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Survival Horror: Deconstructing the Genre

Dead Space 3There's something that bugs me about games like The Evil Within, Dead Space, and Resident Evil 4 and how they're considered Survival Horror, and I think I finally figured out what it is.

Ammo is limited. Health can be fragile and pick-ups a bit rare. The games are absolutely bloated with horror imagery, but is that all it takes to be Survival Horror? I guess, as most people know the genre, yes, it does. But I don't think it should be that way.

Let's look at the name of the genre again: Survival Horror. There's a very important word there: Survival, or Survive. The definition of Survive is: continue to live or exist, especially in spite of danger or hardship.

Now, I'm sure, at this point people are following, but wondering what the issue is. My issue is this: nowhere in the definition of survive is there an implication of victory, or even overcoming the obstacle. All it implies, is the act of getting out alive, and that's something I think video game directors are forgetting.

When I'm playing The Evil Within, the only way to proceed most of the time is to kill everyone in the surrounding area. There are very few moments in the game where you can decide to just run, and the game even seems to tell the player that by making the run meter very short. Players are usually forced to handle the issue head-on, or with a bit of craftiness, but never to out right avoid it. The limited resources really only act as a difficulty modifier as opposed to a behavioral modifier. It changes the mind-set a player has when confronting a problem in the game.

When playing a game like Alien: Isolation, the game is all about avoiding the situation. The player is constantly ducking, hiding, and trying to get away from the opposition, and to just reach the end, despite their condition. Most of the time the player ends up dying when having to deal with the opposition head-on. The player is clearly unable to handle the situations, and that's not due to just a limited amount of ammo, and lack of health upgrades, it's due to the fact the character the player is using is unfit to. Amanda is unwieldy with a gun, and risks attracting the invincible Alien whenever she does fire it. However, the gun, and even beating an enemy over the head with a wrench are still valid options, just extremely risky. The game's difficulty comes from the behavior of the player, and not due to their skill with a gun.

Put simply: The Evil Within teaches the player they need to have a certain skill level with their weapons, and participate in a certain amount of direct combat to win. Alien: Isolation teaches the player they simply need to get to their goal to win. Any obstacle can be handled however the player believes will get them to that goal in one piece.

The Evil Within is about winning, Alien: Isolation is about surviving.

It's a difference that many people have overlooked when comparing older Survival Horror games to more recent ones. Even the older Resident Evil games allowed the player to simply run from the horrors often enough, rather than confront them. Silent Hill was the same way. Later Resident Evils, and Dead Space are much less that, and often force the player to fire their weapon.

I don't believe that the limited resources should be the line in the sand between action horror and survival horror. I believe that line should be drawn once the first instinct a player has when seeing an enemy is: Which gun should I kill this one with?


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