To your right is a pack of zombies, freshly risen from the grave.
To your left, a gang of possessed dogs.
And right in front of you, well, she might have been a nurse at one point, but now she’s some kind of deformed walking-dead.
You prepare to fight but then realize, your gun has three bullets left and the only other weapon available is a lead pipe.
Best option: RUN!!
Welcome to the survival horror genre.
While most video games put the emphasis on combat, eliminating as many enemies as possible, survival horror is all about, well, survival.
Weapons and health power-ups are usually very limited while bad guys are plentiful.
There’s also usually an inventory system used for solving puzzles with items collected through-out the world, similar to old point-and-click adventures like Maniac Mansion.
Although it’s a niche genre, it has seen some mainstream success, mostly through Resident Evil and Silent Hill.
Both games have sold millions of copies, spawned multiple sequels and Hollywood movies.
The appeal of survival horror comes not from trying to rack up as many head shots as possible, but from the atmosphere that’s created.
Knowing that creepy bad guys lay around almost any corner and knowing you probably can’t defend yourself creates a feeling of helplessness but other leads to quite the adrenaline rush while playing.
That, and people like to be scared. Take the success of horror movies for example. Now try being the defenseless hero trapped in a house full of zombies.
Origins of Survival Horror
While Resident Evil may have introduced most gamers to the idea of survival horror with it’s release on the PlayStation in 1996, the survival horror is generally agreed to have originated on the Atari 2600 with Haunted House.
Released in 1982, the player must navigate a haunted mansion to find pieces of an urn while unlocked doors and avoiding ghosts.
GameSpy writer Christopher Buecheler sums how the elements of survival horror apply to the primitive console game in a 2002 article:
“Creepy theme? Check
Item collection? Check
Limited inventory management? Check
A variety of monsters? Check
… that all behave differently? Check
Rooms inaccessible until you have certain items? Check
… that can sometimes be accessed by finding alternate routes? Check”
(Buecheler, Christopher, “Haunted House,” Gamespy 2002)
Alone in the Dark
The next important series in the survival horror evolution was the Alone in the Dark games.
They were most puzzle-oriented games but introduced some combat, that was made difficult by ineffective weapons and the fact that the protagonist moves more slowly than the bad guys.
Alone in the Dark was also important since it introduced a three-dimension perspective, according to survival horror website Chris’ Survival Horror Quest.
“This was not just a technical innovation: the change allowed the development team to get away from the flat 2D perspective commonly employed by games and instead set up shots with dramatic angles. This gave the game a much more cinematic feel than previous adventure titles, which helped the developers convey the game’s horror premise,” states the site.
These dramatic angles would prove to be pivotal even in modern titles like Silent Hill.
Like the best horror movies, survival horror games create a scary ambiance and sense or urgency that other styles simply cannot match and that’s what leads to a legion of fans.