Sometime in the last seven years journalists and developers decided survival horror was dead. What took the genre's place is an amalgam of cheap jump scares and endless brutality toward deformed science experiments. Games are momentarily terrifying now, but once you know that the lights are always going to go out when you enter a room and that a bloated flesh-beast will leap from camera right, the experience is predictable and manageable.
Survival horror, then, is in trouble, as the entire "survival" aspect depends on a foreboding sense of isolation. Games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill are terrifying because of how alone the player is against next-to-impossible odds. The double whammy of poor visibility and limited ammunition does factor in, but the genre is more than conserving bullets.
The genre isn't actually dead. It's simply in a transitional state and is waiting for the right creative team to rejuvenate it. A year or so ago, game journalist Leigh Alexander wrote an article asking if survival horror still exists. She ultimately decided it didn't, and she's right — in a sense. What I hope to do is outline how we can bring back this type of game in a post Dead Space and Resident Evil 5 world and what influences developers should open themselves to.
The problem with horror games at the moment is that the protagonists are not particularly relatable. They try to be, but in the end they are walls of human gusto blazing through hordes of deformed, bewitched, and undead beasties. Alan Wake flirted with the idea of having a Byronic hero face a nearly insurmountable dark presence in a small town and succeeded in making him realistic. Unfortunately, the developers also lost themselves in one giant homage to the pantheon of established authors.
Being completely aware of and referential to your source material severely undercuts the angst of a story. While I do approve of games drawing inspiration from authors as a way to fix survival horror, they shouldn't name-drop them. I'll give Alan Wake a pass for now, as the deeply conflicted protagonist was lost in his adoration of other writers and desperate…as long as Remedy doesn't do it again.
Developers could learn a lot from H.P. Lovecraft if they took the time to analyze his work rather than regurgitate the Cthulhu mythos. Lovecraft was a strange and terrified man who wrote from a very dark place. His horror seeps through his words and fuels many authors today. His brilliance is not in his imagery, but how he forces the reader right up against a ghastly abomination then turns away. He is too moved by his words to fully relate the awesome abhorrence to you, and dread soon follows. This is an addictive and simultaneously frustrating method, but it draws millions of readers that much closer.
This is how we'll fix survival horror. I've always defined the genre through its inclusion of a protagonist fighting against an unforgiving and alien world. Nothing is as it should be, and no one is who they say they are. Dread should be abstract and ever-present, and Lovecraft's model is certainly that. You can prepare yourself, and you can rally against the darkness, but it is all-consuming. It radiates madness and terror on a level that even the most stalwart hero cannot comprehend or fully defend against.
Eternal Darkness is a perfect example of what I mean, but it could go much further. Throughout the story the protagonist is teetering on the precipice of madness, and you are, too. As your character's sanity wanes, the game shatters the fourth wall and makes you think something is going very wrong with your console.
Survival horror's return depends on game makers stepping away from gore and considering how terrifying lurking, unseen monsters can be. Rather than shooting zombies and running from rapists, players should confront fear on a psychological level and "survive" it.
Much like Cthulhu, survival horror isn't dead; it's merely dreaming. The genre should encapsulate heart-pounding and mind-bending terror. No matter how big a gun is, it is ultimately useless against enveloping despair. For this to work, gamers have to accept defeat for the sake of a story.