Game On: Survival horror has entered a new golden age

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In the second instalment of his fledgling Game On column, horror fanatic Mark Butler argues that an exciting new wave of indie chillers are revolutionizing and rejuvenating the previously decaying genre – and leading big-budget console publishers to get back on board too.

Alien Isolation game
[Alien: Isolation]

As a virtual life-long survival horror enthusiast who spent a considerable chunk of my formative years cowering from Hunters in Resident Evil, and desperately attempting to maintain my sanity while exploring Silent Hill’s outlandish nightmare of a school, it’s safe to say I’m looking forward to this year’s gaming line-up with delirious, child-like glee.

Make no mistake: 2014′s release schedule is shaping up to be a veritable embarrassment of riches for horror fans. And many of the upcoming highlights have some genuinely distinctive and exciting elements.

There’s the magnificent-looking Routine: a stylish sci fi spine-tingler that invites you to explore an eerily-deserted space station in a gritty, retro version of the future. Then there’s Daylight, a procedurally-generated supernatural saga that plunges you into an abandoned hospital, with only a mobile phone to your name.

Also armed with a fantastic set-up is tense, open-world survival thriller The Forest, which sees you forage for food, build shelters and contend with monstrous cannibals; while Krillbite’s ingenious Among The Sleep sees you step into the unique perspective of a curious and vulnerable two-year-old, prowling the house at night.

What’s more, these appetite-whetting experiences really aren’t pulling any punches. Weapons and combat systems are conspicuous by their absence, while the catastrophic double-whammy of instadeath and permadeath are becoming increasingly prevalent trends.

Indeed, what is most fascinating about this bold new wave of hardcore horror is how utterly ruthless and uncompromising it is – with scenarios designed to render the player utterly impotent and powerless.

The indie horror boom really has been an extraordinary thing to behold. Following the monumental success of Frictional’s brilliant Amnesia: The Dark Descent, we’ve seen a huge wave of psychologically focused, atmospheric chillers emerge, usually created by small but talented teams working with real passion, ambition and flair.

Amnesia may be best-known as the game that launched a thousand YouTube reaction videos - but it also helped spark a horror revolution. Digital distribution, crowd-funding and powerful web driven word-of-mouth are now allowing developers to reach a huge, hungry audience of survival horror fans who have long been neglected by the mainstream industry – and these fans are eagerly lapping it up.

It wasn’t that long ago that the survival horror genre seemed all but dead and buried. After the initial craze in the late ’90s and early noughties began to fade away, there was a growing perception that audiences in America and Europe had begun to tire of slow-burning, atmospheric chillers that relied on scant resources and less-than smooth combat mechanics to instil fear and panic.

Indeed, a prevailing school of thought suggested that what gamers really wanted was bullet spewing adrenaline. Bucket-loads of it.

First-person shooters such as Call of Duty and Half-Life 2 had taken centre-stage at the top of the critical and commercial pack, while the Silent Hill series had seen declining sales in non-Japanese territories with each successive release.

The phenomenal sales success of Doom 3 and Resident Evil 4 – which completely revamped the rules and mechanics of its predecessors into something more slick, epic in scale and shooter-like – seemed to solidify this perception, and consequently the mainstream industry all but turned its back on ‘true horror’, in favour of all-out action experiences.

Since then, old stalwarts have fallen by the wayside, the Resident Evil games have strayed further and further away from their roots with ever-diminishing returns, and few new console survival horrors have emerged to plug the gaping void.

Those that have, such as the Dead Space series, have often been gore-soaked third-person gun fests more than traditional chillers; with the third DS instalment jettisoning any pretence at proper horror by introducing cover-based shooting, human enemies and the like. And promising upstarts – like Monolith’s formidably disturbing Condemned – have come and gone with little fanfare.

But now survival horror is back with a vengeance, it seems. And while there are those who point out that its revival has been largely restricted to indie PC releases via Steam, there are signs that the post-Amnesia boom is beginning to have an impact in the mainstream, Triple A console arena too.

This year the Godfather of survival horror, Shinji Mikami, is returning with his first all-out horror project in almost a decade. A major title heading to both current and next-gen platforms, The Evil Within will combine elements of classic trailblazers such as Silent Hill and his own seminal Resident Evil with a whole array of other twisted influences. And it looks great.

Is the horror console comeback of a pioneer like Mikami simply a coincidence? A one-off boon. I would argue not.

There are increasing signs that the industry’s biggest publishers are beginning to have faith in horror again. Even more than that, there appears to be a desire to wholeheartedly embrace both old-school survival elements, and the kind of dreadful, foreboding vulnerability of Amnesia and its ilk.

Terrifying asylum ordeal Outlast is heading to PS4 next month, Daylight is also getting a release on Sony’s brand new console, and the superb-looking Alien: Isolation is coming to pretty much every major platform imaginable.

Alien: Isolation is far from being just another bug hunt too. I’ve been arguing for ages that someone should make an oppressive, nail-biting psychological-horror based on the Alien IP, toning the action right down, making the creature itself that much more intimidating and formidable, and – most importantly – ensuring the experience is absolutely bloody petrifying.

By God, it seems that Creative Assembly might actually have done it. Adopting a nail-biting hide and seek approach that sees you negotiating an atmospheric space station with not a pulse rifle in sight, the previews show how stealth and wits are the only weapons you’ll have to escape the towering, merciless xenomorph that pursues you.

The fact that the developers have been given free reign to do this, rather than being ordered to insert smart-guns, grenades and an entire squad of wise-cracking stereotyped marines, suggests that publishers have been paying attention to the popularity of the indie horror phenomenon. And the sales figures.

You see, the rather gung-ho Resident Evil 6 and Dead Space 3 completely failed to meet commercial expectations at launch, and I wouldn’t be surprised if even the likes of EA are now re-assessing their previous claims that their horror IPs needed to more closely resemble Call of Duty and Gears Of War.

An early sign of this may have been Capcom’s move to port their excellent 3DS title Resident Evil: Revelations to home consoles last year. More of a hark back to the traditional survival-based gameplay of the earlier titles, complete with scarcer resources, tougher enemies and an evocative, overriding setting, it went on to shift more than a million copies in just a few months.

As a result, there have been suggestions that the main series will now look to adopt a more overtly scary, horror-based approach once more. And about time too.

In any case, there’s never been a better time to be a horror gamer. And with the Oculus Rift on hand and a whole maelstrom of fear-inducing indies and Triple A blockbusters en route, there’s sure to be plenty of terrifying times ahead.

So enjoy. And don’t have nightmares…

Mark Butler is the author of Interactive Nightmares: A History Of Video Game Horror, which is out now. 

Mark Butler

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Mark is the content manager for WOW247 in Leeds. When he isn't waxing lyrical about Ben Wheatley and Caravan Palace, he's landing news, assembling guides and penning features.

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