Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Three Different Kinds Of Horror Games

As most of you who frequent this blog, or the podcast, or my social media feeds in general will know, I'm a horror junkie. I love horror games, movies, books, short stories, comics, anything horror I can get my hands on. It's a bit strange, because I'm a night owl, and it's ridiculously easy for a horror concept to get inside my head and freak me out when I'm alone at night. But for some reason I can't get enough of the spooky stuff. Christmas is way overblown as the most wonderful time of the year. Halloween's where it's at, in my extremely arrogant opinion.

I've been playing horror games since Resident Evil 2, and in the time since that game and the present day I've noticed a very disturbing trend in horror games. There are a ridiculous amount of games masquerading as "survival horror" that, quite frankly, aren't. So, in an effort to set the record firmly crooked about a couple of things I view as important, I'm going to explain the three different types of horror games.

I should mention that survival horror is my jam, and my favorite of the three, so if I sound disparaging of the other two subgenres it's not because I hate them.

It's just because I view them as inherently inferior.

Now that I've got my survival horror supremacy worked out of my system, at least a little bit, on with the show here.

Horror, at least with regards to video games, falls on a spectrum. This spectrum covers the vast majority of horror games, and while the subgenres do mix and blend occasionally there is a definitive place along this spectrum that most horror games will fall on. On the one side you have action horror, on the other you have psychological horror, and resting comfortably in the middle like a filthy centrist is survival horror. So what separates these three classes of horror game, and why do so many of the other two get paraded around as survival horror when they're self-evidently not?

We'll start out with action horror first. This subgenre is typified by hordes of enemies that you can't skirt, as well as plenty of weapons and ammunition to take them down with. You might get several different kinds of pistols and shotguns, a couple of long rifles, maybe even a grenade or rocket launcher for the really big bads. They also tend to take place in the day. In these games you never really have to worry about running out of ammunition or healing items (unless you're playing on harder difficulties), and in most cases your character is the "ultimate badass" type. Resident Evil 5 is a perfect example of an action horror game. Chris Redfield is a strong, heroic special forces agent with more weapons than you can shake a stick at, and most of the areas with hordes of enemies require the enemies to be defeated or a timer to count down before you can go anywhere. Quick time events are another staple of this subgenre, although they weren't before 2005. Thanks for that, RE4.

Yes, I'm still salty about qte's. 

On the other side of the spectrum is psychological horror. These games are typically dark, brooding, and have more of a haunted house feel to them. You're usually confined to a single structure, such as an insane asylum, a castle, or a mine turned research facility. Your protagonist is usually some kind of completely worthless dandy or fop with no ability to fight back whatsoever. You are typically given no weapons, and if you are given weapons they are almost worthless themselves so far as self defense goes. You are not supposed to fight, you're supposed to sneak around and avoid the enemy, running and hiding when you're spotted. Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Outlast are perfect examples of this type of game. 

Finally, in the middle, you have survival horror. In a survival horror game your character can be a member of a special forces team, but doesn't have to be, as everymen are staples of this subgenre. You have effective weapons, but limited ammunition and healing items, therefore it's often more judicious to flee from a fight rather than taking down minor enemies. These games can be set in haunted houses, small towns, research facilities, the list goes on. Good examples of this are Dino Crisis, the first 3 Resident Evil games, and the first 3 Silent Hill games. 

So why the confusion? Partly I think because very few people have taken the time to sperg out this hard and be this pedantic about it. A good couple rules of thumb I use are as follows:

1. If you can fight back, it isn't psychological horror.
2. If fighting back is too easy, it's action horror.
3. If you can fight back but have to decide whether it's a good idea or not, it's survival horror.

Of course these aren't hard and fast rules. Some games fall through the cracks in between these subgenres. The Telltale Walking Dead game is most certainly horror, but it's a point and click adventure game. You can fight back, but only when the game lets you. I'm not sure where that would fall on this scale, but I think it's safe to say that TWD is an outlier in the genre. Likewise, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver is definitely a horror game, but it also falls somewhere between survival and action horror. Horror is a complicated genre, and this isn't meant to be exhaustive or definitive. I'm merely laying out the three big ones.

So why do action horror games and psychological horror games get marketed as survival horror games all the time? Frankly, and let's not be coy here, survival horror is a money printing machine. Games that bill themselves as survival horror sell ridiculous amounts of copies, and yet nobody has truly been able to capture the feeling of playing the original Silent Hill, or Resident Evil, or Dino Crisis. 

Not without actually re-releasing graphically updated versions of those games themselves, of course. 

But Amnesia: The Dark Descent, let's just look at that. According to this article in Yahoo Finance, this game has sold over 1 million copies based on the idea that it's survival horror when it isn't. And yet, if you check the game's steam page, that's one of the top rated user-generated tags for the game. I remember when this game came out. It was billed as survival horror, but there is a clear and present difference between what this game is and what survival horror meant during the heyday of the genre.

Now of course the game is good. I have a love-hate relationship with it, as I do all psychological horror games, but I can admit when it does what it's supposed to do and does it well. Amnesia is a well-crafted experience, even if it isn't specifically to my own tastes as a horror gamer. So this game no doubt sold on its own merits as well. Plenty of people, myself included, saw YouTube let's players get ahold of this game and go to town, thought it looked fun, and picked it up ourselves. But there is the undeniable draw that the classification of "survival horror" gives to a game. 

If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say the confusion is deliberate. Survival horror is a hard genre to make well. It's far easier to overpower your protagonist with ridiculous amounts of weapons and ammo, or take away their ability to fight entirely and railroad the player through a haunted house. Crafting a balanced horror experience where the player will have to backtrack, solve puzzles, run around monsters, and fight their way through enemies and bosses alike is far more difficult. So most devs nowadays just make it action or psychological horror, slap the survival horror logo on it, and call it a day. It's understandable, but this watering down of the genre doesn't do anybody any favors in the long run. 

While action and psychological horror are fun subgenres, it looks like we'll have to deal with them masquerading as survival horror for the foreseeable future. Until someone gets off their ass and designs another proper survival horror game, we'll have to content ourselves with what's currently being released, or with revving up our old consoles so that we can get an actual survival horror experience. And in the interest of facilitating this, I'm going to be working on a post to have out by Halloween detailing precisely what makes a good survival horror game. I've been meaning to write this for a couple years now, and there's no time like the present to get this out of my system. So expect that in the next few days.

In the meantime, if you haven't played Dino Crisis, the original Resident Evil games, or the original Silent Hill games, and you want to understand how they're different in tone and gameplay from what's marketed as survival horror today, I'd suggest you look up an emulator or try to find the disk copies if you've still got a PS2. They'll be well worth your money, I can promise you.

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