A Game of Survival: How Indie Developers Revitalized Survival Horror

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.

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Patient Zero: White Zombie and Where the Dead Walk on Screen

If one were to examine pop-culture today and determine where exactly zombies and the undead stand, it would sort of feel as though they really do walk among us. In recent years, AMC’s hit series The Walking Dead, with now three seasons under its belt, has left zombies with an undeniable stamp on the medium of the screen.

Already in 2013, two films, Warm Bodies and World War Z, have graced audiences with two very different perspectives on, but nevertheless feature, beings that are neither dead nor alive. Countless upon countless horror films centering on zombies have been released over the decades that they, in fact, have spawned their own genre. The ‘Zombie Horror Film’ is now an immortalized subgenre of the horror flick but it goes even deeper than that as the folklore of zombies in North American culture is always being spun into more complex and varying webs of subgenre upon sub-subgenre.

Before one delves into the legend that continually grows, it is important to discover where the dead first began to walk the earth on screen. When we think of the origins of the ‘zombie,’ George A. Romero’s 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead, is certainly a movie that comes to mind and although this is partly true, it being the origin for zombies as we know today, the source goes back a bit farther than that, in fact, over 30 years back whilst in the midst of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

The term ‘zombie’ has roots reaching back into Haitian and African religion, where a zombie is someone who is an animated corpse or hypnotized into doing one’s bidding. Through voodoo and witchcraft it was believed to be possible to turn someone into a zombie. The living dead as we know them today, who rise from graves, is a little more of a recent concept. Rarely nowadays do movies that contain zombie subject matter actually depict them as traditional victims of witchcraft or voodoo; however, this was not always the case. Known to be the first ever full-length feature zombie-horror film, White Zombie is the motion picture which sparked the rise of what was to be a zombie take-over in North American horror.

White Zombie was directed by brothers Victor and Edward Halperin in 1932. The film stars the infamous horror virtuoso Bela Lugosi as well as Madge Bellamy, John Harron, and Robert Frazer. The setting of the plot actually takes place in Haiti and pits Lugosi’s character, Murder Legendre, as the voodoo master with a sugar mill full of his very own zombie slaves. Lugosi puts on a fantastically creepy  performance as the antagonist. His signature stare that garnered him so much respect in 1931’s Dracula curdles your blood and is ever present in this film. The atmosphere that the film evokes is undeniably scary and the blank expressions given off by Lugosi’s zombies are eccentrically eerie and truly void of any signs of human existence. Although at times the film is a little goofy (but are not all horror films from that time a little bit so?) and the acting also sometimes cringe worthy, there is a certain amount of charm that this independent horror gem carries along with itself.

Filmed in only 11 days, White Zombie was first released to the public in 1932 in New York City, where it faced less than positive reviews. Critically, the film was seen as a joke and as a laughable parody of what ‘true horror’ could accomplish. In retrospect, though, the film is seen as a pivotal piece in the growth of horror and is seen as the first film to introduce the term ‘zombie’ into mainstream media. For that alone it is certainly worth a watch, if not for Lugosi’s stellar performance.

After White Zombie, not many other zombie films saw zombies from the Haitian perspective and after the huge success of Night of the Living Dead, it would seem that for now, that perspective of zombie has all but been lost and forgotten. The hypnotism and voodoo magic is gone and in its place now stands bloodthirsty, flesh-eating, usually repulsively gory undead. However, after White Zombie there were still several zombie films that came out before George Romero ever got his start, and these included: The Ghost Breakers (1940), King of the Zombies (1941), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Plague of the Zombies (1966). None of them were hugely successful but each had their own little role in expanding and building upon zombie mythology in film.

With zombie-horror as an entire subgenre, it now appears as though sub-subgenres are expanding out of that as well. When you first want to create some sort of zombie-related flick, you have to ask yourself, what sort of zombies are we dealing with? Will the zombies simply rise from the dead or is there a virus involved? Do you need to be bit or is being scratched good enough to turn? Do the zombies specifically need to be shot in the head to be killed? Are they fast, jumping, and sprinting or are they slow, cumbersome, and lumbering? These questions and many, many more have to be answered and determined before one creates anything zombie related nowadays. When talking about zombies and zombie films, I will find myself asking questions like, “Are we dealing with 28 Days Later zombies or Dawn of the Dead zombies?” The list of characteristics that go into creating your own version of the undead is just so expansive, almost overwhelming now, that depending on which sort of zombie you wish to take on, chances are it will be very similar to some films while also very different to others, thus, the creation of a zombie sub-subgenre is created.

Infesting more than just the big screen, zombies are everywhere. Books, videogames (especially videogames), and television all host very successful zombie-related material and although some see the zombie genre as redundant and repetitive, it has been going on for roughly 80 years now and I am sure that zombies are here to stay. You can now have zombies attacking your garden on your iPhone in Plants vs. Zombies, watch Brad Pitt fend for his life against hordes of zombies in World War Z, and even read up and prepare yourself for the impending zombie apocalypse in Max Brooks’ best-selling book The Zombie Survival Guide, but just remember where it all came from; from a little Haitian plantation at the hands of a devious voodoo master practicing witchcraft and a spellbinding Bela Lugosi back in 1932.

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Problems with Horror in Interactive Entertainment

It should come as no real surprise that as soon as the earliest computer games became associated with narrative and story instead of simply reflexes, consumers saw the emergence of horror themes in games. This has continued into the modern gaming era because, as always, horror remains popular. Alas, as in literature and the movie industry, what looks so easy when flowing from the pen of a Lovecraft or Poe can hide shades of subtlety easily overlooked by the imitator.

Part of the problem is that it is difficult to measure what it is about dark stories that gives them such appeal. They are atmospheric and the true brilliance of the masters of the form lie in the shading, the implication, careful setting and not, often, purely in the direct plot. There is a world of difference, one must agree, between a poor B-grade splatterfest movie that attempts to shock and titillate with overdone gruesomeness and a careful work of dark fiction that, though potentially bloodless, slips disturbing implications into the mind and remains to chill the blood long after the story is put aside.

This then is the problem that the gaming industry has faced in creating horror titles, this misunderstanding of the fundamentals of what makes a great horror story. With this in mind, we turn to a quick look at problems specific to this more modern form of storytelling.

Interactivity itself provides challenges for anyone wishing to tell a horror story. We have seen a number of occasions in the last few years of attempts to match horror with the ever-popular first-person shooter and action genres of gaming. These attempts have produced titles that were popular in many cases but in terms of what we would call horror, most fall far short in the terms we have discussed so far. Indeed, the majority of “horror” shooters tend far closer to the aforementioned B-grade splatterfest movies than to anything else.

The fundamental issue is the separation of narrative and gameplay. The gaming industry has come a long way in the past few decades of integrating narrative into games themselves, in some parts of the industry with great success, but by and large there remains a gap between the two. Story is often told in non-interactive cut scenes, episodic pieces of story separated by the game itself. The merits of this approach is really a question for another day, however. In the case of action-horror games this approach, regardless of how blurred the edges, has a special problem.

The problem is quite simple; first person shooters, as a genre, are fundamentally about a larger-than-life ultra-capable hero. There is no reason why this must be so, however, historically it has been so since the earliest shooters and despite changes in setting and attempts to modify this—so that the player is, for instance, a single soldier among many in the trenches of World War II rather than a gung-ho space marine single-handedly destroying an entire alien/demonic/Nazi invasion force, the fact remains that the player is, in the game, uniquely capable and easily outshines the computer generated allies.

In a game like this, this must be so. Very few players would enjoy playing a game where computer generated fellow soldiers take care of all the opposition easily and reduce the player to a walking tour of the trenches. It is a difficult balance for game designers to strike to have both the verisimilitude of the setting combined with the feeling of power and achievement necessary to make such a game entertaining.

This works well in less-serious games where an all-powerful protagonist is accepted as a matter of course and it works reasonably well in more realistic games such as the ever-popular call of duty series. Where it falls over most noticeably is when these games are teamed with the horror genre, in games such as F.E.A.R. and the later games in the Silent Hill horror games, a series that early on was rightly lauded for successfully producing games that were genuinely scary, but which has received a far more lukewarm reception for it’s more recent incarnations.

To use F.E.A.R. as an example, it does check most of the modern horror trope boxes. We have an evil conspiracy, paranormal powers, an overwhelming threat and a creepy little girl of the sort made popular by Japanese horror franchises.  These are all used to good effect in the little “story” episodes where the player sees visions of the little girl in quite disturbing ways.

The effect is ruined however by the sheer capability of the player character. There are creepy sections of the game certainly, however these short vignettes are interspersed among the greater gameplay sections, which consist of the player murdering wave after wave of supposedly “elite” soldiers who seem themselves content to be grist for the mill. The stakes cannot really be raised and the sense of uneasiness is a mere phantom feeling that fades quickly secure in the knowledge that with gun in hand, the player will eventually win the day.

That then is what is missing from most of these modern games. It is taken for granted that the player will win out against all odds. One aspect of horror fiction that is more prevalent in horror than in than any other type of fiction (save perhaps classical tragedy) is that of the losing protagonist. There is never a guarantee that the hero will win the day in horror, in fact for those familiar with Lovecraft’s fiction the idea that one of his protagonists could “win the day” in any meaningful way is nearly laughable. If the player is shot down by one of these soldiers the game ends immediately and sharply. There is no way to continue the story, there is no ‘meaningful loss’, but rather a failure on the player’s part. In fact, it is not really a game ending at all but rather an interruption at which point the player is expected to reload and continue. The protagonist, you see, cannot fail. He is destined to kill all the enemies and proceed to the story’s ending; only the player can fail and in that case it is only a temporary setback, not a true failure.

Compare this with the game Silent Hill 2, considered by many critics and aficionados (as well as myself) to be one of the most well-executed horror games ever made. The issues of saving and loading still apply but the focus of the game is much different. It is still possible to die in combat (a player failure) which requires an interruption whilst the player loads so the protagonist can continue his story; however the protagonist in Silent Hill 2 is a true “losing protagonist.” The game is a journey of discovery for the player where the truth about what the main character has done, the guilt that drives him, and the meaning of the terrors Silent Hill inflicts on him are all discovered during the game.  He is a true incapable protagonist in every sense of the word, not larger than life or a super-human killing machine—in fact, he is so incapable at combat that the player is encouraged to avoid it where possible.  This feeling of isolation, fear and incapability is heightened by the fact that there are some combats that it is not possible to win and where fleeing is the only possible answer.  A truly scary atmosphere is created by the combination of both story and gameplay elements (considering incapability as a gameplay element, which it surely was) working in tandem.

Silent Hill 2 has several endings, based on choices the player makes during the game, and although one might be considered the “good” ending, none could be considered heroic in the traditional sense. Instead with growing horror we are led to realise who we are, what we’ve done and to look at the experiences in Silent Hill in a new light.  Even now, years later, I remember the story with a shudder, whilst many other games have faded into complete obscurity in my memory along with countless forgettable movie plots and stories.

Many games have attempted to copy this formula in the years following including later games in the same series but most have failed to achieve this delicate balance that made the game a true horror experience.  They have focused on the imagery the game produced, which admittedly was frightening and disturbing, but missed the more subtle character of what made the whole what it was. They have improved the controls for the combat engine, which counter-intuitively made combat a more viable problem solution and lessened the feeling of incapability that made the previous game so tense. They added more characters, and even companions, in an attempt to increase the complexity and interest of the story, and in doing so eliminated the feeling of isolation that made the town and its secrets so oppressive.

Narrative games have an additional problem to surmount over the more traditional forms of storytelling; that of the integration of story and gameplay; and it is a problem that is most jarring of all in games that attempt to chill the blood and haunt the mind long after the game is finished. Though the standard triple-a industry brings us titles like F.E.A.R., it has too much money and risk tied up to truly innovate and as we have discussed, the current accepted methods of attaching story and gameplay, particularly in action games, is not up to the greater challenge provided by the subtleties dark fiction genre.  That said, it can be done and well; we simply have to look further afield—to the edges of the games industry, the dark corners and disused cellars where once-popular game genres lie and independent developers work feverishly. What better place for horror’s true place in the gaming industry?

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