Opinion: Survival-Horror Is Back – And It’s Better Than Ever

Putting atmosphere, vulnerability and psychological-oppression right back at the heart of the experience, a whole new movement of inspired indie games are revitalizing a genre that was thought to be dead and buried. Mark Butler salutes this fresh wave of ‘super-hardcore’ horror titles – and the welcome dose of fear they are trailing in their wake. 

It may be renowned as the game that launched a thousand YouTube reaction videos – but notorious masterpiece Amnesia: The Dark Descent also deserves recognition as the game that sparked an indie-horror revolution.

While mainstream gaming continues to dumb-down its flagship horror franchises into ever more tiresome, action-packed shooters, the compelling projects of more bold, creative indie devs are drawing inspiration from Amnesia’s terrifying and nefarious box of tricks, and rekindling the very kind of intelligent, cerebral psychological-horror that has largely been abandoned by games companies in recent years.

You can see it in the palpable hide-and-seek terror of forthcoming chiller Outlast, which will see players flee and cower from grotesque adversaries in an abandoned insane asylum.

You can see it in the moody minimalism of nightmarish cult creation SCP-087, which turns the player’s own imagination against them by making a virtue of every last nail-biting visual shift and heart-stopping audio cue.

You can also see it in the ominous, creeping sense of foreboding that permeates this year’s sleeper smash Slender, which builds an overwhelming atmosphere of tension and dread as the player anticipates a seemingly-inevitable encounter with the horrifying, faceless apparition that stalks them.

In Slender’s case, this simple yet powerful burst of delicious fear-mongering has been enough to push horror right back to the forefront of gaming’s collective consciousness. Not bad for a free game developed by just one person, eh?

However, what is most fascinating about this new wave of indie horror is how utterly ruthless and uncompromising it is. At a time when the mainstream’s so-called horror titles are nothing more than shooters with a few zombies in them – falling over themselves to empower and entertain the player with gung-ho gore and bravado – the indie upstarts in question are doing everything they can to render the player utterly impotent and powerless. Indeed, so sadistic are games like Slender in their willingness to overwhelm with fear, that they could quite reasonably be branded as a new type of ‘super-hardcore’ horror.

While the Call Of Duty-esque Resident Evil 6 throws you a kick-ass arsenal and plenty of bullets to go with it, super-hardcore horrors don’t even have a combat system for the player to lean on. In games like Amnesia, you are utterly unable to fight back against the monsters that stalk you – making the prospect of seeing an enemy, or even so much as hearing them, phenomenally terrifying.

While action-horror titles provide you with ample medical supplies to patch up your wounds and get right back into the fray, super-hardcore horrors revel in the catastrophic double-whammy of instadeath and permadeath. When you die in Slender, you die straight away – with your only option to begin the nightmare anew. This is a devilish theme that upcoming sci-fi chiller Routine aims to exploit to its maximum potential, knowing full-well how readily the prospect of a very final ‘Game Over’ unnerves today’s players.

The fact is that most so-called ‘horror’ games in the mainstream are now care-free exercises in bombastic empowerment, where the player ultimately conquers and wins against the increasingly fragile enemies they encounter.

With super-hardcore horror, however, there is no ‘winning’. There sometimes isn’t even a structured narrative, or clear goal. The player is simply plunged into an inexplicable and occasionally illogical nightmare that they cannot escape. And they sometimes discover that defeat – and ultimately death – is utterly inevitable.

The question of why horror has found new inspiration in the hands of independent developers is an interesting one. Obviously, it is likely to be something of a backlash against the decline of psychological-led experiences in the mainstream, and the rise of action-centric shooters in their wake. With the heyday of Resident Evil and Silent Hill now seemingly well-and-truly over, and series such as Condemned apparently stuck in development limbo, there’s ample motivation for horror-mad creatives to pick up the slack.

But there can be little doubt that there is a real commercial appetite for psychological-horror, too – and this is the key hook for entrepreneurial teams and individuals. Indie developers are rapidly realising that there is a ready-made, enthusiastic audience for no-holds barred horror these days, and they’re looking to get in on the act.

It was revealed in September that Amnesia: The Dark Descent has so far sold an astonishing 1.4 million copies without the backing of a major publisher; its jaw-dropping independent success seemingly driven by positive reviews and enthusiastic word-of-mouth.

While the likes of EA and Capcom publicly maintain that survival-horror is too niche for their big-name franchises to stick with, the cold, hard truth is that there are legions of neglected horror fans out there crying out for intelligent, frightening psychological-horror experiences – and it is the indie sphere that is now rallying to that call.

As a horror fanatic myself who, not that long ago, was prone to dramatically lamenting my fears that the horror genre had all been abandoned by game developers, the rise of this new breed of smart, uncompromising hardcore horror is an absolute joy to behold. And while it may as yet be largely restricted to independent projects on the PC and Mac, the major publishers would do well to sit up and take notice.

Survival-horror is back, my friends: complete with little or no combat, fiendishly ruthless permadeath systems, and mind-bendingly oppressive atmosphere.

And I don’t know about you, but I sincerely hope that this novel take on a great video game genre is well-and-truly here to stay.


Mark Butler is the author of Interactive Nightmares: A History of Video Game Horror, available to download now for Kindle, PC, iPad, iPhone and Android.

Get it for just $3.08 from Amazon.com

Get it for just £1.91 from Amazon.co.uk


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