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The death and resurrection of survival horror

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While creepy films and literature have always been popular, horror video games have seen small, though dedicated fanbases. The name 'survival horror' was first coined by the Resident Evil series, released by Capcom in 1996, though the developer's NES title, Sweet Home, is often credited as being the first in the genre. Other earlier titles, such as Alone in the Dark and Clock Tower, were retroactively categorized as survival horror. The original Resident Evil took inspiration from these games, though mostly from Sweet Home, and offered a more refined horror experience. Enemies were powerful, ammo was limited (though not as scarce as many would claim), and players were given a finite number of saves. Most of these elements would come to define the genre, and would be carried over to franchises such as Parasite Eve and Silent Hill.

Of course, there were still innovations to be made regarding character movement (the genre is known for having clunky controls), interactive environments and improved camera and combat systems. Each of these characteristics continued to be worked upon, leading to better and more enriching experiences. However, even with the genre's increasing presence, the golden age of survival horror (let's say it was 1996-2004), came to an end as the industry changed and developers discovered that action-oriented titles were far more accessible for a large audience. One could also say that, in an industry that is always calling for something new and refreshing, one can only release so many games with exactly the same play-style before sales begin to dwindle. While the Resident Evil franchise had become increasingly more action heavy with each passing installment, it was the release of 2005's Resident Evil 4 that brought about the most drastic change.

While the original Resident Evil helped define survival horror, the fourth numbered installment did wonders for the third-person-shooter and action genres. This title was dramatically different from its predecessors, though it managed to retain many of its horror elements. Balancing between horror and action would be something that later games, such as Dead Space, would try to emulate and it's easy to see why. Resident Evil 4 was a massive success, selling over seven million copies across all platforms, making it the best-selling survival horror title of all time.

Unfortunately, the Resident Evil series has continued to veer towards becoming a straight action-shooter. While we wouldn't say its latest releases have been 'bad', they're a far cry from the series' roots. Several franchises, such as Parasite Eve and Clock Tower, have ended completely, while Alone in the Dark met it's fate with a failed reboot. It's also apparent that Konami can't decide what they're doing with Silent Hill, having passed it around to several developers, none of which have had much success. For many horror fans who grew up in the 90's, it was apparent that survival horror was a dying genre. Luckily, the same changing industry that had led to the supposed “death” of the horror game, had brought about its resurrection.

The horror genre had never faded out completely, but it wasn't until the release of Frictional Games' Amnesia: The Dark Descent that the genre returned in full swing. Amnesia and it's predecessors, Frictional's Penumbra series, had given birth to a new sub-genre. These games gave the player no means of fighting back, making every encounter with an enemy something that players would dread. They didn't rely on jump scares and hordes of enemies, instead taking a quieter approach, focusing on building suspense and an eerie atmosphere. Players would have to use their wits to solve puzzles and hide from their pursuers, making for some of the scariest moments gaming had ever seen. Other recent releases had tried similar approaches, but this marked the first time such a game had so perfectly captured the feeling of being engulfed in terror. Amnesia put the player against an unbeatable Lovecraftian horror that always seemed to be one step behind. Just as Resident Evil had inspired large developers to create their own similar titles, Amnesia had done so for indies. There have been several games with similar play-styles and concepts to appear on the indie circuit since 2011, such as the recently released Outlast. Many of these games have expanded upon Frictional's original ideas, further innovating this sub-genre into a horror fan-favorite. The original Amnesia title also allowed for user-created maps and scenarios, giving players infinite possibilities of their own.

The other major factor that brought the horror genre back, possibly making it stronger than ever before, was the recent rise in indie development. Free horror games like Slender, which also inspired games such as Hide, have become incredibly popular due largely to let's plays and reaction videos. There are a plethora of other free titles, including the retro-style puzzle games, Ao Oni and Witch's House, both of which were made with RPG Maker, a tool that anyone can purchase for $50.

Those who miss the golden days of survival horror have taken it upon themselves to create their own spiritual successors, such as Lone Survivor, which draws heavy inspirati from Silent Hill 2, and Home, which is a throwback to the pixelated era.

Large developers are starting to rethink their strategies as well. Capcom's release of Resident Evil 6 failed to meet its goal, and the developer has gone on record stating that the next installment in the franchise should be a return to form. The release of Resident Evil: Revelations showed how a new game could still capture that claustrophobic atmosphere while keeping the conventions that modern gamers expect. Shinji Mikami, the “father” of survival horror and creator of Resident Evil, is working with Bethesda to release The Evil Within, which may inspire other developers if it proves successful.

So, while many of the classic franchises have faded away or evolved into entirely new entities over the years, survival horror was never truly dead. With the advent of the 'indie age', fans can be assured that there will always be tons of horror games coming out that they can choose from, with some inspired by the golden age and others giving a fresh take. Perhaps there's never been a better time to be a horror fan.


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