Survival horror is, by far, one of the most interesting game genres to talk about, mostly because talking about fear media is so fascinating. There are so many phobias in the world and so many ways to really make someone scared that you’d think that horror media would be one gigantic hodge-podge of gruesome monsters, looming shadows, and tall, faceless men in tweed jackets. It’s become a real art to make something scary, and while there are quite a few examples of innovative horror games, we’re currently in a state where the AAA series like Resident Evil are out of the horror picture and indies are simply pale imitations of more prolific series like Amnesia. We’re seeing some creepy games, and maybe even some real pants-wetters, but are we really seeing a full-fledged evolution in how you can make a gamer scared? Where else can the horror genre go?
In order to evolve survival horror, you really need to look at horror itself. It’s an interesting genre, whether in games, movies or TV, but the recurring goal is to provide a sense of fear for its audience. Fear can come in many forms, from the obnoxious jump-scares to the more brooding psychological side, but the best examples of horror follow one common element: the unknown. Humans are logic-based beings; being able to logically understand the world is our defining quality. It separates us from any other species on earth. When we don’t understand something, our natural reaction is to fear it. That’s why things like darkness are so prevalent in horror; without the vision to spark our analysis of something, we don’t understand it, and we’re biologically inclined to fear it. That’s usually why atmosphere is so much stronger a tool in horror than surprise scares are. Atmosphere capitalizes on the unknown: shadowy sewers, bodiless noises, they all address our human instinct to understand, and then make it much harder to do so. Without understanding, we feel uncomfortable, disoriented and off-kilter.
That disorientation is the perfect state a horror fan can be in. That moment when you’re unsettled and nervous is the best moment of any horror artifact. Any media that shows something that’s weird and bizarre, something that’s extremely difficult to understand, provides a strong case in making itself scary. Lots of movies have used this tactic of randomly distributing a creepy moment and never giving any sort of context to settle the audience’s nerves. Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining is a perfect example of showing nerve-wrackingly disturbing sequences and never giving them justification, leaving the audience in a confused and disoriented stupor of fear. And video games are no stranger to using this tactic either, maybe even in better ways than film or TV. Many scary games of yore give the player a sense of confusion. The original Resident Evil did it with its eerie use of camera perspective. Silent Hill 3 did it with disturbingly grotesque monster design. The number of ways to confuse and unsettle a player is infinite, but there’s one game that I firmly believe took advantage of player disorientation the best: Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem for the Gamecube.
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem was one of the last projects by Silicon Knights, but it remains one of the best horror games of all-time. Its Lovecraft-inspired story and eerie atmosphere masked one of the smartest uses of scares ever seen in gaming. When your player is around creepy things in-game like enemies or swinging blades, their sanity meter depletes. As their sanity decreases, the game actually begins to display weird, fourth-wall-shattering effects. Your TV will display messages of turning down the volume or color tint. Sometimes the silhouette of a bug will cover your screen. Other times the game will pretend to straight-up turn off (or worse). The game takes the character’s low sanity and treats it like the player’s. Silicon Knights trick the player with these fourth-wall breaking effects, keeping them confused and disoriented, in a perfect state for horror.
In fact, anytime a game addresses the player directly instead of the avatar is pretty disorienting. Games like Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door and Metal Gear Solid have had characters say things like “you with the controller!” and it still adds a surreal creepiness to the entire game. Hearing a game character talk to you instead of your character doesn’t just break the fourth wall, but also the barrier set between the fear-inducing medium and the player. In that regard, the immersion levels skyrocket. The divide is crossed; you truly feel like the game can be scary to you and not just your avatar. And these moments are so rare, that you can’t help but be weirded out and disoriented. You’re confused and mentally off-balance. It’s the ideal state of mind to be afraid.
The hardest thing that any horror game developer must do is to sever that barrier. Immersion is the go-to word for when you want to scare someone (or emotively affect them at all). When a player is engrossed in the world, that divide between avatar and player is blurred, making it easier to have the game’s occurrences affect the player. It’s not easy to do, but when you’re afraid of your own safety while playing as a video game character, the developer has succeeded in providing that pitch-perfect sense of immersive horror. Furthermore, when you’re immersed, the abrupt disorientations of the game seem even more real. They can literally affect you.
And while it’s hard to say now, if there’s one horror game in development that I truly think will change how horror games are played, it’s the Oculus Rift game Alone. The Oculus Rift has been consistently praised in how it can contribute to video game immersion through its VR technology, so there’s no better demonstration of immersion than an atmospheric horror game. That’s what Alone is, but it takes that horror element one step further. In Alone, you play as a person who is playing a horror video game in their house. As they perform things in the game on the in-game TV (the “game within a game”), certain things happen from the perspective of your player (who you play as in first-person). You hear sounds around your living room, from screams to footsteps. As the game continues, the effects become increasingly layered, until reaching a rather shocking climax. Alone’s use of meta-game perspective with the Oculus Rift along with its addressing of the video gamer player combines all of the elements of a prime survival horror game into one extremely promising whole. Confusing notification of the player (not the avatar), immersive perspective, and a relatable premise all demonstrate a smart use of horror fundamentals, one that refuses to be separated from the player’s psyche by the barrier of media itself.
Quite frankly, survival horror is in a rather drained position. Resident Evil and Silent Hill gave the genre life back in the ’90s, while indie horror games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent kept that momentum going into the new millennium and beyond. However, with AAA horror games becoming more action-focused and indie horror becoming so saturated with soulless Amnesia imitators, the genre is beginning to lose that innovative drive that came about way back when. Evolving horror isn’t going to be easy, but the use of new immersion-energizing technology can contribute to the continuing battle to really make someone afraid for their life in a video game. Horror has always been about making the audience uneasy and nervous, but it takes more than a random Slenderman jump scare to keep someone from sleeping at night. Keeping that mental equilibrium from becoming too stable is how to really make horror effective, and with games like Alone on the horizon, we just might see another renaissance in how to expand the horror mantra even further.