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Is it 'Game Over' for survival horror?

Jonathan Alisandyr needs some convincing...

"Fear you cannot forget..."

Such is the motto that's been assigned to Resident Evil 5, the latest in Capcom's B-rate survival horror series. Or is it B-rate action shooter? These days it's hard to tell. Certainly, the scare seems to have gone out of the long-running franchise, with the last truly frightening Resident Evil game being Code Veronica (Resident Evil 0 had its scares, but it also had a drag queen controlling leeches with opera).

Then again, the entire survival horror genre seems to be undergoing a change. The question is whether this is an evolution or a death of the genre altogether. With Fatal Frame going to the Wii, and Silent Hill running dry on ideas, Resident Evil was kind of my last bastion of hope for a modern horror game, but it seems itís not to be. I miss the days of jumping in my chair. I miss the days of zombie dogs bursting through windows. I miss the days of Jill sandwiches. Well, maybe not that, so much.

I think what we need here is a return to the basics. If Capcom wants to claim its latest zombie rave is survival horror, then there's a few things that are going to have to show in the full game that I haven't seen much evidence for in the demo.

Atmosphere is the first thing. I mean, if your game is set in the wacky land of make-believe and chocolate ruled over by King Ryan the Bunny, you're going to have trouble scaring your audience. Most developers seem to know this and we have plenty of haunted houses, villages of the damned and ghost ships to plant our shaking booties on. But that in itself isn't scary. Fear comes from our senses picking up on subtle clues within a frightening environment. Of these senses, two can currently be affected in the medium of videogames: sight and sound. Fear comes from hearing footsteps coming towards us; from seeing something peer quickly around the corner before darting back into the dark hole from whence it came.

"...the less we can see, the more we're afraid..."

The atmosphere has to be visceral. These days we have more power to graphically represent our nightmares than ever before. Still, while the ability to render skulls and blood is better than ever, there's a difference between staring at a scary picture and being inside a scary picture. Many modern horror games feature realistically coloured and textured levels, but few demonstrate actual good design. Good level design in the horror genre starts and ends with cramped spaces. Cramped spaces make us feel tense. Wide open spaces don't. It's to do with visibility. When you can see something coming from a long way away, you have time to react. As a general rule, horror should always follow this basic rule: the less we can see, the more we're afraid.

I'm sure some of you are racking your brains for counter-examples. Some popular ones:

"Silent Hill has plenty of open spaces! For goodness' sake, Silent Hill 2's main environment was one huge open street!"

Ah, but do you not recall that this street was encased in perpetual fog? You couldn't see one hand's breadth in front of your face, let alone the things creeping towards you out of it. You could hear them (there's that use of sound) but you couldn't see them.

"Well, what about Resident Evil 4? A lot of that takes place in big rooms and the open fields of the village."

It didn't always work, did it? Resident Evil 4 definitely let you see too much. There were areas that you could clear by using the rifle before even entering. When it did work, it was because the open spaces weren't really open. You might be outside, or in a large room, but those areas were crammed full of stuff to block your vision and impair your movement. Now, stop bringing up Resident Evil 4. I'm not even sure if that's a horror game.

"Okay, but how do you explain Dead Space, with its huge 'darkness of space' environments?"

There aren't a lot of them. Also, Dead Space takes the interesting route of designing its open spaces with twists that make you feel cramped, such as removing oxygen and/or gravity. With the former, you can't linger long enough to get comfortable. With the latter, enemies can come at you from all directions, meaning that you have to constantly look around. This creates that same feeling of being penned in.

"...the dripping blood from the claws of a ghoul..."

Let's get back to atmosphere. I've talked about the visual aspect, but sound is part of it too. A game needs more than a spooky soundtrack. A wide range of sound effects is required. And these sound effects should have fun with the player's mind. Envision the player coming cautiously around a corner only to discover the hissing they've been hearing is actually a whiny fan. Just then, the dripping sound that they were sure was water coming out of the ventilation pipes turns out to be blood dripping from the claws of the ghoul right behind them. An environment has to be alive: it's got to have a heartbeat. And you have to set that heartbeat to the psychological ticking of the player.

Another thing that adds to atmosphere is a good story and characters. I don't usually hold out hope for these in a genre known for terrible voice acting, midget Napoleons, and plot lines lifted from the worst slasher flicks in history. Even so, there's no denying the effect of a good titular villain. System Shock's SHODAN is the most popular example of this, but perhaps a more striking (and bizarre) example can be seen in Valve's puzzle-shooter Portal. Here, a comically austere environment is made oddly terrifying by the slowly morphing character of GLaDOS, the computer system which tauntingly helps you towards your reward of what she asserts is "really good cake." While SHODAN is a similarly terrifying AI, what makes GLaDOS such an interesting example is that she operates within a minimalistic environment. There's none of the tension or quick scares of System Shock's detailed environment to scare yourself with. There's just GLaDOS and her calm glee in psychologically torturing the players by forcing them to incinerate their companion cube. It just goes to show that the right combination of psychosis and script can turn any environment into an uncomfortable setting.

Atmosphere is only the foundation for fear, though. Once that's built, developers need to move on to gameplay. Having an enemy surprise you by jumping out behind a corner is a quick thrill that lasts about five seconds and quickly becomes predictable. To make fear linger, the player has to be kept in a constant state of non-preparation.

From personal experience I can say that nothing is more upsetting than seeing a monster fall from the ceiling and whipping out my gun only to hear a resounding click. And upset me it should. That is the point of horror.

Nonetheless, the equipment issue is a difficult one. Obviously, if you punish players for not having perfect aim every time they encounter a demon, the game is going to go from scary to frustrating. But give them too much leeway and they'll laugh in the face of your most horrifying creation... right before blasting it with a their endless supply of shotgun shells.

Nothing creates calm in a gamer like a fully loaded shotgun.

" at a time, like civilised gang-bangers..."

Traditionally in survival horror the gamer is made to feel the pinch of ammo while, in reality, the developer knows they have more than enough to pass the next section. This is a tough angle to work, though, and it usually leads to the "fully loaded" scenario.

The truth is, ammo limitation isn't nearly as important as ability limitation. It doesn't matter how many shells your shotgun has if the enemies are competent enough to dodge or resilient enough to take blasts to the face and still keep going.

Which brings me back to Resident Evil 5. Capcom is boasting that its new deformed child has the scariest, toughest monsters of any survival horror yet. I'm sceptical. What I faced in Resident Evil 5's demo didnít seem far off from what I'd faced in Resident Evil 4. Enemies still like to pause stupidly whenever I aim at them. Enemies still fail to utilise swarm tactics or, rather, they swarm you, but then attack one at a time, like civilised gang-bangers. Head shots I can understand causing some staggering, but knee shots damn near cripple the enemies and open them up to devastating melee combos. And to top it all off, you now have a partner to help you mop up these critters and save your ass in the unlikely event they do actually manage to get a grip on you.

Many of us will remember the days of old, when a single zombie got our blood racing. Why was this? It had nothing to do with graphics (they weren't that good) or the design of the enemies. Hell, the enemies werenít even particularly dangerous. At least not in the face of competence.

But see, that was the thing. Competence had left the building.

This is where the whole "crappy control" syndrome comes from. I don't think anyone can deny that games were more frightening when a simple task such as turning around became an exercise requiring the use of at least three thumbs. Granted, some characters had excuses for this. Jill Valentine had spent so much time becoming a green beret and the master of unlocking (the master!) by the age of 20 that she understandably had little time to devote to basic motor skills.

But I digress.

The point is, game designers didn't have to worry so much about that loaded Carbine you found in the bathroom when aiming it was such a chore that gamers would rather run away (not that running away was easy, either).

"...a massive stretch of muscle and jaw..."

We shouldn't have to copy the bad controls to keep the same tension, however. In fact, we really should move past the bad control syndrome. But we can take some lessons with us. What the bad control syndrome drives home is my earlier point that a game will be scary as long as the player doesn't have abilities that live up to those of the enemy.

For instance, you don't need bad controls to limit your gamer's ability to aim if they can empty an entire clip into a zombie and have it still stagger towards them. That's scary. If good graphics can show the gaping bullet holes in its head and torso where you shot it, that's even scarier. It's also a waste of ammo, which affects gamers on a whole other level. Is it worth it to fight? Now that you've wasted some ammo, how much more will it take to fell it? Should you just run away? These kind of strategic decisions can make a tense moment tenser. This doesn't mean enemies can't react to bullets. But they should always react with increased aggression, not complacency. Think of the movie 'Aliens'. Those buggers were very killable, but every shot brought forth a spray of acidic blood. The very act of damaging them made them more dangerous, and thus more frightening.

If the whole "damage soaker" scenario doesn't appeal, then developers can turn to mobility to enhance their monsters. So the zombie is lurching at the player, they've got a bead on it, and then suddenly the creature leaps up on a wall and starts spidering its way towards their face. That bead they had is lost to this unexpected movement. Also, it makes enemies really creepy, working on a psychological level to throw gamers off in the heat of battle. A good example of this are the Regenerators from Resident Evil 4, the one truly scary enemy in that game. The way they shivered and hobbled towards you, only to reach out in a massive stretch of muscle and jaw to grab you was, to say the least, memorable.

Finally, when a monster does get you, its attack should be very gruesome. Seeing a monster rip a chunk out of a character's shoulder (and their life bar) is a good way to encourage players to be afraid of your creations. Monsters that hurt players for pittance by using stupid attacks like swipes or, god help us, projectile vomit deserve to be laughed at... and then put down.

Of course, a distinction has to be drawn between struggle and Ninja Gaiden 3: The Ancient Ship of Doom. You shouldn't be dying every time you encounter an enemy. But every time you encounter an enemy, there should be a distinct possibility of death. The genre is called "survival horror", after all, and to survive should never mean to thrive.

Fatal Frame is a good example of these things in action. Ghosts can turn invisible, go through walls and doors, and kill you in a surprisingly short number of attacks. You, on the other hand, can take pictures. Immediately the disparity in ability is driven home to the player. Eventually they'll discover that, used correctly, the camera is a powerful weapon and more than enough to see them through the game, but winning a battle will never be comfortable the way it would be if they came equipped with a laser rifle.

"...fixed cameras were a double-edged sword..."

Speaking of cameras, it's about time we discussed that age-old enemy of the survival horror gamer: the fixed camera.

This is a really tough one to come to terms with in the modern age. Fixed camera angles were truly a double edged sword. In many ways, they defined the old survival horror genre, adding a cinematic view, increasing the cramped feel, and really making gamers unsure of what was around that next corner. They were also the source of most of the shoddy control issues, in itself a frightening limitation of the player's abilities which, as described, made encounters with monsters all the more terrifying.

Those days are gone. In today's gaming world, camera views such as we saw in Resident Evil 2 or in Fatal Frame simply wouldn't be accepted. But removing the fixed camera doesn't have to remove the fear. Again it comes down to limiting player abilities.

To this end, one thing I suggest developers stop doing is giving the player all sorts of ways to affect their enemy. Sure, it's cool when you can pop a zombie in the knee cap and open them up for an uppercut, or blow off its head in one shot if you aim at the bridge of the nose. But players inevitably get good at these abilities rather fast. Again, the point isn't that heads shouldn't be gushy and explodable. But the ability to pull off a headshot with ease should be greatly reduced. Similarly, popping a zombie in a knee cap shouldn't always trigger a stumble. Maybe it only works half the time. Or, better yet, maybe the enemies start learning your style and start dodging those shots.

For those of you now complaining about limiting the player's options, remember that this isn't the action genre. This is the survival horror genre. By its very nature, the player should be limited. Thatís what makes it scary.

I respect Capcom for having to insight to toss outdated camera angles and control schemes into the wastebasket. From what I've played of Resident Evil 5, it controls well and is a lot of fun. But it is designed with action in mind, not fear. I'm not entirely convinced that action and survival horror can't go together, but if they can, the proof isn't in Resident Evil 5.

Maybe it's because it's a dominating genre by nature and, overall, developers these days are seeming to show a reluctance to having their games dominate their players. There seems to have been a shift more towards the Dynasty Warriors mentality of "mow down everything in your path with impunity." To this end, developers are focusing on offering players more ways to kill their enemies and less on limiting their options for survival. Games like Devil May Cry give players a veritable sandbox in which to create new ways of dishing out pain. For the action genre, this is a pretty great trend. But for the horror genre, it's like an eviction notice. Not that I think mowing through a hundred zombies isn't cool. But it isn't scary.

I appreciate Capcom's decision to mix things up in their Resident Evil franchise, finding a way to reinvent the series. But I do think fear got left somewhere behind in the rush to appeal to the action crowd. I can only hope that, come mid-March, the full release of the game proves me wrong.

Until then, I'll be sleeping tight.

Jonathan Alisandyr is a freelance games journalist based in the USA.  He primarily writes for Honest Gamers.

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