Survival Horror: From Drought to Shovelware Glut
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.
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.
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.
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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