Introduction to Survival Horror
Survival horror games came roaring into gaming consciousness with the release of Resident Evil on the PlayStation in 1996. In a world full of adventure games and RPGs, Shinji Mikami turned the video game landscape on its head and brought about what is now known as the “Golden Age” of survival horror. After Resident Evil came a slew of 3rd person survival horror games including its own sequels, the Silent Hill series, and Fatal Frame. Just as Shinji Mikami had revolutionized survival horror with the first Resident Evil, he revolutionized it again in one of the most popular and most successful games of all time, Resident Evil 4. In spite of some (occasionally valid) criticisms about Resident Evil 4 being too action heavy, it was a natural progression for 3rd person survival horror and went on to change the dynamics of subsequent 3rd person shooters, action games, and survival horror games. The survival horror genre has struggled to find its footing in recent years, but the release of the Resident Evil 2 Remake could indicate the dawn of a return to form.
Current State of Survival Horror Games
Unfortunately, the line that Resident Evil 4 walked was incredibly fine and led to a large number of survival horror games that, in all honesty, were anything but survival horror games. Sure they had creature horror and shady protagonists, but ammo was abundant.
This destroyed any survival aspect and subsequently impacted the horror. How are creatures horrifying if you can simply unload hundreds of rounds of ammo without a second thought? Suddenly, all the uncertainties that make survival horror games what they are were gone. Survival horror is terrifying because of the lack of knowledge you have going into or dealing with any given situation. The uncertainty of being ambushed by some unrecognizable, twisted monster. The uncertainty of adequate provisions. And most importantly, the terror of having to decide how to deal with a given situation and what will come of your choice. This uncertainty is at the heart of fear, but when you have all the ammo you could want at your disposal, everything loses its impact. This was no more prominent than in Resident Evil 5 which took Resident Evil 4's formula, but pushed it so far off the fine line that it wound up a strictly action game with mangled creatures. More action focused survival horror games started to become the standard despite the occasional standout game like Dead Space. This eventually inspired a backlash in the survival horror genre in the form of 1st person, indie survival horror games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Unfortunately, this slew of indie games went too far in the other direction. Instead of giving the player almost unlimited ammo, they completely removed combat from their games which resulted in your only option: running away.
How We Are Terrified
In effect, taking away autonomy to choose how you engage an enemy is just as bad for the horror element as giving a person too much ammo. You take away an entire level of terror when you decide that combat is unnecessary. Some of the most horrifying, stressful times I've had in survival horror games are when I have to try and think quickly about how best to deal with a situation. Do I run away and hide? Can I run away and hide? How intelligent is this enemy? Can I stay and fight? If I do either of these, am I running into an ambush or are there reinforcements I don't see? These questions quickly swirl through our minds in not so many words and cause us to start panicking. Our hearts start racing, our palms get sweaty, and we know that if we make a wrong decision we can be punished.
Panicking about what to do is only the first step in the terror we experience. Once we come to a decision, we reassure ourselves that everything is going to work out, especially if we have confidence in our plan. We go from panic to confident and then the game changes. A perfect example of this is what I would guess was a common experience for many people who played Resident Evil 7. In the first part of the game, you're trapped in the Baker house with none other than the patriarch himself, Jack Baker. Jack roams the halls looking for you as you're intently listening and watching for him while carefully navigating your own way around the house looking for any items or weapons that could give you an advantage. Encountering him at first is true terror as this pale man, who is clearly not in his right mind, and yet is also quite cognizant taunts and tries to brutally murder you in a dimly lit hallway. You quickly muster some courage to shoot at him. At this point, you likely don't have much ammo and he is unphased by the bullets you are lodging in his brain. It is here that panic sets in. “What do I do?! My bullets aren't doing anything! Do I keep trying to take him down?! If it doesn't work I've wasted my ammo! I have to run!” In that instance, I'm sure many of us turned tail and ran to fight another day.
From this first encounter, we learned to bide our time and run from him. Soon enough we find the shotgun and have built up a relatively large arsenal. Now we're confident that we can make a dent in ol' Jack, so we set out to eliminate him, freeing us to explore the entirety of the house at our leisure. We meet up with Jack again and proceed to unload into him until he falls to the floor. We let out a cheer and begin to explore the rest of the house with a newfound sense of security. We thought our plan would work and it did. We continue to explore the house and make our way back to where we felled our maniacal pursuer to find his body missing. We know immediately what has happened. We have wasted our ammo on something that we can't kill. Our sense of security is ripped from us and replaced by the same terror that we had once experienced, but with a new level of dread.
We have a few new options. Burn through a substantial amount of ammo to buy a small amount of time to roll the dice and explore the rest of the house, try to contend with him by simply running away, or leave certain sections of the house unexplored. Each of these options provides its own level of terror, inducing uncertainty. If you pick the first option, you know you have a limited amount of time to explore the house while Jack is out cold, but how much time exactly? If you pick the second option, you have to deal with not knowing where he is at any given time. He could be around any corner about to ambush you or already hot on your heels. If you pick the third option, the uncertainty generated from it is obvious. If you choose to simply not explore parts of the house, you could miss a weapon or an item that could give you a distinct advantage in the future. The more options we have, the more uncertainty we have and the more panic can easily overtake us.
Conversely, the less we know about our enemies, the more uncertainty we have and the more the fear starts to accumulate. Picking off Jack for the first time gives us information about him. He's not completely invincible, but he is probably immortal. This information works to ease our nerves, but only momentarily, as we begin to wonder just what else he's capable of.
In the example that I've described, very few things have any certainty and the certainty that can be taken for granted leads to further uncertainty. In a game like Resident Evil 5, much of the uncertainty is removed by knowing full well that you have a mountain of ammo and weapons to dispatch whatever threat could possibly descend on you. In a game like Amnesia, a substantial amount of uncertainty is removed (though not as much as in Resident Evil 5) by stripping you of any option to engage an enemy and setting your default choice to running away and hiding. Over time this becomes less about panicked running and hiding and more about just doing the same thing over and over.
Now, I know that I just used a 1st person survival horror game to make the case for how striking a balance between capability and helplessness can create a truly terrifying game by playing with your expectations, but my preference lies in 3rd person experiences. A common criticism of 3rd person survival horror games is that your field of view is too wide. That is a very valid criticism and to be honest, it is my biggest complaint about The Evil Within and its sequel. It's too easy to be totally aware of your surroundings with a fully rotating camera. This kills almost all fear of enemies sneaking up on you.
Something slightly scarier, but very similar occurs in a 1st person perspective. A 1st person perspective limits your field of view to something like what you would be seeing if you were there. Unfortunately on a flat television screen, there's no such thing as peripheral vision and the camera control in most cases doesn't account for being able to turn your head 90 degrees in real life to look over your shoulder. So if an enemy sneaks up and starts attacking you, the best case scenario is that you go into an animation where the enemy has you pinned or grabbed and is dealing damage to you while you try to escape. The worst case scenario is that your screen flashes red as you hear something attacking you from behind. Clever sound effects can be used to ratchet up the tension in these situations, but they only manage to go so far.
A game that captures a brilliant middle ground with perspective is once again Resident Evil 4. Camera control is limited to basically what you see over Leon's shoulder with the ability to look about 90 degrees to the left and right and a quick turn around option. Part of what scares us is anticipation. If you have the ability to see everything that's going on around you or you have no ability to see what's going on around you, anticipation can be lost. Resident Evil 4's perspective is genius because it lets you see just enough to scare you to death.
A lot of Resident Evil 4's terror comes from being overwhelmed by incomprehensibly intelligent zombie-like enemies. There's nothing more terrifying in this game than trying to shoot your way through a group of enemies and seeing a Chainsaw Ganado approach you from the side of the screen in Leon's “peripheral vision”. Your immediate reaction is to panic and potentially run headlong into the group of enemies you were just dispatching. The anticipation that something is approaching you and then the shocking reveal sends you into a fear-induced tailspin that sends you running for your life.
Again, this fear all comes down to information you're given and how certain (or uncertain) it makes you about your situation. In The Evil Within games, you are given too much power to see everything around you, which eliminates a lot of uncertainty. In 1st person survival horror games, your field of vision is extremely limited. This can limit the amount of information you're given, which can affect your certainty or uncertainty of the situation. If you're completely unaware of a threat approaching from off screen and it ends up killing you, it isn't scary. It just feels cheap. It doesn't create uncertainty because your information is so limited.
When you see a Chainsaw Ganado in the periphery of the screen in Resident Evil 4, your situation becomes more certain, but how you deal with it becomes very uncertain. You have to reassess everything quickly and decide what you're going to do now. If you don't receive that blip of information, the situation remains the same. If you receive too much information, you have a greater amount of control over the situation and can make those decisions more easily. Once again, creating terror comes down to a balance of the known vs. the unknown. Recent 3rd person survival horror entries have been on the wrong side of the balance, giving you too much information, but 1st person survival horror titles have gone the opposite way giving you too little information. Resident Evil 4 may have been the only modern survival horror game to really hit that balance until the just recently released Resident Evil 2 Remake.
The Resident Evil 2 Remake borrows heavily from Resident Evil 4, but leaves intact a more desperate combat situation. While Resident Evil 4 straddled the line between action game and survival horror by offering just enough ammo and weapons to make things a bit easier than they previously had been in other outings, the Resident Evil 2 Remake sticks to its original gameplay style. Enemies don't drop ammo or health items and you're constantly wondering if you have enough for whatever is next. Very similarly to Resident Evil 4, your field of vision is limited but gives you enough information to keep you terrified.
My greatest desire for the future of survival horror games is a 3rd person renaissance like what we had in the mid-90s up to the mid-2000s. I think at least Capcom knows they're onto something with the Resident Evil 2 Remake. They overshot the action aspect with Resident Evil 5 and Resident Evil 6. They experimented with a new perspective for Resident Evil 7, and absolutely nailed what a 3rd person survival horror game should be with the Resident Evil 2 Remake. I would even say that at least in terms of refinement, the Resident Evil 2 Remake far surpasses Resident Evil 4. I hope Capcom continues to run with this formula for Resident Evil 8 and inspire a new renaissance.