The original Resident Evil, or Biohazard as it is know outside of the US, sunk its teeth in me at a fairly young age. Countless hours were spent roaming the halls of the mansion, my ears perked for the slightest sign of the undead.
I’ve been a gamer since I can remember, and there are plenty of games I enjoy, but those early Resident Evil titles had something that has become increasingly rare throughout gaming as a whole. They were challenging. That’s not to say they were overly difficult, but rather that they asked more from gamers than the usual fare. Ammo was scarce. Rooms required thorough searches as their contents largely determined life or death. Health did not regenerate. My knife was pathetically weak, only usable as a last resort. I was forced to seek out gasoline in order to burn the dead lest they rise again and devour my foolish adolescent self. Every window brought the threat of zombified dogs so intent on devouring me that they would leap through the glass in pursuit. Even the number of times I could save was limited to the number of ink ribbons I managed to find. And it was for all of these things that I fell hopelessly in love with the game.
Other games like Dino Crisis, Fatal Frame, and the spectacular Silent Hill were soon to follow, leaving a host of sequels in their wake. Resident Evil 2 and 3 served up more of the nail-biting suspense delivered so perfectly in the first game, and gamers ate it up. Survival horror was going strong, terrifying gamers late into the night, challenging them to persevere in hopeless situations.
Fast forward a few years to the release of Resident Evil 4. As anyone will tell you, RE4 is a spectacular game. However, it isn’t a survival horror game. Instead of combing through dimly lit corridors in search of keys and ammunition, RE4 focused on putting the player into a Hollywood blockbuster, giving them ammo hand over fist and setting up the next set of targets as soon as the current group had been obliterated. The franchise had shifted into the landscape of action games. Although the horror aesthetic remained, the tension was largely absent. Out of ammo? Switch to a different gun. Better yet, just buy more.
The game was remarkably popular, and its near-perfect scores from all the major gaming magazines cemented it at the forefront of a trend that would alter the course of survival horror games, essentially diverting their lifeblood into the effort to create games for the action crowd. For a time, action horror took the center stage with franchises like Dead Space, Left 4 Dead, and the now mutated Resident Evil. As far as big developers were concerned, survival horror had taken a backseat.
The rebirth of survival horror first started in 2007 when indie developer Frictional Games released a terrifying little game called Penumbra. Unlike most main stream horror games, Penumbra didn’t drop boxes of ammo at the player’s feet. In fact, Penumbra didn’t even bother to give players a gun. Armed with nothing more than a flashlight, glow stick, and eventually a hammer and ice pick, the game left players remarkably vulnerable, conveying a sense of helplessness not seen in gaming for some time.
Players took on the role of a man who travels to Greenland to unravel the mystery surrounding the contents of a safety deposit box left behind by his late father. It doesn’t take long for the player to become cut off from the rest of the world, falling down a mine shaft into what appears to be a military installation left over from the Second World War.
Technically, the game was nothing groundbreaking, but the feeling the experience evoked in players was impressive. When describing the game to a friend, I said it was the closest I’d ever come to experiencing John Carpenter’s The Thing first hand, a statement which still holds true. Penumbra worked to create fear in meaningful ways. Hiding was vital to survival, and yet the mere sight of certain enemies could cause the protagonist to panic and reveal his position. This left players crouched behind stacks of crates as they listened to something that sounded like the equivalent of a lion pass by, their imagination working overtime as the protagonist’s heartbeat sounded from the speakers. Like survival horror games of old, the environments were confined, making the player feel claustrophobic and remarkably exposed. On more than one occasion I found myself staring into a small space I’d have to crawl through, listening to something crawl around somewhere inside. The atmosphere and sense of complete helplessness gave the game its flavor.
Several other Penumbra games followed, and although they garnered a cult following, they remained relatively under the radar of most gamers. It wasn’t until Frictional Games’ next project, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, released in 2010 that the company’s following exploded. Amnesia used many of the mechanics found in Penumbra, but with several tweaks and a new setting. Rather than exploring the secrets of the frozen north, players awoke to find themselves in a castle, and, true to the game’s title, suffering from a case of amnesia. Like Penumbra, the protagonist was affected by fear, only the fear was quantified in the form of a sanity meter. Actions like traveling through an unlit room or stumbling upon a corpse would reduce a player’s sanity while standing in a brightly lit area would restore it. However, this time around players weren’t even given the luxury of a hammer as a defense, but rather a lantern and nothing more. A lantern that consumed fuel and attracted unwanted attention. Hiding in the dark made the player’s brain turn to mush until bugs crawled over the screen and the protagonist dragged himself around the floor by his chin, but the alternative was never much better. Like the characters in the best mythos tales, players were doomed no matter what they did. As with its predecessor, the strong sense of atmosphere and mortality made Amnesia into something special. The game was a huge success, selling well over a million copies, quite a feat for an indie developer. Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs followed in 2013, it’s preorder scrolling across Steam’s featured items screen with all of the other big-budget titles. Survival horror had its pulse back.
A more recent release on the road to survival horror’s revival was 2013’s Outlast from Red Barrels Studios, another indie company. Founded by former Ubisoft employees and industry vets behind games such as Prince of Persia, Splinter Cell, and Assassin’s Creed, the team took their years of experience along with the recent trends set by Frictional Games to push the envelope and bring the new brand of survival horror not only to the PC, but to the newly released PlayStation 4, dragging the long lost horror elements back into the living room. Once again, players were isolated and helpless, taking on the role of a journalist investigating strange reports from an insane asylum. The protagonist’s only possession? A handheld camera with night vision. Like Amnesia’s lantern, the camera burned through energy and needed to be fed new batteries periodically, which could leave players stumbling around in the dark with the crazies. While Outlast didn’t feature any sanity meter as Amnesia did, the horror elements were plentiful. My heart raced more than a few times, particularly during the game’s opening scenes.
Last year also saw the release of State of Decay, an Xbox Live arcade game now available for PC through Steam. The game placed players in an open world environment during the aftermath of a zombie outbreak, prompting them to gather limited resources, recruit survivors, and establish strongholds against the undead hoards. The catch? If a character died, even the protagonist, they were gone for good, and the game went on without them by switching the player to another survivor. This concept of mortality, that players are not unstoppable killing machines, is what makes this new wave of horror games compelling. You are weak. The world is frightening. You can lose. This debut title by indie developer Undead Labs quickly sold over a million copies.
With so much money being brought in by these indie companies pushing boundaries, it’s no surprise major developers are following suit. Sega’s Alien: Isolation is slated for release this Fall, and despite the last few Alien games being complete flops even in the eyes of the action gamers for whom they were intended, Isolation certainly looks promising. Rather than blasting through hordes of xenomorphs, players must survive against a single alien without the use of weapons. Judging from the gameplay released by IGN, it would appear that the developers have chosen to draw inspiration from Ridley Scott’s film rather than James Cameron’s, for which I am extremely grateful.
At last year’s E3, Bethesda showed a demo of new survival horror title The Evil Within. The game is being developed Shinji Mikami, the man behind the original Resident Evil, and promises a return to the roots of survival horror. And so we come full circle.
However, just because the big names have taken notice doesn’t mean the indie developers are done. Far from it. Frictional Games is set to release SOMA, their latest project, sometime next year. This time players will find themselves in a futuristic science fiction setting, and from the footage released thus far, the experience looks to be every bit as terrifying as falling down a mine shaft or waking up in a castle without a working memory.
Undead Labs is hard at work on an MMO in the same vein as State of Decay, and Red Barrels is nearing the release of Outlast: Whistleblower, a DLC prequel to the original game. There’s plenty of gore and suspense on the horizon, and I for one cannot wait to start rationing my ammo and hiding in the back of closets.