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Horror, par­tic­u­lar­ly Survival Horror, is in an odd place right now. As the fer­vour over the Silent Hills Playable Trailer neat­ly demon­strat­ed, there is still a rav­en­ous hunger for big-budget sur­vival hor­ror, just as the project’s col­lapse is a per­fect demon­stra­tion of the chal­lenges fac­ing that prospect. Everyone wants a big-budget survival-horror game from a well-known stu­dio, but no pub­lish­er seems to want to make it.

Enter Steam Greenlight and Steam Early Access de­vel­op­ers who at­tempt to fill this void with a huge glut of hor­ror ti­tles. The prob­lem is that the de­mand rarely trans­fers into sales due to the sheer in­ep­ti­tude of many of these projects. There’s in­fa­mous dis­as­ters like The Slaughtering Grounds and many oth­er games from Digital Homicide, a de­vel­op­er so fa­mous­ly dick­ish and liti­gious that all of their games have re­cent­ly been re­moved from Steam. Other times we end up with bare­ly func­tion­al 10 minute games like Near Midnight or any num­ber of Unity as­set flips.

Steam has been full of a lot of crap since the flood-gates opened, but a dis­pro­por­tion­ate amount of it seems to be horror-related. To un­der­stand why this is, we need to go back, way back, to a sim­pler time — 2012, to be ex­act -, where Capcom pro­duc­er Masachika Kawata told Gamasutra that the “Survival Horror” genre sim­ply wasn’t vi­able enough to war­rant big in­vest­ment. This was de­spite the mini re­vival that was be­gin­ning to hap­pen in Indie hor­ror, with the very unashamed­ly old-fashioned Amnesia: The Dark Descent be­com­ing a huge hit and spawn­ing mul­ti­ple im­i­ta­tors that con­tin­ue to this day.

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It demon­strat­ed the grow­ing dis­con­nect be­tween au­di­ence de­mands and pub­lish­er per­cep­tion of eco­nom­ic re­al­i­ty. The fo­cus turned to ac­tion games with a hor­ror ve­neer rather than ground-up hor­ror projects.

To un­der­stand that, we need to go back fur­ther than that, to the re­lease of FEAR in 2005. The game was clear­ly fo­cused on be­ing an FPS, and a very cutting-edge one for the time, but it had an at­mos­phere and uni­verse very much in tune with many sur­vival hor­ror games. This is the be­gin­ning of what I like to call the “Horror el­e­ments” era, which cre­at­ed a lot of games that dipped their toes in the hor­ror pool but nev­er quite dove right in.

Games such as Bioshock and S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl have sec­tions in them that are ex­cel­lent ex­am­ples of sur­vival hor­ror, but they also have a lot of oth­er el­e­ments that the game­play fo­cus­es on. Eastern Europe seemed adept at de­cent hor­ror, from the more lin­ear Metro 2033 to the sur­re­al and now rather ob­scure Cryostasis: Sleep of Reason.

The years from 2004 up un­til the Steam Shovelware ex­plo­sion were rich in hor­ror se­quences but lean on full hor­ror games. Previous to Amnesia: The Dark Descent, it looked like EA’s Dead Space might be the flag bear­er for Horror in the main­stream. Unfortunately, EA de­cid­ed to make the game more ac­tion fo­cused whilst adding some of the worst ex­am­ples of pre­mi­um con­tent in a full-price game, thus run­ning the se­ries into the ground af­ter only three main-line games.

Despite in­sis­tence that Horror isn’t com­mer­cial­ly vi­able from many big pub­lish­ers, the de­cline in se­ries like Resident Evil and Dead Space can be par­tial­ly traced back to them aban­don­ing their hor­ror roots.

Criminally un­der­rat­ed YouTube com­men­ta­tor Tarmack calls gen­res like Survival Horror “Desperation Genres;” they’re types of games a lot of peo­ple want to play, or claim they want to play, but there is a lack of high-quality fin­ished games com­ing out to ser­vice this need.

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We’re si­mul­ta­ne­ous­ly in a famine and a feast when it comes to hor­ror games. Ten years ago peo­ple were cry­ing out for hor­ror games, any hor­ror games, to sa­ti­ate their ap­petite. The surge of Steam Greenlight and pre­vi­ous­ly Desura games gives per­fect mean­ing to the phrase “be care­ful what you wish for,” be­cause now we have a whole heap of hor­ror games no one wants to play. Yes, we’re be­ing fed, but it still feels like we’re miss­ing out on the nu­tri­tion pro­vid­ed by a Silent Hill or Resident Evil 2.

A large part of the prob­lem has been YouTube, with con­tent cre­ators both high­light­ing and mock­ing low-budget hor­ror ti­tles in equal mea­sure. There is even a per­cep­tion the cre­ation of these games is be­ing fu­elled by hopes of a fea­ture on a big YouTube chan­nel, but the sales num­bers don’t seem to bear the ap­proach out. Some games fea­tured by per­son­al­i­ties as big as Pew Die Pie have seen few con­ver­sions from view count to sales num­bers.

Bad ear­ly ac­cess hor­ror games have also be­come a sta­ple of per­son­al­i­ties like Jim Sterling, who pre­sum­ably takes such low-hanging fruit be­cause stand­ing up would put too much strain on his knees. There’s a lot of point­ing and laugh­ing at this re­cent glut of bottom-of-the-barrel hor­ror, but not much ask­ing of how and why we end­ed up with it. “Look at this bad game!” is easy to make con­tent with, but of­ten de­void of ac­tu­al analy­sis.

What’s re­al­ly hap­pened to hor­ror, es­pe­cial­ly sur­vival hor­ror, is that the genre has bro­ken down into its el­e­ments. Survival games are huge now, and a lot of their game­play lin­eage comes from the sur­vival hor­ror genre. Day Z is a per­fect ex­am­ple of the phe­nom­e­non of these types of “des­per­a­tion genre” games: mas­sive hope and sales for an on­line sur­vival horror-ish game that was in Early Access, and frus­tra­tion when the prod­uct fails to come to mar­ket in a pol­ished form.

This leaves peo­ple even more des­per­ate for the next project to suc­ceed. Essentially, it’s gam­ing blue-balls, and so a sub­set of gamers are will­ing to put down mon­ey on ex­pe­ri­ences that are in­com­plete in the hope one day it could be the big on­line sur­vival ex­pe­ri­ence they dream of.

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As we talked about pre­vi­ous­ly, many main­stream games now in­cor­po­rate hor­ror el­e­ments with­out nec­es­sar­i­ly hav­ing that big sur­vival as­pect — which can be dif­fi­cult to get right, es­pe­cial­ly in an on­line set­ting. Atmosphere and ten­sion build­ing can take you some of the way, but with­out the game­play stress of the sur­vival el­e­ments, the ex­pe­ri­ence isn’t quite the same.

Mainstream de­vel­op­ers are run­ning one di­rec­tion with the “Horror” side and in­de­pen­dent de­vel­op­ers are run­ning an­oth­er di­rec­tion with the “Survival” part of the equa­tion, and very few de­vel­op­ers seem able to in­te­grate the two into a func­tion­al, pol­ished and com­mer­cial­ly vi­able pack­age. So, we end up with every shmuck with ac­cess to the Unity as­sets store think­ing they’re go­ing to make the next Slender: The Arrival or 5 Nights at Freddie’s.

The cur­rent state of Steam is ev­i­dence that in­de­pen­dent de­vel­op­ers can only go so far in fill­ing gaps in the mar­ket. We’ve had high qual­i­ty ti­tles like Outlast, but those are the ex­cep­tion rather than the rule. The gold­en era of sur­vival hor­ror in the mid-90s to ear­ly 00s came about be­cause enough pub­lish­ers felt suit­ably con­fi­dent in putting out enough high qual­i­ty games.

This con­fi­dence has dis­ap­peared — but the un­der­ly­ing au­di­ence for the games has not. Big-budget sur­vival hor­ror games aren’t be­ing com­mer­cial­ly suc­cess­ful be­cause no one is giv­ing them a fair shot. Cancelling the Silent Hills Playable Trailer af­ter so much ap­plause left mon­ey on the ta­ble and dozens on stu­dios at­tempt­ing to in­her­it its man­tle. Perhaps the in­dus­try is al­ready learn­ing this les­son; from what we’ve seen of Resident Evil 7, its pace seems to be slow­er and more fo­cused on ac­tu­al hor­ror, rather than ac­tion.

Whatever the fu­ture holds, I hope it’s bet­ter than the cur­rent state of sur­vival hor­ror, and I hope once some­one does take that big com­mer­cial gam­ble, the au­di­ence lives up to their promis­es and is will­ing to sup­port the high-quality hor­ror they clam­our for.

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John Sweeney
John Sweeney is a ter­ri­bly British man with a back­ground in en­gi­neer­ing. He writes long-form ed­i­to­r­i­al con­tent with analy­sis of gam­ing, games me­dia and in­ter­net cul­ture. He also does the oc­ca­sion­al video game ret­ro­spec­tive with a week­ly col­umn about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good mea­sure. He also does most of our in­ter­views for some rea­son, we have no idea why. A staunch sup­port­er of free speech and con­sumer rights; skep­ti­cal of agen­da dri­ven me­dia and sus­pi­cious of un­ac­cou­table au­thor­i­ty but al­ways hope­ful for change.