What is it about the survival horror genre that delights players throughout the world? It wasn’t until recently that I realized I had never thought about why I love these games so much. It’s easy to point to their atmosphere, a culmination of moody aesthetic choices, suspenseful sound design, and dangerous enemy encounters. Something about the feel of creeping through (mostly) abandoned corridors, ears straining for the telltale groan of a zombie has always engaged me on a level deeper than any other genre.
Survival horror is a fascinating genre. While many games play upon the power fantasy of their players, well crafted survival horror does the exact opposite. Rather than build up the player characters, they strip them down. Instead of making slick combat and felling enemies an addictive gameplay loop, they instead push you to avoid confrontation. Many games ask you to appreciate the beauty of their worlds, but survival horror games use their environments to craft unease. On paper, it would seem that such dreary design choices would fail the game, leaving an unenjoyable experience and unhappy players. What I’ve found instead is that it creates a game that requires gamers to buy into the experience more than any other. You’re not playing survival horror games to simply clear another level, defeat the next boss, or get a higher score. You’re playing to survive. You guide your character through horrific experiences, your supplies dwindling and vision dark with only patience and cleverness to push you forward.
I love survival horror games, more than any other genre. If you’re reading this, I expect you do as well. While you may have your own reasons, possibly very different from my own for appreciating the nightmares of Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Clock Tower, Alone in the Dark, Fatal Frame, or any other horror that delights you, rest assured that we’re both here for a love of the genre. Let’s keep it alive.
The Flavor of Survival Horror
Before going further, it’s important to understand what “survival horror” means. It’s a difficult genre to define, and asking ten different people to describe it may return ten different answers. For this reason, rather than attempting a straight definition, I list below survival horror’s most common characteristics. Not all survival horror games include every one of these traits, but I argue they should contain multiple in order to be labeled survival horror.
- Level design emphasizing exploration, backtracking, and enemy placement
- De-emphasized combat while emphasizing enemy evasion
- Inventory and resource management
- Oppressive and hostile environments
- Design goal of eliciting fear
One of the key differences you may find when survival horror from other horror genres is the level design’s focus. While action horror leans more linear, survival horror places an emphasis on exploration, requiring players to search for items and resources to further their progress. Often, players must return to areas they have already passed through, typically to remove barriers that prevented them from moving forward earlier.
While the lines between survival horror and action horror became blurred after the release of Resident Evil 4, another distinction between the genres is their handling of enemies. While action horror games encourage players to kill enemies for rewards and their more linear level design makes it difficult to avoid encounters, survival horror games take the opposite stance. There’s often no reward in confronting enemies (except to remove their threat from an area you pass through often). In fact, it’s a waste of valuable resources and an unnecessary danger to engage with all the enemies you come across. It’s not uncommon for survival horror games to include enemies that are impossible to defeat, where the only option for players is to flee, hide or sneak.
Inventory and Resource Management
While many games include inventory systems and consumable resources, often players aren’t concerned with how many items their character carries or how they’ll gain more. There may be a shop system, enemies could drop resources upon death, or it’s possible to craft items from replenishing resources. In many survival horror games, however, there is a limit to the number of items players may carry. This forces players to plan ahead and choose between bringing along a valuable healing item, extra ammo, or a key item you may need. Additionally, there are no sources of replenishing items in survival horror games. The limited resources found dispersed throughout the levels will not reappear, creating a scarcity issue, and players must be cautious to not burn through their supplies.
The environments explored by players in survival horror games are oppressive and hostile. They keep players wondering what danger lurks around the next corner. Many games isolate the characters, cutting them off from helpful NPCs to enforce the idea that no one is going to save them. Environmental storytelling is also very strong, hinting at the horrific events that have occurred in the area while foreshadowing what fate awaits the protagonist. Of course, as the name implies, “survival” is an important aspect of the genre. While traversing the environment, there is a constant threat of player death, whether from environmental hazards or enemies.
Often used to gate players from progressing, puzzles are used to pace many survival horror games. They can give players a moment’s respite from the stress of worrying about enemies and traps. Alternatively, they might force players straight back into those same hazards to find an item required to complete the puzzle. Well-designed games will use puzzles to manage the rise and fall of tension throughout the levels.
If there is any single requirement to a game being categorized as survival horror, it’s the inclusion of horror. Of course, there are many types of fear a game can focus on. That focus might be on slowly building dread and apprehension, crafting a long-lingering feeling of discomfort, or triggering the terror of being hunted through an unfriendly environment.
With these elements in mind, we now have a solid understanding of the survival horror genre. What do you think? Agree or disagree with the above traits? Let me know in the comments!
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