Surviving Horror: Resident Evil 7, Fear, and the Beyond

The Anatomy of Survival Horror

NOW THAT the psyche of the horror genre has explained how players tend to relive every single terrifying moment while staring at the face of digital death, it may be time to unveil the curtain behind the machinations of the survival horror video game scene.

It is imperative to understand that while films and other horror fiction rely on “minimal counter-intuition,” immersion, eerie environments, stunning soundtracks, and hormonal magic, survival horror relies on a different level of “entertainment.”

Ronnie of The Game Theorists explained on its feature on survival horror that the term “survival horror” in itself is a good combination of both the mechanism and the feelings the games wanted to convey, unlike other game genres. Survival horror, in itself, will give players an idea on what to expect: they have to survive through the experience – and the magical question beneath the bloodied curtain, is what experience?

When Ronnie compared survival horror game Limbo to Super Mario Bros. Wii, while they are both essentially platformers, they are radically different with the feelings they wanted to convey.  Limbo had a rather dark premise while Super Mario Bros. Wii was yet another version of Sega mascot Mario’s adventures with his brother, Luigi. The latter is, at all levels, not as dark as the former.

“They’re both platformers, but the word ‘platformer’ doesn’t necessarily clue me in on the feelings each game will evoke, like the terms romantic comedy or chick flick do,” he explained.

 Eerily Perfect Presentation

“When you hear the term survival horror, you get a good idea what the mechanics are going to be like and the frame of mind the game will likely put you in,” Ronnie said. “The mechanics as well as the visuals and sounds will also put you in that frame of mind collectively.”

Unlike other genres such as Fantasy, Action and Adventure that could be specified and combined together with one another, Survival Horror is too specific a genre that it speaks lengths away from Mystery (that could range from murder mysteries) and its other related game classifications.

For example, while both the Castlevania and Megaman series are both classified as platformers, they convey different “feelings”. Castlevania is not only a medieval-fantasy platformer, it also has a gothic punk-slash-Victorian motif to match its dark storyline. Megaman, on the other hand, is a science fiction-platformer and has a lighter story (ironically mostly set in a post-apocalyptic world).

Ronnie explained that while the above examples could be classified with a more personal taste, games under survival horror need not be classified further. The term itself is more than enough to explain what players should expect it to be about.

“The term survival horror not only describes the mechanics of the game, but also the feelings the game will evoke when you play it. And the mechanics actually help to evoke that feeling,” he said. “Survival horror games are meant to unsettle the player – they can do this with bleak, foreboding imagery, creepy sounds, traditional jump scares and the like. However they can achieve this with the raw mechanics of the game as well.”

Put it simply, because survival horror is a genre for a video game, not only does it have to scare the player, it has to conform with the “rules” of video games. Because video games are interactive, survival horror not only has to be scary, but the player has to be scared while interacting with the game’s environment.

 In Design

Understanding the difference between entertainment through literature, film and gaming meant developers had to take leaps to send the scares spiraling not just through the screen, but to make the players transport themselves inside the setting – like the aim of many video games, to make the player feel as if he is experiencing the story himself.

“When you play a survival horror game, you don’t expect to just breeze right through it. You expect merely to survive until the end,” Ronnie explained.

And true to its category, survival horror games feature quite a wide range of features that not only challenge players, but it forces players to be engulfed in their personal nightmares.

“You’re likely have to ration your ammo and health items and carefully manage your inventory,” he added. “This just adds to the tension when you’re worrying about whether or not you should use this green herb right now or wait to use it later.”

Unlike in other videogame genres where winning with A’s in high scores, in item gathering, and in maybe even beating bosses in the harshest of difficulties, survival horror pins players in a situation where they just have to survive to win, because survival is more than enough to win the game. Thing is, the environment makes survival close to improbable, and it will take the players their wits and conquering through their fears to dominate and finish the game.  

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Personal Horror

“The players are actively involved in the horror happening on the screen,” Ronnie explained. “It’s not the hero of the film deciding whether or not to use their last bullet to defeat this demon, it’s you.”

“As opposed to sitting on the couch telling the actors on-screen not to go in there, you as a player have to make these choices – choices that have lasting consequences on your chances of survival,” he added. “These choices only serve to add to the tension of the situation.”

Ronnie said that this is also the reason why monsters tend to startle players when they jump from around corners, and these startling events have lasting effects on every game’s evaluation.

“It’s not just scary because it startles you,” he said. “It’s scary because you, as a player, also have to deal with it.”

The appeal of personal horror, and what makes games more ultimately scarier, is how survival horror (or just horror in general) whips out something ordinary and twists it into the extraordinary. Called the uncanny, this is perhaps what makes pieces of thriller and horror all the more memorable for even the most toughened of players.

Gaijin Goombah explained in an episode on horror (inspired by a series of Extra Credits specials on horror and the uncanny) that a fundamental aspect of making horror games memorable is making the psychological appeal stick after the game – and not a lot of games have that kind of appeal. Citing examples, he said Amnesia was a game that was indeed startling, but did not have that kind of psychological after-stay. As an adult, he finds himself unfazed with conventional American horror that has jump scares, blood and gore. They were upsetting, they were disgusting, but they were not objects of nightmares.

The key, Gaijin Goombah said, lies in the children.

He said Five Nights at Freddy’s will be the one game he will never play because it was able to condense years’ worth of childhood nightmares into two hours of gameplay. What he did not find in Amnesia, he found in Five Nights – he found what scared him the most as a child. A game was able to tear through his psyche and dug up nightmares from his past: animatronics, mascots, clowns, the dark, and what lies in it.

And perhaps with these things in mind – from the basics of fear, to its evolution and the fundamentals of survival horror – where does survival horror go from here? Will Resident Evil 7 and upcoming horror titles evolve along with video gaming’s venture into virtual and augmented reality?

This is something we have to learn and see for ourselves when these games hit shelves (and online stores) in a few months’ time.

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Rhenn Taguiam
Rhenn Taguiam
Rhenn Taguiam is a frustrated journalist with a knack for comic books and video games. He likes pizza and pasta, and has an uncontrollable urge to gush over anything Super Sentai, Star Trek or X-Men. He is currently on his way to get his Master's Degree - unless he creates his own video game or graphic novel first.
Rhenn Taguiam

Rhenn Taguiam

Rhenn Taguiam is a frustrated journalist with a knack for comic books and video games. He likes pizza and pasta, and has an uncontrollable urge to gush over anything Super Sentai, Star Trek or X-Men. He is currently on his way to get his Master's Degree - unless he creates his own video game or graphic novel first.

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