Jump scares, terrifying chases, and creepy monsters all make a survival horror game great. Survival horror is a broad genre in gaming, which includes the first person nerve-racking action of PT to the third person run-fast-or-you-are-toast aspect of the Resident Evil games. There is something for hardcore horror gamers and those gamers who just want to be a little scared.
Recent survival horror games have been falling short of expectations by hitting the same notes and relying on too many clichés. These played out gameplay mechanics, story beats, and characters need to stop. The best part of horror is the unexpected. By leaning on these crutches, developers are weakening their game’s overall impact. The focus of the game should be on gamer experience. A successful survival horror game makes the gamer scared to go around every corner, question everyone they meet, and never want to open a basement door.
Survival horror games are not like horror movies, they need to keep the gamer’s interest longer than ninety minutes. It is a tall order to keep a game scary and enthralling for more than six hours of gameplay. But just because it is difficult doesn’t mean developers should take the easy way out. Gamers have had enough of these run of the mill, paint by numbers game designs.
To truly make an impactful, fun, scary, and enjoyable survival horror game, developers need to take a long look at what makes great survival horror stand out. They should absolutely avoid everything on this list if they want to even remotely come close to making a great survival horror game.
Resident Evil 7 and Outlast 2 both double down on the Hills Have Eyes motif. If you live outside the norms of society and treat outsiders like the scourge, you might be the hot new villain in survival horror games. The only problem is its poor writing and, at this point, the fact that it's the deadest horse developers can beat.
This old trope of rural people as horrible monsters adds nothing to the motivation or believability of who the gamer is running away from. The developer’s answer to why these people are doing such horrible things to outsiders is simply because they went out into the wilderness and have lost all sense of society and humanity. It is a cop out. People don’t become homicidal maniacs just because they live outside of town. Real motivation for baddies in survival horror games is essential for the player’s experience. The players need to believe the people chasing them have real reasons to do it.
Survival horror games like to recreate the horror movie feel with a dash of player interaction. QTEs are the easiest and laziest way to do this. The player just mashes buttons while the gamer’s character does all the work. An example of a game poor doing this is Resident Evil 4.
Many gamers found fault in RE4’s reliance on quick time events. However, the developers saw it as an opportunity to add the mechanic to their survival horror game and the QTE continued throughout RE5 and 6. The QTE harkens back to the arcade era of mashing buttons to hopefully pass a difficult obstacle. Survival horror games deserve a more sophisticated mechanic to heighten the drama. Shaking a thumbstick or mashing X is an annoyance that breeds resentment. It becomes more about the player’s ability to tolerate these fast action points rather than surviving the horrors before them.
Torture films had their moment in the sun during the early 2000s, but this trend continues to greatly influence gaming. There is something to be said for showing guts and blood in a survival horror game, but there is a threshold that many games cross.
The Dead Space series loves to show some nasty images and creatures. Because it is a video game, many gamers can stomach it better than others, as it is just a bunch of polygons after all. However, the mutation of Necromorphs is disturbing and gross for the sake of being gross. They are not the only one game to over use this though. There is an entire sequence in Outlast where you as must walk through several pits filled with body parts, guts, and blood. The developers want you to be scared, but all you are is sick.
Overloading the gamer with graphic images desensitizes and creates the opposite effect. The gamer is not horrified at the prospect of ending up like the gore they find laying around. They are bored by it. Showing less gore could go a long way to bringing back the terror.
The Amnesia series took survival horror and made it more terrifying by disarming the gamer’s character. It was revolutionary in 2010, but it is time now to leave it in the past.
By taking away the ability to defend against attacks, developers force the player to move slowly through the game. It is a cheap way to make the game longer and appear more terrifying. What makes this inorganic or tedious to the player is if the story, environment, and character do not support having zero weapons.
In Amnesia: Dark Descent, Daniel didn’t know what he was fighting, so it helped with the believability of not being armed. Taking away weapons to just take them away makes the gamer question why is this even an aspect to the game?
Not being able to see what is coming for you is scary and using light effectively can heighten the horrir experience. But the dark isn’t the only way to scare gamers. Slenderman is more terrifying in the dark because he looks ridiculous otherwise. On the other hand, making a game take place only at night or over the course of one night is a bit of a stretch. It gives off the appearance that the game can only succeed if you can’t see everything in front of you.
Arkham Asylum is not a horror game, but the sequences in which the gamer must fight through Batman’s fears are unsettling and scary. They do not use the dark to drive the terror and instead allow the situation and environment to play with the mind of the gamer. Layers of Fear blends dark and light horror elements well to show that seeing something can drive a gamer to hide in the cupboard just as much as not being able to see.
Collecting fuel to progress through the game has been a staple mechanic in a lot of survival games. Survival horror’s spin on it is to make the player budget fuel in order to see what is in front of them. There isn’t anything more annoying and video gamey than forcing the player to collect batteries or matches in order to progress through a survival horror title.
All the heavyweights mentioned above do this in some form from Amnesia to Alan Wake. The player becomes more focused on supply and harvesting than being a scared little child in the corner crying and wanting the big bad monster to go away. Developers need to ditch this mechanic quick. Gamers want to be immersed in a truly scary and seamless experience. They do not want to open every drawer looking for more fuel.
In an RPG like Skyrim or a deep intricate universe like Assassin’s Creed, leaving behind written entries or diaries to provide more color to the world is great. In a survival horror game where zombies are chasing you from room to room, it detracts from the experience and the story.
The last thing anyone wants to do is spend time reading the notes of mental patients when there are killer mutants on the loose. To truly make the gamer scared, the background should be shown to them through actions and the environment they encounter. They should not be spending a large portion of the game reading about how everyone went mad. SOMA, a game with a complicated premise, could have benefited greatly if they ditched the written logs and went for a more narrative telling of the events.
Memorable and iconic survival horror protagonists have one in thing common, they don’t make dumb decisions. Chris and Jill from Resident Evil don’t make poor decisions when the mansion is taken over by zombies. On the other hand, Alan Wake makes just a laundry list of silly and eye roll inducing decisions throughout his game.
The protagonist is the gamer’s way into the universe, so they need say and do things that make sense. The game should not mimic a bad horror movie, as it should be like a scary short story with a protagonist that can hold their own. Developers need to have that horror movie audience in their head. If they think the audience would be yelling at the screen, “Don’t go in there, stupid!,” then the developers should listen.
Survival horror games abuse the damsel in distress trope more than any other video game genre. Silent Hill 2’s premise is about a father trying to find his daughter. Outlast 2 has your character trying to find his wife, who had been raped and kidnapped by the crazy rural people. Until Dawn's Sam walks around in a towel in a poor attempt to make the gamer feel vulnerable. There isn’t a cliché in the survival horror book that needs to stop sooner than this one.
The idea that a character can only be propelled because a woman they know is in danger is not a real plot. The treatment of women in survival horror games needs to improve as well. Developers need to trust that gamers who love survival horror games want to be scared first and foremost. They do not want anything to take them out of the experience like facing, yet another game that treats half of the population horribly.
Pyramid Head, Nemesis, and the Shibito from Siren are iconic survival horror game villains that give gamers nightmares to this very day. The only problem with creating such a big iconic monster is making sure that the player finds them terrifying once they encounter them. The Necromorphs in the Dead Space series and the Splicers from Bioshock quickly become cannon fodder that offer little resistance to the gamer.
The worst thing a survival horror game can do is show off how big and bad their enemies are early in the game and not commit to them. Enemies need to work smarter like the Alien from Alien: Isolation. Developers need to lose the idea that any old enemy will do in a survival horror. It is hard to maintain the horror atmosphere as it is, so adding in enemies that are just an annoying hurdle shatters the illusion.
You are running from building to building, closing doors behind you to escape a monster. There is just one problem, the opening and closing doors animation is the slowest thing on the face of the planet. From pushing boxes and jumping up on ledge in Limbo, to breaking down doors in Until Dawn, slow animations start out suspenseful, but end up being extremely frustrating.
Developers hope that slow animations will build drama and suspense because the gamer must stop and interact with some objects. After the second interaction, most gamers are fed up with the mechanic. Developers need to realize that while slowing the game down does create some suspense, repeating the same interaction mechanic hurts down gamer interest.
This is another long-standing trope of survival horror games that needs to end sooner rather than later. Yes, mental institutions have a long history of being misunderstood and the place where horrible legends are born. However, gamers are over walking through endless derelict hospital hallways.
Setting a survival horror game in a mental institution also means that all the enemies will be ex-patients and the doctors will be something more like a Nazi surgeon and less like a real medical professional. Everything from the setting to the characters is overdone and does not offer gamers a fresh, innovative approach to horror. Horror thrives on new ideas that gamers can’t see coming from a mile away. Setting the game in a mental institution is a developer’s way of admitting they have no new ideas.
Escort missions are the bane of video gamers everywhere. Some survival horror games crash and burn completely because of escort missions. For example, Resident Evil 4’s escort missions take all the fun out of the game. Leon is tasked with protecting the President’s daughter and he does a terrible job at it. Not as terrible as the developers creating the game’s escort missions, however.
Before the first one, the gamer has fought through an entire village of infected people and barely survived the monsters that this little town was hiding. Then the game asks you to frustratingly protect a defenseless woman. Forget that it falls into another trope on this list, which is poorly portraying women. These missions, and missions like it in other games, ruin the survival horror atmosphere and game flow. The vulnerable character shifts from the gamer to an NPC and the gamer grows to hate that character, not feel bad they keep getting in trouble. This shift in tone has no place in survival horror.
Survival horror games have to be linear in order to create the appropriate mood and tone. The gamer cannot have an open world in which they are free to roam around, as the horror element would be lost. So, developers have chosen to instead build a realistic environment with all the doors and windows normal buildings would have, but lock them all for the sake of controlling the gamer.
Having one or two locked doors is fine, but throwing the gamer into a house with all jammed doors and no indication on how to unjam them is infuriating. It would be better if the house had one door that worked and the rest was just wall. The game would be unrealistic, but at least the gamer would know what worked. Developers need to be open to the idea that gamers can go into a room and find nothing and turn back. Locking or jamming the door to prevent that only breaks up the flow of a survival horror game.
If I play one more game that has a collection of creepy broken baby dolls, I’m going to lose it. In real life, old baby dolls are the most terrifying thing on the face of the earth. In video games, they are just objects. They are no different than a chair or a table. Developers fill rooms with these dolls is an attempt to bring that real-life fear into the game.
To really scare gamers, the game could have one or two baby dolls fall off the shelf or move around because of the dying battery inside them, but no more. That is some serious nightmare fuel. Including baby dolls for the sake of putting creepy things in a creepy place does not result in more creepiness. The exact opposite effect happens and the gamer ignores or is annoyed by the bounty of baby dolls. It works in real life and not in games, so developers should cut it out.