Since Resident Evil there have been numerous attempts at bringing to life this often overlooked genre. Silent Hill stands as one of the all time greatest survival horror games for atmosphere and bizarre creations, rivalling Resident Evil for sheer strangeness and making the actual town of Silent Hill, the main protagonist, live by using numerous fear-generating techniques. It's not what you see in that game, it's what you think you see! The shadow on the wall, the scratching at the door and the crackle of the radio as it begins to react to some particular nasty.
Horror works best when it's not as visual, think on some of the best films by Alfred Hitchcock and you'll notice that he very rarely used 'in your face' scares and preferred to unhinge the mind in a H.P. Lovecraft kind of way by revealing the source of the horror or mystery very slowly, if at all. Look again now at Resident Evil and Silent Hill. Resident Evil presents the zombies in a very 'matter of fact' kind of way, it's not so much terror as it is survival against hordes of undead when you're armed with a kitchen knife, a pistol that has three rounds in it and a potted plant.
Alone in the Dark (the newest) game attempted to cash in on some of that Resident Evil and Silent Hill style. The mood and atmosphere of the game were excellent, the gameplay was unfortunately marred by a lack-lustre control system and survival relied upon fighting the monsters, the controls and in some cases the poorly implemented physics. Yet for all its faults it used several fear generating techniques to a great effect. It relied on moody lighting, subtle musical scores that swelled just before what you thought was a major encounter, only to find that it was a rat scurrying across the floor.
It built suspense by using clever camera angles and presented the whole thing as if it were a TV-show. It floundered on the dialogue, which is another key point of a Survival Horror game, you need to make your player care for the characters in the game and give a damn when one of them gets kidnapped or eaten by the Big Bad. If you have a cardboard cut-out hero/heroine or non-player-character (NPC) then you're likely to garner less emotional response when they're in trouble or they meet their doom pretty quickly - no matter how much blood and gore the developers throw in.
Having a likeable character, hero or anti-hero is tantamount to printing big wads of emotional money when it comes to putting them in peril. A love interest that you care about is going to promote the right kind of response when the player reaches that point. If your dialogue can't convey the correct emotional tone then you're pretty much fighting a lost cause, using out of context words and phrases that might have been hip/cool ten years ago is a good way to get the tears of laughter rolling rather than pluck any heart-strings.
I submit Resident Evil #1's dialogue for the dubious honour of being guilty of that. I howled with laughter at the infamous line: Take this Jill, it's a lock-pick, you better have it because you're the master of unlocking things. Or words to that effect, I cackled like an errant schoolboy whenever there was a mention of a Jill Sandwich. Yet in Silent Hill I wasn't left cackling, I was left wondering if I really should have the lights off whilst I was playing it, someone told me it added to the atmosphere.
Survival Horror also works better when you're low on resources; this is something that worked great in Resident Evil #1 and to a lesser extent in the other games. Until CAPCOM decided that it would be fun to give you a steady stream of ammo for Resident Evil 4 and turned it into Splinter Evil or Metal Gear Undead where you can't walk ten paces without stumbling over the corpse of some monster that bubbles away to reveal a fresh supply of pistol or smg ammo, a health herb or even a medical spray. Suddenly the horror is gone and it's gung-ho Army of Darkness, mow down the strange infected monster-people with a firehose-style spray of bullets time.
As much as I love Resident Evil 4, it's not really Survival Horror. There's also your story, a good story is really important in a Survival Horror game and continuity is something to think about. Going back to Resident Evil 4 again and finding out that they changed things for the game regarding the zombies and Umbrella really irked me and several other people. I want to know more about the faceless corporation and Wesker. I don't really care about the Las-Plagas and infection from strange parasitic aliens buried in ice or whatever the heck they were. I was enjoying a tale about a small town being turned into hordes of flesh eating undead, finding out that Umbrella were behind it was the icing on the cake that made me want to devour more.
If you change your background too much you risk alienating your players and leaving them with big floating question marks above their heads.
As I mentioned before, atmosphere is a big bonus and having the right musical score can be the difference between success and failure. This could be true for any kind of game but it's more important in the Survival Horror genre. If you have a choral soundtrack in a science-fiction game, it can work. Having choral soundtracks in any Survival Horror game is a good bet since they tend to fit in with the genre very well. Thumping techno bass in a medieval themed Survival Horror, or a Cthulhu style game isn't a wise move and heavy metal rock-outs for the most part don't work in any genre either.
The idea is to use the music to freak the player out, by using a soft choral scheme and building to a crescendo when things get tense is a perfect way to elicit an emotional fear response from most people. Unless they happen to be the kind of people who chew nails for breakfast and eat glass for dinner. Not much scares that kind of gamer and they point and laugh at the most disturbing things on the internet daily. The nervous twitchy-gamer is likely to respond well however to a use of soft choral music that builds gradually, or suddenly blasts out of nowhere as a shadowy shape cast by a flickering light source scuttles across their screen.
Whilst not Survival Horror, there was a wonderful set-piece in Aliens Vs. Predator 2 (the game) that brings me to another important trick of the genre. For the first few minutes or so of play, you don't have the enemy show themselves. You might encounter signs of their presence, having them directly appear takes away the horror element and propels your title into the realms of first person or third person shooter right away.
In AVP2 there's a corridor under a landing pad, you move through the dark and suddenly above you heralded by a hiss of steam and thrashing tail is an ALIEN! You open up with your Pulse Rifle and fill it full of lead. As the steam clears, you discover that you just wasted a clip into a broken steam pipe and conduit that happened to look like an Alien head and tail. Your heart is racing and you just wasted that ammo for nothing.
Condemned 1 and 2 managed (at the start) to convey the right kind of atmosphere in that respect and did a wonderful job at introducing the strangeness as you progressed through the game, things got weirder and weirder in Condemned until you weren't sure if the character was mad or it was real. These kinds of psychological mind-games aren't employed nearly enough now in Survival Horror games and it's a shame since they are the ones that work the best. I would be remiss if I didn't mention Eternal Darkness, which stands out as one of the best games to pull a variety of tricks on you and your avatar. A fake volume control, strange screen distortion and more await you in the game if you encounter certain monsters and your character's sanity slips away.
If you have a top-notch game engine, wonderfully interactive physics, clever AI, brilliant graphics and superb voice acting with a powerful story and immersive music you're on the right track as long as you can make sure you have decent controls and sound design. Alone in the Dark suffered from bad control implementations and the idea that the game didn't pause when you accessed your inventory was a good one in theory, let down in practise by the fact that you needed super-human ability to manipulate objects or do anything with healing your character. In the mean time the monsters happily chewed on your left leg until it dropped off. I hear that Dead Space (stay tuned for the review) has a real-time inventory and that's a joy to manage (we shall see).
Sound can be used in a variety of ways to convey horror, along with the music it's a useful tool to build that suspense and make the player think there's something terribly bad coming around the next corner. The hiss of steam pipes in an abandoned factory, the rustle of dust as it falls from the ceiling or the hum of an alien machine as you explore the depths of a crashed space ship are all key elements to the suspension of disbelief, and the Survival Horror genre needs that kind of thing to be effective. If you're trembling by the time you encounter the real deal then the developer has managed to pull off what they wanted.
Shock scares are excellent when combined with good sound design, but don't overdo it. Condemned features some truly evil moments like that in the office area and they work to make people jump when timed correctly.
Survival Horror is a genre that takes a lot to get the best out of, with only a few stellar examples of its kind. EA's lastest foray into their own IP, known as Dead Space is planning to re-invigorate that genre and just in time for Halloween too. I'll be taking a look at that game tomorrow. Until then it's playing Resident Evil and Silent Hill respectively with the occasional bout of Dead Rising for me as I work on my next article which is all about Sandbox Gaming and the changes that have permeated that genre.
That's all for now, happy gaming.