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In the mid 90's, on the Playstation, a genre of games began to take hold with the console gamers and grew into a phenomena. That genre was referred to as survival/horror. The biggest series of games in this genre to appear on the Playstation was easily the Resident Evil series. The series set the bar high for what was expected from games in the genre, and was wildly successful. To this day, the series remains a AAA mainstay, with games appearing on nearly every console and handheld that has been released since it first appeared in 1996.
Yet, while the series continues to be successful, many complaints have been leveled against the series and against survival/horror games in general. Many fans feel that the genre has turned away from its roots, in favor of more of an action oriented approach and that the scares just aren't there anymore. In this blog I'll be diving into what made the early entries into the genre so memorable, contrast it with where the genre is today, examine how the shift occurred, and finally, attempt to prognosticate the possible future of the genre. What better topic could there be for a Friday the 13th?
There are many reasons for the success of the genre in the early days. For Resident Evil, the reasons mostly revolved around the atmosphere the game presented. This atmosphere was nurtured in a number of ways. For starters, early games often used a prepositioned camera angle. This allowed the developers to control what the player saw and added a sense of dread at what may come by advancing beyond the relative safety of what could be seen with the current camera view. You never knew when you might advance to the next section of an area, only to run straight into an awaiting enemy. This meant that simply navigating the area was a tension filled experience.
Next, there was the sound. These games used sound masterfully. There was nothing that would make you come to a halt faster than entering a new room and immediately hearing the moan of an unseen zombie, the cawing of crows that might peck out your eyes, or other baddies. The games' utilization of sound worked in unison with the the pre-positioned camera angles to incite fear of everything that could be lurking about.
Next, there were the enemies. Enemies in this game were often positioned in such a way that you would not be able to see them until they were upon you or within a couple of seconds of being so. The range at which the enemies appeared often correlated with the difficulty of evasion/killing them. There was a balance there that made it to where tougher, faster and deadlier enemies would give you a sporting chance, but required you, the player to advance wisely, so as not to eliminate your advantage. The games often managed to lull players into a false sense of security, making them more apt to mistakes, before springing harder enemies upon them and taking that sense of security away entirely. The use of enemies was brilliant, and well thought out.
The weak link to these games was often the story. The games focused upon minimal interactions with other survivors, forming a sense of isolation. This forces much of the story to develop primarily through documents, journals and other readings where the player often has to wade through a lot of fluff before finding the meat of the story. The stories that were present were often mired in cliche and predictability, much the same way that the horror genre for movies is. The games were mostly sought for the thrills and scares than for dynamic and unique stories.
Seriously, the birds freak me out to this day.
Today, much has changed with the genre. The pre-positioned camera from the golden age of the genre has been replaced by an over the shoulder view. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as the gameplay feels much more fluid and natural, but it also leaves few surprises for the player to encounter, as they often are able to see enemies long before a potentially deadly encounter occurs. It is my belief that this is the biggest growing pain that the genre has experienced with the transition to where it is today. In the early days, many of the scares were provided by the distance at which the player encountered enemies. With this new view, players could see enemies much sooner; increasing the distance of the encounter, and providing the advantage to the player. Only a couple of games have nailed this aspect of the genre with the over the shoulder view, with Dead Space easily being the best I can recall.
Sound is another aspect that has seen some de-emphasis. In many games, sound has become a backdrop to the world to provide a more realistic experience. Meanwhile some games, like Dead Space (I should probably throw it out there that I think the first Dead Space is the best survival/horror game this generation) utilize sound to bring the game to whole new heights of terror. I will never forget just how truly terrifying it was to hear "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" being sang by a far off voice in Dead Space. That there were no other living souls to be found, nade this singing all the more frightening.
Enemies have seen some evolution as well. There has been a distinct movement toward larger, more common, enemies that increase difficulty to a degree and reinforce the previously established distance to toughness ratio. However, many of these encounters have a tendency to drift too much away from the need to evade in favor of more action oriented battles. At the same time many action games have incorporated aspects of survival horror games to where it can be more difficult to unsettle a player by what they see on screen.
The biggest areas where the genre is better is clearly in controls and story. Gone are the days of tank controls and minimal ability to aim with precision. Today, the only thing keeping you from being able to shoot your enemy is your own skill at aiming at the target. As for story, the stories have grown more complex than the cliched stories that existed early on. This has presented some issues for series such as Resident Evil, which now has a highly convoluted storyline to wade through, but games like Dead Space, FEAR (FEAR 3 doesn't exist in my mind), and others have sophisticated storylines that examine societal issues while not being mired down by the circumstances of the horror.
While the genre has seen some rough times in recent years, there has been some reasons for hope. While Resident Evil 5 lost its way, one of the DLCs, "Lost In Nightmares." This DLC ditched the concepts of easy enemies at any distance and forced the player into several intense short distance encounters in tight corridors, which brought back the feeling of terror. In addition, it added larger, slowly stalking characters, reminiscent, to a degree, of Nemesis (minus the rocket launcher) from Resident Evil 3. These enemies could easily absorb all of your ammunition, leaving you running scared, hoping to get away. If this is used with greater frequency going forward, it could easily solve the problem of lack of terror. Just look at how Dead Space utilized it.
Co-op is becoming more prevalent within the genre. I am not of the mindset that co-op is necessarily an evil to the genre. There are plenty of ways that co-op could be used to heighten an experience, and some action oriented games, such as Left 4 Dead 2, have shown that even with companions, some scenarios are just downright terrifying. The key is to find the balance, which hasn't happened yet, as co-op is a newer feature to the genre. I think, going forward, that this will greatly improve.
As much as I like Resident Evil, I wouldn't be surprised if there were a reboot in the near future. The story has grown very convoluted over the years, and the depth of story is lacking behind some of the newer IPs that have come to market. A reboot would allow a fresh start and a new direction, which the series appears to desperately need.
All in all, I think the genre is doing fine for what has transgressed, with the movement away from tank controls with awkward cameras. It will be very interesting to see over the next couple of years how this genre adjusts and evolves. October will be the first major launch that will give strong indications for how this genre will survive. Resident Evil appears to be embracing a wide array of experiences, and hopefully will deliver a great experience that fans of the series desire.
Let me know your thoughts below, and thanks for reading.