Experienced Points: The Survival Horror Genre is a Mess

By Shamus Posted Monday Oct 19, 2015

Filed under: Column 80 comments

My column this week is about how the genre label of Survival Horror is completely meaningless and nobody agrees what these games should be.

Although, this isn’t the only dysfunctional genre in the industry. In fact, I’d say every time we see someone call a game an “X clone”, we’re seeing an example of a genre without a proper name. People still sometimes call Torchlight a “Diablo Clone”, despite the fact that this genre is old enough to vote and features many disparate titles.

An example of a good genre label is shmup. It’s easy to rememberIt’s short for “shoot ’em up”., it’s a unique word, and there isn’t a lot of “is this game a shmup or not?” confusion along the margins.

I’m not sure why some genres got useful names and some didn’t. Perhaps it’s that the medium is just growing too dang fast. It took movies over half a century to go from technological novelty to cultural ubiquity, and games covered the same distance in about 20 years. Maybe we’ll have more useful genre names once the medium settles down a bit.



[1] It’s short for “shoot ’em up”.

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80 thoughts on “Experienced Points: The Survival Horror Genre is a Mess

  1. Xeorm says:

    I’d guess it’s more to do with the vagaries of language. Some concepts pick up terms really easily, started by someone of importance or reach. Some just…don’t. Even “X clone” can result in good names, ala “roguelike”. Naming things is hard.

    Not sure I’d call the genre dysfunctional though. I’d say much of the problem comes from bad design and the current craziness of the business itself.

    Look at movies as a good example. Big budget horror films don’t really happen, and they’re more the domain of specific directors and writers. They’re made because even if they don’t compare to some of the huge blockbusters that come out, they make good money and people do enjoy them and enjoy the scene.

    On the gaming side though, publishers don’t want anything to do with something small or mid-sized like a horror game would be. They’re too large for a single person to do well either it seems. Need that medium sized budget. Kickstarter has recently been fulfilling that niche due to market failure, but I’d hazard a good guess that horror games don’t work well crowd-funded. And certainly can’t use early access to a good extent.

    Gaming needs its medium-sized funding niche if we want to have good horror games.

  2. I’m not a shmup connoisseur by any stretch, but at the very least I think you’d get experts calling for the need to distinguish bullet hells from other shmups. Even the Wikipedia article you linked mentions that “There is no consensus as to which design elements compose a shoot ’em up.”

    I bet this is one of those things where the more you know about a particular genre (or group of genres) the less homogeneous its members look. You see more subtle distinctions that seem to you to be worth their own categorization.

    You personally know a lot about survival horror, so you see the lines between the subgenres. Someone with less exposure might not see the problem with calling them all the same thing.

    1. guy says:

      I’d class bullet hells as a subgenre. They’ve got the same general mechanics as the others, and add more bullets and hitbox shenanigans. They’re shmups like TF2 is an FPS.

    2. Syal says:

      And the obligatory xkcd.

  3. Hector says:

    Can we, perchance, have an article on what a complete, utter, and embarrassing failure Uplay is next week? Given how thoroughly, if erratically, even basic features are fundamentally broken, the fact that Ubi is trying to stuff more functionality is both twisted and hilarious.

    I mean, sometimes the headlines are punchlines.

    1. MrGuy says:

      You mean like these?

      Or maybe this is Shamus’ chance to experiment with the “how often should I repeat myself?” question he posed last week. If anyone’s due for another beating, it’s Ubisoft…

    2. djw says:

      I’m kind of glad that Heroes of Might and Magic VII is such a buggy mess that I am not tempted to buy it and endure another round of forced uplay aggravation.

      1. Daemian Lucifer says:

        Im pretty much the same.At least 5 was somewhat decent after the expansions,but 6 tricked me because of nostalgia.Also because I wanted to check out the dynasty system.It wasnt worth it.

        1. djw says:

          I was also sucked in to 6 for nostalgia’s sake. It was dull, and it had uplay. Ugh. I think the completely deterministic and mostly boring skill trees drained the life out of it for me.

          Five had its moments, and I don’t regret buying it, but it lacked the flair of the games that 3D0 released. The convoluted skill trees were very interesting, but they triggered OCD rage when the random skills presented at level up meant that I was locked out of the “ultimate” skill for campaign npc’s.

          1. Daemian Lucifer says:

            For me,it helped that the ultimate skills mostly sucked,and stuff like logistics were still infinitely more useful.

    3. Mephane says:

      Uplay – simplifying purchase decisions and saving you money since 2009. By not buying anything bundled with it

      1. Phill says:

        It also simplified my choice of whether to play the free copy of Assassin’s Creed III I got by being entirely too painful to use to play a free game through.

        Yes, UPlay is so bad that I won’t even play a free game using it. Logically therefore, they would in all truth have to pay me to even consider future UPlay games.

  4. Blue_Pie_Ninja says:

    Let’s just hope that all genres are properly defined so we don’t have games called an “X clone”, like GTA and the “GTA clones” like Saint’s Row and Sleeping Dogs which while they are similar, they are all basically just Modern-Day Sandbox games.
    There, I just fixed the problem of “GTA clones”. B|

    1. Syal says:

      ‘Diablo Clones’ are all “Pinata RPGs”.

      1. Peter H. Coffin says:

        I like the “Third Person Looter” description.

        1. Ivan says:

          Then there’s Borderlands, a First-Person Looter.

      2. Groboclown says:

        Peter stole my line.

        I’m in the 3pL name camp, too.

  5. Joshua says:

    Well, what exactly is a Horror Movie? For like five years in a row, we had nothing but Saw sequels as *the* Halloween horror movie of the month. I have no interest in watching them or movies like Hostel, because I use the label of “Torture Porn”.

    I also don’t think of serial killer movies as my type of horror either, because anything lacking the supernatural tends to have rather grounded levels of things to be afraid of.

    So, the last good horror movie that I liked was The Descent, although I heard It Follows was also pretty good. Thinking about going to see Crimson Peak because that would fall under the label of horror that I would like.

    1. Daemian Lucifer says:

      Saw is an excellent example of how horror tends to degrade,not just in games but in movies as well.Because the original saw is legit horror,while the ones from 3 onwards are just gorn(2 is a mixed bag).

      1. DjordjBernardChaw says:

        I’m not sure if degrade is the right term. I’m not a fan of gorn/torture porn either, but I think it has a legitimate place in the horror world, even if I find it distasteful or I’m too squeamish to watch it.

        You talking about degrading is exactly what Shamus is talking about. Sure the Birds and Saw are both horror movies, but horror is a big enough tent that saying that doesn’t really tell you much about either movie. As a culture we need to have a more nuanced genre vocabulary (if we even think genres can be useful, which might be another discussion). Otherwise both fans and creators just end up talking past each other sometimes.

        1. Daemian Lucifer says:

          In the case of saw,degrade is the right word,because it got stretched so much in order to fit as many sequels as possible and squeeze the last ounce of moneys from the fans that its ridiculous.I mean all of the main characters get killed off only to keep appearing in the sequels regardless simply because they were popular.

  6. MrGuy says:

    I think you hit on the problem in the article, actually. It’s easier to define a genre that’s largely defined by its mechanics. Genres that admit multiple mechanics are more diffuse and problematic.

    First-person shooters can easily be determined mechanically, as can bulletstorm games. Fighting games, cover-based shooters, etc. Classic adventure games had sufficiently common mechanics (inventory, item hoarding, use A on B mechanics) to be instantly recognizable and distinct from other games of the era. Even MMORPG’s, while they differ in specifics, have a fairly defined set of mechanical expectations (groups, dungeons, quest givers, etc.)

    Genres defined by their mechanics can work with a wide variety of settings and stories, and still be recognizable as their genre.

    Games that are described as “X clones” are actually pretty “well defined” genres, because they share a lot of mechanical similarity. Diablo clones are instantly recognizable as such.

    Genres that are NOT defined by mechanics are more problematic. Role Playing Games are a great example. Once these broke loose from their DnD roots, there haven’t really been a consistent definition of what an RPG really was. Is it mainly about stats and levelling? Is it about multiple paths through the game? Is it about lore and a rich world? All of them? None? The problem RPG’s have today is that they range across BOTH different story types and different mechanics. It’s not clear what holds them together as a genre as distinct from others.

    The issue with survival horror is that it’s more like RPG’s – there’s a commonality, but it’s not built around mechanics. And because story and setting can vary, it’s not clear where to expect commonality.

    I’m not sure why “mechanical similarity” is the thing that makes us most comfortable grouping games together (as opposed to theme and setting), but it really does seem like it’s the easiest to agree on.

    1. Starker says:

      I was initially pretty confused about the article, until I figured out that I had never thought of survival horror as being defined by mechanics. For example, in literature genres exist for both theme as well as form, so we can lump things together under labels like science fiction, epic poems and Spenserian sonnets. And in film you also have your musicals and dramas and film noir and whatnot.

      If you want genres to be tools to sort everything into neat little boxes, you’re in for a disappointment. In the end, for something as chaotic and constantly evolving as art, there will never be going to be a good classification system, but genres are a useful shorthand to talk about things that share some aspect or another.

      Also, genres are a way to make sense of chaotic and unpredictable art by creating a set of defining characteristics and expectations. Once you have some sort of structure, artists can then work either with or against it.

    2. Daemian Lucifer says:

      But even the genres that are defined by mechanics can get into weird shenanigans.For example,in the fps genre you have both stuff like doom,unreal tournament and half life.Three vastly different games that all are under the same umbrella because the camera is inside the characters head and you shoot things.

      1. Starker says:

        And then there’s stuff like Portal, which looks like an FPS mechanically, but I don’t think many people would call it one.

        1. NotSteve says:

          In Portal’s case, “FPS” stands for “First-Person Something”.

    3. Moridin says:

      Mechanics is something that’s easy to quantify: “Is this a FPS?” is two questions, both easy to answer: “Is this first-person?” and “Does the game focus on shooting things?” A theme, say, historical wargames, is much harder to define clearly. How much can you deviate from real history before it stops being “historical?” SOME deviation is clearly allowable, because the game must be interactive, but how much? What if there are anachronisms? How blatant do they have to be to stop the game from being historical? Does it matter if they’re there because the game designers decided that it would be cool to have such elements in the game, or if they’re there because of bad research? Does it suddenly become historical if the anachronisms are fixed?

    4. Andy_Panthro says:

      The loose definition of survival horror is why I wrote a little argument that the original survival horror game, Alone in the Dark, could actually be described as an adventure game as it shares a lot of similarities with that genre (especially when adventure games turned to early 3D).

  7. wswordsmen says:

    My favorite genre title is Rougelike, because it is the only well defined non-contested genre that still calls itself after the first game in it. It would be like if FPSs were still called Doom clones, but very few people had heard of Doom so people thought the name came from how often you died in them.

    1. McNutcase says:

      Excuse me while I laugh until I puke. Roguelike is one of the most contested mechanical genre titles out there, because nobody can agree on which of Rogue’s mechanics define it. I’m one of the grognards who refuses to consider most of the “roguelike” tag on Steam as roguelike, because they’re real time, not grid-based movement, and all they have in common with Rogue are procedural generation and permanent death. Heck, Paranautical Activity is allegedly “roguelike”, and that’s a first-person shooter.

      There is a definition of roguelike games, but most people either aren’t aware of or explicitly reject the Berlin Definition.

      1. Felblood says:

        The Berlin Definition is outmoded and not terribly useful. It exists primarily as a tool for people who favor certain mechanics over others to complain that the games they dislike aren’t REAL Roguelikes, without touching on the tonal and haptic elements that turn them off. (Much like how certain factions like to question what is not a REAL game whenever they encounter a new genre that doesn’t appeal to them.)

        When the formal definition of a word becomes a hindrance to communication it needs revision. People should just let the Berlin Definition die instead of insisting on keeping it on life support in the name of the traditions of Elder Days.

        It’s time to accept that the Berlin Definition only encompasses a sub-genre of what modern language can safely call a Roguelike. We don’t have to like it, but it’s going to happen and we’ll have a better chance of minimizing the damage if we go forward with our eyes open. Calling Berlin correct Roguelikes “traditional roguelikes” invites a lot of problems a generation from now, but calling them Berlin Roguelikes would be acceptable in a lot of wikis and I support spreading that idea.

        I’ll edit this down, becasue I know I harp on this a lot, but a living language can’t survive without a certain amount of ambiguity. As the space of games we need to describe continues to evolve, the words we use have to change with it or be forgotten and replaced.

        Considering how bad we are at coming up with new genre names, we should be recycling the good ones aggressively.

      2. Ranneko says:

        I agree, Roguelike as a term has undergone some serious dilution. I guess we either get to a refined core definition, or it will end up like Roleplaying Game, where the title described a large pool of different aspects and 2 completely games can both be described as RPGs, despite sharing no aspects in common.

        Interestingly enough this dilution seems to happen even despite dev actions, for example FTL often is called a Roguelike, when it does not use that descripter.

        At this point the core Roguelike definition appears to be random, procedural level generation and permadeath and I am sure there are some games described as roguelikes where one or both of those are optional.

        1. Nixitur says:

          Yes, lots of so-called roguelikes have permanent unlocks which seriously dilutes the “permadeath” aspect. The degree by which stuff carries over from previous runs varies wildly.

          There’s, well, Rogue and Dungeon Crawl which, I think, have absolutely nothing carry over.
          Then there’s Nethack with its (optional) bone files meaning that you may sometimes discover the level where a previous adventurer died, complete with a corpse, the loot and a vengeful ghost.
          In Dwarf Fortress, your character’s death is very permanent, but the world stays the same between runs, so whatever your character did (robbing a village, slaying a giant, drowning in a river like a chump) still happened and you can find evidence of their actions.
          FTL has you unlock different ships, but it only changes what you start as and nothing else and people can’t really agree on which ship is the best, either.
          Binding of Isaac and Risk of Rain see you unlock upgrades and characters and in the former case even new levels and bosses. This slightly tips the balance because many upgrades you unlock, especially in Risk of Rain, are just plain amazing and having them in the item pool straight-up makes you more likely to win.
          On the extreme end of the spectrum is Rogue Legacy where, yes, your characters die and the next time you enter the castle, it’s completely different. However, you gain permanent and static upgrades and stat increases between runs, so I wouldn’t call it a roguelike.

          1. Merlin says:

            Yeah, I’m not sure if I’ve seen a subgenre more contested as “Roguelike” in recent memory. I mostly blame that on being a recent revival (in the mainstream at least) so it’s still going through the growing pains of crushing the spirits of any and all genre purists.

            For another degree of headscratch, Darkest Dungeon has had a lot of people grumbling about how it’s “not a roguelike” because while it’s a procedural death labyrinth where characters can die forever, there’s technically no lose state. Successful runs grant you resources to upgrade your town, and your town allows you to upgrade individual heroes, but you can never run out of time or heroes. For some people, this means that it’s not a roguelike (and possibly not even a “game”) since there’s no way to actually lose. For others, the structure basically amounts to being able to skip the proverbial cutscenes, since losing level 5 heroes and replacing them with level 0 crapsacks is close enough to starting over even though you can upgrade them more easily and don’t need to redo old quests.

            Very much a conundrum.

            1. Andy_Panthro says:

              I’ve heard of games like FTL, Binding of Isaac and Spelunky described as roguelikes, even though they share very little in terms of mechanics.

              If you’re going to use a classic game as a descriptor, then surely it must be noticeably similar to that game or you should use a separate term. Hence why we dropped things like “doom-clone” or whatever.

          2. Ranneko says:

            It’s true, for that matter permadeath is a term is used inconsistently.

            Does permadeath mean no unlocks, you literally start from scratch every time?
            Does it allow for cosmetic unlocks?
            Does it allow for mechanical unlocks?
            Or does it just mean that when a character dies, they stay dead?

            If so how do you refer to the other parts?

            1. Daemian Lucifer says:

              Permadeath means that if you die,the game deletes itself from your computer.

        2. Daemian Lucifer says:

          And this is why TotalBiscuit prefers the term roguelight.Its like roguelike,only easier.

          1. Ranneko says:

            And what is a roguelite exactly? Permadeath and procedural level/map?

            I am in favour of using a different term to avoid the dilution but doubt that anything is likely to gain enough actual usage to avoid it.

            Even if you have an alternate term, people would need to stop calling games that don’t meet the Berlin Definition or some other arbitrary set of criteria roguelikes for it to work.

            Given that for example FTL sells itself as a Roguelike-like, but people generally call it a roguelike, I don’t see this happening.

            1. Daemian Lucifer says:

              Thats how definitions change however.Enough people start using it,and it gets traction.Thats how doom clones became first person shooters.

  8. ChristopherT says:

    Not that I disagree, but don’t most genres have this very same problem. As Doctor Professor said above there’s a variety in shoot ’em ups to the point where you have your bullet hells, bullet hell type games with cutesy anime girls firing missiles, top down, side scrolling, Einhander, games where you level up your ship over the course of many stages, ones where each stage your ship is either reset or new power-ups emerge. To things like Sports having Tony Hawk to Madden, or wii-sports. Racing being the same genre to find Wipeout and Nascar.

    Then there’s the big two that are the most confusing, RPG and Action/Action-Adventure. RPG not only has the whole West/East thing happening, but then there’s crafting systems, magic systems, turn based, real time, active time gauge, action-rpg, or games where even though they are not Turn-Based Strategy type games still take into account how characters are presented on screen and account for strategy in that. To open world, corridor, dungeon crawlers. Games where you control a party or group, to just one or two characters. And who can ever say what makes an Action-Adventure other than what doesn’t fit in any other genre.

    To add, recently I played some Real-Time Strategy games. Each one fit in the RTS genre, and each was fairly different. Syndicate Wars, Satellite Reign, Command and Conquer Red Alert 2, and Grimgrimoire. Syndicate Wars let’s you control up to 4 characters as you go from mission to mission/map to map, heavily involving guns. Satellite Reign (Syndicate’s spiritual successor) involves the same idea of 4 characters, however this time each one has specialties that make them different from each other, can be used best in different situations and the game takes place in a bit of an open-world-ish map. As opposed to C&C which is a more standard RTS type game, where you build structures, train units, and attack enemy bases. To, Grimgrimoire which plays a decent amount like a standard RTS but is vertical instead of top down, and has fewer units per “race” but all races can be used by the player at the same time and has a bit of a rock-paper-scissors deal going with what race is good against another race. Yet each of these games, if you’ve played them, or seen them, all play fairly different but at the same time can all still feel like they belong to the RTS genre.

    Which is what I think is the case with most Survival Horror titles, Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Dino Crisis, Parasite Eve, Fatal Frame, Eternal Darkness, Alone in the Dark, Alan Wake, Siren, ect, while some have some strong differences in them, it gets hard to call them another genre, and while there are some very strong differences, there’s also enough things they have in common to consider the idea of pesky sub-genre’s added to Survival Horror, which I thought was also a sub-genre itself?

    Also, very small, minor thing, why does Shamus seem to only mention Silent Hill 2, when both 1 and 3 are also very nice games in themselves, and are certainly worth checking out.

    1. guy says:

      Syndicate Wars and Satellite Reign would fall under the classification of Real Time Tactical due to their lack of a unit production or base-building mechanic in the field.

      1. BruceR says:

        Of course, “Real Time Strategy” is completely oxomoronic if you think about it. Strategic thinking is by definition decidedly not real time. “Point-click strategy” would have been a better name if we’d thought of it at the time.

        1. Daemian Lucifer says:

          Say what?So all the officers in schools arent learning strategy?All the players in sportsball fields arent using strategies?

    2. The Rocketeer says:

      It warms my heart to see Einhänder listed as its own genre.

    3. Spammy says:

      Silent Hill 2 is the franchise. Pretty much every game that came after but Shattered Memories wanted to be Silent Hill 2. Every sequel seems to draw more from Silent Hill 2 than Silent Hill 1. All the nurses are sexy because that’s how they were in 2, even though 1 had nurses. In fact 2 is such the baseline for the franchise that I went looking for the meaning behind the enemies in Silent Hill 1 and found all the explanations really tenuous, especially the part where every enemy in Silent Hill 1 is generated not by the player character’s issues but someone else’s.

      Silent Hills 1 and 3 and Shattered Memories may all be good in their own way, but Silent Hill 2 has become the baseline “This is the mark that all others will be compared to” standard for the franchise.

  9. Daimbert says:

    I don’t think problem here is with the game category, but with the general category it’s attached to: horror. In horror movies, for example, we have Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Saw along with The Ring, The Blair Witch Project, and Paranormal activity. These are as radically different as the survival horror games that you talk about, and yet are all definitely horror movies. Sure, we can break them down into sub-categories and sometimes people do (see the “torture porn” label above) but for the most part, the horror category is very diverse and resists any kind of strict classification. Given that, it’s going to be hard for games to do that as well.

  10. mewse says:

    I guess I don’t see why this matters.

    Genres are just a very broad classification system. If this category (“survival horror”) isn’t precise enough for you, make a different one that more precisely captures the set of games or game features that you’re intending to talk about.

    Resident Evil 2 will still be Resident Evil 2, regardless of what category people choose to pigeon-hole it into.

    The genre is not the game.

    1. Daemian Lucifer says:

      I guess I don't see why this matters.

      Because if I like amnesia and someone says “this dead space is an amazing horror game” I might think Ill like it,because it is the same genre as the one I like,and get disappointed because of it.

  11. Abnaxis says:

    It would be nice for both groups if developers, marketers, and consumers all had some coherent way of differentiating these wildly different games.

    Maybe developers and consumers would appreciate it, but I bet marketers only want you to think the genre is “just like that one scary game you liked before,” regardless of whether that is actually accurate. I mean, it’s not like you can return the game if you are completely under the wrong idea when you buy it…

    See also: the Dead Island trailer.

  12. Pyrrhic Gades says:

    For me the best example of a “Survival Horror” game is Fable II. It’s a horrible game in which it’s impossible not to survive.
    If your character can die then it’s not a survival horror game.

    1. Daemian Lucifer says:

      You deserve a medal for that comment.

  13. Bropocalypse says:

    I’ve seen diablo-esque games referred to before as “hack n’ slash RPGs.”

    Also, I’m not a fan of horror games at all(even Bioshock is just a tad too scary for me), but I don’t think Five Nights at Freddy’s is a jumpscare game in the strictest sense. It’s more of a game that caters to the primeval fear of being hunted, mixed with the psychological horror of things that shouldn’t be moving at all. The jumpscares are almost strictly a punishment mechanic.
    In my mind, a true jumpscare game is one that springs them on you with little rhyme or reason, acting as the fundamentally scary aspect in of themselves.
    Going back to Bioshock, there are a number of parts in that game where splicers pop out of nowhere(usually behind you) and scare you that way. Are the splicers scary in of themselves? Not really. Once you get a firearm they rapidly drop in the sense of dread they give you. They’re pretty easy to kill. However, there was one part late in the game where I could TELL the game was going to jumpscare me. The area wasn’t any more atmospherically scary than other parts, and by that point in the game I was a bullet-slinging fire-shooting god, but the knowledge that the game was going to spring another cheap jumpscare on me filled me with dread. I didn’t feel hunted or vulnerable, I was merely being threatened with a stimulus that vexes me.

    1. ZzzzSleep says:

      I've seen diablo-esque games referred to before as “hack n' slash RPGs.”

      I’ve always liked the term “third person looter”… :-)

      1. Aldowyn says:

        I thought ‘action RPG’ was standard, myself.

        1. Bropocalypse says:

          As far as I know, that’s also used for Skyrim. It’s probably a super-genre.

          1. Andy_Panthro says:

            Since the Elder Scrolls games ditched their dice-rolling combat, I’d certainly agree with putting them in the “hack n slash” or “action RPG” category. Although they are a bit different from something like Dead Island which is almost a first-person diablo (but with zombies at a beach resort) so what do I know.

      2. Peter H. Coffin says:

        Heh. Made the same reply on a thread further back. We need to make this stick…

  14. The Rocketeer says:

    Spoiler: Reading this is not worth your time.

    I want to take a tangent. Shamus brings up how different games are striving for different kinds of fear, while residing under a single banner of “survival horror.” Being scared, startled, horrified, nervous, anxious… These are important distinctions, and for the purposes of talking about them, I put them all under the label of tension rather than fear; fear itself, I think, is only part of the picture, and the part more seldom sought by developers.

    The single most critical distinction between the effects of tension in a game is whether that tension is experienced by a player immersed in the world, acting as their agent within the game, or whether that tension is felt externally, as the player alone and in spite of the character. While there’s nothing saying there can’t be a great deal of overlap, in reality games have tended to cleave fully to one or the other.

    I can’t speak to Haunted House or Alone in the Dark. But while either of those games may have begun the survival horror genre in spirit, Resident Evil, for better or worse (and I think you’ll figure out pretty quickly which I believe it to be), was the title that fully and truly implanted the idea of a distinct genre based on fear into the collective conscious of gamers, and I don’t think it’s coincidence that, despite coining the term, the series has always been under fierce contention regarding whether it is even a valid example of the genre it established. I think this can be blamed entirely upon Resident Evil’s design philosophy: from the very start, the series was completely, totally, intractably rooted in meta-tension. Simply by striving toward this one ideal and not the other, the series distinguished itself starkly from the alternative and, very importantly, locked out the audience that wanted to feel fear as a character rather than a player. Because this audience had no other name but survival horror to recognize their distinct desire, this has centered the genre on the dilemma for twenty years.

    Resident Evil’s mechanics, the means by which it establishes and maintains tension, are entirely non-diegetic. They arise from arbitrary restraints of the mechanics and visual design imposed by the developer upon the player, rather than natural restrictions and odds imposed by the setting itself. The ways in which Resident Evil establishes meta-tension are multitude, and are familiar hallmarks of holy wars regarding the games’ validity as horror titles. They won’t shock you as I recount them: the discretely controlled, slot- and stack-based inventory that sharply limits the supplies you can carry, and treats keys and other tiny objects the same as handguns, fire extinguishers, and what have you; camera angles that conceal from the player threats that would be visible to the player-character; restricted saves, reliant on a consumable item; environments and puzzles structured in bizarre, often nonsensical ways; characters, good and evil alike, whose actions do not portray them as the acme of rational thought; a narrative, both within a title and carried among them, that cannot keep any given detail straight for five minutes and is liable to be rewritten or reframed entirely with every entry.

    These things, apologists of the series are well-used to saying by now, are either necessary to the fear created by the titles, or immaterial to it. And they’re right. Resident Evil’s chief tool in creating tension is character death, and the loss of progress. The threat of player death is real and immediate. Resource scarcity and inventory restrictions make survival less likely, and the limited saves inflate the progress the player will lose. Many puzzles, if solved incorrectly or slowly, will harm or kill the player. Mortal threats are introduced without warning or placed strategically just off-camera to keep the threat of unexpected death real and present. All tension in Resident Evil loops back the to the death of the player character: an entirely non-diegetic punishment that creates meta-tension, and only meta-tension. The fear in Resident Evil is always and solely the fear that the player’s last twenty minutes of progress will be invalidated by a poorly-abetted combat, an unexpected attack, or an unforeseen trap. Resident Evil benefits nothing from immersion in or verisimilitude of narrative, of environment design, or of characters’ knowledge or capabilities, because the series is already dedicated thoroughly and earnestly to a core design philosophy that fatally disrupts immersion and cannot benefit from it.

    When people play Resident Evil for psychological horror and receive only meta-tension, they resent it. I suspect a great deal of the series’ detraction comes less from any failure to live up to its own intentions and standards of design, but from superficially resembling, while diverging fundamentally from, psychological horror.

    [Note: I dislike the term psychological horror. I dislike it for the same reason Shamus disdains the phrase “thinking man’s shooter.” It’s inaccurate and dismissive; all horror is psychological. There can be no other kind, by definition. A machine can play Pong, but it cannot feel tension, diegetic or non. I feel like psychological horror, as a label, is used to categorically dismiss anything not to the individual speaker’s tastes, regarding as lesser what is merely unlike. But for the purpose of this unfocused diatribe, I will acquiesce, and use this term for the sake of clarity and contrast.]

    While Resident Evil (the early series, anyway, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves) isn’t my cup of tea, I don’t resent its existence, anymore than I entertain any other egotistical, totalitarian notions that whatever resources are wasted on other people’s interests would have better been spent on my own.

    But I do resent its position of primacy within survival horror as it developed as a genre. While Resident Evil’s mechanical and philosophical directives served it well and cemented its place in gaming’s annals, they became the de facto standards of design for anything that followed into the genre that it codified, regardless of their intentions of following or diverging from Resident Evil philosophically. What Resident Evil cannot be blamed for, however, is the conservative, iterative nature of AAA game development that enforced this standard. By calcifying a host of mechanical, stylistic, narrative, and visual expectations for the nascent survival horror genre, every game that followed was compelled to work within or against these expectations, and still today have failed to completely obviate them.

    This presented, and still presents, a significant hurdle for the genre for two reasons. First, Resident Evil was, frankly, a pretty damn janky series at the best of times. A derivative of a jank-ball schematic can’t help but be jank-ball itself without a luminary designer correcting or mitigating that design. But as alluded to above, and far more importantly, it imported Resident Evil’s purpose-built, non-diegetic assumptions of horror into games that may have desired a tone and experience inherently hostile to that design. Resident Evil didn’t just seat survival horror on the throne; it tangibly restrained psychological horror’s competing design philosophy. Obviously, there are successful psychological horror games, though. (Though there aren’t as many as I’d like, grumble scoff snark grumble.) By way of comparison, I’d like to present a series that forged its own destiny in spite of its roots, and my choice will not surprise many: Silent Hill.

    I say that Silent Hill succeeded in spite of its roots- specifically, in spite of its roots in the traditions created by Resident Evil. Of course, it’s old hat that the second title is the most beloved, but the original, I think, was an even bigger step away from what had come before than its successor was to the first title, and therefore an even more unlikely success. While Silent Hill 2 was bold in forging its own identity, it refined the work of its predecessor more often than it diverged from it, and it was this new ground for iteration that Silent Hill deserves credit for.

    The lineage from Resident Evil to Silent Hill is easily visible. You play a lone character trapped in an unfamiliar location. The game is third-person, and features tank controls. The plot is based in a mystery. Gameplay is based in exploration, in puzzle solving, and in combat. The combat is designed to be dangerous rather than fun. Resources are scarce, and the player is wise not to waste them. Peripheral characters are few, and are met incidentally over the course of the narrative, rather than remaining with the player-character.

    In truth, Silent Hill likely accords with Resident Evil in at least as many ways as it diverges. But the diversions it chose to make were critical, and fundamentally alter the assumptions of the game’s threats and how they relate to the player and player-character. Most dramatic, possibly, is the categorical shift in context. In the wise words of Mumbles Peaches Keensford-Chambers, there’s a big difference between a monster story and a ghost story. In contrast to the monster story of Resident Evil, Silent Hill was a ghost story. The mechanical difference is nearly nil, actually; the player still encounters and defeats monsters, and they are still defeated by mundane means. But Silent Hill recontextualizes the underlying threat from a physical, mundane threat to an unknown, paranormal hostility that the player cannot immediately apprehend.

    There are a host of tweaks that recontextualize the mechanics without necessarily altering them. Resident Evil often presented the opportunity to flee from or bypass monsters, but the narrow corridors of the mansion made this a much greater gamble; the player had to either dart past within a monster’s reach, or alter their route to bypass the monster through another (hopefully less hazardous) room. Silent Hill’s wide streets and hallways, by contrast, made running past monsters much more viable. While Silent Hill and Resident Evil are both fixed camera, Silent Hill transitioned from pre-rendered 2D backgrounds to 3D environments; while Resident Evil’s camera was used to frame the environment cinematically while selectively limiting the player’s environmental awareness- often to their detriment- Silent Hill’s camera follows the player-character more reliably, and is more gracious in informing the player rather than in creatively disinforming them. While resources themselves are limited, the player’s capacity to carry items in Silent Hill is never infringed by mechanical limitations such as stack size or slot limits. While melee was technically an option in Resident Evil, it was a tool of last resort reserved only for desperate players who had expended their resources and would likely soon be mauled, or master players who are toying with the system for fun at the game’s expense. In Silent Hill, by contrast, melee forms half of the player-character’s capabilities; guns have the advantage of keeping the player out of the monsters’ reach, but the player’s resource concerns tempt the player into choosing to fight in melee when possible, despite the greater risk. Resident Evil created tension with the threat of unexpected attack, either by monsters spawning unexpectedly or lingering just off the present camera angle, where the player-character would find themselves face-to-face with the monster the instant the camera angle changes. Silent Hill instead gives the player-character a radio that gives clear early warning of the presence of enemies. While Silent Hill maintains Resident Evil’s focus on puzzles, it eschews the frequent puzzle-as-deathtrap challenges of Resident Evil and focuses more on riddles. Finally, Silent Hill allows the player to save whenever they want, provided they can reach a savepoint; how much progress the player risks by proceeding through the game is a choice of their own.

    What you might notice is that almost all of these changes make Silent Hill less punishing. Silent Hill intentionally backs away from the constant, high threat of death and the loss of player progress.

    Silent Hill also diverged from Resident Evil in its writing. As stated before, both games are centered on a mystery. Resident Evil was rooted in the mystery of the monsters’ origin and nature. Because this mystery was the focus of the narrative, the solution to this mystery becomes material. Because the solution to the mystery was, famously, the stuff of B-movie schlock, the solution likewise contextualizes the narrative in this manner. I refer specifically to Resident Evil, the first title, in this regard; its posterity ignores this, and redoubles their focus on the player-characters’ escape and survival. Solving the mystery of Silent Hill, meanwhile, is a means to a personal end: finding the player-character’s daughter. The mystery of the setting and the events surrounding Cheryl remains important, but not paramount; rather, it is whether or not Harry rescues her that creates the tension in the narrative, and uncovering the mystery informs that tension. Because the mystery of Silent Hill is rooted in the supernatural and informs, rather than forms, the basis of tension for the narrative, there is much more liberty for vagueness or writer fiat in this mystery- though reasonable minds may differ, of course.

    These differences, taken together, represent something other than a mere refinement of Resident Evil’s design, but a discrete and deliberate shift away from it. Beyond these changes, there’s the famous hallmarks of the series itself: the dark, grotesque environments, the symbolism found in the environment, and the abiding sense of isolation. But what fans of the games, and of psychological horror in general, will often tell you of the game’s successes, and of what they seek in horror, is this: it achieves immersion. With its mechanics and its presentation and writing, it minimized the ways in which and the frequency with which it pushed the player out of the world, and maximized its efforts in drawing the player in, making their mind, desires, and dreads the same as those of their agent within the world. This, I think, represents the critical difference between the survival horror of Resident Evil and its progeny and the psychological horror of Silent Hill and its ilk. Resident Evil’s survival horror is focused exclusively upon just that: survival, where death is a non-diegetic punishment of the player necessarily opposed by system mastery, foreknowledge, and meta-gaming. Silent Hill is something else entirely.

    I deliberate at length on subsets of horror here, but without rehashing that diatribe, Resident Evil was focused primarily on the threat to life and limb, while Silent Hill demoted that threat in favor of the threat to the player-character’s family and to his faith in his understanding of the world’s nature. If you remember one thing I’ve written here, let it be these three words: Horror is disempowerment. Resident Evil focuses solely on disempowering the player by threat to the player-character’s life and limb, and elevates its brand of disempowerment by amplifying this threat. It did this through the total abdication of immersion, relying on a world with no verisimilitude founded on arbitrary mechanical and systemic abstractions and impositions, demanding a total divorce of the perspective, knowledge, and mindset of the player and player-character. It’s for this reason that I never enjoyed classic Resident Evil. It’s also the reason I find Resident Evil’s design lacking, even as a redoubtable proponent of meta-tension as a design goal: Resident Evil’s only tool to create this meta-tension is the threat of death, and following through on this threat invariably trivializes the stakes. Each time Resident Evil follows through on its threat to kill the player by starving them of healing and ammunition, by dropping an unexpected monster through a window, or by springing a deathtrap as punishment for failing to understand the moon logic inherited from its adventure game forebears, it inures the player to the one persistent source of tension and builds their tolerance up. A player easily learns not to fear the game, either becoming too frustrated or too bored to care or by learning to stop worrying and love the meta-game, treating the game not on its own ostensible horror terms, but solely as a system to be mastered; both of these are failure modes that nullify the only form of disempowerment the game is capable of, and, therefore, the only horror potential the games possess. I oppose this not because the games are too hard- often, the opposite is true- but because they are clumsy, shallow, and narrowly exclusionary. Resident Evil not only alienates gamers looking to become immersed and experience a different kind of horror, but also players whose experience with the game does not fall within the precise tolerances of the games’ systems: either failing to threaten the player often enough to establish tension, or breaking this tension through abuse.

    Silent Hill, by embracing immersion, threatens the player not only with the threat to the player-character’s life and limb, but seduces the player to share in the player-character’s personal and existential fears. Immersion opens the door for games to disempower the player by threatening things other than their time. This is a trick, of course. All horror is a trick, because the disempowerment that creates it is illusionary. To quote an ancient philosopher, “You can’t spend what you ain’t got, can’t lose what you never had.” It’s absurd that a work of fiction can create genuine fear in a player by creating an artificial world where their proxy stands to lose someone dear, or by threatening their agent’s understanding or peace of mind by discovering a world whose nature accords with our fears. But this is the magic of immersion, and by pinning its aspirations in this immersion and persevering, Silent Hill staked its claim to a formidable, if fading, legacy. Of course, games that actually succeed in capitalizing on this remain rare, for a variety of reasons. I allege above that the genre is still today held back by the conservative, iterative nature of mainstream game design and the genre’s origins in a deceptively similar counterpart. But even more than that, it is simply a difficult and unpredictable discipline.

    Immersion is a trick, and you can’t fool all of the people, all of the time. Even the best horror games are highly reliant on the audience’s subjective susceptibility to its illusion; I was simply bored by Amnesia: The Dark Descent, for instance, despite its nominal representation of everything I desire in a horror game. More than that, though, the accomplishment of a persistent immersion capable of creating and sustaining dread is not contained in a single mechanic or aesthetic. It requires a unified design, one in which all parts work together to serve a difficult, protean goal. Psychological horror represents not merely the skillful iteration on a subset of mechanics, not merely on an artistic and atmospheric conceit, nor merely skillful and subtle writing craft, but the synthesis of all parts of a game into a whole that serves the end of manipulating the intelligence and emotions of its audience without their conscious recognition, a task further hampered by the unpredictable nature of this audience and the guarded and critical attitude many will inevitably bring with them. It is one of the most difficult goals of game design traditions not generally well suited to its accomplishment, and even when everything seems right on paper, it can still fail. But because of the mastery of the art that a successful product represents, and because of the inimitable sensation that experiencing immersive psychological horror produces, I cannot help but maintain interest and enthusiasm in the genre, no matter how much more often I have been let down by it. The successes are worth more than the cost.

    I was going to diverge into talking about Dead Space (and Resident Evil 4, and Dino Crisis 2), and the anomalous position they took relative to their horror peers, but I’ll leave it here for now.

    1. Shamus says:

      Really great stuff. Thanks for writing it.

      I never really blamed RE for the fall of SH, but I think you’re right: The games are so superficially the same, it’s easy to understand how a developer would want to “help” SH by making it mechanically similar to its more commercially successful predecessor. You can see how this makes sense from a certain point of view, even though it basically destroyed the series by betraying the core thing that made it special.

      I was going to write next week’s column on SOMA, but I’m seriously considering exploring this idea further.

    2. Syal says:

      I consider psychological horror to specifically be about contradicting a person’s understanding of the world, like “sounds you hear are caused by something” and “if it looks like a person it will have the limited range of motion of a person”. Any horror that reinforces a person’s understanding of the world in a scary way, like “an athletic man with a gun can kill you if he wants” or “if you make a sound near an enemy, they can find you” would not be psychological horror; I’d probably call it visceral horror.

    3. Daemian Lucifer says:

      Spoiler: Reading this is not worth your time.

      I disagree.It was time well spent.Anyway,I want to go on a tangent to this tangent:

      [Note: I dislike the term psychological horror. I dislike it for the same reason Shamus disdains the phrase “thinking man's shooter.” It's inaccurate and dismissive; all horror is psychological. There can be no other kind, by definition. A machine can play Pong, but it cannot feel tension, diegetic or non. I feel like psychological horror, as a label, is used to categorically dismiss anything not to the individual speaker's tastes, regarding as lesser what is merely unlike. But for the purpose of this unfocused diatribe, I will acquiesce, and use this term for the sake of clarity and contrast.]

      Theres no dismissal or act of superiority there.The “psychological” in psychological horror doesnt talk about the target of horror,but the source of it.Seeing a dead body and thinking of a dead body may incite the same emotion in a person,but the source for the first comes from outside,while the second one comes from the inside.So psychological horror relies mostly in triggering ones imagination and emotion,in order for the horror to come from their own mind,rather than from the screen itself via horrific images.

      1. The Rocketeer says:

        Well, it’s not as loaded a term as “PC Master Race,” I admit. I’m not imputing some sort of superiority complex on anyone that says “psychological horror,” just that I don’t care for it personally. Yours is actually one of the best definitions I’ve heard, but labels that rely on nuance to be understood are inherently unsuitable as genre titles. A person will become aware of the terms “survival” and “psychological” horror long before they develop a nuanced understand of either, and it’s easy to make the mistake that “survival horror” is about fighting monsters and managing inventory slots and “psychological horror” is about paranoiac suspicions that the world isn’t what it appears; in actuality, the labels have historically been practically interchangeable and reveal nothing in particular about any given work, regardless of how it describes itself or how individuals describe it. In response to you and Syal above, it’s my personal leaning that a profusion of genre subdivisions is simply not very useful; their intended use as descriptive shorthand is inevitably misapplied as a prescriptive boundary (see also: “roguelike”). The particulars of animosity between horror fans have generally centered on salient points such as individual mechanics, art style, and setting details, when no individual attribute is a meaningful distinguishing factor, and a work described broadly as “psychological horror” may carry any or all of the hallmarks of “survival horror,” or vice versa.

        I use both terms above, as if they were opposed, for the sake of quick and dirty comparison. But I think both terms, as they are commonly used, focus too tightly on arbitrary and superficial mechanical or stylistic conceits and received traditions of older, non-horror genres that informed the new genres’ formations. And neither actually predicts or describes the balance of diegetic and non-diegetic tension, or how and how often the game disempowers the player, that I think characterizes the core conflict of interests within the games and their audiences.

        Also, and unfortunately I don’t make this clear above, I don’t think immersive tension and meta-tension represent polarities, but a continuum. Games built around non-diegetic tension still immerse many players, and games focused on immersion almost invariably rely on familiar gaming abstractions external to the world. It’s merely a matter of priorities, and of what the finished work can maintain for its players- meaning it’s ultimately subjective, like everything.

    4. Benjamin Hilton says:

      This reminds me of a thought I had long ago that one of the main problems that “scary” games have is that they scare the Character and not the player. They put the character in a Situation that would obviously be terrifying to actually be in, without understanding that it is not necessarily frightening to a player.

  15. Wide And Nerdy says:

    But the breakout title was 1996’s Resident Evil. It was the first game to be called “survival horror”, and it defined a lot of the important attributes of the genre for the next decade: Awkward combat controls, item scarcity, restrictive save system. I missed the Resident Evil excitement at the time because I was over on the PC, playing Quake.

    I assume you mean to say that the combat controls are deliberately awkward as a design feature but that might not be clear to more casual readers at the Escapist especially since you like to do a fair bit of snarking. If you did just mean to poke fun at Resident Evil for having awkward controls, then nevermind. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never played these games.

    1. Shamus says:

      Actually, I was trying to split the difference. I was trying to stay neutral on it, to head off having THAT argument again.

      Although The Rocketeer just made a case that THAT argument can sometimes be really interesting.

      1. Wide And Nerdy says:

        You probably succeeded. That I read the “intentionally awkward” meaning into it probably means that others familiar with that defense will do so as well especially since you list it next to other intentional design choices.

  16. Neko says:

    I think my favourite Creepy game series would be the Fatal Frame (or Project Zero) games. I don’t think I can use the term “Horror” anymore because in my mind that’s now associated with Hollywood Horror, i.e. gore and jump scares. I want the sort of spooky, creepy, unsettling ambience that I more associate with asian cinema. They’re games that have that oppressive atmosphere and those sort of situations where you don’t want to go through that door but you know you have to but you don’t want to – but they still have a bit of player empowerment via the Camera Obscura.

    I also like Amnesia but there’s really not much empowerment going on there, it’s all oppressive all the time, which is probably why I still haven’t finished the damn thing.

    1. The Rocketeer says:

      I think the “empowerment” of the Camera Obscura comes with its own set of mechanics for creating tension. There’s the first-person perspective shift, which both personalizes the act of fighting ghosts and limits your field of view, balancing the player’s ability to defend themselves with their situational awareness. While the camera allows you to defend yourself, it needs film; the camera isn’t an unlimited resource (depending on the game, but even unlimited Type 07 film is practically worthless). So the standard lines about collecting and conservatively expending scarce resources apply.

      Most importantly, I think the rhythm of combat in Fatal Frame is a unique and beautiful thing. It gets by-the-numbers after a while, but the very concept of Zero Shots and Fatal Frames encourage the player to reserve their resources- their film, their special lenses, and their nerve- until the ghost is at its most dangerous, usually a moment during or a split-second before their most dangerous attacks, or when their dead, hollow eyes are lurching directly at your lens. Combat builds up all of its tension into this singular moment, and then releases it in an instant, either through success or failure.

      It’s a wonderful tool for creating a feedback loop, and for granting depth to combat without granting the player undue power over their opponent; snapping a Fatal Frame generally means putting yourself in your opponents power, and while there is an experience resource and various lenses and special equipment to empower the player, the system never dulls its focus on player skill, timing, knowledge, and discretion.

      I think it goes without saying that I’m a big fan, at least of the first three games.

      1. Daimbert says:

        You talk a lot about the combat here, but it seems to me that the real success of the horror aspect of Fatal Frame is that the combat is minimized, and the camera angle plays into that. It’s a relatively awkward system that doesn’t support the constant or near-constant combat of games like Resident Evil or Silent Hill, and isn’t all that deep either. And while if I recall correctly you CAN power it up in combat, you also I think get points just from capturing the images of the ghosts, and that is what’s important to the REAL horror of the game, because as you do so, you find out more about the ghosts and start to think of them precisely as departed spirits, with personalities, hopes, and dreams … who ended up in this horrific place. From the start of the first game, you can see that what happened to some of them might happen to you, and as you go on you find out the horrible things that happened in service to the main power here. The combat is just there to a) give you an actual threat and b) to give you something to do to break up the monotony. But it’s the atmosphere and the sound and the stories that drive the horror, not the combat. So focusing on the combat here, I think, does a real disservice to the deliberate design decisions that really made it such a strong horror game.

        1. The Rocketeer says:

          You need to look up something called “relative privation.” Then you need to stop putting words in my mouth. I’ve had plenty of good things to say about Fatal Frame’s atmosphere, it’s art design, its thematic pretenses and its cloying, paranoiac sense of dread in the past. That I spent one moment talking about a different part I enjoyed as well doesn’t denigrate the remainder, and doesn’t do a “disservice” to anything.

          No, the combat is not the entire game. Yes, the game benefits a lot from not leaning too heavily on its combat system. But dismissing the combat in Fatal Frame out of hand because it isn’t the part you care about is selfish, and it does a much greater disservice to the game than I’ve apparently done by giving credit where it’s due.

          Saying the combat in the game isn’t “real” horror is missing the point entirely, and pretty nakedly reveals your own narrow bias. The developers could have made something token and bland for the sake of fulfilling an obligation. They didn’t. Unfortunately, that’s remarkable for horror games.

          Plenty of horror games have justified shitty, un-fun combat on the grounds that it’s a token element that doesn’t need to be good. Fatal Frame rejected that idea and created a system that, while simple, leveraged the player’s tools in a sensible way, created and leveraged tension in a unique fashion, asserted the connection between player and player-character, and meaningfully linked moment-to-moment encounters with the player’s long-term success, without turning the game into a positive feedback loop. I can count good horror series that do that on one finger.

          1. Daimbert says:

            You need to look up something called “relative privation.” Then you need to stop putting words in my mouth.

            Two things to start with:

            1) If a concept is relevant, then the onus is on you to describe what it is and why it matters. If you want to argue that I should look it up, my first thought is that it can’t be that important to your point.

            2) If you want me to stop putting words in your mouth, you probably should try to be careful not to put words in mine. I never said, for example, that the combat wasn’t the part I cared about. I actually made an argument that it isn’t what drives the horror in the game. I stand by that: they did not throw hordes of enemies at you to scare you through being in combat or having to combat many tough ghosts most of the time. The combat is sparse, and in my view is there to give you a threat and to break up the monotony of exploration. This is indeed important to the horror the game is trying to produce, but again it merely supports it.

            As for the words that you think I put in your mouth, in the comment I was replying to you talked EXCLUSIVELY about the combat and how it builds up the tension, so it’s fair for me to say that in my view that isn’t what produces the most fear in the game. If you’ve talked about the atmosphere, etc, in glowing terms, it was elsewhere. Great. That being the case, it would be reasonable for you to point that out and say that, yes, that atmosphere and the like was really important to the quality of the horror of the game, but you just wanted to focus on the combat here. Instead, you seem to be trying to say that it was unfair of me to claim you focused on that when you replied to a comment that focused more on the atmosphere with a comment that talked about the Camera and the combat and didn’t even MENTION the atmosphere. I’m not saying that I have to be RIGHT about what you were trying to say, but at least you have to acknowledge that my comment wasn’t completely off base.

            Saying the combat in the game isn't “real” horror is missing the point entirely, and pretty nakedly reveals your own narrow bias.

            I didn’t say that. I said that it wasn’t THE real horror, meaning that it wasn’t the thing that drove the horror of the game. To clarify, that means that if you say that the only thing scary about the game is through the combat mechanism, then you and I are going to have a disagreement [grin].

            Plenty of horror games have justified shitty, un-fun combat on the grounds that it's a token element that doesn't need to be good. Fatal Frame rejected that idea and created a system that, while simple, leveraged the player's tools in a sensible way, created and leveraged tension in a unique fashion, asserted the connection between player and player-character, and meaningfully linked moment-to-moment encounters with the player's long-term success, without turning the game into a positive feedback loop. I can count good horror series that do that on one finger.

            And just WHERE did I disagree with that, again? I NEVER said that the combat system wasn’t good and didn’t support the game well. I think it does. But I think it SUPPORTS the atmosphere and the tension in the game, in part by being relatively sparse. So we’d be vigorously agreeing here.

  17. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Ever since steam introduced all the various labels for games Ive realized that attempting to put a game into a single genre is futile and counterproductive.Describing a game by multiple tags is far more informative,and easier.So instead of figuring out whether resident evil or five nights at freddys fit the survival horror genre better,its much easier(and better) to also add tags of “third person,zombies,limited resources,shooting,exploration,….” to the first and “first person,rooted in place,humor,mascots,….” to the second.

    1. The Rocketeer says:

      An ancient philosopher once said, “Genres are inherently bullshit; they’re useful as a shorthand to help people talk about things, and the second they cause confusion, they become useless.”

      1. Shamus says:

        I really like that quote. Is it from Yahtzee?

  18. Mephane says:

    I'm not sure why some genres got useful names and some didn't. Perhaps it's that the medium is just growing too dang fast. It took movies over half a century to go from technological novelty to cultural ubiquity, and games covered the same distance in about 20 years. Maybe we'll have more useful genre names once the medium settles down a bit.

    The reason is that in games, the term genre describes something different than in movies. In movies, the genre is about the content, the themes, the type of story and ideas. Western. Action. Science fiction. Romantic comedy.

    In games, however, the genre refers to the game mechanics, and the very things usually subsumed under a movie genre are more aking to themes.

    – An FPS has you play in first person and point some kind of weapon at enemies in order to dispatch them, which requires situational awareness, precision and quick reactions.
    – An RTS has you devise a strategy to overcome an obstacle, typical a group of enemy units, and then command groups of your own units in order to achieve victory. Player skills include strategic thinking and fast multi-tasking.
    – An RPG has you play out one or sometimes multiple characters, defining not just their combat and non-combat abilities, but also their personality and reaction to the world and the story that unfolds. Moment to moment decision-making and also an element strategic planning are involved.
    – Survival games pit the player against an unforgiving world where the resources needed for success are scarce and danger is plentiful. Careful resource management and the accumulation of knowledge about the various dangers and how to overcome or avoid them are typically expected of the player.

    But horror? That is a theme, like fantasy or sci-fi. It doesn’t describe game mechanics at all, and therefore is entirely unfit as a gerne term in the first place. This is why the horror “genre” seems like a mess: it isn’t one to begin with (for games), just a bunch of titles from different genres sharing a common theme. Imagine trying to sort Mass Effect, Alpha Centauri and Wing Commander into a single genre, calling it “sci-fi” – it makes no sense as a game genre descriptor.

    It doesn’t help (well it does, but it does not help with the futile attempts at defining a horror game genre) that games not only have a genre and a theme, but can combine, mix&match both multiple genres and multiple themes. Combine concepts like that of a sci-fi-horror FPS (Half Life 2) or a sci-fi TPS-RPG (Mass Effect), and they become hardly comparable at all.

  19. Spammy says:

    As an aside, while Shamus has always been vocally down on modern Resident Evil, I honestly enjoy it. I suppose it’s because my introduction to the franchise came from LPs impressing on me that Resident Evil as a franchise has always been goofy and ridiculous. It’s got geography that makes no sense, the puzzles make no sense, Umbrella existing for more than a day makes no sense… To me it seems like with Resident Evil 4 onwards, they no only decided to go for a fun third person shooter control scheme but also embrace their own goofiness. Yes, your Act 2 villain is a midget with a funny voice. Yes, Wesker has gone full comic book villain.

    Even Resident Evil Revelations, which everyone seemed to love so much Capcom gave it a PC port, still got goofy. I can’t actually explain the plot to you because it’s one double cross after the other.

    I’ve heard that Revelations 2 gets closer to being scary, but is Resident Evil the Spoopy of horror games? It uses horror ideas and horror paraphernalia but not really for actual horror.

  20. Hal says:

    One element of horror that’s really hard to manipulate is one’s perception of reality. Alfred Hitchcock was always working that angle; Twilight Zone as well. This works especially well if only the protagonist is aware of the shift in reality; no one else sees the monster, etc.

    The one game that played on this angle really, really well was Eternal Darkness. The game often manipulated the player’s perception of the game as it was being played, making for some interesting scares.

    The problem with the approach that game had, however, is that it’s kind of a one-time shot. Those perception manipulations were based around a secondary health bar (Sanity). On subsequent playthroughs, once you’re better at the game, you don’t really lose much sanity.

    On top of that, the game only had so many tricks in its arsenal for messing with you. Once you’ve seen a trick a few times, it rather loses its impact. I suppose the same holds true when games use body horror; once you’ve seen one blood-gurgling monstrosity, you’ve seen them all.

  21. Steve C says:

    The first survival horror game I played was Advanced Dungeons and Dragons: Cloudy Mountain on the Intellivision. That game also came out in 1982. I never played Haunted House but I can’t imagine it was more tense then this game.

    It was hard and tense– really tense. You could get trapped and killed with no hope if you were not careful. There were always a few monsters immune to your attacks, you could run out of ammo and if you missed your shots would ricochet and possibly kill you. Often you’d have to blind shoot to even have a chance. This video shows the game though it doesn’t convey the tense nature of the dungeons. You’d have to experience it to really get it. (Though @0:32sec you get an idea as the player spends 10seconds not wanting to go into the next dungeon.) It was very short though. About 10mins a game.

    I wonder if there is a playable flash version out there…

  22. kdansky says:

    I don’t think talking about a genre being broken makes much sense right now. Most genres are ridiculously badly defined, many genres are not actually genres at all. Most MOBAs are about as different as any two patches a year apart in LoL, and most MMOs (all except EVE, basically) are just WoW with a skin-graft and a few gimmicks that are less innovative than what WoW does with every expansion. Quake and Unreal are not in the same genre. They are two variations of the same game, just like two poker variants (probably actually more so).

    Then we have genres like FPS, where Minecraft and Portal are for some reason excluded (despite clearly being first person and with shooting), and we for some reason differentiate that from games with shoulder cams, even though they use the same rules, just a slightly different (and usually worse) way of showing you the action. Also note that Quake is not a MOBA, even though you clearly have a multiplayer online battle arena, actually more so than in DOTA itself.

    “RPG” stands for “you have numbers which go up”, which again, is true for 99% of all games, but for some reason MOBAs and don’t count. There is also no actual role-playing in nearly any of them. The Walking Dead has more role-playing than Lords of the Fallen. Speaking of which, what does “adventure” mean? Shouldn’t Uncharted be an adventure?

    Diablo-clones don’t have a proper genre name, Roguelikes are basically classified as “anything where you can’t save-scum to victory” and we don’t even have proper genres for truly innovative games, so we usually lump them up as “action” or “puzzle”, which is about as useful as classifying movies by how many cuts per minute they make. What are the genres of Monaco, or Concrete Jungle, or Hand of Fate, Cook/serve/delicious or even Hearthstone?

    So yeah, in the light of this utter mess, nobody gets Survival Horror either. Amusingly, it’s one of the least stupid genre definitions we have, and yet nobody gets it right.

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