If there was one thing that this year’s E3 made abundantly clear to me it was that if you’re looking for big action set pieces and loud fire fights with characters of dubious moral standing then all of the big names have you covered. If you happen to want something else then you’ll have to dig a bit deeper. Games like Uncharted have changed the way the industry works. The new Star Wars 1313 is going to be a cinematic action game whereas Tomb Raider, which inspired Naughty Dog’s seminal franchise, is now copying the imitation. The rise of the action genre is here and nowhere is it more noticeable than within the horror genre.
Horror has changed. This is because of two core ideals. The first is quite frankly, people are harder to scare these days. Cinema has played a role in exposing audiences to new depravities and series like Saw have proved that gore is no longer shocking. With the current generation consoles developers are able to create highly detailed worlds meaning they don’t need to use old tricks like fog effects to hide ugly textures. They want to build a world and they want to show it to you, not hide it away for you to stumble through. The second reason for this genre revolution? Action sells, horror not so much. For years companies have looked at the successes of Call of Duty and Uncharted. They’ve said to themselves, how can we do the same with our big names? The answer to that question was clear to see at E3.
Capcom had already said before the show that they were aiming to bring more action to the Resident Evil series and move away from its horror roots. While Resident Evil 6 might very well be a good game, it isn’t a survival horror game anymore. Gone are the tank controls, a long established staple of the series. Now players can run and gun through hordes of zombies without having to worry about the scarcity of ammo or where the next save point will be. Operation Raccoon City was obviously a primer to what Capcom are doing. What’s more is the game will also take place from number of perspectives, switching from character to character. While this would be a real immersion breaker in a survival horror game, it serves its purpose here to lend the project a much larger scope.
Immersion and atmosphere is what makes or breaks any horror title. If the player themselves don’t actively feel frightened, projecting their own feelings into the game then the overall effect will be lessened. When was the last time a game, after turning it off, had you jumping at your own shadow for some time afterwards. Experiences like that are certainly rare. Amnesia: The Dark Descent is the most recent example of a well made, pure horror experience. The sense of isolation, helplessness and the fear of the unknown makes Amnesia one of the best horror experiences out there. Dead Space, the other big horror franchise at E3 has also left this horror trope behind. The original Dead Space was in my mind, superb. Stranded on the derelict mining ship in deep space, you knew no help was coming. The sense of isolation was immense, the ship being just as big a character as Isaac Clarke, our luckless engineer. It brought up old memories of horror favourites like Alien and the Thing. You were going to die on this ship and no one would know, or care because in space, no one can hear you scream. Fast forward to Dead Space 3 and things are very different. Isaac has much more of a gung ho attitude to affairs, gone are the quiet, claustrophobic corridors of the Ishimura. Now we have a big wide open environment with human enemies as well as necromorphs. Add to the mix some co-op, which destroys any sense of desolation and you have just another action game.
So have we said goodbye to big budget horror games? Maybe not. One of the prominent titles during the Wii U presentation was Ubisoft’s ZombieU. Whether it succeeds or not is too early to tell at this stage, but it does indicate that not all publishers have left survival horror to be torn apart by undead masses. The developer hopes to ramp up the tension by making the GamePad a core feature of the game. Having to punch in codes on a keypad means the player must take their eyes off their television screens to open a door, when they know there are three zombies heading straight for them. Death, so often an event full of nerve shattering finality in survival horror games, has an interesting aspect in ZombieU. If the player dies, they take control of a different survivor. They can then choose to locate their past body, which will have all of the equipment up until the point of death, or choose to find a new way around the environment, each containing their own sets of risks and rewards.
Prior to this article you may have read Ed Moorhouse’s excellent piece on The Last of Us here on WhatCulture. In it he brought up a point which I had failed to even consider when I started writing this. Is Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us indicative of where survival horror is going in the future? The familiar signs of the survival horror genre are present. It has two lone survivors who are constantly low on supplies in a desolate and dangerous world. The E3 demo showed that regenerative health is not a thing that happens in Joel and Ellie’s world. It even has mushroom zombies. Fear though doesn’t come from the threat of the zombies, at least not from what we’ve seen. The fear comes from knowing what desperate people are capable of in hopeless situations. Games have always played to a person’s fear of the unknown, but the Last of Us plays to our understanding of the horrible things people are capable of doing to one another. While the old guards of the horror genre are looking at action games to provide something new, action games themselves could be delving into the dark recesses of your mind to create something else entirely.
The filtering of survival horror doesn’t stop there. Dark Souls is an action RPG, but it plays to many key strengths of horror games. It makes you fear the unknown. Death is constant and swift. You find yourself cowering behind your constantly raised shield as you explore a new tunnel or round a particularly forbidding corner. Your souls, which are necessary for every little thing in the game, can be lost with just one wrong thrust of your blade or one mistimed parry.
I started this article stating that there was a revolution happening within the survival horror genre. That the old names were abandoning their roots in favour of bigger profits. On closer inspection though, there seems to be more than one change happening within the realms of big budget horror. The action genre, which at first can be seen as the source of the problem, could well be the one that saves it. Survival horror might just come out of this one stronger than it ever has been.
Viva la revolucion!