The Paradox of Modern Horror: “Survival Horror”

The vocabulary we use to talk about horror games is inherently problematic because a single subgenre has become synonymous with the genre as a whole. “Survival horror” is widely seen as a synonym for “horror” in general, but the truth is that “survival horror” when used in this context is a very specific kind of horror game that really only existed in a very specific era of gaming.

There’s a lot of nostalgic baggage attached to the term “survival horror”. The two words speak to a distinct type of gameplay and atmosphere: tank controls, weak characters, poor combat, inventory management, fixed camera angels, obtuse puzzles, limited ammo, lots of loading screens, lots of running, journals that fill out the backstory, etc. This type of game was popular on the Playstation and Playstation 2 and was also the only kind of horror game that was readily accessible in mass market gaming. Since there were no alternatives, it was only natural to assume that survival horror was the only sort of horror game, and over time, this kind of thinking became entrenched in the fans of the genre.

You can see this entrenched thinking in action (especially now with the recent release of Dead Space 2) when people say things like “[insert game title here] isn’t survival horror, but it has horror elements.” Or more specifically, that Left 4 Dead and Dead Space are not really horror games, just action games with horror elements. While seemingly a benign analytical comment, it hides a dangerous bias. There’s a strong implication that if a game isn’t survival horror that it is not horror at all, rather the most that it can be is a game with “horror elements”. But what is a horror game if not a game filled with horror elements? What exactly are these “elements” that are obviously horror related but that aren’t quite horrific enough to make the game in question a full fledged horror game? The concession that a game has “horror elements” but isn’t a horror game is analytically empty, meant only to appease opponents by conceding that, yes, these action games can sometimes be scary, while at the same time completely dismissing them as horror games.

What’s especially frustrating about this narrow definition is that if you take the description “survival horror” literally, then modern games like Dead Space and Left 4 Dead are the purest sort of “survival horror” because emphasizing combat naturally emphasizes survival. The word “survival” implies a conflict of a physical nature — that the threat of death is imminent — and conflict in games is best represented through combat. In Dead Space and Left 4 Dead, every enemy encounter is a fight to the death, so survival is always first and foremost on your mind. It’s only because of the nostalgic baggage attached to this subgenre that modern action-horror games aren’t also considered survival horror games.

Horror comes in many forms, and it’s good for games to branch out from established traditions to find new ways of scaring players. There’s more to horror than just combat and character strength; there’s pacing, lighting, sound, story, and environment. In fact, the overall atmosphere is more important than any character’s combat prowess. It’s worth discussing which mechanics are effective and which are not, but that discussion can’t happen if gamers dismiss every horror game where you have a gun as inherently flawed and only worth ignoring.