Matt is a scaredy-pants who has spent too many sleepless nights playing "Resident Evil."
The remake of Resident Evil 3 for PlayStation 4 released on April 3, and the future of the survival horror video game subgenre is more unclear than ever. Horror games of the 1990s relied on limiting player control and obscuring their surroundings to create tension and deliver scares. However, the line between survival horror and other kinds of action-adventure games has blurred over time with recent advancements in gaming technology.
Defining a Genre
The term "survival horror" can be traced back to 1996 with the release of the original Resident Evil for the PlayStation, becoming a common descriptor for psychological horror games like Silent Hill and Fatal Frame by the beginning of the 2000s. These games put players in the shoes of an underpowered and vulnerable character, typically in a single complex location with minimal resources.
Whether solving the mysteries of an isolated town shrouded in evil or escaping a police station at the dawn the the zombie apocalypse, survival horror games showcase character-driven stories of heroes escaping a seemingly impossible situation. While most games feature progression in this same way, survival horror titles often face issues with progression in their sequels. The fight-or-flight thrill of a early zombie encounter only lasts so long, so the monsters always get bigger and tougher to kill.
In the earliest hours of Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, one panicked encounter with a generic enemy can lead to wasted bullets and valuable healing items. However, players in later chapters are more than prepared for those same challenges with the new items and experience they've earned. The terrifying opening of 2008's Dead Space has the same relationship to its finale, where enemies who once seemed unbeatable are easily conquered with tools and knowledge.
Trending Toward Action
Resident Evil 3's original 1999 release was marketed as being more action-packed and bombastic than its predecessors. Likewise, the remake of Resident Evil 3 follows this trend by promising a smarter, more seemingly indomitable enemy in the bioweapon Nemesis, who pursues players across the game's story. Nemesis' appearances in both the original PlayStation release and the PlayStation 4 remake are scripted events, but they feel organic and tied to key turning points in the story.
There is an undeniable pull toward action that increases as any survival horror series continues and grows in popularity. The Resident Evil series famously pivoted toward action with 2009's Resident Evil 5 and other titles in the 2010s. This trend was reversed with Resident Evil 7: Biohazard's release in 2017 and the remake of Resident Evil 2 that followed in 2019, both of which reintroduced elements like complex enclosed locations and limited items. However, traces of an action-packed past remained baked into the games' control schemes and extra content.
Resident Evil 7's Not A Hero downloadable content featured an action-packed campaign that saw series star Chris Redfield in his classic role as a bioweapon hunting soldier. Resident Evil 2's remake includes a reimagining of the 4th Survivor mode with Hunk, an armored soldier who fights through hordes of zombies to escape the overrun city. The remake of Resident Evil 3 follows this trend by adding the asymmetrical multiplayer experience, Resident Evil 3: Resistance. Additionally, Resident Evil 3's single player campaign includes a dodge mechanic that can slow time and help players land John Wick-like shots on zombies.
Blending of Ideas
The signature clunkiness of classic survival horror games was the result of a compromise with the limitations of 90s gaming technology. Modern games allow for cleaner animations and tighter control, which lends toward a more streamlined action-adventure title in almost all cases. Without the baggage associated with genre and franchise, action-adventure games like The Last of Us seem nearly indistinguishable from the modern Resident Evil games with its focus on resource management and survival.
The remake of Resident Evil 3 certainly delivers on nostalgia for those who played the original, but the gameplay itself can feel more like an Uncharted or The Last of Us adventure title than a bitter fight for survival. Between weaving through crowds of zombies, dodging rocket launcher fire, and falling a dozen stories from the roof of a burning building with nothing more than a scratch, it's a surprise that Resident Evil 3 player character Jill Valentine hasn't been recruited to replace Black Widow in Marvel's Avengers.
The best games that define themselves as survival horror feature iconic and intricate locations for players to explore. The dilapidated streets of Resident Evil 3's Racoon City offer the illusion of an open-world setting, but the constricting alleyways and abandoned storefronts draw clear connections to the earlier games' cramped hallways and secret passageways.
There will often be a clear A-to-B destination for players, but the real fun in survival horror comes from plotting the best route to a goal while collecting enough supplies to fend off any unexpected assault along the way. The remake of Resident Evil 2 expanded the role of the original's Mr. X enemy to pursue the player consistently through large portions of the game, and the winding hallways of Raccoon City Police Department are a great setting for such a high stakes cat-and-mouse game.
Unfortunately, the remake of Resident Evil 3 often feels more linear than any of its predecessors. Brief diversions from the critical path are few and far between, and typically only reward the player with a small amount of extra ammunition that is already in abundance. The game has also been criticized by fans and media alike for its paltry single player campaign, which is alleged to last only about five hours. Compared to last year's Resident Evil 2 and its 10+ hour campaign between two protagonists, many consumers are opting to wait for Capcom to put the game on sale instead of paying full price.
The Indie Variable
The last bastion of pure survival horror may be found with indie developers. Lone Survivor, originally released in 2012 and currently available on Steam and PlayStation 4, presents itself as "a psychological survival adventure game" that plays like a lofi adaptation of Silent Hill. The Amnesia series also offers similar spooks and puzzles, but rather with a hind-and-seek mentality where combat is almost never an option.
What's your favorite survival horror game? Post it in the comments below!
John Roberts from South Yorkshire, England. on March 12, 2020:
Given Two Point Hospital is a spiritual successor to a single albeit popular game in a very niche market, I think its success speaks volumes to the potential of a much more popular, well known market if ever it goes out of fashion.
Of course, I hope the genre never goes out of fashion. I think horror does wonders to the flavour of a year's lineup, and it's always interesting to see lesser experienced publishers get involved (see Bethesda publishing the newly formed Tango Gameworks' The Evil Within.... who would've thought that a good idea?).
I'll keep your thoughts on Two Point Hospital in mind when I'm ever in doubt of crowdsourcing, fewer indie darlings or the mainstream becoming, well, more mainstream. I think the world has many more Two Point Hospitals to offer us before long! ^^
Matt Pietropaoli (author) on March 12, 2020:
Thanks John. I think there's big room in the market for these old subgenres, as you said, be it through crowdfunding or otherwise.
Your comment immediately made me think of Two Point Hospital, the indie-revival of Theme Hospital that released last year. Totally different genre, but I'd like to see support like that for classic survival horror games some day.
John Roberts from South Yorkshire, England. on March 11, 2020:
Excellent write-up! Though I'm not a fan of horror video games, least of all survival horror, I think what will happen is what happens in any other genre: if the so-called AAA companies such as Capcom and Naughty Dog move away from it, there's plenty of people who will resort to Kickstarter and other crowdfunding means to fund their games that way. "If you build it, they will come" is more true than ever for long unpopular genres - see platform games, turn-based games, old school RPGs and management sims' many successes.
Survival Horror as we know it might not be around for much longer, but I think there'll always be a demand for it in its various iterations. People like horror, and I think they always will in some fashion. We might see less of it going forward, but I think it'll always remain.
I guess if I had to pick a favourite SH game, it'd be Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It was the one horror game I could really get behind, even at 20 frames-per-second on super low settings on a laptop during college. xD