The fall of the survival horror genre: why aren’t we scared?

Posted March 31, 2014 by Josh Russell in Editorial
Citizengame - alien isolation

At the tender age of 13 I played (and finished) my very first truly terrifying video game. Silent Hill 2 kept me awake sweating and darting my eyes around the room for nights on end. At the same age I read Stephen King’s The Shining, and had to physically remove myself from the vicinity of the battered paperback to stop myself from reading more.

Enter 2013. Now 21, I recently played through Resident Evil 6. I bought the game and put it in straight away, a bottle of soft drink and a large bag of crisps at my side. As I recall it was around 20 minutes after starting I removed the disc from my console and had an existential crisis of sorts. What was wrong with me? I just couldn’t find the game scary. Admittedly it made me jump a few times, but my pet rabbit makes me jump when he throws his food bowl around the cage and I’d hardly call him horrifying.

But horror novels can hold the ability to scare the pants off me. Not long ago I read another of King’s works – It. Without a doubt, I’d say it was the scariest single thing I have ever experienced. But why didn’t Dead Space do this? A polished title from a renowned developer with a ridiculous amount of money bores me, but paper, glue and words from the late 80’s gives me goosebumps with the mere memory of it.

Terrifying polish

Terrifying polish

It was at that point when I realised; survival horror is dead. The horror genre of old, one that still sends fear to my very core, is gone. This left two questions in my head; what are modern game developers doing wrong, and how can horror novels continue to be terrifying?

Take a look at modern video games in general. There is now an arms race to see which developer can make the prettiest looking game environments and character models by using the very best technology. When these elements in a video game improve, it leaves no room for true plot and character quality. You can easily link the deterioration of these areas, crucial to the success of a true horror game, to the graphical capabilities of this new generation of console. There is just too much now; the worlds are too big and the to-do lists are gigantic. In my own opinion, being asked to fetch miscellaneous items from a house across town removes the panic and desperation that made horror games of yesteryear so great.

I’m not saying all modern games are rubbish. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of game developers that have really hit the nail on the head with their franchises, but none of these happen to be making decent horror games. But if it is so easy and possible to have the whole package then why are so many big budget video games lacking the main elements that make horror, well, horror?

Peter Jukes created the BBC One prime time undercover thriller In Deep and has contributed to multi award winning crime drama the Waking the Dead.

Peter Jukes created the BBC One prime time undercover thriller In Deep and has contributed to multi award winning crime drama the Waking the Dead.

This is where we turn to the more papery side of things. What makes the horror novel so efficient at giving readers true bowel-shaking fear, and how does this relate to horror in video games? Implication is the key. There is little doubt that the best horror is invisible, and composed in the mind’s eye. As Freud said, the “uncanny” is much more powerful than any overt graphic content. One person who agrees with this view is horror author Peter Jukes, and he gave his opinion on what makes a great horror experience.

“The power of obscenity lies in it being off-scene,” he said, “As soon as horror is filmed, exposed, and visible, it loses its power, and often becomes laughable.”

The only modern horror games that have been anywhere near as truly scary as their novel counterparts have been indie titles. These, similarly to horror novels, take their fear inducing power from the unknown. Take Frictional’s Amnesia, for instance. This is widely thought to be one of the scariest games ever produced, but was made on a much tighter budget. Where Amnesia is successful lies partly in the sub par graphics, and this was used to their advantage. When you can’t see five feet in front of you then you try to focus harder into the darkness. This builds up a really tense atmosphere, so 20 minutes into the game when you see your first enemy it is a legitimately terrifying experience. Compare this with higher budget games which try for the same effect but fail – Dead Space for example. Straight away you know two things; exactly what is chasing after you, and that you are more than capable of taking care of the enemies you face.

Shadows and shortsightedness stalk you in Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

Shadows and shortsightedness stalk you in Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

I tried to get to the bottom of the story aspects of horror novels and video games. To a horror novel, narrative and character development are the sole most important thing to bring the reader in. For modern video games this has been removed, instead preferring shock and awe tactics to keep attention on the screen. Getting into the heads of readers and gamers is more important in terms of building scary atmospheres than pretty graphics. Peter Jukes said that “ the ability to conjure up technical effects of shock and horror is a classic virtuouso performance from every artist from Sophocles and Virgil to Caravaggio and Shakespeare.”

“What we are in danger of losing in our technical appreciations of the spectacle of fear is the inner dimension of tragedy. A horror story causes us to disengage from the hero or heroine at the moment of personal exposure. Tragedy does the reverse. Rather than shaking us out of the fiction with shock and horror, tragedy causes us to both be inside and outside the fiction with the cathartic emotions of pity and terror: pity at the hero’s predicament and lack and self insight: terror at the impending doom we can see will ensue. Tragedy makes us enter the hero subjectively but see his or her fate objectively. Horror does the reverse: we become objective about the pathology of their flesh, and subjective about their fate.”

So it’s tragedy then that brings fear to the forefront of a good horror story. Story is at the heart of both the horror novel and the horror video game, but where one embraces tragedy in order to keep us inside the fiction, the other confuses the matter with weapon upgrades and power armour. Horror relates to tragedy in the same way pornography relates to romance.

Fear within the survival horror genre has not been lost to history; rather more depressingly, it is being completely overlooked and covered up with technology.


About the Author

Josh Russell
Josh Russell

Fledgling writer and hapless musician.

  1. James Day
    James Day

    Great point, Josh. Alien is the classic example of creating tension through limitation and leaving things to the viewer’s imagination. AAA games have definitely lost this element, though indies such as Amnesia and the many Slender Man-type titles have started to pick up the torch.



    Dude, you seriously need to look into the indie scene. There are some absolutely stunning horror gems in there that render this article obsolete. Sure, they’re not high-level publishers, but they completely nail the setting and atmosphere and manage to put down a truely scare experience