Will Survival Horror Die in 2014?
Written Monday, April 28, 2014 By Lee BradleyView author's profile
The next six months could make or break survival horror. Once huge, it’s a genre that's been neglected and abused in recent years, considered undesirable by publishers clamouring after the “Call of Duty generation”. Gamers want to feel badass not vulnerable, goes the logic. It's a belief that's left survival horror on life support.
In this climate, Dead Space, Dead Rising and Resident Evil have become more action-oriented, golden age stalwarts like Fatal Frame and Silent Hill have either disappeared or lost relevance, and a distinct lack of newcomers have arrived to fill the gaps - aside from some highly regarded indie PC and digital releases. Yet 2014 marks a turning point.
Before the end of the year, survival horror threatens to return to the mainstream in a big way, with two huge console releases; Alien: Isolation and The Evil Within. If these two games succeed, we may see a revival of the once great genre. If they fail, it could ensure that triple-A survival horror is forced back into the shadows.
Alien: Isolation carries high expectations. The demo shown to press was utterly terrifying - featuring an unarmed protagonist creeping around a atmospheric space station, hunted by a single xenomoprh. There were no guns whatsoever. Even running was frequently punished by death. It encapsulated everything great about survival horror.
Thankfully, The Creative Assembly is also making the right noises about Alien: Isolation’s combat sections, relieving fears that they may descend into Colonial Marines-style bombast. "At no point are we giving you huge plasma rifles and M56 smart guns,” says Lead Game Designer Gary Napper. “It's all about that survival horror scrounging.”
It would be more fitting if The Evil Within ushered in a revival, considering the game’s creator. Shinji Mikami’s Resident Evil spearheaded the genre all the way back in 1996 and the legendary figure is considered the father of survival horror. So who better to orchestrate its resurrection?
The signs are good and early previews have been predominantly positive. Touted as a “return to pure survival horror”, The Evil Within promises limited resources and plentiful scares, the cornerstones of the genre. Even the name of the game skirts as close as possible to Resident Evil without rousing the ire of Capcom’s lawyers.
Ironically, it was Shinji Mikami that initiated survival horror’s move towards action, following the poor sales of 2002’s Resident Evil remake for GameCube. “Because of the reaction to the Resident Evil remake, I decided to work more action into Resident Evil 4” says Mikami. “Resident Evil 4 would have been a more scary, horror-focused game if the remake had sold well.”
Resident Evil 4 is a classic, the high point in the series. But it set the genre on a path that lead survival horror to virtual extinction on console, all because of sales. And that’s the key point. Survival horror games have diminished in recent years because publishers have lost faith in their ability to sell.
In a blog post last year, former Epic Games designer Cliff Bleszinski summed up the prevailing mood. "Generally speaking, the scarier a game is the less empowered a player feels,” he said. “Controls are often clunky on purpose, and the pacing is quite different from an action movie. In the $60 disc-based market horror doesn't fly - it's the ultimate 'campaign rental' that's played for two days and traded in.”
Bleszinski suggested that survival horror will only rise again when digital releases take over fully. It's an opinion that's backed up by the success of downloadable titles like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Outlast, State of Decay, Day Z - and looks to continue with SOMA and Grave. But to regain the position survival horror once held, it needs to be on discs in shops and at the top of the charts.
The Evil Within and Alien: Isolation don’t just have to be good then, they have to sell. If these two great horror hopes can shift enough copies, then publishers will be falling over themselves to repeat the trick. And then the revival can truly begin. But if they fail to sell it could be the final nail in the coffin of triple-A survival horror, the death of a genre.
Thankfully, there’s one rather large recent precedent that proves such success is possible, with over 6 million sales and 200 game of the year awards to its name. It’s called The Last of Us. Naughty Dog’s runaway hit isn’t quite a traditional old-school survival horror experience, but with resource scavenging and some truly terrifying sequences, it’s a brilliant modern interpretation.
So the stage is set. Exciting games are on the way, the talent’s in place and there’s proof that the genre’s still popular enough to shift big numbers. Digital-only survival horror is secure, but the genre’s future at triple-A production levels hangs in the balance. Let’s hope 2014 sees survival horror rise from its grave, because the alternative is truly terrifying.