Sunday, June 5, 2011

Unbearable Entertainment: The Survival Horror Genre

The wretched and foreboding beginning to Silent Hill 2.

From big-budget franchises such as the Resident Evil and Silent Hill series, to lesser-known titles such as Overblood and Illbleed, the Survival Horror genre is one of the most remarkable areas of the gaming world. I say this because I feel that it marks itself out from much of the rest of gaming based on its founding principle – It is not fun to play. You do not ‘win’ a survival horror game in the traditional sense. You make it out alive, barely.
Now don’t get me wrong, I rather enjoy the occasional Survival Horror title, but I find it nigh-on impossible to believe that there would be those with the mental strength to consistently play from its offerings. Survival Horror games, or the great ones at least, get into your head in a way that is incomparable with not only the rest of the gaming genre, but also with the world of horror as it is experienced in the rest of the media world. It achieves this accolade by placing the player in the focal point of the unease and jeopardy. We don’t watch in terror as someone else plays victim to some unknown evil – we are victims ourselves.

Of the many games I have owned and played throughout the years, I speak most fondly of the ones that leave some sort of lasting mark. I will always look back gleefully on my time spent charging around Hyrule Field in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, or cleaning up the crime-ridden quarters of town in Streets of Rage. However, occasionally I will collapse into the foetal position and unnervingly begin to rock as I recall being pursued through hallways by the Tyrant in Resident Evil 2, and more recently will cast doubt on the fabric of reality as I recall the perpetual doubt, fear, and confusion in the darkest recesses of my consciousness experienced whilst struggling through the utterly-terrifying Silent Hill 2.

The latter of these is what inspires this post, for Silent Hill 2 is certainly a great title. The writing is inordinately complex and intriguing in a way that so games can fall short on. It is a master-class in terror. The only problem, and one that is inherent to the genre, is that playing it is literally so disturbing that it can only be achieved in the shortest of bursts. Woe betide the fool who chooses to casually fire it up before bed, for few games have justly earned the rank of Nightmare Fuel, while I feel Silent Hill 2 revels in such an appointment.

What draws people to enduring Survival Horror games is the shift in the balance of power. There are seldom hero protagonists to be embodied, but instead we are usually experiencing the events through the eyes of an average Joe or Jane: a character who is not used to the world that they have found themselves in, and someone who is equally as uncomfortable in it as we are. Rather than running around, unloading magazine after magazine of bullets into foul and cursed beasts, the games are often spent actively avoiding combat for a myriad of reasons, though usually pertaining to the unavailability of items, whether they be health-increasing, or necessary weapons allowing you to deal the requisite amount of damage to the creatures that would threaten to end you.

What this all amounts to is quite simply an unforgettable gaming experience. You breathe a sigh of relief upon each successful advancement, whilst preparing to take in yet another long breath in trepidation for the moments to follow. If you haven’t dabbled in the genre, it is not surprising. Survival Horror peaked in the 2000s, and is particularly well-represented on the PlayStation 2. Indeed, with all the current coverage of L.A. Noire, and the praising of its facial animation technology, I am consistently reminded of the similarly brilliant animation in Forbidden Siren (video link), a game that is nearly a decade old by now. In short, if you haven’t tried it by now, go forth and terrify thyself, then rejoice and curse the fateful day you decided to begin. Survival Horror stays with you. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

Edit: Reminded by Jessingtonville, I completely forgot about the most recent extremely popular Survival Horror title – Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Pick it up here on Steam. If a game is so frightening that people have to stop playing it, it’s doing something right.

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