Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Analysing Genre - Survival Horror Part One

 What makes that which goes bump in your console?

Talking about AMY and Resident Evil has spurred me to think about just what a horror game a horror game. Talking about genres is something that I'd like to expand to as many possible types of game as I can manage, but survival horror games are as good a place as any to start.

In the most general terms a survival horror game is just like any other: your goal is to win. This isn't what makes it a survival horror game though, nor is it what sets it apart -- although I do admit that it would be a morosely interesting experience to play a game where you had no choice but to lose or die due to some reason, as long as it were put together well enough -- but then what does define a survival horror game?

Some elements seem common, if subjective in some cases. Survival horror relies on making sure that the player is generally a lot weaker than the enemies they might encounter: whether it be by limiting ammo, weapons, health, or even going so far as to make enemies unkillable or give the player no way to feasibly fight them making flight or death the only options available. Partly because of this weakness, and only subjectively speaking, the survival horror genre might be considered more difficult than other games, even ones that share the same general action game space with them: Resident Evil and Devil May Cry are the easiest example I can think of here; both are even made by the same company and would be considered action titles in the broad strokes, but in Resident Evil your enemies are often overpowering and the player controlled characters are only human (if somewhat durable in most circumstances). Devil May Cry on the other hand gives the player a lot of power, even if the enemies are indeed strong and in some cases stronger, you have infinite ammo, a lethal set of armaments and the ability to temporarily turn into a demon. Same general genre, huge stylistic differences. I know a lot of people find DMC hard, but personally I've always found the first instalments of the RE series harder, simply due to the way the games are set up (this didn't apply to four).

Of course the most obvious thing that I haven't mentioned is that survival horror games are meant to be scary. This is perhaps the most heavily subjective element of all, because some people play games like Resident Evil or Dead Space or Silent Hill without so much as batting an eyelash. You can't really tell what's going to scare people although of course you can make some educated guesses. Likewise being scary doesn't automatically make something a survival horror game; I'm sure that when I was younger I was scared of certain enemies in video games that I would mostly balk at now. Still, there are some general things to expect from this genre of games: jump scares, psychological elements, heightened tension, a lean towards the grotesque in terms of design, and so on.

Of course, not all of it is good. As I mentioned before in the first couple of Resident Evil games your character controlled with such a convoluted scheme and sluggish responsiveness that a Sherman tank might have felt sorry for you. Back then this was justified as a way of making the player more vulnerable, thus also heightening the tension. Like I said though these days a player would be more likely to get frustrated by this design choice rather than go "oh man, it totally legitimizes this gameplay experience".

Survival horror is ground that must be trod upon very carefully, and to that end tomorrow will be an examination of some of what works, but most of what doesn't (at least from my perspective).

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