Many survival horror fans claim there was a ‘Golden Age of Survival Horror’. It was back during the PS1 era where it reached its apex, before steadily fading out during the lifespans of the PS2, GameCube and OG Xbox. 1996 to 2004 is generally the accepted window. It was during these golden years that gaming established its survival horror sub-genre, and in the eyes of some, then lost it forever.
In many ways these fans are right, this was the era that saw Capcom’s Resident Evil define the term, Konami’s Silent Hill took the concept even further and a whole range of other horror games burst onto the scene. Parasite Eve tapped into the innate human fear of bugs, the Clock Tower series saw us running away from the utterly horrifying Scissorman. In fact, let’s quickly list a few others:
- Nightmare Creatures
- Dino Crisis
- Alone In The Dark
- Fatal Frame
- Eternal Darkness
- Haunting Ground
And that’s not even an exhaustive list, nearly every game mentioned above had at least one or more sequels. But in recent years some survival horror fans have become blinded by nostalgia and clouded by unreason. In their minds, the only form of survival horror that’s acceptable is something that emulates the above list.
Any form of deviation from that established formula and they will simply reject the game as ‘trash’. No matter how celebrated, commercially and critically successful a game is, there really is no telling some horror fans. The Resident Evil 2 remake is an excellent example of this. A game that was loved by most but hated by a very small but vocal group of Resident Evil ‘purists’, who wrote the game off as an action game because it used a different style of camera for its gameplay than the original.
We’re not attacking these fans, in fact we admire their commitment to the cause, but the truth is there’s no need to behave this way. Reports about the death of survival horror have been greatly exaggerated. We believe survival horror has evolved but is still very much alive. In fact, we believe it’s bigger and arguably better than it has ever been.
What counts as a survival horror game?
But where did this negativity start and what caused it? Well first of all we need to look at what makes a title a true survival horror game. Or at least, what features give a game elements of survival horror? Many games borrow from survival horror or make it just part of their overall package; The Last of Us is an example. A game that has many of its roots planted in survival horror but doesn’t solely rely on them. It also contains plenty from other gaming genres too, especially third person shooters and cinematic story telling games.
The first factor in defining what’s a survival horror game is the horror itself. Is the game scary? Is the setting something that lends itself well to horror? Is the game atmospheric and creepy? Does it invoke feelings of dread and occasional terror? Some of the most atmospheric and frightening locations in gaming have appeared in IPs that weren’t trying to label themselves as survival horror but became still it, at least partially.
Nobody would consider BioShock a traditional survival horror game, it’s a first-person shooter with elements of an RPG. But it’s got strands of survival horror DNA running all through it. Rapture is one of the most atmospheric and damn right terrifying locations in all of fiction. It’s lore, it’s makeup, it’s denizens, it’s themes. It’s horror through and through, and your survival isn’t a walk in the park either.
The second factor is survival itself. Horror titles generally have deemphasised combat so that you, the player, always feel vulnerable. Staying alive needs to be a struggle. Think back to Resident Evil 1. You don’t have enough ammo or petrol to kill or burn all the zombies. You know that at some point some of the downed undead will come back to life as the even more dangerous crimson heads. Making them more of a threat than ever. Did you really need to shoot them that first time? Were you not better off avoiding that lonely zombie in that corridor? Shooting it has only made things worse in the long run.
Basically these decisions, a lack of resources and forcing the player to rely on their wits just as much as their brawn is what creates the survival aspect. This coupled with the generally creepy and dangerous setting makes the ingredients for a true survival horror game. It was aspects like this that each of our titles in the above list share. That is why they were the games that established the ‘golden age’.
The recent announcement from Capcom that the remake of RE3 will contain more action than RE2 has purists up in arms on social media. But it always did. In fact Resident Evil has always contained action if we’re being honest with ourselves. Yes it’s the survival and atmosphere that make the games so great, but most entries do end with you shooting a rocket launcher at a blobby monster while your character cheerily quips “Game Over!”. There’s no escaping Resident Evil’s appeal is shooting monsters as well as running away from them when you’re out of ammo.
Fixed Camera Angles
Fixed camera angles are something else most of these titles had in common. These and pre-rendered backgrounds, became a staple of survival horror during that era. Although, after the PS1, pre-rendered backgrounds were mostly abandoned, but fixed camera angles stuck around for a while longer.
It’s here where things get interesting, many Resident Evil (and survival horror in general) purists believe that fixed camera angles are essential to a survival horror game. Without them some fans won’t even consider playing a horror game. These fans are easy to find on social media. Look for a post from a major gaming news outlet that discusses the Resident Evil 2 remake or the upcoming remake of 3. It won’t take you long to find a rant about fixed camera angles, and how Capcom have ‘sold out’ and are only making ‘action horror’ games now.
This however is a load of rubbish, and here’s the thing about fixed camera angles; they were a happy accident. Yep, they were a design choice created by necessity and the technical limitation of the day. They were not some great artistic revelation, the games companies just hadn’t come up with anything better yet. Once they did then fixed camera angles were never used in development again.
But what was so great about fixed camera angles? Well their main advantage was they created a feeling of claustrophobia and prevented the player from seeing things until the developer allowed them to. This created a sense of danger and anticipation, it allowed the developer to manipulate the environment and in doing so also the player, then spring traps on them. A player didn’t know what waited around the corner until they ran down it, and that could be truly frightening. But here’s the problem, they’ve not aged well. And here’s a truth that the purists hate to hear; horror can work just as well without fixed camera angles. A Resident Evil game, or any survival horror game doesn’t need fixed camera angles to be a scary game or an authentic survival horror experience. This has been demonstrated time and time again in recent years.
Why are Resident Evil purists so against any other camera angle?
That’s an easy question to answer; they’ve been burned too many times. Resident Evil 4 was a fantastic game. But as we’ve said before, Capcom’s obsession with keeping up with the Gears of War and Call of Duty crowd led to them largely abandoning horror and go on to pursue an agenda of action and gunplay. This alienated Resident Evil purists, and as a result they then put the older games on a pedestal and rejected anything that wasn’t exactly like it. It’s hard to blame them.
They now believe that a horror title that uses first person or the ‘over the shoulder’ third person camera angle is trying to be an action game and can never be a true horror game. But they are wrong, and they are living in the past. The remake of Resident Evil 2 was just as much of a survival horror game as the original Resident Evil 2.
The game may have been updated with the same camera angle system as Resident Evil 4, but retained all of its atmosphere and horror elements. It’s arguably even scarier than the original RE2, it’s updated graphics and sound quality making it more atmospheric than ever. Those who refuse to play it simply because it doesn’t used fixed camera angles are only hurting themselves. Cutting off their own noses despite their faces, and severally screwing themselves out of a good time.
The same can be said about Resident Evil 7. This was a controversial beast for a different reason, but still related to camera angles. RE7, for the first time for a mainline RE entry was fully playable in first person. Purists wailed that RE had been turned into a FPS, but it really hadn’t. RE7 is a survival horror game, it just so happens to be in first person. This added a new style of terror, but like the older games, RE7 was set in a creepy mansion where monsters and psychos are stalking you. Oh and you don’t have anywhere near enough bullets to defend yourself, you’ll need to ‘leg it’ more often than not. Isn’t that what horror fans had been crying out for since RE4?
The Resident Evil 1 remake and it’s part in this debate
The reason why fixed camera angles don’t get used anymore is they are out of date. They would look ugly as sin in a modern video game and sadly they are probably gone forever. But purists will point to Resident Evil 1 HD along with RE Zero HD as examples of how well they work. Claiming that the game is a remake of RE1 from scratch and that it’s evidence of a horror game with fixed camera angles working in 2020.
The problem is though they are forgetting that Resident Evil HD is just a HD port of a GameCube game from 2002. It’s just been given a new lick of paint. Since the release of Resident Evil 4, Capcom haven’t developed a single Resident Evil title with fixed camera angles. They’ve ported existing ones sure, but people using RE HD to support their arguments are being wilfully blind. The game was made in 2002, that was 18 years ago. It isn’t evidence of anything other than Capcom love to re-release games for a quick buck. Ultimately though the franchise has moved on.
Horror can come from any angle
The myth that a survival horror game can only be scary if it uses fixed camera angles has been busted many times. While Resident Evil 7 and the remake of 2 proved definitively that fixed camera angles are not essential to crafting a fantastic survival horror game, we believe Capcom actually proved it much earlier with both RE Revelations games. While RE6 was emulating a Michael Bay movie, the RE Revelations games (while using the same gameplay engine) dipped their toes back into horror. And they did a fine job of it. For many of us this is where the debate ended, but after 2 and 7 it really is elementary now.
But we don’t even need to solely look at Resident Evil to see the evidence of this, there have been dozens of survival horror games in recent years that have terrified gamers, and all of them have used some form of modern camera angle. Amnesia: The Dark Descent is considered the scariest game of all time by a significant portion of gamers. This is a first-person game. Are the purists telling us they don’t find the game scary and that fixed camera angles would improve it? If Resident Evil is subject to such bizarre rules then why isn’t every horror game? Does anybody in the world consider Amnesia an action game purely based on its first person perspective?
What about P.T, Soma, Alien Isolation, Outlast, Slender, hell what about 5 Nights at Freddy’s or Until Dawn? While we’re here what about third person survival horror title The Evil Within? A game created by Resident Evil 2’s original creator Shinji Mikami. He set out to make a ‘new traditional survival horror game’ yet he choose to use the RE4 ‘over the shoulder’ formula and not fixed camera angles. Are purists telling us none of the above are ‘true survival horror’ games and it’s all down to fixed camera angles? As you can see, they are running out of arguments. The truth is a camera angle does not dictate if a game is a horror title or not. Survival horror takes many forms, not just the one form you played 20 years ago. None of us own the definition.
Is this not just nostalgic gatekeeping fuelled by contrarianism and artistic snobbery? It’s become the gaming equivalent of our parents telling that modem music sucks, then forcing us to watch re-runs of Top of the Pops 2 80’s specials, while proudly declaring “There, that’s real music”. Def Leopard are great Dad but that skin-tight catsuit hasn’t aged well. Fixed camera angles are the skin-tight catsuit of gaming, and the purists are our parents telling us The Killers suck because they don’t wear them, quality of the music be dammed. They refuse to listen simply based on the presentation. That’s not what rock and roll should look like, they tell us. Does that matter? Did it ever?
If you’re a traditional survival horror fan, and you refuse to take part in modern survival horror because it looks different to the survival horror you grew up with; then I implore you to rethink your position. Put the catsuit down and indulge in some of the amazing horror titles that have been released in recent years, allow yourself to have fun.
The truth is 1996 to 2004 never was the ‘Golden Age of Survival Horror’, it’s happening right now. Come and be a part of it with us.