Over the past couple of weeks I have found myself once again re-entering the world of survival horror. For those of you who are not familiar with this, it's a game subgenre made popular in the late nineties and early noughties. The term was coined from the 1996 classic game Resident Evil, but has grassroots in earlier games.
For me, Resident Evil was my first dealing with survival horror. As an avid gamer I was used to eviscerating endless hordes of the undead, in their attempt to force me into their ranks, but Resident Evil suddenly plunged players, like me, into a claustrophobic B Movie where resources were limited and every enemy lethal. Fixed camera angles, well placed sound effects and an ominous score ensured that, despite terrible acting and clunky controls, I fell in love with the genre.
Over the years Resident Evil spawned numerous sequels, prequels and spin offs. Resident Evil 2 possibly its greatest incarnation. With a compelling storyline, enhanced visuals and gameplay, Resident Evil 2 brought players out of the mansion and into a city-wide, body horror epidemic, which maintained the level of dread and tension of the original, as well as its Oscar winning voice acting.
Over the years this format found many homes, most notably the early Silent Hill games that triggered homichlophobia in a generation of teens, but as technology developed and cinematics became more favoured than atmosphere the genre began to decline. When Resident Evil 4 appeared on shelves in 2005 it tried to reinvent, taking on a new feel and survival horror became more 28 Days Later than Dawn of the Dead. The once shuffling nightmares that loomed towards you at a speed that allowed you to get up, make a cup of tea, come back, drink that tea, pick up your controller and shoot it, only to realise that you need to shoot it several times in the face before it'll drop meaning that your character is mauled setting you back an hour, had long gone.
Regardless, Resident Evil 4 was a success. It still stands out as one of the best of the series. It reinvented and brought the series up to date, but in doing so something was about to be lost, like its las plagas infected inhabitants it mutated. Over the next five years impressive games like Dead Space, F.E.A.R. and Left4Dead appeared, harking back to those hopeless, fear heavy days of the nineties (did you see Clueless). These new additions to the genre, whilst impressive, favoured fast pacing and quick reactions to keep your character alive opposed to survival and puzzle solving. As a result the genre felt obliged to keep up.
Fast forward to the present day and latest incarnation Resident Evil 6 feels like a nostalgic trip through its past, putting characters and ideas into a fast paced shooter. The days of wandering around for hours on end trying to find a key, only to realise it was a crest you had in a chest that you got hours earlier, were over and in its place was a convoluted action film. It had its place but, despite a few key moments, it had seemingly lost its horror roots and with it the hopes of a truly great survival horror dimmed.
Then, two weeks ago, Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami announced details of his next project the Evil Within. The project looks to appease the purists. From what we've seen you'll feel isolated, in danger and constantly uneasy to the point where with the lights out you could convince yourself you're on a family camping holiday in Wales, it's raining and somebody has found a lone board game - a psychological trauma I experienced as a boy, needless to say when my brother finally rolled the game's final double the portal to hell closed and the family dog stopped barking.
The early screen shots and trailer from the Evil Within look fantastic; they look like they can bring the genre back to those tension filled days with all the perks and power of modern gaming in the same way JJ Abrams made Star Trek look futuristic again (despite being hidden by lens flares). Hopefully it will reinvigorate the genre and move it away from the emerging "dramatic horror" styles that exist to compete with the fast paced shooters that litter the market.
The first visuals from the Evil Within made me revisit those early games. They made me remember the chills that Resident Evil and Silent Hill gave me as a teen. And whilst as a man I find myself chilled more by the prospects of weddings and appropriating the right response to seeing babies (at such events I do of course scan the room for escapes and weapons should the undead break in) it fills me with hope that a new generation will be sleeping with headphones in and covering game boxes to subdue the nightmares. Hopefully the genre can evolve again and fans both old and new can take a step back into the world of survival horror.
For any game developers reading this, allow me to close with a few ideas for future survival horror games:
Overtime: Your character has worked late at the office only to find you're locked in but not alone. Upon discovering a dying security guard, you find that the office cleaning company has come straight from THE GRAVE! Using what limited resources you have, you must call upon your admin skills to terminate the contract, hire new cleaners and freshen up before the next working day.
Night Bus: After a drunken night out John Everyman wakes on the shoulder of a stranger. As the alcoholic haze lifts he realise he's lost his friends and is on the NIGHT BUS. Using all his wit he must negotiate the London late night transport system and find his way home whilst unearthing the tragic events that led to his breath smelling of fried meat. IS IT HUMAN?
Grand Design: As the last episode of Grand Designs is complete, Kevin McCloud of the clan McCloud's masterpiece is revealed. For the past decade houses have been constructed on key areas of psychokinetic energy and as the self sustaining lights are switched on, hordes of middle class homeowners lose their minds, transforming into demonic abominations. In the midst of the madness you must find your way out of suburbia, preserving furniture and fighting your former neighbours as they hunger for flesh!