Twenty years ago this month, Capcom welcomed us “back to the world of survival horror” with the release of Resident Evil. With pre-rendered backgrounds, a creepy soundtrack, and B-Movie schlock acting, Resident Evil defined a new kind of game; a cinematic third-person game play experience which offered scant resources to your character, and expected you to use your wits to ensure your survival, unlike its first-person shooting gallery cousins Doom and Quake. Quickly defined as a “Survival horror” game, its success on the Playstation quickly spawned imitators.
In order to celebrate its anniversary, Capcom have organised a number of releases through 2016. The first is a HD remake of Resident Evil Zero, followed layer in the year by the remake of Resident Evil 2. Joining them on the Playstation 4 and Xbox One are rereleases of Resident Evil 4, Resident Evil 5, and Resident Evil 6, and range of merchandise will also be made available, including t-shirts and an Umbrella Corps phone case.
Nothing out of the ordinary I hear you exclaim? Well one further announcement has caused a bit of controversy. Capcom has also announced that it will be release a new game, Resident Evil: Umbrella Corps, that will move away from the formula of the original games by being an online multiplayer first-person/third-person shooter akin to Call of Duty, and indeed Doom. Gameplay will focus on team-based death matches which pit player Vs player, in addition to the regular killing of zombies. Characters will be able to select from a number of melee weapons including a Brainer (axe), Terrain Spikes (boot-mounted spikes), and a Zombie Jammer for repelling zombies.
The reaction to Umbrella Corps has been muted, but raises an important regarding an already heard to define genre. In the lead up to release, some commentators have demanded to know why Capcom is moving the series gradually away from its roots, following as it does on the heels of 2012’s similarly received Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City. “Destitute” one reviewer claimed of that game; unfair to “consumers and Resident Evil fans alike,” another one stated. Having recognised that this game was un-Resident Evil like, and by proxy, not of the survival horror genre, the question begs, what actually classifies survival horror?
Writers have long struggled to answer this question. Games such as Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and Eternal Darkness are one of the only genres to be defined by atmosphere and design philosophy rather than by gameplay mechanics. The immediate intention of a survival horror game is to generate an emotional response in the player; that of fear. Poor scripting and cheesy acting aside, these games were supposed to scare you, with the most common trope being the entirely realised absence of a large hidden cache of ammo and overcharged weapons. Take away the level playing field, and what you have is a game predicated on survival.
Many have claimed that Infogrames 1992 title Alone in the Dark was the true innovator of the genre, indeed this is the opinion of the Guinness Book of World Records, who gave it the title of earliest 3D survival horror game, defined as a “game in which the player must fend off supernatural attacks.” Alone in the Dark was certainly stingy on the ammunition, and offered a healthy dose of Cthulhu inspired horror). Resident Evil that took those nascent elements and added a Hollywood sheen.
This analysis is popular, but it is not without its flaws. One might ask, if a person is scared by Fallout 4, which is not known for being over generous in the ammunition department, does that mean that Fallout 4 can be classified as a survival horror game? Or does it fall short because it is a first person shooter? Depending on how that question is answered, a whole slew of titles could lay claim to the survival horror tag. This writer for one will never forget being brutally murdered by mutant rats outside of Vault 13 in the opening moments of the original Fallout. Was this not a survival horror moment?
Just like Fallout, the roots of the Resident Evil series lay in another genre. Resident Evil began life as a remake of Capcom’s 1989 Famicom game Sweet Home, in which a group of friends enter a haunted house, unaware that it encountered a range of foul beasts, and slowly uncover what has happened. Sweet Home fused the RPG and adventure genres with the same gruesome imagery, scary music, and suspense that would be seen in Resident Evil, without actually having much in common in terms of gameplay.
Others have identified Dynamix’s Project Firestart, released in 1989 for the Commodore 64 after a three year development, as another early precursor to the oeuvre. Firestart adopted a space station as the setting for its side scrolling battle against genetic experiment monsters gone wrong. All the elements of Resident Evil are present; limited ammunition, weak weaponry, violence, cut-scenes, sinister music and the advancement of the plot through journals left on computer terminals. Not a big seller, Firestart was undoubtedly a transcendent effort, but it can’t really be classified as a template, as it failed to inspire imitators in the same way that Resident Evil did.
It seems then that the only characteristics that really appear important to gamers when it comes to defining a game as survival horror, is that it must be scary, it must preferably be in the third person, mustn’t give too much away (instead teasing the player as to the true nature of things), and should never, ever, give you enough ammo as to compromise the boundaries of the reality that the game is trying to create. As long as a developer can tick those boxes, then you’ve got yourself a survival horror game!
First published in CubedGamers (Printed Edition): March 2015