The Survival Horror Balancing Act

Ever since survival horror became a thing, video games and horror have gone together like peanut butter and chocolate.  Like cheese and wine.  Like me and everyone else’s girlfriends.  The inherent nature of video games lends a lot of tools that really compliment the necessary design for good horror.  The immersion.  The unpredictability.  The lack of story compression.  It’s ironic that a genre once defined by its mimicry of film elements has so quickly developed into something all its own.

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I played Fatal Frame 3 recently.  It scared me.  Well, until the last few chapters at least.  And in a totally manly way, that reflects no weakness on my part, of course.  It also made me wonder at how long it’s been since I’ve actually felt that kind of tension from a game.  Most of the big publishers have been going for more of an action horror ever since RE4 rocked the world, with even Shinji Mikami’s efforts to bring survival horror back to its base in Evil Within seeming to hew too close to the action side.  The action horror just doesn’t bring the same level of stress so necessary to horror.  The indies have been filling the gaps, but personally, I don’t think I’ve come across an indie game that quite gets the survival horror mix right.

Horror is not an easy thing to deliver.  I’ve tried.  That work will never see the light of day.  And horror in video game form requires a very specific mix of elements that seems to be increasingly difficult to get right as the medium goes on.

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The big thing at the center of video game horror is stress.  Which is kind of counter intuitive with most games, as stressing out the player is a sign you’re doing something wrong.  In survival horror, though, that’s central to the experience.  A lot of it should come from having some sort of empathy with your central character who’s in this situation so above them, hence why your character’s are always pretty weak and generic rather than being a true doom murderhead like me, but what’s unique about video games is that a lot of this stress gets imposed directly onto the player as well.  Necessary resources are always scarce, controls are deliberately clumsy, and viewpoints are pretty limited.  You end up having the player fight with the mechanics as much as the character fights with the terrors facing them.  Having your character comparatively weak to the enemies they’re facing is a big one, but you, the player, are weakened as well.  Taken outside its context, this would make for an absolutely horrible time, but because the goal of these games are not to be fun, but to fill your pants with dread, they get to use that as part of the experience they’re building.

The stress has to be very carefully managed, however.  That’s part of why the good survival horror games are so slow, and work entirely at the player’s pace, because it’s easier to manage the necessary stress that way.  You want a slow buildup there.  Time to realize that the next room may have a whole bunch of enemies and you’re down to your last healing energy drink.  You need to be able to suffer from the poor controls and camera angles without being overwhelmed.  You need to be pressed to the limit, ever fearing that last nudge that will push you over, but then taken back some so that being at the edge doesn’t grow stale.  And you need to be very, very careful not to push the stress too far.  It is so easy for that level of stress to rise from the tension necessary in good horror to frustration, killing the mood of the game.  A death is a pretty common trigger for that, not only breaking the immersion but providing a relief to the pending fear in the form of anger as the player now has to deal with the punishment that comes with the failure state.  Survival horror has a very thin line that it has to walk in order to be effective, and good designers both guide and push the player along it, keeping them at just the level of stress necessary.

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Most of the modern games I’ve played seem to have lost that balance entirely.  Usually it’s on the side of not building enough tension in the first place.  Now that the genre’s making way for action horror, most of the stress built is instantly relieved just by blasting away at your foe.  The big problem is not just that you can kill your enemies, but you can kill them comfortably.  Fighting them doesn’t have as much pressure when you’re carrying an arsenal and every fight is not this whole new struggle.  And not only does the pressure not get built up in the first place, you get immediate relief by overcoming it, so things don’t get built from conflict to conflict.  Also, it’s a little hard to be scared on behalf of your character when your character is such a badass.

So far, a lot of the indies I’ve played seem to take it too far in the opposite direction, going for an even longer game than standard survival horror, and not building enough tension up in the first place.  I know I’m going to have to hand in my keys to the internet for saying so, but this was my big problem with Amnesia.  You play that game for so much time without much happening, that any sort of threat the intro and mystery builds up just fades with time.  A lot of indie horrors focus on the more puzzle/adventure aspect that comes in with the genre, and you do want to give them that, as well as give them time to absorb the story and get the suspense built up.  But suspense and fear come from two different sources of tension, and any attempts to induce one will fall flat if efforts up to now were largely towards building up the other.

I’m sure there are still some good examples of classic, solid, fearful survival horror out there.  I just personally haven’t played any that have come out since the PS2 era.  And there’s a reason for that.  It’s just so hard to get the balance for horror quite right.  It takes a lot of personality put into the game, a lot of preparation for the player’s actions, and a lot of manipulation of the player without letting them onto it.  It seems to become a much rarer form that those who do undertake this endeavor do so well.

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4 responses to “The Survival Horror Balancing Act

  1. It certainly is an interesting dichotomy you’ve highlighted between the AAA industry and the indie scene when it comes to survival horror. The former doesn’t seem to have faith in the genre, so they end up adding action elements and supply players with plenty of firepower, taking away the sense of powerlessness integral to the genre. Resident Evil 4 was an amazing game, but it’s not what I’d call a survival horror; it’s a horror-flavored third-person shooter. Meanwhile, developers from the latter seem to think survival horror means loading their experiences with cheap jump scares every five minutes without building up any atmosphere. I don’t think I even need to provide examples of this; anyone passingly familiar with the indie crowd can easily name several.

    I think what it boils down to is that survival horror arguably relies on subjectivity more than any other genre (the closest I can think of are those games that try to make the player as sad as possible, but they’re not exactly limited to a single genre per se). They’re not like platforming games, which live or die based on objective traits such as good level design and fluent controls. Instead, it’s as you say, a very precarious balancing act between plaguing the player with sketchy controls while making sure they’re not actively wrestling with them too much, and are engaged with the setting. Despite so many creators wanting to throw their hat in the survival horror ring, it could very well be the most difficult genre to make games for.

    • Five Nights at Freddy’s has me incredibly interested in the overarching story, the lore, and the basic design of everything, but because it’s entirely based in jump scares, I know I’m never going to bother getting into it. When I was a kid, jump scares did work to build up the good fear in me, but that was all from the anticipation, the knowledge that a jump scare was coming rather than the scare itself. As I’ve grown older, that’s just been replaced by irritation. I’ve seen enough to know that jump scares are jolting, rather than actually scary, so the anticipation’s gone, and I just get bothered by the cheap pop they induce. It doesn’t make for a good experience. They’re easy, and some games that incorporate them like Five Nights at Freddy’s due end up getting quite the market, so they must work for some people, but I don’t really see what I’m supposed to be getting out of them.

      Oh, absolutely, survival horror is subjective. Fear is an emotional response, and just like sadness, victory, or any other experience who’s primary purpose is to elicit a certain emotional reaction, how effective anything is is going to depend on the makeup of the consumer. Really, that just makes the designer’s job that much harder. A lot of success here is absolutely based on predicting and manipulating the player, and when the traits you have to work on are so diverse, it can be really hard to find a consistent anchor for the emotion you’re trying to instill. Kind of makes me value the games that do actually scare me that much more.

  2. Lock up your girlfriends, Aether is on the prowl haha.

    These days horror games aren’t too terrifying. If anything Dark Souls feels more like survival horror than something like Resident Evil. I’m no expert though. The last proper horror game I played must have been Corpse Party.

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