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The evolution of horror

Greg Giddens looks back at the genre's ever-changing history...

Over the years, the survival horror genre has gone through many different changes - from its humble beginnings as an adventure game with a gimmick, to a widely recognised genre in its own right, all the way to its more current form as an umbrella-genre with its fingers in a number of proverbial pies. Survival horror has always been more than just a form of gameplay: it is a genre that is defined more by its theme and atmosphere than by its mechanics. 

The survival horror genre was born from two simple gameplay concepts, present in its name: a theme of horror, with the ultimate goal of survival. What was so unique about this new genre was that the player would not take control of a powerful and strong protagonist, but instead would control an ordinary person, in an extraordinary, and often supernatural, situation.

The popularity of the genre was slow to build, not so much due to the poor quality of survival horror games, but more due to a lack of awareness. Gamers simply didn't realise this genre existed. As a result, the genre failed to flourish and suffered from stagnant growth. Eventually, a series of games provided the genre with a surge of popularity, and with this newfound fame came more developers willing to give the genre a chance. The series of games that started survival horror's real success was Resident Evil.

Survival horror really started to take off after the success of the first two Resident Evil titles, but it's important to mention that Resident Evil was not the first. One game, which is widely believed to be the first example of a survival horror, is Haunted House on the Atari 2600, released way back in 1982; but the one most people are familiar with would have to be Alone in the Dark, released in 1992 on the PC. Alone in the Dark was one of the first games to use polygonal characters over pre-rendered backgrounds, and set the standard for the survival horror game experience. Alone in the Dark remained true to the genre's original concept of limited resources and inventory, and puzzle based gameplay. This gameplay mechanic remained the set standard for years to come. Unfortunately, the Alone in the Dark series suffered from 'terrible sequel syndrome', a disease that has affected many franchises over the years. The resulting blow to the Alone in the Dark series, however, allowed similar games to emerge. 

"...mutations were happening..."

In 1996, the first Resident Evil was released, borrowing game mechanics from Alone in the Dark with the addition of real time combat and a deeper storyline. Resident Evil, like Alone in the Dark, used pre-rendered backgrounds, the main difference being that Resident Evil's backgrounds and characters were highly detailed and varied. This was a step forward for survival horrors, fuelled by innovated ideas and recent advances in technology, introducing the genre to the world stage with quite an entrance. Gameplay mechanics of survival horror games were seemingly set in stone; players saw the genre as a horror/adventure game, about survival and fear. But in the background mutations were happening, new ideas were forming. The next step in survival horror's evolution was for developers to experiment with the current gameplay mechanics.

One of the first to be tampered with was the combat - lessening its importance in gameplay, or even eliminating it altogether. Games that were survival horror by nature but that concentrated more on the puzzle-based elements began to appear. Instead of engaging the things that go bump in the night, the player would have to hide - the concept of 'the more helpless you are the scarier the experience' - one originally supported by the first Alone in the Dark game - was being revisited. This new gameplay mechanic planted a seed in developers' minds. Psychological horror was effective, but it wouldn’t be until the turn of the millennium that this seed would germinate fully. 

A few years passed and new series appeared. Interestingly, these 'survival horror' games were beginning to show gameplay mechanics that were alien to the survival horror concept; in fact, the mechanics belonged to other genres entirely. RPG and more action-heavy elements were appearing in the survival horror formula, intending to complement the traditional genre mechanics. This bold cavalcade of additions showed us that survival horror needn't be so closed-off and solitary - with a little bit of genre splicing, true greatness could be found, as was the case with the release of Valve Software's Half-Life in 1998. Half-Life was a massive step forwards for both FPS and survival horror, and new graphical, gameplay and storytelling standards were set. The game was primarily recognised as a shooter, but the backbone of the game has an undeniable survival horror feel to it, with puzzle- and fear-based gameplay. Half-Life is one of the earliest signs pointing to a merger of genres. A year on, though, and the wisdom that games like Half-Life brought to the survival horror genre was seemingly forgotten. Silent Hill was released, showing, on the surface, a return to the Resident Evil style of gameplay. However, this initial feel proved superficial; underneath it was far more psychological horror, a lot less dependent on shock factors and combat, and another step forward for the genre as a whole. 

Gameplay was beginning to evolve; the genre was expanding its repertoire of game mechanics and was showing slow but measurable development. The late nineties saw a huge leap in the genre's evolution, but amazingly this leap slipped by unnoticed, due to developers' and gamers' dissent - people weren’t ready to let go of the genre's roots, and so the changes taking place were largely ignored or belittled. 1999 saw the release of System Shock 2, a game which incorporated no less than three genres: FPS, RPG, and survival horror. System Shock 2 was yet another example of how videogame horror was expanding but, much like Half-Life, its relevance to the survival horror genre was overlooked. As a result, in the early 2000s, the traditional genre continued to develop along the tried and tested adventure-style path.

"...a theme, not just a genre..."

Still, the psychological horror seed had germinated and grown into a terrifying plant, whose roots could be found in several different genres. As the plant continued to grow, a realisation struck that survival horror was no longer confined to the adventure game formula. The rules had changed and genres across the board were no longer pure; instead, they were corrupted by the blood of inter-genre breeding. Through the early 2000s, psychological horrors made a stand. Developers ensured that any game project that touched on survival horror introduced the player to different kinds of fear. Psychological survival horrors played more on the feelings of paranoia, and the fear-induced adrenaline of being chased and watched. These new methods changed the experience of playing survival horror games. Gamers desensitised to shock factors were now wetting themselves all over again. Survival horror's influence in other genres was now abundant, involved in a multitude of gameplay styles. Survival horror was now a theme, not just a genre.

In 2005, the umbrella-genre of survival horror and FPS gave birth to a new game, one with a very appropriate title: F.E.A.R. An adrenaline-packed action horror game which pushed the boundaries of what was expected in survival horror and FPS titles, F.E.A.R. had the ability to draw people in with its accessible gunplay then scare them stupid with its truly mind-twisting terror. Aware of the changes to the survival horror genre, Capcom returned with Resident Evil 4. This time Resident Evil sported a third person, over-the-shoulder camera view, as well as much more action-orientated gameplay. These few changes, in a series renowned for its contribution in creating the expectations of how a survival horror game should play, really showed the evidence of how much had changed over the years. With the set formulas gone, the genre had no more constraints, leaving ample room for innovation. 

Although the evolution of survival horror has remained steady over the years, gamers' interest in the genre did not, on the surface, appear to. In actuality, though, the genre has never really declined in popularity - because of its transformation, the genre has always been highly sought after. Recent years have seen a revival in survival horror interest, the genre's growth and evolution over the years has been noticed, and with the release of Resident Evil 5 and F.E.A.R. 2 (reviewed this very issue - Lewis), interest has continued to grow.

These couple of months see the release of an abundance of horror titles, with Silent Hill: Homecoming, Resident Evil 5, F.E.A.R. 2; Cryostasis, NecroVisioN and The Path all out now or soon to be released, so hopefully the genre will continue to grow. Survival horror has become a great deal more than its original gimmick and has now reached a level other genres aspire to. So is this the end of the survival horror genre's journey? Are there no more risks to take, no more paths to follow? Survival horror's evolution is now only limited by the imagination of developers, and so time will tell if there are any more chapters in this epic story.

After all, all the best horror stories have a twist in the tale.

Greg Giddens is a freelance games journalist living and working in the UK.

Issue 4


Editor's Note

The Special Report
A silly video! Hooray!

The Evolution of Horror
A look back at the genre's history

16-Bit Boy
Do our minds corrupt the most innocent games?

Is it 'Game Over' for survival horror?
Where's the genre heading?

The Angry Gamer
Are games programmed to cheat?

Listen to your Elders!
Lessons from the FPS grandfathers

Vince D. Weller
What makes a good RPG?

Interview: Dan Pinchbeck
How far can we push FPS boundaries?

First Impressions: Resident Evil 5
Rekindling the spirit?


F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin

Cryostasis: Sleep of Reason

The Last Remnant

The Path

Big Bang Mini



Spelunky (Game of the Month)

ShellShock 2: Blood Trials

Hotel Giant 2