10 things survival horror games should remember

2. Survival Horror Games Should Have Survival and Horror

Again, this whole point seems like another ‘duh’ statement.  It is.  But, it can’t be ignored.  A survival horror game needs to emulate the sense of horror and the sense of survival.  The feeling of safety should be a rare luxury.  If you are not tense and on edge the entire time you are playing, the game is doing it wrong.  This genre should really draw you into its realm so you forget about reality or sanity.  You should never feel confident and you should not trust anything you come across.  Your senses should be working against you and making you question any action you take.  Locations you’ve already been to or cleared should not be assumed as safe at later times.  Scavenging for food, water, and bullets between running and hiding for your life are all encouraged qualities.  

1. Don’t Lose the Roots Your Fans Love

This last one, and this is the most important point, only applies to games with sequels, series, or games created by developers known for their works in the survival horror genre.  Quite simply, don’t carve away from the aspects of your games that your fans fell in love with.  I understand new technology comes out and developers want to apply new features to IPs; that’s fine, but don’t go too far off in different directions than where you started.  Fans of series want new experiences, but they also want more of the aspects of the game they swear by.  I hate to think this move is a push to become more commercialized and standard for a wider range of gamers… but that is most likely the reason.

A quick and popular example would be a comparison of F.E.A.R. to F.E.A.R. 3.  Back in 2007, the impossibly built office labyrinth of F.E.A.R. was pretty terrifying for its time.  The gruesome and cheap scares in the game advanced the horror genre.  By the time we got to 2011 with F.E.A.R. 3, the game moved more to a cooperative action game than horror.  I still enjoyed the title as an individual game, but not as a F.E.A.R. game that came with some expectations.  F.E.A.R. isn’t that perfect example since it is a horror and not a survival horror game, but it’s the theme I’m trying to illuminate.

A nurse from Silent Hill

4. Not an ‘Action’ Game

Don’t misinterpret this as me saying there shouldn’t be any action in the game.  While a survival horror game still needs action in it, ultimatly the game is in the 'survival horror' genre and not the 'action' genre.  Someone picking up a survival horror game should know what they are getting themselves into.  You don’t need over-the-top weapons (you don’t even need weapons), cover-based shooting, action rolling, a full arsenal, swarms of monsters to murder your way though, vehicle combat, and other cliché action game themes.  I feel the more of these action themes that seep through into survival horror games, the more of the horror that is driven away.

3. Feeling of Helplessness

This is a big one for me.  One of my biggest fears is being completely helpless.  When a game can emulate this feeling is when terror begins.  In Amnesia, the first time you run and hide from a Gatherer is such an intense feeling.  All you can do is hide.  You have no way of combating such a monster.  This is helplessness.  When direct confrontation doesn’t work or isn't even impossible, I feel gamers become more creative in how to deal with problems.  Can you trick the monster?  Can you run from it?  Is there another route you can take?  The moment there is a slight possibility that a creature can be killed by you, you lose that sense of helplessness and begin to rely on skill.  If you feel vulnerable, you will become afraid.

The Brute Gatherer in Amnesia means you better run and hide

6. Harsh Death Qualities

This point goes directly with #7.  If you are being reckless, you should pay for it.  If there isn’t any sort of death penalty, I feel you lose an element of survival and the fear of death.  Horror should be a main theme of the game; if death means nothing then what are you so afraid of?  If you are trying your hardest to cling onto life because you don’t want to have to replay a section of the game or not lose an item you may have… you suddenly have a lot more motivation to try harder.  This also immerses you into the game world more — after all, death should be scary.

5. No Cooperative Play

I can see people disagreeing with me on this point, but I stand by it.  Survival horror games should NOT have cooperative aspects.  It should be all about your personal experience in whatever nightmare you are in.   Besides trolls trying to ruin your experience, if there are two or more of you, then you will miss scares in the game.  The other player could trigger an event, see a flash of something both were supposed to see, complete puzzles before you even catch up, etc.  Most importantly, if there are two or more of you, you aren’t alone.  I know that’s a real ‘duh’ sort of statement, but there is so much more comfort in knowing there is someone friendly in the nightmare with you.  Comfort should be a rare commodity. 

Resident Evil 5 coop play

8. Memorable Monsters / Events / AI

I know this looks like a weighted point, but all three points tie into one another.  If I say names like Alma, Pyramid Head, or the Gatherers — most likely you are able to place what horror game they are linked too.  These are memorable characters because at one point or another they made you jump out of your seat or curse their names as you run for your life.  We have a tendency to remember the things that make us piss ourselves.  It’s not just the creature though — it is the event that occurs.  When you’re hiding in a closest, hearing the monster tear apart the room searching for you… you remember that.  If the AI of a monster isn’t good, it will take away from the total experience.  If the thing stalking you gets lost easily, runs into walls, or can’t figure out how to enter a doorway, the illusion will be lost.

7. No Free Save / Free Load Function

This may totally be my hardcore opinion, but when survival horror games allow you to save your game whenever you want and as often as you want, there is something lost.  It’s not just challenge; it is a feeling of safety. If you charge into a room knowing you can just reload your game outside of that room, the effect is gone.  I want punishments for players going through the game fast and loose.  In the original Resident Evil, you needed ink ribbons to save your game at certain locations.  If you didn’t have the item on you or if you saved too often, you were shit out of luck.  I like that feeling.  Even saving your game should be scarce and something you may want to think twice about.  It makes for a more ‘survival’ type of atmosphere.

Alma from F.E.A.R.

There are certain themes and aspects of survival horror games I’ve been noticing over the last few years, mostly negative.  I would like nothing more to play the ultimately terrifying, relentless, and unforgiving game of all time — sort of like a survival horror Dark Souls.  In this article, I list the top 10 qualities game developers shouldn’t forget when making a survival horror game.  This list also functions as what would make a perfect survival horror game in my own personal opinion.   

10. No Universal Ammo

If a horror survival game even has ammo, make it scarce.  If the monsters are something that can be easily fought, no matter how hideous they look, you are losing an essential fear element of the game.  Those four shotgun shells you found should be held onto tightly, like a loved one for that exact time you need them.  With that said, the idea of universal ammo in this sort of setting is insulting.  If you have multiple guns and you are trying to survive, making ammo universal takes the whole ‘stockpile’ aspect of the game away.  Most likely you will use the best gun you have for almost every situation.  When it comes to ammo, it should be about what you have and not about convenience.

9. Variety in Gameplay

It seems that a lot of survival horror games have a niche in their ‘fear’ mechanic, and they don’t really move on from that one thing.  So the first few times you experience it your heart may beat out of control, but towards the end of the game it has lost its allure; there are only so many creepy hallucinations you can witness or times you can hide in a closet before you become immune to it.  What I’m saying here is keep a variety in gameplay — keep the player guessing.  Horror games shouldn’t fall into a niche in their fear techniques.  As soon as a player adapts, the scare element will drop dramatically.

Dead Space 3 takes up universal ammo