Let's talk about jump scares. They're scary, but they're cheap. Jump scares illicit an immediate reaction, but quickly become boring and repetitive. Walk down a dark hallway and a spooky skeleton pops out. Travel through a creaky attic and a ghost tries to terrorize you. Yawn. Horror games have used that tactic countless times and it's no longer very effective.
The truth is, horror is a very nuanced genre. A great horror game makes the player feel frightened in their environment and of the actions they have to take in order to survive. This is why some of the most profound horror writing can be seen in survival-horror games. Because #survivalhorror is based on do-or-die decisions, these games force players to make tough choices to stay alive.
Sometimes these choices are easy. Kill a zombie to avoid dying. Heal yourself to stay alive. Those actions make sense. Sometimes, however, games force players to make difficult decisions just to keep going. These choices can haunt players, making them feel responsible, guilty, uneasy as they move forward.
A History Of Making Players Feel Guilty In Games
The original Resident Evil for #PlayStation offered multiple endings. Depending on how many people the player kept alive, they were rewarded with various cutscenes — from the main character escaping all alone, to their fellow player character and their S.T.A.R.S. squad partner making it out alive.
Back in 1996, when the game was first released, rescuing survivors was a pretty serious responsibility to give the player. In order to reach the best ending, players had to work hard finding MO disks to save their fellow player character. They had to put themselves in danger while searching for the disks. They also had to kill the game's end boss, the Tyrant, to receive the best ending.
Of course, #ResidentEvil's idea of player responsibility breaks immersion these days. "Collect items to get the best ending" doesn't fare too well in 2017. But Resident Evil introduced the idea that players are personally responsible for story events in survival horror. Players that invest less energy in saving their S.T.A.R.S. squad receive a worse ending. Players that collect all the MO disks and defeat the final boss get the best ending. Either way, the player is responsible for what happens to their fellow characters. Resident Evil's story felt dynamic, lifelike and slightly realistic. That's one of the reasons it sold so well.
Survival-horror games have multiple story branches for a simple reason: Letting the player make decisions builds investment. Over time, the genre has embraced morally ambiguous decisions, forcing the player to choose between the lesser of two evils. Either way, the choice often haunts the player.
Take Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2, Valve's immensely popular multiplayer survival-horror shooters. Both games place the player in the role of zombie apocalypse survivor fighting their way through an infected United States population with three other immune players.
Left 4 Dead has been a fan favorite since its release in 2008, in part because the gameplay is so tense. Once a player receives enough damage, their survivor becomes incapacitated, forced down on the ground with only a pistol to defend themselves. If they aren't rescued by a fellow survivor, they die from their wounds.
While saving a survivor is simple enough, sometimes it's inappropriate or impossible to rescue another player. In many cases, teams have to make quick judgment calls. Should they save a survivor and risk further injuries, or leave behind a fallen player to keep the remaining team intact? Is it worth retreating to rescue a skilled player if a horde arrives? Is it better to throw a molotov cocktail at a tank to bring him down, or avoid using one because it may injure a survivor?
These decisions are common in the Left 4 Dead series, especially on the harsher difficulty levels. That's one reason Left 4 Dead 2 is still incredibly popular. Players have to make quick decisions in a matter of seconds and they must live with those decisions throughout the course of a campaign. Faced with making judgment calls that could leave your fellow players dead or alive, Left 4 Dead was tough and it pushed the envelope for future survival-horror games.
Get Even Gets Moral Dilemmas Right
The Farm 51 and Bandai Namco's new game Get Even follows in that same survival-horror tradition. Unlike other games of that ilk that deal with the player saving other characters, #GetEven is all about the thoughts and memories in the protagonist's head.
Players take on the role of the character named Black, a morally ambiguous mercenary suffering amnesia in a rundown asylum. As it turns out, Black has been captured by Red, and Red has Black use the "Pandora" headset to relive his memories and explore them again in the present. This is all because Black must save a girl with a bomb strapped to her chest.
Memories play a prominent role in survival-horror games, but Get Even tackles the past in a different way. The player doesn't just relive Black's life — they get to explore it, solving puzzles and investigating the character's backstory to learn more about why he's imprisoned, and in the process how his behavior may be responsible for the suffering of others.
Critics have praised Get Even's storyline in early reviews and it's easy to see why. This #FPS puts the player in the role of a morally neutral character who has to change his path by figuring out his life. It's a game about personal responsibility, morality, and how decisions in our past impact our present. Get Even poses the questions: Why is one's past so important? And how does it impact their life in the present?
For most people, that's scary enough to think about. Get Even tackles the concept head-on and grounds the story inside a larger history of moral dilemmas and personal responsibility in survival-horror gaming.
In its review of Get Even, GameSpot wrote:
For a while, trust in your own judgement feels out of reach. It's an intriguing way to tell a story, though it can be a lot to wrap your head around as the new and complex possibilities are introduced. But it all comes together in the end for you (and Black) in a very satisfying and unexpected way.
For survival-horror fans, that's exactly what's needed — a game where the stakes are high because the world is confusing and complex, just like in real life. Get Even knows what makes a survival-horror game so great, and it delivers.
Get Even is available now for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. What's your favorite survival horror title? Share yours in the comments below.