Any studio that develops a video game faces several impeding challenges. First of all, the gameplay has to be enjoyable. If the game provides minimal entertainment, no one will buy it, but a game needs much more than just gameplay. The game has to look appealing in some sort of fashion. Gamers will spend hours staring at the game, so it needs to look nice (although some exceptions exist). Fun gameplay and pretty graphics lead a game in the right direction, but without excellent music and/or voice work, the game will fail to compare to other mediums of entertainment. On top of that, a game without a story lacks the same level of enticement as those with stories. A strong narrative separates great games from great experiences. In today’s day and age, a compelling story is a virtual necessity. A survival horror game has to have all of these qualities, plus one more that makes all of the others a whole lot more complicated.
A survival horror game must be scary. This may sound obvious, but this fact changes the other qualities greatly. For a survival horror game, the gameplay has to be challenging and frightening enough to scare players while still remaining enjoyable enough to play. The graphics can not just be sharp; they also have to use the environment to broadcast a sense of fear. The audio needs more than simply good music and voice work; the audio needs to take advantage of various noises to make the player feel uneasy. The story has to use a premise that goes deep enough to scare players through the plot itself. With all of these qualities in mind, it is not hard to see why survival horror has taken a recent tumble. Survival horror games are hard to make.
Last week, I played Outlast, the PS4’s first survival horror game. The game does a phenomenal job of immersing players in a dark, frightening world. In the game, players wander through an old asylum without any kind of weapon. The only way to deal with the crazed patients in the asylum is to avoid them. In terms of scares, this style will make even the most hardened gamer uneasy. Outlast makes players feel very, very vulnerable. In terms of gameplay, this style has a hard time remaining enticing to play. In this predicament lies the great complication of survival horror. A survival horror game must be scary while still remaining fun to play. This delicate balance is the reason for the decline of the genre in recent years.
A survival horror game is arguably the hardest type of game to create. Some games, such as Outlast, immerse players in a terrifying atmosphere that capitalizes on the fear of the unknown. Very little actually happens during the journey out of the asylum. The vast majority of the time is spent creeping in the dark. The feeling of helpless that Outlast permeates creates a horror experience that has not been seen in recent years. That being said, the lack of enticing gameplay holds Outlast back. A surival horror game needs to be scary, but it also needs to remember that it is a game. A terrifying experience can be memorable, but great gameplay keeps players coming back for more. I left Outlast impressed with the horror, but without feeling any need to see the game’s conclusion.
In the past few years, most survival horror games have suffered from the exact opposite problem. Resident Evil and Dead Space both started out as excellent franchises, but each has dwindled to something far less impressive with recent installments. The classic survival horror franchise, Resident Evil, has featured some of (if not) the best survival horror games ever made. Unfortunately for Resident Evil, after it reached its prime in Resident Evil 4, the series never was the same again. Resident Evil 4 does a phenomenal job of creating a world that is full of terror, while still boasting compelling gameplay that keeps players coming back for more. After Resident Evil 4, Capcom misinterpreted the game’s success as being entirely due to the more action-oriented gameplay. With this mistaken assumption, Capcom gave both Resident Evil 5 and Resident Evil 6 more action and less scares. This left the games as being mediocre action games that have grotesque enemies as opposed to being great survival horror experiences.
As Resident Evil failed to match the greatness of its previous games, Dead Space took the spotlight. Dead Space and Dead Space 2 gave fans the survival horror experience they had been craving. The delicate balance between fear and gameplay is perhaps used better in the first two Dead Space games than in any other game. After the success of the first two entries, hopes were high for Dead Space 3.
…And then Electronic Arts dropped the ball. EA turned Dead Space into an action game. As with Resident Evil, a once great survival horror franchise had been turned into a mediocre action series all because of greedy and mistaken publishers. Dead Space 3 hit well below sales expectations and possibly killed the franchise, leaving the industry without any lasting survival horror experiences on consoles.
Despite all of these sad demises, survival horror is set to make a comeback. On August 26th, Shinji Mikami, the creator of the Resident Evil series returns to survival horror. The Evil Within will showcase Mikami’s attempt to bring surival horror back to its former greatness. The last time Mikami worked on a survival horror game, he created the masterpiece that is Resident Evil 4. Very few developers have been able to hit the delicate balance that must be present in survival horror, but Mikami certainly did just that back when he still worked with Capcom. Hopefully The Evil Within will see the return of not just Shinji Mikami, but the survival horror genre as a whole.
The Evil Within already has the appearance of a classic survival horror game. Hopefully, Mikami and his team at Tango Gameworks will spend the next few months putting the finishing touches on what might be the revival of survival horror.