Monday, October 25, 2010

Survival Horror... where is it headed?

A while back I posted an article called "Can we save the licensed horror game", which discussed the possibility of horror licensed games like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street being made into video games using recent games as templates. This year I wanted to do something different. I've been spending a bit more time trying to figure out some things in order to better understand how horror should work in both movies and video games. Of course this is the secondary reason for my reviews of my personal favorite survival horror games; I wanted to dissect them in order to better convey my personal feelings on this subject. I've always been a fan of horror films, so It's nice to do something to give back to a genre that has given me so much over the years. In addition I'll throw you guys some sweet soundtracks to listen to my ranting to.. It's the least I can do for the price of reading overly neurotic postings.

The Essence of Fear

It's a given that Horror is very much a exploration of the unknown. There are things in this world that are explainable through things like modern science and technology, but that only makes up a fraction of what we really know about this world we live in. The reality of it is that we're constantly trying to come up with explanations for things that may just be beyond our own comprehension; like the hallway light that comes on for no reason at all , the strange creaking at night, or the door that slams upstairs. Naturally, those can be explained to some degree - Faulty wiring, A settling house, or Air currents, but this could be the mind's way of rationalizing things that obviously put us in a state of disturbance.

This is why Horror is such an interesting genre. The essence of horror is it's ability to prey on the fears of it's audience; whether that's by using the fear of the dark, the unknown or fear of something unsuspected to make us question it's more sinister properties. Each time we're scared we reel from the fear, and yet it's human nature to want to always come back for more, every time.  This is why there are so many haunted houses that pop up around this time, and why the most scary movies and games have an endless supply of sequels. Resident Evil comes to mind here, as it's the first game to coin the term "survival horror" despite being preceded by games like Alone in the Dark, Sweet Home, and the more popular, yet Japan centric Clock Tower. The first RE provided many things to fear. Slow moving zombies, jump scares in the T-Virus dogs that leap through the windows, and many of the other traps and puzzles that littered the mansion. Sure the game didn't take itself too seriously, either, and that might have added to the B-movie charm, but you can tell somewhere along the line that once it did take itself seriously is when it slowly leaned towards being action first and horror secondly (RE 5 is the biggest example, here). We'll discuss this a little later in the post.

Atmosphere and setting up suspense...

The mood of the scene, the setting, the sense that something is genuinely not right.. This is all Atmosphere, and suspense, which are largely IMO the cornerstones of horror. Establishing a general mood is essential to setting up a scare. This is something that movie makers understood in the past. And in games like Silent Hill this fact is extremely vital to making the games genuinely disturbing and yet strangely alluring. In Clock Tower you notice within the first three minutes of play that you're being lead into a confrontation with the game's secondary villain, 'Scissorman'. This is built up from the point you're walking through the corridor of the mansion until you reach either the first bathroom or the main foyer. The first Resident Evil does this as well, where you're lead through the mansion to witness one of your lost teammates being eaten by a zombie. There's a lot of build up that leads to that, and the payoff is very gratifying and sets an obvious tone of unease for the first half of the game.

Establishing a feeling of uneasiness should be the top priority for both filmmakers and developers when establishing tension and suspense. Even Alfred Hitchcock stated it best during one of his lectures at AFI

In the case of what Hitchcock explains, he feels that suspense often happens when there's a general feeling of worry in the air about how a scene will play out, or when the audience themselves have foresight into something bad happening unbeknownst to the characters. In Clock Tower this is shown through many of the events that lead to confrontation with 'scissorman' as well as the discovery of certain things vital to the overall plot. In Eternal Darkness the mood is already uneasy due to a combination of music and sounds coming from the mansion Alex is investigating. This makes it rather easy to build up to some rather interesting scenes during the chapter breaks.

Horror is not all about the jump scare. This is why I explained the definition and context of suspsense in Horror. I don't necessarily believe that Horror is just about things jumping out at you every five minutes and that's that. There logically should be a balance between both, as building suspense takes up a lot of time and could lead to losing the audience completely. Friday the 13th for NES was one of those games that had an interesting balance between building suspense by having to protect the children from Jason, and discovering how to stop him, while fending him off in random encounters. Ironically LJN, a company that was known for having a less than stellar reputation with licensed properties, at least got this right when trying to make a competent video game based on a series of supernatural themed slasher films.

What's wrong with Survival Horror now? 

Like most genres eventually saturation leads to stagnation which leads to dormancy and then eventually revival. In terms of Survival Horror we're probably teetering on the edge of stagnation into dormancy. Part of the problem has to do with series like Resident Evil and Silent Hill: Homecoming falling more into Horror themed action games. This works for Castlevania, and games like Doom 3 where this is what we've come to expect, but in a genre that works best where the 'hero'  is as about as adept with weapons as an newborn baby. This tends to replace the notion of fearing and avoidance with the mentality of kill every living thing that moves. RE 5's excuse is that it's building off of the successful formula of 4, and I have to admit I enjoy RE4 for what it does, but when I think about it RE4 is less of a survival horror game, and more of a horror themed adventure, and since that worked and many enjoyed it, people are just going to copy-paste that formula for great success.

What made the games of the past more scary were the fact that there is a sense of helplessness there, and that the main characters are average people thrown into bizarre situations and forced to overcome them. Even in the case where the characters were specially trained, at least there were stipulations there to keep you from being a walking tank like sparingly placed ammunition and breakable weaponry. One theory: D-toid's own Jim Sterling states that once the combat interface had been improved, the game changed completely.Another theory is that the convention shift has much to do with regional differences. Western horror has the victim eventually resorting to confronting the threat directly over enduring long enough to survive the ordeal like in J horror films.

Burying the discussion..

Of course the way things are going perhaps dormancy is a good thing at least until someone rediscovers what survival horror is and how it should work compared to what it's being shoehorned into. Developers seem to hold this belief that poor sales mean it's time to dispose and move on, and that's definitely not the case. I feel like it has more to do with Fans wanting for a return to greatness to surface (Remember the innovation versus reinvention discussion). The flaws aren't necessarily with the genre if the games you're making barely fit there. In fact; it seems that everyone is too concerned with copy-pasting success than trying to break away from conformity in order to bring something fresh to the table. To me, a future that has more 'me too' titles seems far more scarier than any movie I ever watched

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