I have a non-negotiable rule when it comes to playing survival horror games - the lights in the room must always be off. It's absolutely essential to soaking up every bit of atmosphere the game has to offer, even if it does encumber me with an irregular heartbeat and a few sleepless nights.
Unfortunately, the sleepless nights have come less and less of late. I've stumbled, lights off, through every Silent Hill, Resident Evil, and Project Zero. The earliest games were, and still are, pant-wettingly scary despite looking increasingly dated, but many, in fact most, of the newer titles struggle to illicit any kind of reaction. Perhaps that's due to my familiarity with the survival horror genre, or perhaps it's because of the more formulaic or action-oriented nature of more recent horror games. But really, either cause should be indicative of the fact that in order for it to heed its own advice and survive, survival horror needs to adapt and change.
After the announcement of The Evil Within, a third-person survival horror and the debut title from his Tokyo-based Tango Gameworks, Shinji Mikami stated to IGN that "Survival horror has been drifting away from what makes it survival horror. And so I want to bring it back. Bring back survival horror to where it was."
But I wonder. CAN he bring it back? Can anyone?
The genre has been drifting steadily away from the 'survival' aspect of its title over recent years. It's safe to say that Resident Evil 6 could be more comfortably described as an 'action horror.' When your protagonists are trained government agents like Leon Kennedy or BSAA beefcakes like Chris Redfield, with guns and ammo in plentiful supply, there's never any kind of meaningful threat. It's just about plugging a bunch of increasingly ugly enemies until they all fall down.
Survival horror is about despair. It's about falling headfirst into a nightmare you don't understand, and unravelling the mystery at the heart of the horror. It's about moments of blind panic - the controls for the original Resident Evil were awkward, but that only added to the experience as you turned on the spot, firing acid rounds and shrieking at empty air. Survival horror games are about tension; being trapped in a small room with an enemy that you know you cannot best and can only avoid. They're about repulsiveness - a sense that you can't bear to look around the next corner, but you know that inexorably you must. All the while, your mind is torn - it's simultaneously pulling you away and pushing you in.
Mikami has addressed this duality at the core of survival horror. "My definition of horror is that first of all it has to be scary," he said. "And then you have some kind of scary creature, and you get a rush from blowing it away. A good balance of those two things is what makes survival horror."
But audiences are growing increasingly accustomed to this balance, meaning that it's harder to surprise them with anything new. It's a problem that horror films are all too familiar with, and are still dealing with today. After a huge glut of horror movies in the eighties and early nineties, eventual oversaturation led to cinema suffering from horror fatigue, as audiences were desensitised to the typical hyper violence and familiar with every scare tactic in the book. It was then that the genre had to take it to the next level. Scream was a successful, and scary, pastiche of the teen slasher movies of the nineties, and it has inspired a parade of parodies since - some comical, some clever.