Survival Horror is dead. There, I said it. I know what you’re thinking – I’m overreacting, exaggerating for the purpose of making a point. But the sad reality is that I know that the genre is, at best, in a coma. Not only is it stagnated, as it has lost its sense of identity and it’s purpose of existence.
Admittedly, translating horror into the interactive medium has always been tricky, because unlike most genres horror relies on a sense of discomfort and unpleasantness that can seem antithetical with videogames’ ludic logic, its defining fun factor. In the last years, the fun factor dictatorship has become increasingly prevalent, evolving game design into a form that favors a thoroughly easy, straightforward experience where both challenge and frustration are practically banned, and where each and every moment must be one of pure endorphin stimuli. However, for a good survival horror to instill tension, stress, and fear, it needs to be unpleasant, boring, even silent at times, and game developers have come to avoid these moments like a devil does a cross. By doing so, they have destroyed the very essence of what makes a good horror piece.
Perhaps even more important for the current predicament the genre finds itself in, is its migration from east to west, which eventually stains its defining matrix. Japanese developers always understood the genre better, not only because they defined it in the first place (see Shinji Mikami’s “Sweet Home“, released back in 1989) but also because Japanese horror films always translated better into the videogame medium than their American counterparts. Because Japanese horror focuses on psychological elements, it feeds perfectly on the interactive dimension, in order to blur the relationship between protagonists and player. On the contrary, American horror lends it self so much to action thrills and fleeting notions of suspense that it eventually makes its interactive translation closer to that of shooter videogames. And with “Resident Evil” now leading as an example for survival horror gone shooter (a trend blatantly notorious in the “Resident Evil 5” demo), it’s hard to have any faith in things improving in the future [more on this issue in my articles regarding horror – here, here and here].
The only saving grace of the year, of course, comes from the only major Japanese take on the genre: “Siren Blood Curse“, by Keiichiro Toyama (creator of “Silent Hill”). The reason is simple: it’s the only scary game I’ve played this year. It’s not brilliant, mind you, it’s actually a bad game on many levels, but unlike any other release this year, it’s one that shows its creators truly understand the meaning of the words “survival horror”. First and foremost, in its formal qualities, which it successfully borrows from Nippon horror – its gritty visuals, surreal ambiance and cacophonous soundtrack – all delightfully translated into interactive form. Sadly, the gameplay still seems dated, lacking the elegance and simplicity of more traditional survival horror titles, and most of all, poorly implemented to the point of breaking the eerie mood the aesthetic delivers. Yet in such a dreadful year, it is by far the only unique piece of horror I would even think about praising. Its delightfully scary, freakish and obscure – like all survival horror games should be.
As to what went wrong this year… well, everything. The new “Alone in The Dark“, a game that despite a few cool gimmicks managed to throw all its potential to hell thanks to an early release, filled with bugs, game design flaws and stupid control schemes… oh, and also thanks to the overall mediocrity of its artistic qualities, with special mentions to its ludicrous plot, its “24-like” episode structure, and its dramatic, epic doomsday-ish “I want to be Roland Emerich” directing style [irony intended]. There’s also “Silent Hill Homecoming“, the biggest insult one could ever make to one of the best videogame series ever designed, which I will not further criticize, lest I become too acid and distasteful for my readers, and, to sum it all up, the yawn-inducer “Dead Space“, which despite my criticisms, can still be seen as a decent action game, just… not a decent survival horror game.
As to the future, it looks grim. “Resident Evil 5” has more “Call of Duty” in it than it has “Resident Evil” (just look at the screens… they’re bathed in daylight, it’s heresy!) and all other series have withered away. Perhaps the Wii can bring some hope, with titles such as “Sadness” or the upcoming “Fatal Frame / Project Zero“, but it is doubtful they will reach their audience in such a casual marketed console. No matter how sad it might be, the genre is dead… might as well come to terms with it.
[Sidenote: haven’t played “Penumbra”]