In the world of video games, there were two genres I once held close to my heart. One of them is the JRPG. The other is used to describe what has become an extremely rare breed of game, a label that Resident Evil took for itself, was perfected in Silent Hill and has since experienced what seems an incredibly brief resurgence in The Last of Us: survival horror.
It was a term coined by Capcom in a marketing strategy to advertise their new game Resident Evil as a unique horror experience back in 1996, but has since been acknowledged to have existed long before that with games such as Sweet Home (1989) and Alone in the Dark (1992) displaying many of the properties we associate with the ‘hybrid’ genre.
These properties include having to face fear-inducing enemies with a distinct lack of ammo, outnumbered at a ratio of 10-1 with the best option usually being to run and hide rather than stand and fight; atmospheric camera angles and lighting effects that hide the next blood-splattered mutation from view; instrumental music that is more of a character than the characters themselves. These were all once firm staples of a genre that provided a fresh change from army men and annual football updates.
For all its plaudits, though, Resident Evil cannot be seen as the game that fully nailed the genre to a tee. Only Silent Hill and its first sequel can truly claim such a thing. In this gloriously twisted series (that I wouldn’t immediately recommend to one who’s unable to appreciate or handle it), survival did not so much rely on your level of ammo or how sharp an eye you had. It relied partly on how fast you could run. How quick your reactions were.
In a sense, believing you had sharper eyesight would only increase your fear; there were times in this series when something weird was placed in a certain part of the game not because it had any real purpose, but to remind you that you weren’t really in control. That thing you ‘saw’ out of the corner of your eye was actually nothing at all; but you were certainly goaded into thinking it was. It worked similar effects on your psyche in its masterful use of sounds that at times hinted at something off-screen and at other times hinted at nothing; either way you quickly learned not to trust it.
Then developers began realising that the gun-toting army men and quick-fire sport simulations were the ones buying the majority of the groceries. Silent Hill 2 may be forever memorable, but unlike the action-fuelled highlights presented by the Call of Duty series, releasing it year on year wouldn’t be a sound marketing strategy. Survival horror became the artist that wouldn’t be fully appreciated in its own time, failing to prove that its profession could create a regular income that is seen as vital in this forward-thinking industry.
Sure, there have been imitators. Imitators who try to ‘take the best bits’ of survival horror and add a few action elements in to compete with the gaming heavyweights. The Resident Evil series had become an imitator of itself by the time we arrived at the sixth instalment, released last year, now bearing the label ‘dramatic horror’ having dropped all pretence of the ‘survival’ element. It seemed to be a final sad admittance by the industry that there’s no point in survival horror even trying to survive any more: it’s already dead.
Until June of this year, that was. Coming from the least likely of sources in Naughty Dog (original developers of Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter), The Last of Us finally reminded us what survival horror at its finest looks like. Masses of gamers weren’t prepared for what hit them; masses of journalists proclaimed it the best game of this generation. Even film magazine Empire got involved, saying “The Last of Us is not just the finest game that Naughty Dog has yet crafted… it may also prove to be gaming’s Citizen Kane moment, a masterpiece that will be looked back upon for decades.” (review)
Yet the resounding success that The Last of Us has been will not, I think, bring back a series of games that do justice to this once flourishing, creative genre. There is always an exception that proves the rule; one could say that the very success of Naughty Dog’s newest game is due in part to a lack of current competition in its genre. It does not have a modern Silent Hill at its peak to match up against.
I am not claiming this is a bad thing either. Survival horror arguably belongs exactly where it is; the exception to the norm in a saturated industry. It is a genre that feels more comfortable in the shadows, faking death until it’s ready to rear its head for another classic run. I personally would prefer it to stay that way, or cynics like me may one day find ourselves short of things to reminisce about.