A History of Survival Horror | 16-Bit Dad

If there’s one genre of video games that I have always loved, it would be Survival Horror. But what exactly is this genre? What makes it different from just any other horror genre?

Well, the basic rules of Survival Horror are that your character is thrown into a world of horrific nightmares and/or murderous enemies without the tools necessary to truly defend themselves. From there, you are tasked with escaping without dying (i.e, surviving).

This is opposed to the typical horror genre where things are just creepy, or slasher style horror where there is a single murderous psychopath with an axe/chainsaw/knife/whatever.

But I know that really doesn’t help explain what Survival Horror actually is… So, to help with that, today we’ll have a look at the history of the genre, including how it began, and some of the biggest and genre-defining games that have come out through the years. We’ll also look at the effective death and rebirth of the genre too.

Sweet Beginnings Lead To Darkness

We’ll start this little journey by jumping back to 1989, and oddly enough, looking at a game that isn’t a Survival Horror game; Sweet Home. What is actually a horror RPG (role-playing game), Sweet Home involved a lot of puzzles, monsters and atmosphere, effectively inspiring the basis of Survival Horror.

Add to this the lack of weapons, and you can start to see where the idea of “survival” came from.

Then, jumping forward 3 years, 1992 saw the release of Alone in the Dark. Far closer to what would eventually become Survival Horror, Alone in the Dark was the first horror-centric adventure game to not rely on the point-and-click gameplay style. On top of the, despite it’s very cheesy (and at times garish) colour scheme, it was actually scary.

With a huge focus on progression through puzzle solving, and adding in the use of books and notes for storytelling purposes, Alone in the Dark carved out a new, fledgling game type. This was, arguably, the birth of Survival Horror.

However, the genre wouldn’t be named or solidified until the release of what was originally planned to be a remake of Sweet Home. Capcom, who had decided to remake this classic, actually changed their minds part way through development… The project’s director, Shinji Mikami, thought that it would be better to turn the project into a brand new game entirely.

Horror Goes Residentual

The year was 1996, and everything was about to change… Shinji Mikami’s project was complete, and Capcom released a game about a seemingly abandoned mansion, that was actually full of mutated creatures and zombies. It followed a group of police officers are they tried to find a way out, and work out what was going on. Puzzles were everywhere, dialogue was (now famously) poor, inventory space was limited, and it scared the hell out of people.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Resident Evil.

This was a defining moment, and the game that coined the phrase “Survival Horror”. The genre was now officially born. And just like when Doom came along and showed what first-person shooters could be, there were suddenly Resident Evil clones popping up everywhere!

However, none of them managed to come close to the magic that the first Resident Evil made… That is, until the series outdid itself with the release of Resident Evil 2 in 1998. After ditching the nearly finished first version of Resident Evil 2 (now known as RE1.5), Capcom finally released the long awaited sequel… And it was a huge success!

In fact, many people (myself included) still consider it to be the best Resident Evil game ever made (although the seventh game comes close). Taking the horror out of the confines of the mansion, Resident Evil 2 took place within Raccoon City itself! All of sudden, the entire dynamic of the genre was changed once again. No longer were you running around a single building. Now, you had a city to survive!

From gunshops to police stations and even an underground lab, the areas were insane at the time. Add to that the improved graphics, slightly better voice acting, and the intertwining stories that changed depending on which character you played first, and you had a real gem on your hands. Capcom were absolutely ruling the genre that they had basically created, as you would expect. However, the genre was about to go “silent”….

Fear of the Unknown

Now, Resident Evil had basically built a genre that relied on puzzles, jump scares and horrific monsters coming at you all the time… But another game developer by the name of Konami had a different idea for how to make a Survival Horror. The year was 1999, and out of nowhere came a brand new player (pun definitely intended); Silent Hill.

Making use of the PlayStation’s limitation at the time, Konami created a huge, sprawling town that you could freely roam around in… But they covered it in a thick fog to hide the redraw rate of the console. This allowed them to take the genre on an entirely different path. Rather than focus on mass numbers of monsters coming at you constantly like Resident Evil, they chose to have fewer monsters but hide them where you can’t see them.

The only way to know something was close was the static from your radio, which would increase in volume as something got closer to you. This, along with the fact that you weren’t a specially trained cop, but rather a Dad looking for his daughter, made things all the more scary. Especially since the array of weapons and amount of ammo was considerably less than in Resident Evil!

A New Generation

Following Silent Hill’s release, Capcom fired back with Resident Evil 3: Nemesis later that year, and Dino Crisis 2 in 2000. Oh, we can’t forget Resident Evil: Code Veronica on the Dreamcast, although it was doomed to fail when the console stopped production… As well as this, a myriad of games with Survival Horror elements were released (like the amazing Parasite Eve games) but by then the PlayStation’s lifespan was coming to an end. Why? Because the PlayStation 2 was just around the corner.

And with it, was a whole host of new Survival Horror games. In fact, the next generation of consoles could actually be seen as the golden era of Survival Horror! The first Survival Horror game to release on the new generation of console was the oft-forgotten Extermination, developed by Deep Space.

Taking its gameplay style from Resident Evil, you played as a crack team of soldiers who get trapped in an arctic base filled with mutated monsters. However, making use of the new power that the PlayStation 2 had, you could actually jump, which meant that the developers could make some far more exciting levels for you to run through whilst screaming!

It was a huge step forward for the genre, but sadly, it has since fallen to the side of the road… Why? Well, that would be because the brand new Alone in the Dark was released just two months later, which was then followed by a game largely considered to be the epitome of Survival Horror

Telling the story of a man who receives a letter from his dead wife and travels to a town filled with horrific creatures, psychotic survivors and a demonic man with a pyramid for a head, Silent Hill 2 was here!

That’s right, Konami had released their first next generation Survival Horror… And man, they had made a masterpiece! The fog, in all of its glory, was back and in full effect. The voice acting was almost spot on, and I still listen to the soundtrack today! Add to this the genuine fear that Pyramid Head instilled, and the completely unnerving atmosphere, and you have the perfect formula for one of (if not the) best Survival Horror games ever. And I didn’t even cover the absolutely terrifying storyline!

Of course, this put Capcom on their toes and brought the Survival Horror genre to the forefront of gaming… So, Capcom began work on revitalising Code Veronica, and with a bunch of additions to the plotline and various scenes in the game, it was re-released on PS2 and the Nintendo GameCube as Code Veronica X in 2001.

However, it may have been too late… Silent Hill 2 had already established itself. Plus, there was another new Survival Horror franchise appearing on the marketing.

Seeing the success of Silent Hill, with its supernatural elements, it was only a matter of time before a game that focused on those elements was released. And so, we found ourselves controlling a young girl named Miku, armed with only an old camera… Oh, and she was exploring a haunted mansion! We had our first ghost-focused Survival Horror, and it was amazing! This, ladies and gentleman, was Fatal Frame (aka Project Zero).

With an immensely creepy atmosphere, and pulling off the Japanese Horror style with pinpoint accuracy, Fatal Frame really got under your skin! Plus, the fact that your only defense was a camera made the idea of surviving even more scary.

With some stiff competition on the PlayStation, and seeing a hole in the market for the GameCube, Capcom then jumped ship for a while. And what better way to do this than to start again? So it was that we were treated to a new vision of Resident Evil 1! With up-to-date (and ahead of their time) graphics, a whole new subplot and far superior voice acting, Resident Evil Remake hit the shelves.

It was unbelievable at the time! The amount that had improved was unimaginable… And man, no one will ever forget the first time they face a Crimson Head zombie.

Yet, despite the huge leap forward for the series, both REmake and the subsequent release of Resident Evil Zero flopped… This was almost certainly due to the sheer amount of Survival Horror games that were now available. Capcom no longer had a stranglehold on the genre. So it was that, over the next two years, more and more games came out in the genre… And each one felt like they offered something new, rather than just retreading old ground.

You have Silent Hill 3 and 4: The Room, the immortal zombie focused Forbidden Siren, slasher style Clock Tower and high school-centric ObScure flooding the market. We were actually spoilt for choice… And yet, somehow, the genre felt a bit stale…

Even the release of (in my opinion) the scariest Survival Horror game to date, Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly, couldn’t seem to build the genre back up again. It needed something completely different.

A New Lease Of Life

So it was that the franchise which had defined the genre would go on to completely redefine it. Ditching the static cameras, shambling zombies and claustrophic hallways, Capcom breathed new life into the genre with Resident Evil 4.

Enemies were intelligent, fast paced and some carried chainsaws! You could melee now too. It’s nearly impossible to put into words how much of a departure from the norm this game was. But what I can say is that the Survival Horror genre was changed forever!

The genre effectively split in half, with games like Haunting Ground, Fatal Frame 3 and newcomer Rule of Rose sticking to the “tried and tested” formula, whilst a whole new bread of Survival Horror games focused on action. We were now graced with the likes of first person shooter Survival Horror in the form of F.E.A.R. Or first person investigation games with hand to hand combat like Condemned: Criminal Origins

Once again, the genre had mutated, just like the monsters that made it famous. And it was just in time, too; the next console generation was here… Unfortunately, so was the beginning of the genre’s darkest time.

The End Of The Golden Age

The release of the PlayStation 3, PSP, Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii seemed like the perfect time for the genre to move on to all new heights! Especially in the wake of Resident Evil 4’s huge success and innovation. Sadly, that was not meant to be.

Despite a select few absolute gems, like Penumbra for the PC, the genre fell flat on its face, like so many characters in horror movies. Seeing the change in audiences in the west, the new Fatal Frame game was never released outside of Japan. Alone in the Dark 5 dropped into our hands, but the increased focus on action over horror completely destroyed the game. Forbidden Siren 3 felt like a swiftly scraped together sequel…

Even the first Silent Hill game on the PlayStation 3 felt lackluster (something that would stay with the series for the next game too). It wasn’t until the release of a whole new franchise, described as Resident Evil in space, that there seemed to be a light at the end of the tunnel. That game was Dead Space.

Yet, even a game as absolutely amazing as Dead Space couldn’t stopped what was about to happen… The Survival Horror genre seemed to be on its last legs, so rather than help it back up again, Capcom released Resident Evil 5… And our hearts sank.

The introduction of co-op took all of the fear out of the game. The muscle-bound hero that main character Chris had become made you feel like the enemies were just cannon fodder, rather than actual threats. Plus, the storyline just felt forced. It was at the moment that we felt certain the genre was going to die…

Even when Silent Hill Shattered Memories (a brilliant re-imaging of the first game) was released, it just felt too little, too late to save this beloved genre. The damage had already been done. Then, when Dead Space 2 landed on the shelves, albeit an amazing game, it had also dropped much of the horror in favour of action.

The final two nails in the coffin seemed to come in the form of Silent Hill: Downpour (which was just a bad game) and Resident Evil 6 (which felt like a Michael Bay action movie).

All Was Not Lost

However, as we made our way through 2013, something amazing happened… This one game came out that seemed to truly capture the Survival Horror genre. And it was made by Naughty Dog, of all people!

Set in a post-apocalyptic world years after a virus has spread across the land, you were tasked with guiding a young woman across America in one of the greatest games ever made; The Last of Us.

Taking everything that made Resident Evil 4 so great, adding in innovation in terms of stealth, plus throwing in a truly emotional story worthy of an Oscar, The Last of Us had everything we had been waiting for. It was the light at the end of the tunnel! It showed us what a modern Survival Horror could be!

The genre felt like it had been shocked back into life again, as good as it was in the golden age! And it wasn’t done there. A new wave of Survival Horror games that involved hiding rather than fighting your enemies emerged. Games like Amnesia and Alien Isolation reinvented the genre and took it to places it had never been before. In fact, things only got better with the release of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One!

Survival Horror was back on track! With Until Dawn, The Evil Within and We Happy Few coming out, innovation of fear and storytelling took over from action once again.

Then came one of the saddest moments in the genre’s history…

What started off as amazing demo at E3, a seemingly unknown yet amazing Survival Horror title called PT was shown off. It wasn’t until people got passed this demo, however, that they were actually shown the real name of the game; Silent Hills.

Set to star Norman Reedus, and be directed by Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro, this would have been a masterpiece… And a welcome return to form for the franchise. Yet, that was not how things would go. Due to a “falling out”, Konami and Kojima parted ways, and Silent Hills was cancelled… And with it, most likely the Silent Hill series. It was another dark day for Survival Horror.

Clawing Back

However, the genre would soon get yet another defibrillator shock, in the form of a playable trailer called Kitchen. Creppy, set in the first person, and downright unnerving, this seemed like the perfect answer to the cancellation of Silent Hills. Little did we know what it actually was… Through this playable trailer, and following an announcement trailer at E3, Capcom announced Resident Evil 7.

Gone where the over-the-top set pieces and mindless explosions! There were no muscle-bound supermen to be seen. Oh, and the game was now in first person and (like a few others) emphasized hiding rather than fighting. It was also playable in VR…

If ever there was a return to form, this was it! The game was truly horrifying, and that wasn’t even in VR mode. The gameplay was immaculate, and the storytelling almost perfect (save for a few minor bumps). Once again, it had been Resident Evil that reinvigorated the Survival Horror genre… And in the wake of the loss of Silent Hills (and potentially the Silent Hill franchise as a whole), this new take on Resident Evil was exactly what Survival Horror fans needed!

A Bright Future?

And that’s where we are today… It looks as though Survival Horror may yet have a bright future! And I, for one, couldn’t be happier! The genre has come a very, very long way since its humble beginnings, and there have definitely been some major ups and downs, but it’s still going strong.

Have you ever played a Survival Horror game? Which was your favourite? Let me know in the comments below!