The Changing Faces of Horror Gaming.

I have seen many complaints about Resident Evil 6 already proclaiming it is “too like Resident Evil 5”. Many others still want us to revert back to the style made popular in the PS1 era, of fixed movie-esque camera positions and pre-rendered backdrops. All are saying that Resident Evil is no longer a horror game.

Why? Because it isn’t what is considered “traditional”? Time for a brief history lesson then.

I’d like to take you back to 1989. The NES. Why am I bringing you to the NES? Because Capcom were indeed around at the time, making games, and one game (that sadly never got an official Western release) was called Sweet Home. Sweet Home was a top-down RPG affair, of a group of ragtag misfit friends trapped inside a haunted mansion, looking for portraits to pinch and ending up involved in a much scarier affair.

It is no small claim to say this was the origins of Resident Evil – a horror RPG, and it came complete with many of the mansion features we got used to in Resident Evil in 1996 – it also came with the door-opening animation sequences. And of course, it came with a serious warning; your aim was to keep your characters alive. Because, no joke, characters could die. The aim was survival.

That’s right, Survival Horror was coined on the NES in 1989.

As we rolled on into the 16-bit era, we got other horror games, all experimenting with the increased power and higher visual output that was being offered. You had games like the fabulous Clock Tower, a fantastic tense experience with multiple endings that the genre has become somewhat famous for. You also had games like The Immortal, an isometric horror RPG with a combat system that was, frankly, gratuitous in its violence, at a time when many were more interested in Mortal Kombat and the gore offered there, The Immortal was far more excessive – and as a survival horror RPG, a lot more intense.

There are other examples of the diversification at the time of horror games. LucasArts released the arguably timeless Zombies At My Neighbours!, a glorious action-packed ride through the genre cliches and concepts, poking fun at them whilst also offering a tense, often nail-biting experience. In my all time games, this ranks in the top ten. Zombies Ate My Neighbours! was fabulous, and brilliant.

I could go further here. So I shall. Haunting was an isometric puzzler horror in which, as a ghost, the goal was to scare your new occupants into fleeing the property. It also used humour as a device to carry the horror aspect. Chaken was a horror platformer with a seriously dark edge, tough and challenging with the idea that your hero was immortal. The movie tie-in Alien 3 was a fantastic attempt at a horror platformer adventure, Decap Attack! was a great game and very comical, and that’s so far just the Sega Mega Drive ones!

Of course, all good things came to an end with the PlayStation era, when we got to Survival Horror as we know it today. The genre, that had once been so successful and diverse and interesting, contracted into two camps; Resident Evil and Silent Hill. Sure, there were other offerings like Overblood, Martian Gothic: Unification and D, but the only real attempt at diversifying was the Square-Enix game Parasite Eve, which attempted – successfully – to blend in RPG elements again.

The reason for this contraction wasn’t because of the lack of ideas, but the lack of power – this was the early stages of three-dimensional gaming, and rendering large open areas or having more than a couple of enemies on screen at once ate away at the available resources quite dramatically. As time went on, Resident Evil got more and more grand – arguably, where it is headed now is where Capcom have always wanted to take it, look at Resident Evil 3. But these were horror mechanics designed to scare, but out of necessity, not style.

The PS2/Gamecube era saw a subtle shift away from this, but not for a while. Code Veronica: X, the Resident Evil Remake on Gamecube and Resident Evil Zero were all fine examples of the formula that Capcom had made so famous, however this was a double-edged sword. For years, Capcom had recycled the same concept and style over and over, and it wasn’t just the reviewers getting bored – it was the gamers, the consumers, who were simply not buying those games.

Resident Evil 4 came about because Capcom had to change the formula. There was no other option for them.

Silent Hill is another example of a game that is defined by its constraints; Silent Hill 2 and 3 were great games (Three especially, it has the best mind-blowing line of dialogue ever. “Monsters? You think they’re all monsters?!” Think about the implications of that line and you’ll never see Silent Hill 3 in the same light again!) but The Room, Origins and Homecoming were all constrained to the same formula – the misting was increasingly unnecessary, the recycling of ideas was bordering ridiculous and because they weren’t trying anything new, the games got less and less… well… scary.

That said, the horror genre has even in these dark times thrown up new and diverse alternatives. Project Zero 2: Crimson Butterfly is a game I will sing the praises of for the rest of my life, a game crafted with such care and delicate precision that it’s scary and yet incredibly moving emotionally, with your first playthrough ending in a conclusion that is so heartbreaking I actually cried.

Then you had the interesting Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, a game that dared to be different, blending a Lovecraftian mythos into a horror game, with unbelievably effective results. And the Siren series, trying to stay traditional and move forwards.

Horror has always been changing, and survival horror – as a concept – was a flawed one that the industry and gamers pinned on an ever-so-tiny niche of games that became incredibly successful, but in doing so, restricted the creativity of others who maybe would have wanted to do things differently. Cold Fear, another much under-appreciated gem of a horror game with an over-the-shoulder camera position. And Gregory Horror Show, which is a sorely misunderstood masterpiece by the very people who got horror gaming into such a rut. Naughty Capcom.

And now, we’re back in a position where the horror genre is covering multiple bases. You have horror FPS like the fantasic Left4Dead, the indie craftings of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, third person horror games like Resident Evil 5 and Dead Space, cutesy horror, 2D horror. The works.

This explosion means yes, many will lament the loss of the PS1 era of horror. But for some of us, old enough to remember the incredible diversity of horror in the 16-bit era in both scary and comedy formats (I forgot to mention games like Gods and Castlevania, also considered horror games), I for one am glad to see the back of them.

Or maybe that is unfair. I am glad to see that is not the FUTURE of the genre. Resident Evil 6 is, arguably, where the series has been headed for years, increasingly more interested in the scale of the task at hand, and a city full of zombies across three continents is a rather grand scale. Silent Hill: Downpour is a game that is getting out of the rut the series has been stuck in and tackling a more pacey, less obscure angle. And we will have other games like the tantalising The Last of Us, The Darkness 2 and the inevitable Dead Rising 3.

Horror gaming isn’t, as many claim, dead. It’s just the genre, after years of being bottlenecked by restrictions, is now expanding once again and filling different, more interesting niches like they used to do in the old days. People want to do things differently – they want to use the power available in new and interesting ways, and not be constrained by the past.

Those who lament the passing of this old concept could consider themselves fortunate to have Amy as an alternative, and yet they don’t want that. It’s too buggy, not modern enough in design, not balanced enough. Forgetting that Amy does nothing that Resident Evil 1 and the original Silent Hill did – they were also glitchy, buggy affairs at times. With long, arduous gaps between saves and checkpoints, questionable combat mechanics and controls… Amy is simply the epitome of that old PS1-era style of survival horror.

And yet, it’s not modern enough and no-one seems to want that style anymore.

Change is good. Change is necessary. And change will bring good things and bad things and dodgy things and interesting things. The horror genre is just spreading its wings once more to encompass and embrace more than just a singular concept; horror alone is not enough in this day and age.

Like the old days, horror was attached to something. Horror RPG, horror action, horror platformer, horror FPS (Doom says hi!).

Horror is embracing its heritage in a very big way.

And we must embrace it as well, or be left behind, unable to enjoy the wonderful new things that will be done with the technology at hand.

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