Let me take you through a scene in a typical survival horror game.
There seem to be monsters everywhere, but finally you’ve arrived in a quiet and dark hallway. You creep forward, and your footsteps echo into the darkness ahead. You know there’s something wrong - it’s quiet… Too quiet. You pass a doorway on the left and - nothing happens. You pass a doorway on the right and - nothing happens. Just as you breathe a sigh of relief, the music blasts and something shoots out of the door in front of you.
The monster claws at your face, and because you have little to no weapons, you die in a matter of seconds. The monster screeches and starts to eat your corpse, and the game fades to black.
Welcome to any survival horror game of the last ten years.
Don’t get me wrong though, I love it. They’re probably my favourite genre of video games, because they can pull you into the atmosphere and be unrelenting. In a horror movie, you get to watch as scary things happen to other people. In horror games, scary things feel like they’re happening to you.
But every survival horror game in recent years has had one major flaw, and it’s not any part of the scene I described above. The problem is what comes next - a monster will kill you, the game will fade to black, and you’ll restart within a matter of seconds, mere minutes away from where you left off.
Games that have no stakes, have no tension
The threat of a monster clawing your face off is only scary if it means something. For the first hour or two of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, I was terrified of the beasts roaming the moody castle. The creatures stomped around the rooms and with no weapons, the only way to survive was to hide or escape from them.
But a few hours in, as I walked through one particular hallway, I was finally killed by a creature. It was a scary moment, for sure, but when the game restarted and I found myself in that same hallway a few minutes later, the fear was gone. I knew about the beast ahead, and I knew that even if he were to get me, I could try again.
In the back of my head, I probably knew this all along. But once it became a fact of the game, most of the tension was gone. Evaporated. I no longer feared dying in the game, and so I no longer feared the creatures.
Sure, there were still moments of terror. Moments of surprise, disgust, and yes, even horror. But during the first few hours, EVERY moment was like that.
A solution for the genre
I’m not suggesting we take things to the other extreme. Death in a game should have stakes, but make those stakes too high and you’ll leave players frustrated.
Take, for example, the early Resident Evil games, and how they gave players a limited number of typewriter ribbons to save progress. While this gave tremendous stakes to every enemy encounter in the game, it also made dying more of an annoyance than a dread. You could die - sometimes through no fault of your own - and have to redo an hour of the game.
So what’s the solution then? It’s actually already out there, just in a different genre.
From Software games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne have found a way to raise the stakes for players without going too far. Their “soul recovery” mechanic challenges players who die to make it back to their dead body to recover their “souls” in the game, or risk losing them forever. Players restart at checkpoints - sometimes far away - and need to decide whether it’s worth it to try and get those souls back.
These games are not survival horror, and yet use the stakes of losing your souls forever to make incredibly tense gameplay. The same idea can be applied to horror games - give players something useful but not necessary, and then threaten to take it away when they die.
Find the right balance
With graphics getting better, and virtual reality on the horizon, the genre seems like it has a bright (or maybe dark?) future. But without proper mechanics to back it up, I fear the survival horror could become nothing more than a series of cheap thrills.