As long as you haven't been stuck under a rock, or trapped in a creepy mansion somewhere, you have probably noticed the resurgence of survival horror. This has mostly come in the shape of Resident Evil 7 and the media storm it has created. The stealth-demo released by Capcom, Resident Evil 7 Beginning Hour, smashed records for online downloads. Indeed, it has been universally praised for returning the series to its survival horror roots. But, what exactly are the key parts to a survival horror game? GameOrNought boils the genre down to the three key ingredients, and demonstrates how these elements supersede cutting-edge graphics or VR technology.
THE UNCANNY IN SURVIVAL HORROR
Jump scares may be the most noticeable, and, sadly, a common form of creating horror in these games, but it certainly isn't the best. The use of the uncanny is the first part of my unholy triangle of survival horror. If you want to truly scare the dirty pants off a player, make sure they recognise the nightmare in front of them. Uncanny can be explained as something familiar, but with an uncomfortable spin, twist or alteration. If something is so monstrous it is entirely unrecognisable than it isn't scary. To really stimulate fear in somebody they have to see something they understand. For example, zombies aren't particularly dangerous, given their shambling speed, or how they can be defeated by simply waiting long enough. What makes them the epitome of modern horror films and games is they are uncanny. We recognise them, yet their zombification creates an uncomfortable change in our minds. It generates fear based on the horrors they have been subjected to, and what may happen to us in the future. This is also why every zombie game or film ever made will include a scene where a character meets their zombified family member/lover.
Survival horror loves the uncanny. Silent Hill's monsters are all twisted versions of the protagonist's real world fears, formed from real world objects. Think mannequins or dogs. Resident Evil revels in the use of progressively more deformed humans, animals, and even buildings. Yomawari: Night Alone, an upcoming PS Vita survival horror title, steps this up by further twisting the enemies through the perspective of a child. All of these examples are terror-inducing, even the older entries in some of the series.
SURVIVAL HORROR HAS TO BE PERSONAL
You can have all the sleep-reducing creatures and locations possible in a survival horror game, but if the gamer has no connection to the events taking place then there is no fear. Fear comes from the parts of our brains which look after our best interests. Quite often it is the simple fight-or-flight reaction which generates the fear. We see something unpleasant and want to get away from it as it could be a threat to our existence (e.g. it will kill us). When we are made to ignore our desire to flee, our fear and anxiety are increased. This is why, in survival horror games, we are often funneled towards doors and corners which are obviously bad news. However, we don't create these feelings as effectively when observing somebody we don't care for or situations which don't resonate with us. Survival horror games have to make the narrative personal to the characters but also relatable to us. Like the uncanny, we need to recognise something in the motivations or reasons for the horror. If the characters are unlikable, or aren't in situations we find threatening, we don't react as intensely to their impending doom. Without that, there is little to no fear.
Resident Evil's story arc reflects this clearly; characters searching for lost family members, protecting their friends, or seeking revenge. Silent Hill is all about the main character repenting or atoning for their self-perceived sins. Yomawari: Night Alone plays to one of society's deepest personal investments - our need to protect children. The protagonist is a little girl, alone, and looking for her lost sister and dog. This taps into our own attachments to younger members of our families, to our siblings, and hypes our fear levels.
ATMOSPHERE CREATES SURVIVAL HORROR
Without the proper atmosphere, survival horror becomes funny, not frightful. Atmosphere is the opposite of the jump scare. It builds fear and anxiety over the length of a gaming session, using shorter scares to release the tension when it feels it will get the largest pay off. Atmosphere allows a game to make us feel weak, isolated, nervous, and helpless. Get it wrong and the player simply feels like they are sauntering from point A to point B. Darkness is key here. There is nothing scarier than the unknown. Hiding other characters, locations, items and details from the player generates a need to explore. The problem is exploring might mean uncovering something you don't want to find. Carefully laid touches are more effective for atmosphere than heavy gore-fests. The small, thin bloody streak through a door is stronger angst-fuel than walls plastered in viscera. Both have their place in atmosphere, but small pointers towards the terror in front of you stand out more. Additionally, making the player need to avoid enemies builds this atmosphere. If we are on an equal or higher combat standing to the monsters then there is no reason to fear. This can seep through our entire attitude to the game.
PlayStation classic Koudelka had this type of atmosphere in spades (and honestly haunts me to today). Resident Evil 1-3 were good examples of this. They mixed the everyday with the supernatural. The mansion in Resident Evil wasn't filled with gore, but offered horrifying glimpses as to what had happened. Sadly, Resident Evil 4-6 lost this in favour of spectacle. Yomawari: Night Alone employs darkness, shadows, hints of the awful, and player weakness to build a true survival horror atmosphere. As a little girl, you must hide to escape the creatures. Hiding causes you to rely on an onscreen heartbeat monitor to decide if the stalking monster is far enough away, and sinks the screen into darkness.
The latest trailers for Resident Evil 7 clearly show desire by the design team to hit these three key elements head on in the new game. In fact, the aim to return to these survival horror pillars has been confirmed by Leon Kennedy voice actor Matt Mercer in an interview with GameSpot. The trailers are terrifyingly atmospheric, explore personal stories, and pursue the player with the uncanny. Yomawari: Night Alone is also pushing these essential survival horror ingredients to keep the player holding their Vita at arms length, and with one eye closed. After all, it can't be as scary when you're playing on the train can it? Can it?
Resident Evil 7 is scheduled to be released on January 14 2017 by Capcom for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Microsoft Windows.
Yomawari: Night Alone released on October 25 2015 by NIS America for PS Vita and Microsoft Windows.
Do you agree with these three key ingredients for survival horror? Is there an element I have missed? Are you excited for Yomawari: Night Alone, Resident Evil or any of the upcoming survival games? Let us know in the comments section, share with your friends, and don't forget to subscribe to the GameOrNought blog.