The Evolution (Not Death) of the Survival Horror and Stealth Genres


With all this hype surrounding the newly-announced Resident Evil 6, the talk (besides giraffe blow jobs) about survival horror has been quick to come up. The gaming community has been pretty vocal about their thoughts and adamant that survival horror is dead, given the trailer’s explosive action and adrenaline-fueled moments. With the more recent Resident Evil games and even Dead Space, action has definitely take a bit more of a prominent role within this category of games. The stealth genre gets similarly inspected, with Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots and Splinter Cell: Conviction being front runners in this argument. Have these genres been killed off, fallen “victim” to modern game design? No, they’ve just evolved and have been bettered for it.

Since it’s all fresh in our minds, let’s tackle survival horror first. Back in the early Playstation era, Resident Evil was considered to be pretty frightening. Practically pioneering a whole genre, no one had ever seen that sort of game before. It was different. Besides just being original, being handicapped by the inability to kill all of your enemies, move like an actual, normal human being, and save infinitely made the game a bit more tense than normal.

Fast forwarding to this new gaming era makes some of those decisions stick out as bad game design. If a game came out now with a mandatory limited save system, people would cry that it was broken. The closest we’ve gotten nowadays is how the original Dead Space was toying with idea of not having a pause button! It didn’t make it into the final game, for whatever reason, probably for inevitable shit storm that would have followed suit.

A memorable zombie for most.

Movement would be an even bigger issue. The original Resident Evil tank control system is straight up broken by today’s standards. Even the vastly-improved controls in Resident Evil 5 were put under intense scrutiny from people, including me. The movement of the old days made it artificially more scary, something that would definitely not fly in this age of modern game design.

Stealth is the same way. Metal Gear Solid and Metal Gear Solid 2 (and by a small extent, Metal Gear Solid 3) all had less-than-ideal shooting mechanics, especially when under pressure. Having to hold odd button configurations or having to be methodical when aiming, shooting wasn’t a key strength in this series. Couple that with almost always being outnumbered and it ensured sticking to the shadows would always have to be in the plan book. Hitman and Splinter Cell were also stealth-focused series with large penalties for getting caught, basically ensuring failure in most situations.

The main difference about then and now is how these games are designed. Generally, games are made to be more accessible, which is something these two genres weren’t built on. For that extra challenge, and this is the point I want to drive home, gamers must choose different settings to get that old school fix.

With Dead Space 2‘s refined control scheme, it was hard for many things to become an actual threat. Don’t get me wrong, I was tense almost the whole time, but many of the enemies could be dealt with rather easily with ammo to spare. That is, on Normal difficulty.

Moving! Shooting! Still so tense!

Cranking it up to Survivalist or Zealot reveals where the roots are. Ammo is more scarce, enemies are tougher, tensions are higher, and any small blunder could leave you as a bloody stump. The fact that you could move and shoot didn’t diminish the tension, it allowed for faster action within the scarier moments. Being more mobile in turn made the enemies more mobile, making everything else more hectic. While the people (both friendly and Leon himself) in Resident Evil 4 weren’t nearly as agile, putting it on Professional laid the pressure on the player in a smaller, but still passable, way.

Dead Space 2 got some extra credit for including Hard Core mode, a welcome step above the other difficulties. Having absolutely no checkpoints and only three saves throughout the entire game, this is where your mettle would be tested. Even having completed Dead Space 2 twice prior to my Hard Core run, I was shaky, sweaty, and incredibly on edge in places that I had been a few times before. There was a tangible loss if I were to die, which is something I found incredibly scary.

Strangely, even after my discontent with the clumsy Resident Evil 5, Resident Evil 6 looks to actually make good on this promise of being more survival horror-like, but in a different way. Chris’ segments look to deliver the action, gun-heavy moments that will sell to a wider audience, but Leon’s segments look darker and more frightening to keep the fans satiated. From the trailer, Leon was moving and shooting in a darker setting, two things already that have me excited. Since we’ve been granted the ability to move and shoot, hopefully the harder difficulties will yield tension with different parameters, like the given scarce ammunition or even something a bit outside of the box like Hard Core mode. I feel (or hope) that they are going to try to service both crowds, hopefully learning from other games and their own past mistakes.

RE5: How to mess up both sides of the camp

Let’s not forget about Silent Hill, especially with this coming March. In that famed Silent Hill month, two new Silent Hill games (Downpour for consoles on March 13th and Book of Memories for the Playstation Vita on March 27th) will be released along with the HD-ified versions of Silent Hill 2 and Silent Hill 3 on March 6th. This series has always focused significantly less on combat, so it hasn’t hit the same controversy as RE. Regardless, with any optimism these games will be good and a solid reminder of why the series has such loyal fans. Maybe they’ll even be a step forward for the genre?

Metal Gear Solid 4 is reminiscent of Dead Space 2 but in its respective genre. Throwing away the old, archaic controls, MGS4 finally got with the times and controlled like a damn shooter; L1 to aim and R1 to fire. Of course, claims from some more pessimistic gamers stated it wasn’t a stealth game anymore, but a shooter. It was more of a shooter, granting you the ability to quickly dispose of enemy patrols, but that didn’t make it less of a stealth game. MGS4 felt more open to different for different styles of play, and while stealth was encouraged, it wasn’t a strict requirement. Again, maybe only on Solid Normal.

"Sneaking... sneaking has changed."

Crank it up to Big Boss Extreme and you’ll be tiptoeing and crawling around, cautiously trying not to alert the guards. Although the health and psyche gauge deplete at a more rapid pace and supplies are more precious, they’ve made sure enemies see and hear you from greater distances, furthering the challenge and discouraging sloppy, loud play. It was a more strict stealth game but with a modern paint job.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Batman: Arkham City have picked up this argument and taken it in a different direction. While both the Bat and cyborg man don’t take much lead to kill, they still have plenty of sneaky instances, but offer you an out. If Batman gets caught, an agile smoke bomb, batarang, or disarm move can temporarily get you out of a sticky situation. If Adam Jensen sounds the alarm, you are more than equipped with big guns or useful powers to handle the situation. Even with the upcoming Hitman: Absolution, stealth has been given more options, but on harder difficulties the genre has the best of both worlds. Speaking of Hitman: Absolution, it’ll have a Purist mode, that sounds a lot like the Hard Core mode from Dead Space 2, but with a stealthy twist.

Agent 47 usually busts on the lower back. HEY-O!

“Death” is a bit too harsh of a term to describe the situation these genres currently face. Like just about anything else, survival is almost essential to keeping up with times and that’s exactly what (most of) these games are doing. Past influences have not been forgotten, but they have been shaped differently or put on different difficulties. These hardcore experiences are still there, you just have to dig a bit deeper to see them.

3 thoughts on “The Evolution (Not Death) of the Survival Horror and Stealth Genres

  1. Totally agree. Let’s face it, the early Ressy Evil or SIlent Hill with endless doors to search through were not much more than point and click adventures. There is a freshness about the genre now that has taken it to a new level – blending it with FPS and the Action genres was always going to be the way forward.

    • I’m glad to see you agree with me! The way forward must be paved with the newness in mind.
      I’ve actually been playing Silent Hill for the first time (SH2, SH3, and SH Downpour) and I’ve grown pretty attached to the series. Downpour is good step in the right direction although it could use better melee combat.

  2. Totally agree. The genre had to adapt to survive. Let’s face it the early Resident Evil and similar games were not much more than point and click adventures with a touch of shooting.

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