Over on the Brainy Gamer podcast this week, Mike Abbott had Mitch Krpata of Insult Swordfighting and Leigh Alexander of Sexy Videogameland on to discuss the survival horror genre. Odds are that you know the work of all involved if you find yourself on this blog, of all places, but if you don't you should visit their sites and listen to the podcast, it's top-notch. (On the podcast tip, I would also recommend the recently-resuscitated Idle Thumbs podcast. It's been soothing my GFW Radio withdrawal; also, for some reason I find Chris Remo's voice incredibly appealing.) But the discussion of survival horror got me thinking.
Now, Wittgenstein thought that the job of philosophy is to help us overcome our bewitchment by language. But I'm a Hegelian, so I have this idea that our common speech contains glimmers of reason, waiting to be brought forth. And so it is with “survival horror” as a tag for the hallway-stalkin' zombie-shotgunnin' genre that began with Resident Evil for the Playstation. And because I'm not above pedantry I'm going to take each word in turn.
The “survival” of survival horror represents the genre's commitment to an experience centered on vulnerability. All games trade on empowerment in some fashion, if only because you get better at them as you play. But classic survival horror had a tool to worry the edges of your progressive mastery: scarcity. Survival games differ from most other games in that they deliberately ration the things you most need to make successful congress with the environment, even as you proceed through the game-- weapons, ammunition, save points, and (in one notorious instance) the ability to save. Trying to make your way past enemies under conditions of extreme scarcity creates this immense feeling of tension, because you are always anxious as to whether you have survived your last encounter in the right way-- if you've been sparing enough with your ammo and recovery items to make it to the next checkpoint.
Not all survival games are horror games. For example, I believe that the most recent Ninja Gaiden series are great survival games. Even though the combat is fluid and satisfying, the relative strength of the common enemies and the distance between save points fills the games with a feeling of frenzied desperation. Even when I wasn't dying (which was often), I was always worried about whether I had survived in a way that would allow me to upgrade my weapons in the next shop, rather than spending my resources on recovery items. I even felt that the early stages of Fallout 3 had a suitably survivalesque feeling to them-- when you go into a game and you're unsure about the reward scheduling, those first few levels make you feel like you need to save every last bullet you can. In the early going, I found that the limiting resource was ammunition rather than health, and this facet of the game injected a level of gravity into my early choices.
I was glad Krpata brought up Resident Evil 4, since that game made some bold and successful experiments in vulnerability. Instead of heightening the scarcity, RE4 uses basic combat mechanics and the feeling of vulnerability key to the survival genre. As he noted on the podcast, the key element is the fact that you cannot run and shoot at the same time. This turns open ground between you and the enemy into the scarce resource; you are constantly torn between ceding and standing your ground. Since RE4 also surrounds you with enemies (there's an unforgettable standoff in a house, where zombies start swarming through the windows from all sides), your inability to strafe (along with the slow, un-shooter-like turning speed) turns a shooter into a tension-filled dance with death.
Horror is a different animal. There are two distinct types of horror, the scary and the uncanny. The general consensus is that the American school of horror excels at the first kind, espousing the jack-in-the-box theory of dread. Where it succeeds, it manages to create this constant sense that some horrifically jacked-up human or irregularly-thorax'd beast is set to spring from the nearest closet or vent at any moment. Even though I have some fondness for this type of scare (it's been perfected in Dead Space; which apparently compiles the extant elements of the American-scary-game genre so well that David Ellis memorably dubbed it “Now That's What I Call Survival Horror.”), I'm going to pass over it in silence.
The Japanese school of horror thrives on uncanniness, rather than the surprise and phantasmagoria of the American school. Freud, who wrote a treatise on the uncanny, noted a theory that our root sense of the uncanny comes from a sense of “intellectual uncertainty,” our inability to distinguish reality from delusion. (The sanity effects from Eternal Darkness is a great example of horror-as-intellectual-uncertainty.)
But Freud goes on to say that uncanniness is fundamentally tied to the familiar. Playing on the fact that the German word for “uncanny” has the word “home” in it, he notes that “It may be true that the uncanny [unheimlich] is something which is secretly familiar [heimlich-heimisch], which has undergone repression and then returned from it, and that everything that is uncanny fulfills this condition.” Of course Freud immediately connects this idea to his lifelong obsession his mothers' genitals, but he makes a good point. Psychological horror comes from the juxtaposition of intense intellectual uncertainty and with things that are familiar; it's why nursery rhymes, children, dolls and clowns are so terrifying when shorn from comforting context of childhood. Contemporary Japanese horror often creates dread by rendering familiar modern technology (the cell phone, the television) alien, mixing them with magical elements (demons, ghosts and magic)from Japan's “repressed” past.
By breaking these elements down, all I want to show is that these various elements of the survivor horror genre come apart. They turn on distinct experiences. Vulnerability, in particular, is an extremely interesting game-experience to me-- I wish we saw more survival-style RPGs, for example, because the scarcity-model (rather than the regnant loot-drop model) makes your decisions about upgrading your character and choosing weapons feel pregnant and interesting. And I hope keeping horror and survival separate shows why bad combat isn't crucial to the genre. There's no doubt that survival and horror go together like Eric B and Rakim, but knowing the unique dynamics of each can make us better critics and designers.