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Like most game genres, survival horror is defined by the mechanics in the game. Having some zombies roaming around is not enough to make a horror game a survival horror game, so what does it take? To understand, we need a little bit of background.

The first game to be marketed as “Survival Horror” was 1996’s Resident Evil, a game that is universally considered a classic, but the roots of survival horror were sewn back in 1989’s Sweet Home, a horror RPG on the Famicom, and ever further back in games such as the1982’s 3D Monster Maze, originally for the Sinclair ZX81, and Haunted House, originally for the Atari 2600, and under a microscope, the similarities can be seen. 

3D Monster Maze has you getting chased by the only other character in the game, a sweet looking T.Rex, with the aim of the game to get to the exit of a randomly generated maze without getting eaten. In Haunted House, you must navigate through the titular haunted house, with the ability to only carry one of either a key, a scepter, or the urn, which you must escape the house with to win the game, all while avoiding a bat, a tarantula, and the ghost of Mr Graves, the owner of the house.

Sweet Home has you, and your friends, navigating a ghost filled mansion in RPG style, with random encounters and permadeath. In this sense, Sweet Home is a little bit of an outlier, but is included in the list for its heavy influence on Resident Evil. Moving over to Resident Evil you can see the influences that come from Sweet Home: the game is set in a mansion as well, with spooky scaries, and you and your friends need to escape before you get killed.

Besides the obvious horror overtones of all these games, the main features are hidden just below the surface, and these are the crux of the genre. Survival horror is not just the sum of its parts, it is about more. Survival horror is about the puzzles, the inventory management, and the combat, or the lack thereof. 

Diving a bit deeper into Resident Evil, a pattern of sparseness occurs, in that there is very little action. The same can be said for most survival horror games around that time, whether it be Silent Hill, or Alone in the Dark—these games use the action as a scare tactic. It is always there, and you know it will always be there, but because the encounters are few and far between, it builds suspense, and ultimately, makes you more scared. To me, this is the crux of the entire survival horror genre, but it is not its only defining feature.

When you aren’t in combat, the gameplay is usually split between solving puzzles, finding items to solve those puzzles, and figuring out the best combination of items to carry around in your limited inventory space so that you can not only solve whatever crazy puzzles the game can throw at you—and I am looking specifically at you Resident Evil—but also being able to carry around the best weapons to survive, and which have enough ammunition to keep on keeping on.  

It is a simple formula that games during the PS1 era did exceedingly well, but then came along the next generation of consoles, and with it a new way to play horror games. Using Resident Evil as an example again, you can look at Resident Evil 4 for how the landscape shifted. Gone were the tank controls of old, which were mostly there due to the limitations of the previous generation of controllers, using digital controls and not analogue, and in came a fluid third person style of control and combat. But with this change comes the question: when do you stop calling a game survival horror?

In this particular case, I cannot call Resident Evil 4 a survival horror game. The combat is such a main part of the genre itself that when you edit that, the game ceases to be survival horror, and moves more into an action horror type of genre. But games, just like other forms of media, are always going to be compared not only to their peers, but to the their predecessors as well. Herein lies my problem with the ever shifting genre of series like Resident Evil.

To me, its like this: Resident Evil 6 was not a bad game, at least it wouldn’t have been if it was titled something else. If Resident Evil 6 was called Zombie Shooter 2014, I doubt it would have got as lambasted as much as it was, but when you attach a name the likes of Resident Evil to a title, you best leave it at least in the same genre, and not transform it into something it certainly isn’t. But this has been happening ever since Resident Evil 4. The game series, and the genre, has been changing into something further and further away from its roots, and as a fan of the originals, it is a little bit disheartening. 

What do you think? Is the game genre now indistinguishable from its roots? Have I missed recent games that keep it alive? Let me know in the comments below, as I most certainly need more survival horror in my life.

Jason Ashman

Staff Writer

Gamer, Programmer, TechHead, Australian. If I'm not here, I am probably knee deep in the dead somewhere, or the dropbears got me.

  • eltonBorges

    You focused on Resident Evil, which is understandable, but, I think it leaves so much out of the question. Even Clock Tower came first.
    For the genre, I think it’s always about confort. You must want to continue, but can’t really be comfortable playing it, you must be tense. The whole world must look menacing, dangerous, almost all the time. So, yeah, you must feel that every action you do can have dire consequences ahead. You can’t receive too much damage, can’t use too much bullets, can’t lose too much time, and so on.
    A good survival horror is the inverse of most games, since it will show you a world were you are just lucky to be alive and must weight every step you take if you want to stay that way.
    Anyway, it’s always good to discuss genres, nice work.

  • Jason Ashman

    That is a game I didn’t even play, which I think that’s where it comes from. And the focus on Resident Evil was more from a point of the first game marketed as a survival horror.

    After looking it up a little, Clock Tower certainly seems to fit the bill, so I will definitely have to get my hands on it.

    Thanks for the comment!

  • Galbador

    I have to correct you. Alone in the Dark, the spark that lead to Resident Evil, came out earlier than Clocktower (1992).

  • Galbador

    I think the problem with Resident Evil was the name itself; Resident Evil, because the first one was in a mansion… or a resident. But, the original name was Biohazard, which gives you a completely different feeling. I believe that if Resident Evil would have been called Biohazard in the rest of the world, people would see the game with different eyes. This is the same problem I have with The Evil within. Psycho Break sounds much better for me and explains much better what happens. Those pseudo evil names just down work with me, which is why I tend to use the original names, that came from Japan.

    But to the subject. Biohazard was a pretty good survival horror in my eyes, because it gave you all of your possibilities that you would have in a realistic situation; fight or flight. Of course, the protagonists were not prepared for the danger they would meet, so the situation was dangling between “hording bullets for later fights” and “ruinning around with just a knife”. Biohazard didn’t changed much for me from the original game. The only thing that was different, was that you could buy ammunitions, weapons and upgrade them as like fight with your knife as a secondary weapon. Still, I often found myself running around and searching in panic for bullets, while the mad villagers were on my trail.

    Then came Amnesia and changed the whole concept; you were a mere coward, who wouldn’t dare to fight and run away from all danger. Now, as I said before, I ran a lot in Biohazard as like in Psycho Break to save my butt from the enemies, but it was the rule breaker that I wasn’t able to defend myself. That was unrealistic for me and a deal breaker to buy the game.

    After Amnesia came Outlast and I was really looking toward this game, because it looks promising. But then, the same rule breaker appeared with the following sentence “You are not a fighter”. You know, you don’t have to be a fighter to defend yourself, but again, running and hiding was the soul idea of this game, which changed my mind to buy this one as well, especially when you came to a point in the game, where you would have been able to arm yourself with a blade or knife, but instead took the camcorder and ran off.

    To mean, a real survival horror means to face the horror and to act in any possible way of staying alive, which means, to fight back if possible. Taking this away, just not scary, but a handycap, that makes the game just frustrating. It would be the same as if you were not able to grab a knife or an object when someone would attack you. It is a given thing in life to search for a possibility to overcome a problem or a hazard, but to take this away because with the intention in the mind, that this could make things scary, is wrong. As I said, it only makes things frustrating and boring when you run like a headless chicken.

  • Zepherdog

    You are probably aware of this already but the reason Biohazard is not called that in the west is because the band Biohazard holds copyright for the name and the developers couldn’t use it, so they had to resort to something else entirely. As for Psycho Break, well, I don’t know; they probably banked on it being a sort of spiritual sequel/competitor to Resident Evil so they called it something alike.

    Other than that, I do agree that being able to stand up and fight is a big deal when it comes to what makes good survival horror games; just because a person doesn’t know how to fight doesn’t mean they can’t, or shouldn’t, after all adversity brings all sorts of hidden strength out of people, metaphorically speaking. That fits both thematically and as a game play mechanic in a lot of older survival horror games.

  • Galbador

    Yes, I was aware of the problems with the name for Resident Evil, which is kind of sad if you asking me.