Recently some people have been complaining. They say that Resident Evil 5 has lost the survival horror aspect of the series. Other people also didn’t think Dead Space was a true survival horror game, because it was too easy. As for Silent Hill homecoming? You guessed it. Even more people complaining that the franchise no longer feels like a true survival horror. Yes, the survival horror genre is a tough cookie to crack, especially when games designers are trying to come up with fresh concepts for a sequel. So I’ve cleverly stolen other peoples ideas and put them into one helpful list that should enable any games designer to make a perfect survival horror game.
1. Make the main character ordinary
Silent Hill got this one right all the way up until homecoming, Harry Mason was just a guy looking for his daughter, James Sunderland was a widower following a letter, Heather is just a teenage girl, and Henry Townsend is just stuck in his apartment. These guys have no special ops training, no super powers, and they don’t have a crack team of comrades giving them advice, so when whatever it is that is coming for them lunges out of the darkness, they are in the same position that any normal person would be in.
- Other characters that did this include;
- Isaac Clarke – he’s just an engineer, and the soldiers who came with him got eaten.
- Leon Kennedy in RE2 – before he took that special training course that turned him into an unstoppable force, he was just a rookie cop with a bad hair cut.
2. Take away the weapons
It’s hard to imagine a game in which you aren’t armed to the teeth with enough weapons to equip a small African nation with. Predictably having a dragon cannon which kills any foe in one hit is going to make you less afraid, even if those foes are ravenous demons. However, what if you don’t have very much ammo left, or you only have a lead pipe, or a fire axe to swing at whatever is lurking in the shadows? The Clock Tower series took this concept even further, you couldn’t even attack your assailant, and your only hope was to run away, hide, and hope that the serial killer didn’t look behind the curtain.
- Games that got this right include;
- Condemned – you might have a pistol for a few shots at a time but after that you were left with bowling balls and planks of wood and whatever else came to hand.
- Eternal Darkness – the various characters you played had to work with whatever suited their character, sometimes it was a sword, sometime a gun, sometimes magic, but rarely anything overpowered.
3. Use the speakers
Sound is important in setting the tone, and is used to great effect in films. Even if nothing is happening on screen, the right music can freak the hell out of anyone. Take for instance Dead Space, when you hear Twinkle-Twinkle little star you should find it funny right? But somehow, it sounds so wrong and out of place, just like the children’s footsteps in Silent Hill’s empty school, that it sends a shiver down your spine, that it makes you uncomfortable for the whole time you hear it. A change in speed or pitch, can lead a player to believe that something is around the corner or in the air vents, throw in a few rogue sound effects, and you’ll have them pausing and telling themselves, “it’s only a game.” Another thing that is important to remember is that sometimes hearing nothing is the scariest thing of all.
- Games that used audio to good effect were;
- Eternal Darkness – sometimes randomly noises get through at you, screaming, crying, the sound of a blade being sharpened, it’s disconcerting in the extreme
- Resistance 2- Resistance 2 isn’t really a survivor horror game, but the radio broadcasts of Henry Stillman, who has run out of supplies and is down to bourbon and cigarettes whilst watching the end of humanity, are bleak enough that it sometimes seems like one
4. Don’t overdo the setting
It’s hard to avoid clichés; it’s a horror game right? So let’s throw in some corpses, and oodles of blood, because corpses and blood scare everyone. This works sometimes, but once you walked through the 20th room filled with severed heads it can begin to seem a bit tame. Sometimes it’s better if the setting is more normal, maybe it’s even well lit, like the mall in Dead Rising, or some of the buildings you wander through in Left 4 Dead. Of course this doesn’t mean that dark badly lit hallways are out, but sometimes, little pieces of normality can be unsettling. Even Hitchcock knew, it’s not what you see, it’s what you imagine, and things like family photos, childrens toys, grocery lists, will cause the player to think about what fate might of befallen the owners of these objects.
- Good examples of well done settings
- Andale- Fallout 3 – Fallout can sometimes feel like a survival game, and it’s got plenty of gore and mutilated bodies. Andale, the best damn town in America is an example of a setting that just gets under your skin. After all if it’s a post apocalyptic town full of smiling faces, you know something is wrong.
- Aperture Science Laboratories Enrichment Centre – Portal, another game that doesn’t fit into the survival horror category, but with an excellent setting, especially when you find the rooms with “the cake is a lie” scrawled on the wall, the clean quiet insanity of Glados is proof that horror doesn’t have to be about gore and guts.
5. Throw a few curveballs
So maybe you, the game designer, have ignored my previous advice, giving the player high-tech armour and weapons and made him a member of a Special Forces team with an appropriate acronym. Then you’ve put him in a series of dark body strewn corridors with flickering lights that he has seen a thousand times before, the problem is, he isn’t scared, well don’t worry. Just make a little girl appear and disappear all over the place, like in F.E.A.R., this sort of thing will at least make a player jump and maybe waste some ammo. Once you’ve made him jumpy, start putting monsters in impossible places or have them stay hidden until the player has thinks he has cleared the place out, there is no moment that quite matches up to the realisation “it’s behind you”. Of course you can go even further than this and break the fourth wall, Eternal Darkness did this superbly, warning that save data was about to be deleted, or making you think your TV or console had broken. True, it’s not really using the setting, but you can always tell yourself that you are playing on their real life fears.
- Games that do crazy stuff
- Max Payne – the drug overdose dream sequences were straight out of nowhere in what was otherwise an action romp, and when Max realized he was part of a comic and a videogame, he was terrified. It was the re-run through the massacre of Max’s young family, complete with a dead baby poltergeist that was what stuck with the player.
- Eternal Darkness – It’s so good I’ve used it as an example twice, Eternal Darkness’s sanity gauge was simply inspired, sometimes you would randomly explode, other times waves of imaginary monsters would appear, the walls would bleed, and your Gamecube would threaten all sorts of random acts of electrical treachery. What’s more, due to the nature of the storyline, characters could be killed, you were never sure if you were going to survive or if any of what you were experiencing was real.
So what does everyone else think? Can Survival Horror redeem itself, or has it lost, in favor of Action?
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