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How to save survival horror

When I was a fiction writing undergrad, our class was visited by the great Lee K. Abbott. I felt at odds with him, I remember. He told my class that it was wrong to write a story with certain facts concealed. He told us that when the facts of the full story are only gradually uncovered, the process is, to the readers, unfair.

Annoyingly, Lee K. Abbott was not wrong. There are stories we tell that are very deliberately ‘unfair’; it is now obvious to me that Abbott is not a fan of horror.

In the horror genre, and especially in Japanese horror, real fear comes from the thrill of discovery. And Japanese horror itself takes a cue from, not just the principles of Asian cinema and plotting, but also the very distinctly Japanese design philosophy. Japanese design is less about agency, and more about uncovering a plot. Lee K. Abbot would be furious with it.

Recently Leigh Alexander published this intriguing feature at Kotaku, about the history of survival horror. Apart from being an excellent overview of the genre, it wisely compares Western and Japanese game design philosophies. Most importantly, Alexander asks this question: does survival horror still exist? She writes,

Don’t Fight, Just Run! Titles like these all have distinct differences, of course, but they all tend to have a few traits in common. First, they largely de-prioritize combat mechanics, favoring challenging the player through elements like on-location puzzles, mazelike game areas, using the environment itself against enemies, and even fleeing and hiding instead of direct combat.

It’s true. Alexander names Siren and Fatal Frame as two of the finest examples of using vulnerability to create horror and panic. In the Fatal Frame canon, you do not use weapons or ‘defeat’ anything, per se—rather, you are a young woman wielding a camera.

The original Siren for PS2 is, to my mind, the very best survival horror title around. In it, combat is really not an option. You are weak, ill-equipped, and outnumbered by creatures too smart—and in a way, too emotive—to be called zombies. Also, the game is hard. Super hard. Is it frightening? You betcha. And this point counts for a lot: the goal is not to ‘beat’ adversaries and win. The goal is to keep them from approaching you. In short, the goal is literally to be a survivor which, to use modern reality TV parlance, means to “outwit” and “outlast.”

The new Siren for PS3 is very, very good, too. But what disappointed me about it was, in its quest for accessibility and a broader audience, it allows melee combat. It’s still a frightening game—you can knock shibito down, but they eventually stagger to their feet again—but it absolutely lessens the emphasis on your goals to “outwit” and “outlast”. It is still a game that basically occurs “on rails,” and a lot of the sequences are horrifying, scripted affairs. But characters have so much more agency, and in this regard the game itself feels distinctly Westernized. It is fitting, then, that the game is called, in Japan, Siren: New Translation.

Lee K. Abbott, the fiction professor I never liked, is correct when he says that, when uncovering a mystery plot, this very process is “unfair.” The more unfair the plot—the more switcheroos there are to uncover, the more work you as reader or gamer are given—the more stressful and thrilling the plot potentially becomes. In video games, the very same is true of actual gameplay elements.

So great horror isn’t just about vulnerability, the shower scenes, the being caught unawares. It is also about unfairness—that which is seemingly insurmountable. In the original Nightmare on Elm Street, the heroine is trapped inside a living nightmare, knowing that she has to keep herself from falling asleep. Because she is the last character standing, she earns the big ending: she earns her right to agency, subsequently standing off with Freddy Kreuger in only the film’s final act. Or in a plodding thriller like Alien, Ellen Ripley—initially little more than a supporting character—is victorious because, seemingly by chance and luck rather than intellect and skill, she outlasts the other characters. Her final act, too, is a standoff against the titular, otherly adversary. She earns her one moment of agency, and so lives on to see too many sequels.

What else makes a game unfair? Survival horror fans and detractors all have long held that a lot of the genre’s fear factor comes from willfully hobbled game design: bad controls, shifting and twitchy camera angles, and limited perspective all turn an ordinary suspense game into a thrilling challenge. Crippled design, I would argue, also cripples the main character’s agency. At the very least, the design is unfair.

And as technology has improved, it follows that survival horror has atrophied. The greatest survival horror game in recent memory, Resident Evil 4, is a technological wonder, with marvelously fair, skill-based controls. But is it survival horror? While at times your main character’s survival is absolutely in question, he has a lot of agency and more than a handful of passing allies. What’s the difference between this game and any other third-person shooter?

In many ways, I’d venture, we aren’t patient enough for survival horror anymore. A lot of Siren was waiting and sneaking. So many examples of survival horror use extreme resource management—perpetually low ammo, too few health power-ups—to generate a real sense of vulnerability and a false sense of panic. Even modern horror cinema, with the exception of Japanese entries like Ring, needs character agency to seem alive and action-packed to its audiences. The semi-recent Land of the Dead movie, which I have dismally named “zombie Blade Runner,” imbues not just its human characters with a sense of agency, but even the zombies. Ugh.

We aren’t patient enough for slow, strict survival horror play anymore. Survival horror is, albeit arguably, one of the last vestiges of the semi-dead genre of adventure gaming, itself a genre that demands a long attention span and a high threshold for intellectual and emotional pain. The once-revelatory, now-torturous adventure genre has been called, even by its onetime proponents, unforgiving and unfair. No surprise there.

Adventure gaming isn’t dead, by any stretch. Newer consoles with very limited hardware, like the DS, lend themselves to scripted, plot-driven point-and-click affairs with a distinctly classic adventure flavor. Other games, like the glorious Psychonauts, have simply evolved the adventure game template to suit modern gamers’ tastes (and attention spans), adopting gameplay elements once reserved for other game genres.

What will keep survival horror alive in the US mainstream, then, is its own adoption and adaptation of popular game mechanics like shooting, running, and off-the-rail ‘sandbox’ environments. But what will keep survival horror ‘true’ and ‘classic’? How to recapture that old-fashioned ‘unfairness’?

I’d wager that classic horror will soon rely on exactly what adventure games and 2D sidescrollers have long used as floatation devices: deliberately hobbled technology and, of course, limited storage spaces. When better technologies are available, these media are the ultimate in unfairness.

For example: Although Siren for PS3 was a disc-based game abroad, on North American shores, a lot of its appeal came from its episodic gameplay, which was made available only as exclusive, downloadable content. Sure, it took ten years to download wirelessly to a PS3’s hard drive, and it takes up a whole lot of HDD space, but by god, it is downloadable.

And some developers have gone even further, attempting to produce original (and not so original) survival horror for the Nintendo DS, despite that idea’s laughability. Still, no matter their creators’ best efforts and general sense of goodwill, most portable survival horror entries have been duds. (One or two horror games planned for the DS, though, continue to generate interest.)

But in the case of Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse—which most bloggers have taken to simply calling “Fatal Frame Wii”—the very idea of bringing the beloved franchise to a wimpy console with notoriously imprecise infrared controls has driven genre enthusiasm to a fever pitch.

But will this plan to reinvigorate interest in the survival horror genre work? Only time will tell.

2 responses to “How to save survival horror” »

  1. Kevin Bunch says:

    Must comment: At our recent “horror game night” we ran Clock Tower, on PS1. And wow! Despite the fact that the game has aged terribly visually, and the voice acting is mid-90s atrocious, the game gets across the fear factor for the very reasons you mentioned. You can’t FIGHT Scissorman; he can only be stunned, and hid away from. It was a blast watching my friend playing the game freak out because Scissorman was breaking into his hiding place, and he worried his character was too scared to fight him off.

    I’m not really going anywhere with this, only confirming that I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Freaky events can only go so far.

    I admit, though, there’s a certain fear factor in Dead Rising, when you’re still a low level, weak, and have to battle through a zombie horde. But I think that’s a different sort of fear, entirely.

  2. nothinglefttogive says:

    the running from/fighting/make a choice fast segments from nemesis were always pretty effective….

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