The Death of the Survival Game
Survival horror should never have been a genre. All games are survival games – the struggle against death defines their gameness. Since the limitation of resources is the surest fingerprint of a developer’s careful mediation between the player’s power and the game’s challenge, the abundance of them is the best sign that no one was paying attention. We now have so few games in the AAA industry that are cognizant of the limitations and goals of the player that “hardcore” has been amputated as the niche while “casual” has metastasized into the norm. And “hardcore” has become a synonym for “survival.”
Horror is the genre of disempowerment, a tough sell to the casual gaming masses. The idea of having less authority over the world than a rat in a meat grinder has found a home on Steam with grungy hallway simulators like Slenderman and Outlast. But AAA knows that such experiences create more cognizant players looking for tighter and more engaging thrills than those that can be re-transacted with friends and enemies online forever and ever. Refusing to make them may not be incompetence, as many so generously assume, but outright suppression.
Consider as a fine example of suppressive genre re-engineering the mutation of Dead Space, an atmospheric endangerment simulator, into Dead Space 3, a game full of action, grinding, RPG elements, and micro-purchases. The lonely immersion of the first game was obviously not lucrative, as by the third game the mechanics were all designed, not to force fear, but to force a purchase.
Many consider the Resident Evil series to be the genre’s ambassador to the masses, but look at what pandering to those masses has done to the series: we went from RE4, pulpy horror classic, to RE5 and its cruddy co-op action campaign, to RE6 and all its run-and-gun compromises to the Call of Duty crowd. RE7 is an improvement, but it’s a game that features elements of horror (a scanty few set-pieces of disempowerment) with a majority stake in negotiating with the average gamers, to provide them enough flame grenades, big boss battles, and standard enemy fodder to pull them off the CoD lobby long enough to play Capcom’s little campaign. RE7 is as much a compromise, just with the Outlast crowd and those who were stoked for P.T., designed with one foot in another era and one buried in the desert of this one.
To create the feeling of horror, it would be natural for a concept of game design integrated to a tone to include mechanics that encourage the tone, such as resource management, a close camera angle, and invincible enemies. Most of the “horror” games today feature horror elements but no mechanics that support the intentions of those elements. They learned this from the best (seller): the military FPS, a game that defies its own resonance when proclaiming to be a dramatic and conscientious portrayal of war while desensitizing its player with unlimited lives and ammo and less stake in events than in Contra. See The Evil Within as the exemplary sellout, for creating an opening level that teased a horror game but a subsequent campaign rife with all the action hero detritus of the industry at its worst.
Alien Isolation was the closest to legitimate horror we’ve had since Amnesia, and from a AAA movie tie-in no less. It reviewed as divisively as I’ve seen a game in my lifetime: with Game of the Year from some publications and abject roasting from others. This division is a sign of its player disempowerment. Those who grew up as Master Chief being told throughout entire campaigns that they’re “unstoppable” couldn’t stomach it. Though it burnt out on the horizon of its ambitions with an over-long campaign, Alien Isolation was teeth-blanching scariness that cast the player in the only role they were born to play: a resource manager.
When you breathlessly thread the dangers of Super Mario Bros. praying that the next block will contain a mushroom, you’re tasting how a game connects with your goals as a survivor in a virtual universe. When you’re so inundated with power-ups that you no longer look for them, you start to remember the controller in your hand, the laundry you still have to do: you feel like the game was designed for someone else. When you have to work up to its level, tighten your belt, put in your share of the cognizance, games can captivate like no other medium: notice how Dark Souls has created an entire community of gameplay-centric gamers, who no longer have a taste for abundant handholding and tutorials. If you’ve ever gone running after a stockpile of souls buried deep in a crypt after your last failed excursion, with one healing potion left and a weapon close to degradation, you would be likely to call Dark Souls “survival horror” if such a thing really existed. The Binding of Isaac would be labeled as a “top-down roguelike shooter,” but few games in recent memory have required more stringent health and item management.
Game genres are more about expectations than content. Gamers would revolt if the limited saves mechanic from Resident Evil 2 was transferred to an Elder Scrolls game. The disappearance – or at least, the marginalization – of the survival horror genre is just a signpost to the lack of survival in the AAA gaming industry as a whole. How have the Fallout games not taken this element to its furthest application, or any further than a thrown-in “hard” mode in New Vegas? The Metro games did the same thing, giving the game survival elements only in the harder difficulty, and it had the additional gall to charge extra for it like a parent putting your favorite action figure in toy jail.
The idea that survival elements would be restricted to a hard mode demonstrates better than words how the industry has realigned around those who don’t want to be conscious when they play a video game. These are the elements that determine whether a game will have a satisfying progression arc that fulfills a player’s time or will be purposefully a time (and money) killer, and they are relegated to DLC or omitted entirely. Notice we have had no wonderful Star Wars game in which a rebel on a hostile planet has to fend for survival, negotiate resources with imperial outposts, fend off wildlife, survive the night, and eventually escape. Why market that when the interactive toy shelves of the Battlefront games just keep on giving, when thanks to Activision the purchase economy is no longer in-game with the mechanics, but out-game with the publishers?
Purchasable single-player expansions such as those present in Dead Space 3 and Middle-Earth: Shadow of War are nothing less than the excision of the player’s consciousness from the act of playing a video game. When it becomes truly commonplace to make mechanics normally reserved for a logical player progression buyable from a store, games, no matter their developers’ claims to the contrary, will no longer be developed for those progressions. The literature of game design will be retconned into a profit model. It seems like a recent development, like the full heinous fault of the shysters at EA and Activision. But it’s been a long time coming, ever since the first game that decided that its player, while a nice enough companion and a good source of income, could not be trusted with their own survival.
M.C. Myers is a graduate of English Literature and a geek even when it’s in vogue. When he’s not writing about video games he has a semi-regular column on Bright Lights Film called “Watch it Again.” He can be reached at his email: firstname.lastname@example.org