Late 90s and early 00s were the golden age of a very niche genre we called survival horror. This name, invented by the game that cemented the rules of the genre (or, technically, a subgenre of action adventure) – Resident Evil, got me excited every time I saw it pop up in a description of a game. But the more games tried do it, the more difference in “what survival horror is” appeared, until the genre as we knew it died. Today, every horror game seems to stick “survival horror” in it’s description, ignoring the fact that being a horror game and being a survival horror game is not the same thing. And yet, survival horror as we knew it still lives on, but not in the way you’d expect it to.
So, what made a survival horror game a “survival horror” game and made you want to enter it’s world? Well, the world itself for one. All classic titles of the genre had one big thing going for them – an interesting world of interconnected rooms and locations that begged to be explored and yet, was really dangerous if you do. It was a bit like Zelda or especially Metroid in how you got new ways to deal with obstacles and open previously inaccessible locations. But at the same time, the exploration was driven not just by desire to see more, but by desire to find more resources and safer shortcuts. You wanted to find a room with ammo and healing items, a room or a door that lets you skip a dangerous route, but searching for one was always risky. It was a perfect balance of risk/reward in most of the decisions you make – avoid enemies or fight them, heal now or later, explore more or take a known route? These things were most important, whenever the world was more open like in Silent Hill, or more closed like in Alone in the Dark, whenever it was about very open-ended progression like Resident Evil 1 or about a more linear cinematic feel like Resident Evil 2. Even if the game was more of an action jRPG, like Parasite Eve II or more of a beat ’em up like T.R.A.G. (a pretty decent title, by the way) – the world and how you planned routes through it was the key.
Now, why does it all sound so familiar and fresh in the memory if there hasn’t been a “proper” survival horror game in years, you might think? Well, because there’s a famous modern series that has the same important element at it’s base. From Software’s action RPG games, usually collected under the umbrella of “Souls”. Now, okay – obviously I’m not saying that Dark Souls is a survival horror game, because it isn’t. It’s an action RPG and a bloody good one at that. What I’m saying is that – Dark/Demon’s Souls (1-2, and very likely III will be too) and Bloodborne give you more true classic survival horror experience than a lot of modern games that attach the name “survival horror” to themselves. That doesn’t make those games bad, mind you, nor does this make Dark Souls something it isn’t. What I’m trying to say is that – at the base of the overall game design “Souls” games have something that survival horror had and later lost – the game world and how and why player explores it. And while survival horror also layered puzzles and horror focus on top of it, and “Souls” layer amazing action RPG fighting system and ambient storytelling on top of it, the world design is treated very similarly.
And as a fan of the genre it saddens me that not a lot of publishers and developers pick up on that, writing off the classic survival horror as a dead genre, thinking that it was about silly voice acting, clunky tank controls and (if they really want to go Silent Hill 2 way) abstract psychological themes. And now, in the age of modern technology that allows to create interconnected but not “GTA-style open world” good looking maps more easily, when customers show how much they love this approach to world building by making “Souls” series a success… Isn’t now just the right time to once again enter the world of survival horror?