horror game is a tough row to hoe, indeed. The best survival horror game I’ve played was the RE1 remake for Gamecube. I honestly didn’t feel the love for the PS original, but when the mansion started (finally!)looking like a mansion, that game was intense. I’m sure the atmosphere was aided by the knowledge that there was not enough ammunition in the whole game to put down all the creatures. Add in the supercharging of any deader you forgot to burn, and that is a terrifying game indeed.

    You all may laugh without hurting my feelings on this next bit: the other scariest game I’ve played is a friendly game of snipers with no motion tracker with my friends in Halo 2. With only a few of us on a large map, I found myself craning my neck to peer past the TV frame. Getting fragged from across the map without warning was more heartstopping than that moment before a car accident.

    Edited because my link to Monster Basement failed. Google it. It’s worth it.

  54. Mari says:

    @Rev_Blacky – dude, if your dream ever comes true and is done in a way that allows me to set up my own private server for friends, I’m all over it like oozing sores on a zombie. That would totally rock and is exactly my kind of game. PvE without the shambling 14-year-old noob-sniping morons.

  55. Slikmar says:

    I haven’t seen anyone mention Clive Barker’s Undying, it had some very creepy situations. Also, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines had the ghost in the hotel sequence, I made sure to play that level during the day.

  56. Rival Wombat says:

    System Shock 2 was a great, scary game.. yet in it you played a mute, cybernetic enhanced killing machine dancing to the tune played by an insane AI with a Messiah complex.

    And it didn’t seem to matter. Every shot felt like you were burning up precious resources. Weapons could fail and keeping them in workable condition required directing your attention away from other skills.

    People talked at you. With little ability to respond you were often a mute observer for horror, hearing the thoughts of people you’d walked over the corpses of. A note from a tough-as-nails solder thanking you for killing them because whatever you killed wasn’t human anymore still sticks with me.

  57. Ozy says:

    System Shock 2 is also an excellent example of artificial difficulty, which is to be avoided in all cases. The firearms in that game were fragile beyond all reason. Can you imagine any military issuing firearms that break after a few magazines worth of firing? Hell, the durability tests for the 1911 handgun involved firing it 5000 times without lubrication!

    Another example of artificial difficulty would be the Half-Life flashlight. It’s like, come on, I don’t care that it lasts forever. Just give me a few D batteries instead of it’s mysterious regenerating power supply, and that would be more than enough energy to leave the thing on for the length of the entire Half-Life series.

  58. Cain says:

    They could have been making a joke. Maybe the protagonist was kicked out of the military for cowardice, and he or she knows how to use standard military firearms and knives but only ever gets a hold of antique rifles and improvised things like bottles and chair legs.

  59. Anon says:

    I’d just like to make a little comment with regards to the complaint.

    Silent Hill isn’t compromised with having a war veteran. As far as I remember, Silent Hill games are about you, the player, blowing up monsters in a demonic city, which randomly alternates between being ‘good’ and with no monsters, ‘creepy’ and having monsters, and ‘hellish’ and having all sorts of crap happen. Why don’t you complain about the arsenals of the game, about how you can carry a whole arsenal in your pants, or how you have to kill things when proper survival horror would imply you trying to get away from things without killing them?

    Really, Silent Hill isn’t an FPS. I don’t think any of the problems that may come with such a thing are likely to occur.

    Would being able to jump be such a problem, too?

  60. Shamus says:

    Anon: I was pretty clear what the problem was in the original post. Paragraph #2 deals with your argument directly.

    Jumping wouldn’t have anything to do with it. It’s not a mechanical problem, it’s a thematic problem.

  61. Zereth says:

    I love the Resident Evil games that were still survival horror (I enjoyed 4 as well, but for a different reason). But those prove that you can be a bad ass and have an awesome game that scares you. The first one, we have two protagonists from the super-awesome STARS team, and it's still scary as all get out.

    Super-awesome STARS team? They’re the SWAT team for a midwest town whose only claim to fame is being the site of one of Umbrella’s biggest fuckups ever. And this is Umbrella we’re talking about, so that’s saying something.

    I wouldn't necessarily blame the developers 100%. I knew plenty of people that refused to touch Resident Evil for more than five minutes because of the awkward controls. One of the things that went hand in hand with Survival Horror was an awkward or poor control scheme, which actually was a very interesting mechanic.

    Look man, I am an out of shape nerd and when _I_ am better able to avoid slow-moving zombies than trained law enforcement personnel, something is horribly, horribly wrong. Having trouble avoiding zombies because you’re in tight corridors and there’s a lot of them? Tense. Having trouble avoiding zombies because the controls are not cooperating with you? Rage-inducing. I even own one or two of them and never played them very far because of this.

    Which is a shame, because their stories are completely goddamn insane and I like that in my entertainment. Resident Evil 4 just embraced this.

    Or FEAR. The fact that you're supernaturally superhuman yourself doesn't make the game that much less scary when the game really puts its scary hat on.

    Scary… until you realize that the SPOOKY GHOST STUFF can’t hurt you and doesn’t happen when you’re actually under attack. And thanks to your bullet time, you can murder the shit out of the clone super-soldiers and make them cry for their mommies. It’s great fun, but not scary.

  62. Steven B. says:

    Eternal Darkness stopped being scary for me as soon as I got the shield spell. Hooray, now nothing can hurt you! That was a good design choice…

  63. Rev_Blacky says:

    @Mari – If my dream game ever lurches into existence, I shall post about it here and let you all beta test it with/for me!
    And then free copies for the cool peoples!
    /zombie dance

  64. Zaxares says:

    Alien vs Predator was definitely scary, especially as a Marine. You may be a well-trained, highly competant soldier who’s armed to the gills, but enemies can come from ANYWHERE in this game, and all you have for early warning is your motion detector.

    “Beep-beep.” Moving object at 30m, 1 o’clock. … Is it an alien? Or just a moving door? A moving door that’s been opened by an alien? You don’t know. You can stand there for a second and see if the next motion pulse detects that it’s moved closer (or even further away) from you, but the aliens move so goddamned FAST that a wasted second can mean your death.

    Furthermore, the detector doesn’t tell you exactly WHERE the moving object is. Is it the floor above you? Below you? Straight ahead? In the vents? AvP managed to strike that perfect balance in giving you just enough knowledge that your enemy’s coming to make you brown your pants.

    Of course, granted, the game was a lot less scary when you were playing as a Predator (Cloaking + Pred-vision FTW!), and practically not scary at all when you’re playing as an Alien, but I felt it did a damn good job of scaring you as a Marine.

    Oh, and the SCARIEST thing in AvP: peering into a dark room as a Marine and frantically throwing flares into the place, because you can HEAR the skittering of Facehuggers in the room ahead.

  65. Ambience 327 says:

    Maybe it’s just me, but the first few levels with the Flood in Halo 1 were quite creepy – and definately some of the best mixed action/horror moments I’ve ever experienced in a video game. Halo 2 and 3 lessened this somewhat, but the Flood were still creepy.

    Other than that, my favorite Survival Horror was RE3. The repeated visits from Nemesis were great – but nothing was better than finally finding the wrench that I had known we would need for hours!

  66. Derek K says:

    @Rev_Blacky: I’d so play that. And really, how hard can it be to code Zombie AI?

    “Do you see food?”
    Yes No
    Eat it Shamble 10 feet.


    Has anyone here spent time on Urban Dead ( It’s a browser based semi-mmo zombie survival thing. I’ve spent a *lot* of time playing it in the past.

  67. Jeff says:

    I must be wimpy, but the haunted house in VtM: Bloodlines scared me, ’cause I went from being bad-ass vampire guy to being in a haunted house out of my control…

  68. Ian Clifton says:

    They forgot to mention that the war veteran was hit by an IED and is in a wheel chair. Sure, you start out with a companion who thoughtfully pushes you along, but then the zombies/monsters kill him/her and there’s quite a bit of tension as you try to wheel yourself away… Yeah, you get huge guns to blast the enemies, but the kickback wheels you back into the group of other enemies most of the time anyway…

    Yeah, I’m not buying it either…

  69. Relayer71 says:

    What always baffled me about the design of the original Resident Evil games is that the poor control was left in to heighten the sense of fear and panic (I read that in an interview with the producer of the games).

    But you can have good control over your character and still make a scary game as was seen with Eternal Darkness.

    Not that I minded the direction RE4 went in – seriously after 5 titles (RE 1, 2, 3, CV, Zero) with the only major change being graphics in each (with the exception of CV’s 3D environements) RE4 really rejuvinated the franchise.

    And although not really being as scary a game as the earlier titles, it was still one of the most polished action/adventure games in years and for me it was the first action/adventure game I played to completion since Super Metroid in 1995. It was also one of the few console games I’ve played from start to finish without playing another game in between – it was just that much fun to play. The pacing was excellent as was the presentation.

    But I think they’re making the same mistake with RE5 – from the footage I’ve seen it looks no different than RE4 except for the graphical upgrade which will most likely be the trend for a few more sequels until the fans get tired and Capcom changes it up again – most likely into an FPS full action title.

    Can’t say Capcom isn’t trying though – they tried to go in a slightly different direction with Dino Crisis but it just wasn’t as successful.

    What they should do with the next game (RE6) is go for full out horror – rely less on action and more on atmosphere.

    Perhaps have the game take place on a huge island and have several plot points and scripted events in different areas and make it seem as open-ended as possible. It should definitely NEVER put you in a position that requires you find some stupid color coded statue to solve a puzzle and move to the next area. And make it so the ultimate goal in the game is just to make your way off the island – like in some classic zombie films. And of course, the focus SHOULD be zombies.

    And maybe a timer of some sort – make it so you were left behind for dead by other Stars members and you know that the organization is going to detonate bombs that have been placed on the island. You have 15 hours to either get off the island (you find a boat but are missing a motor, fuel, etc.) or find the bombs and disarm them one by one (in several locations of the island).

  70. Nathanael Phillip Cole says:

    Whatever. The new Silent Hill looks damn awesome. Finally they’ve gotten rid of those damn antiquated tank controls and shifted to something actually worth playing. And I’m glad RE5 just might be doing the same. And the same with Dead Space, too!

    Not having the simple ability to shoot a gun while walking is just ridiculous, but not as stupid as the inability to take a single sideways step, and kudos to these games for doing it.

  71. Rev_Blacky says:

    @ Derek K: Hehe! Fabulous coding job! You’re hired! I will pay you in all the brains you can catch!

  72. RHJunior says:

    I dunno, DOOM basically freaked me out BECAUSE you were this hardcore heavily armed military uber bad dude…. and you saw signs right from the beginning of the game **that this wasn’t going to be nearly enough.** Seeing what USED to be another marine corps badass smeared across a wall like a toddler’s fingerpaint was remarkably frightening. It’s what made Aliens 2 so effective— there’s nothing more frightening than seeing a powerful authority/father figure reduced to a gibbering child or a helpless infant shortly before being reduced even further, to giblets.
    It’s a concept that needs more exploring with more deft hands.

  73. Anonymooo says:

    “Not having the simple ability to shoot a gun while walking is just ridiculous, but not as stupid as the inability to take a single sideways step, and kudos to these games for doing it.”

    It’s not scary if you can fight back. If I have the means to fight something in a game, I will feel comfortable facing it down, and if it kills me, that just means I didn’t fight it well enough.

    But when I can’t fight it? When the controls prevent me from fighting it well? I want to run the hell away, like I should be in a horror game, where combat shouldn’t be worth it.

  74. karln says:

    I’d like to see less emphasis on combat and more on running away in horror games, too, but I don’t think that’s best achieved by giving the character an impressive arsenal of weaponry and then crippling them with clunky controls that prevent them moving in ways that come naturally to normal humans. If you don’t want the player character fighting, don’t give him decent weapons in the first place. (Small firearms and improvised weaponry may be OK for emergencies, or just because the player might not believe that the character would not at least grab whatever heavy object looks most swingable.) Then you’re free to allow the character to easily turn around and run without waiting three seconds to change direction, or going through a ridiculous three point turn on foot when they want to get away from something in front of them.

    I’m never really frightened by the possibility of failing in combat in a horror game. I’m annoyed by it and worried about having to repeat content I just did, but that’s not the same thing. This is why I didn’t mind having the Shield spell in Eternal Darkness (it’s not that perfect anyway, at least not when opposing Ulyaoth, in which case your dominant shield gets quickly stripped away by sanity attacks, but I digress); I worry primarily about bad things that may happen in the plot, not things that may go wrong in combat. Combat calms me in a way. Once it’s on, I switch from fear of unseen horrors or discovery by enemies, to tactics and maneuvers and finding the best way to tackle the guy in front of me. Actually now I think of it, that’s probably because in most combat situations I’m aware that the game designers probably intend for me to fight at this point, so I know the combat is do-able. So it’s different in a case where combat is not supposed to occur, as in Thief.

    The things that have scared me most in games include: the prospect of what I might discover about my own character’s past in Silent Hill 2; the danger of being discovered by guards who could almost instantly render my mission nigh-impossible in Thief (being actually discovered just annoyed me and broke immersion of course as I reloaded); and things jumping out at me without warning in RE (otherwise not a fan of that franchise, but the shock horrors worked well). Boss fights and being screwed over by shoddy controls doesn’t feature. Those are on different lists altogether.

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