How do you keep the horror in survival horror? Well, overusing the same stock of tools to death (and then undeath) probably isn't helping.
Survival horror has what I consider the unenviable position of being a genre that makes itself harder to present well with each good release. Unlike a straightforward action title or a good platformer the main defining aspect of survival horror -- that being the horror -- becomes harder and harder to properly cultivate and pull off. Eventually we all become somewhat inoculated against things like jump scares and really gross looking things.
I'm not saying that the elements -- even the ones that seem old and tired -- can't be made to work, but they must be used wisely. We've probably all either seen this in a film or show, or even have a friend that does this; you know, the guy that sits in the theatre during the horror movie predicting (with sometimes annoyingly high success) every jump scare, every time the killer will finally get someone, that sort of thing. Well when tropes are overused, especially in games, it tends to turn all of us into that guy. And let's face it, being that guy can be fun sometimes, but if you actually enjoy the genre then you go in wanting to get at least a little creeped out from time to time.
The thing is that some games seem to think that all the tropes fall under the "never too much of a good thing" credo, when I fully believe that the opposite should be true. I invite you to read this old article on suspense written by David Sirlin (on a side note I dearly hope that he puts it up on his site eventually, or even an updated version). For those that don't wish to read it I'll sum it up in a way that I believe is credible: the best scares and suspense are the ones that the audience generates for themselves. In order for this to happen you need to establish a baseline; create an event that lets the viewer, or rather player, know that they aren't safe anywhere and let the magic just work itself. As Sirlin muses (emphasis mine):
"Resident Evil 2 also has a few moments here and there of a planned and scripted scary event, such as hands reaching out of the wall at you, crows shattering a window and swarming you, and the unforgettable “licker” jumping through the one-way interrogation window at you. These moments establish the credible threat that some scary might happen at any moment. This means the one thousand other moments when nothing scary actually happens, the player is still on his toes because something just might. Every corner becomes scary (thanks to the cleverly useless camera angles that are designed to limit the player’s view). Every hallway looks menacing. Resident Evil knows the difference between creating a scary looking environment, and an environment that actually is scary."
It takes some extremely good placement of set pieces and a creative control of the flow of gameplay to establish this environment early and, and let me tell you it's not getting any easier. It might sound strange to say this but in a way the massive graphical improvements might also be one of the greatest enemies that stand to this genre. The more graphic intensive things get the more even the "ugly" monsters stand to look pretty, or at least stunning from a visual standpoint; when this happens the designers want to show off their creations. The want to show the player the monster that you've worked so hard on is only natural, but it also ends up robbing the creature(s) of a lot of potential scare factor.
Consider this from a film perspective: the first Alien movie scared the utter crap out of a lot of audiences, but ask this: how often did the titular alien actually appear in the movie, and when it did appear how long was it usually on screen for? The answer is that it was sparse. We barely see much of the full grown alien, and even when we do it's only usually in the briefest glimpses before it claims another victim; we don't see it traipsing through the Nostromo because the more you see it the less effective it becomes. I believe that this rule of the more you see the less you get rolls over to any monster you can name in a video game as well. Even Nemesis from Resident Evil 3 is only frightening throughout his various appearances because of their brief nature and the fact that he's almost impossible to fight against; same thing with Pyramid Head from Silent Hill 2.
Dead Space is a good example of how a survival horror game can become non frightening rather quickly. Certainly early on when you have a limited, poor arsenal and the enemies are fresh you'll get some tension and some freak outs fighting them, but once you get enough ammo and weapon selection it goes from being tense -- at least in my assertion -- to just sort of being a slog. The bosses mix it up a lot, but there's only so many times you can hack the limbs off something before it becomes mundane (never thought I'd find myself in a situation where that's an appropriate comment).
So, the question is, where has this genre been effective in the past, and how can it maintain its effectiveness into the future. That's something that I hope I'll be able to shed some light on tomorrow.