Dead again, eaten by two velociraptors as the scariest sound in the video game world echoes through my mind. The click-click-click of that empty shotgun sends a chill down my spine, just before I realize that my only option now is to clench. I hope I give them indigestion. I love survival horror games, and with it being October, I like to go back and replay some of my favorite titles I have not played in a while, but I think that is enough Dino Crisis for now. Being human, I like to be scared; to worry, to fear the unknown, and I love the feeling it creates when playing games that can accomplish that type of play experience. I have found fewer games recently that can achieve that atmosphere, and while playing through some older ones, I have given a lot of thought as to why.
Much of the last few volleys of horror games have not done well due to differences in technology, and always seem to inspire a look back at one of my favorite games ever, Silent Hill. The fog in Silent Hill is something close to iconic. It was inserted out of necessity due to hardware and graphical limitations, destroying any sort of draw distance. As we know now, this decision helped make the horror classic what it is known for today. Recent HD versions of the series have actually been criticized for cleaning the game up too much, making enemies easier to see and taking away some of the grit and blur. The grainy filters and decayed looks are often imitated in later games, but are rarely used to the same extent.
Another limitation in this game is movement. “Tank controls” were barely responsive, hard to aim, and nearly impossible to turn or run in a straight line. I will never forget my first encounter with Resident Evil. Meeting the first zombie with only a knife, dying horribly as a lumbering oaf with no clue yet of how the game worked, I thought I was ready for anything. Dodging zombies is one thing, but heaven forbid the player needs to out-maneuver quicker enemies like the dogs or attempt to outrun Nemesis in Resident Evil 3. These controls added to a level of discomfort, knowing that there was no such thing as responsive actions without a level of preparedness and lightning reflexes. Compare this to Resident Evil 6—and to a lesser extent Silent Hill Downpour—where your main strategy integrates dodging enemies and turning on a dime around them just to save time and ammo. Knowing I am too quick for these enemies makes them immensely less scary, which is why RE:6 has so many sections where they lock players into a location to fight. I do not mind that method, but it should be used sparingly so that when it happens, true fear sets in.
Having the freedom to run creates a false sense of security, much like having a gun does. As I mentioned my experience with Dino Crisis earlier, players feel like they are ready to rain lightning and thunder down upon foes until the ammo is gone. Bullets should be sparse in a horror survival title, creating a strong desire for what is scarce, resulting in me changing my path and braving extra dangers, just so my heart skips a beat when I see that box of .9mm ammo that was hidden behind a library book for some reason. I appreciate a tight inventory system as well, being forced to decide which boxes of ammunition to carry around with me, and what I can safely leave in the chest. Resident Evil 4 turned it into a fun special puzzle game with the attaché case, but nothing compares to the amount of tears I shed dropping those acid rounds in RE:2, knowing how much they will mean later. I actually winced when I got to the moth boss on my last Silent Hill run, knowing I had limited rifle and shotgun ammo left, and that would make that fight so much more difficult. It is the same with health items; extremely valuable, but they take up space, and always seem to appear at the wrong times. I appreciate Dino Crisis for creating a bleeding mechanic, to the point where I need an extra item to stop that. I have arguments with myself over whether she can make it a few more hallways with any sense of resolution.
Bullets go by fast when it takes five or six shots to put down one enemy. I had forgotten how tough the dinosaurs and zombies in these games were, not only taking several shots to kill, but guaranteeing that they will get in at least one solid hit if close enough. The designers also made a good decision in establishing knockback damage to the zombies, meaning that they are still always gaining at a rate that will cause tension. There were not as many enemies on the screen at once in older games, so those monsters were made stronger and more threatening. Now, there are several portions of newer games where baddies are mowed down without thought, making other encounters seem less scary, especially when the character is walking around with an arsenal on their back. I should still fear the starting enemies; be just as afraid fighting them ten hours into the game as I do one hour in, knowing they could still kill me. That was one thing I always liked about Silent Hill over others. The player in those games takes control of an everyman, usually with no military or extreme level of combat training. Combine that with only using melee weapons for the beginning of the game and suddenly the thing going bump in the night is a lot more intimidating.
According to G.I. Joe, knowing is half the battle, and I believe that. Information given to the player in a horror setting is important, and therefore should be kept from them, or at least appropriately managed. Information is given in two ways mainly, either as world building materials through cut scenes and character interactions, or those neat little things the player finds to read scattered throughout the game, giving the player more information about the messed up world they are playing in.
Do not try to explain Silent Hill to me. It is scary as balls when I know nothing about why things are happening. Another method is the heads up display, which gives statistics, such as the number of bullets a player has, how many enemies are left to kill, and what their health level is at. Games without a HUD are better at making that information harder to access, having to stop and flip through screens or find a type of terminal to collect and organize one’s self. This also leaves the images on the screen with no clutter, just a pure image to scare people, and is one less thing to remind the player that what they are seeing is not real.
There is something to be said about those long hallways in older games where the player must backtrack through a previous area that may or may not have a new threat in it. The music is slow and meaningful in RE:2. It slows the pace down so the player will as well, getting anxious and letting an eerie feeling sink in. A lack of music is even worse sometimes, like the quiet parts in Silent Hill, and then the abrupt loud banging in the other world, knowing that they are out there somewhere. No one else on the screen, feeling isolated and alone; partially in fear of not making it back to the room with the typewriter in order to save, knowing how much time was just wasted if death comes. It is terrifying. No horror game should allow players to save whenever they want, or establish too many checkpoints, and though I am not a big fan of the ink ribbon mechanic there is something to be said for it. Please do not think that I am saying any of these games are perfect, but I do believe they had a lot more going for them than the more recent stuff I have played in the genre.
So much was known about the world of Resident Evil that they had to go and make new types of zombies to keep it interesting and mysterious, which may have worked briefly, but then the developers tried to make it more like an action shooter too. Maybe that worked for some people, but it was a huge disappointment to me. It was not the only series though: as much as I love Dead Space, it relied too heavily on jump scares as well as shock factor, and by the third game I thought we were doing a psychological buddy cop movie. Do not get me started about how Dino Crisis 3 went into outer space. There are a lot of problems with those titles, but to bring it all together, most of the issues I see come from trying to make use of the new technology and relying too heavily on just the visual presentation. Anyone who has played RE6 knows how much they put into making action based cut scenes that would make Michael Bay’s pants grow tighter. These games not only lacked real fear, but suffered from over-complicated stories and were stuck on bigger being better. All that is not needed; Silent Hill and Resident Evil 2 scare me just with their initial setups. After that first cut scene in RE:2 and then opening up with flames and zombies already on the screen, I knew that Raccoon City and I were both equally screwed.
Some people will read this and think that I have given up on modern horror games, and that could not be further from the truth. I keep trying new ones, and even found a couple that have done interesting things. Alien: Isolation has also just been released, and I have heard some things I like: an un-killable enemy, lack of weapons, a difficult and tense setting with some downtime to build anxiety? Sign me up! I also like what I have read about The Evil Within, and would be lying to you if I said I was not immensely excited for whatever P.T. becomes if it is anything like that demo. I am hoping for a revival of the types of horror I love, a return to basics that do not ignore new graphics and technology, but that do not let those determine the gameplay either. Give me atmosphere, give me tension, give me fear, and I will embrace and throw my money at the series that can do that properly. For now, I need to get back to fighting dinosaurs, but my suggestion to everyone else is to play something in the genre that truly frightens them and take a closer look at why it worked.