What is Survival Horror?

When I think Survival Horror, I think Project Zomboid, a demanding simulation where the smallest mistake will weight against you heavily. Although there have been numerous titles which called themselves Survival Horrors, I was never reluctant to agree with their self-claimed titles. My view of what Survival Horror should be is a demanding simulation of a horror situation, where the game design does not allow you to be a god, and only careful planning allows you to prevail. The reason why I could never agree that any of the Resident Evil series games were Survival Horrors, was due to the sheer amount of health and ammo that you could find. They were sometimes demanding games, but in later installments the Survival Horror sunk deeper and deeper into the Action swamp. What is Survival Horror?

Dead Rising 2

No zombie expects a motorcycle to the face.

The Beginnings of Survival Horror

The origins of Survival Horror are traced back to one of two games. The first was Resident Evil 1 (1996), which even had a label saying that it is a Survival Horror video game. Before that, a game  called Haunted House (1982) for the Atari 2600 came out, which had Survival Horror elements and highly limited resources. Survival Horror video games always shared the following components, which made them easier to identify from other titles:

  • Horror “Elements” – Ghosts, Undead, Demons or similar creatures, which aim at striking terror.
  • Scarcity of resources – The main hero has a limited inventory, or there are simply not enough items to allow the player to feel confident, unlike in Action games, where you do not suffer such short-comings.
  • Story presentation – Journals, texts or audio-logs. Think of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, L4D or other titles where you keep stumbling on left-overs from previous characters/people.
  • Suspense – Caused by the eerie environment, odd creatures, or being outnumbered and surrounded.
  • De-Emphasized Combat – Flight rather than fight. Plan carefully, rather than head forward, guns blazing.

My first “Survival Horror” game was indeed, Resident Evil 1. I was genuinely terrified of it, being only in Primary School. The dogs were terrifying, the zombies were horrific, and my lack of understanding of the controls only added to the mix. Today? Nah. To scare me you have to aim at a different part of my psyche. By High School I was not impressed by attempts to use anything that reminded me of my spaghetti to scare me. Today, I punch zombies with “my fists“.

What happened to Survival Horror?

When I think of Survival Horror games, I might be thinking in the wrong categories. Games like Project Zomboid, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, No More Room in Hell (HL2 Mod), all of these spark my Survival Horror fancy. You start with absolutely nothing, and are forced to make do with what you find, or die. In Project Zomboid especially, the fact you need food, water and there is a highly viral zombie disease about forces you to act cautiously all the time, with firearms being out of the question. Amnesia: The Dark Descent has opponents you cannot fight. Your wits and the terrain around you is all that stand between you and losing the game. Meanwhile, in No More Room in Hell you start each game with your fists, and even when you have an M4A1 with a full clip the constant zombie spawning does not allow you to rest.

Resident Evil 4

"Oy! Now I will have to use a bandage to fix all this internal bleeding and ruined organs!"

When somebody tells me that Dead Rising is a Survival Horror game I ask them to speak louder, because I cannot hear myself over the noise of my chainsaw nunchucks. You see, Survival Horror is a term often freely thrown about, slapping the label on almost any game that remotely fits the genre. It is true, they *do* fit the definition of the genre. On the other hand, they do not focus on it entirely. The afore-mentioned Dead Rising although set in the zombie apocalypse has many more action elements. L4D is mostly an FPS, where you usually do not run out of ammo, ever, unless you try very hard (or are a poor shot).

Is it the case that “Survival Horror” games have taken a steady route toward becoming purely commercialized “mass” products? I beg to differ, the titles I mentioned in this article are mildly recent releases. The problem is that often when you expect a Horror Survival game you get an Action game with horror elements. There are still a few brightly shining titles, but overall you have a mildly limited choice.


Zombies are not the only area where you have an “under-age” horror-survival department. Dead Space had an interesting environment, and the more you learnt of the madness that fell upon the ship, the more uneasy you yourself felt. The problem with a lot of Horror-Survival games is that at some point you are simply too powerful. In the afore-mentioned Dead Space, Doom 3 or Resident Evil games the gear you gather throughout the game can make you almost god-like.

A constant challenge throughout the entire game is what I would expect Survival horror to offer. L4D, for example, does not allow you to gather all the guns you find, and although you can pick up a fully loaded gun at a “checkpoint” you are not a military warehouse. A close combat weapon or pistol, main weapon, med-pack, grenade and pills/adrenaline. Since there are four team members there is a shortage of useful equipment, and cooperation is necessary in order to complete a chapter/level. In Zombie Panic (HL2 Mod) you *can* pick up every gun and weapon you see, but the zombies will not have a problem mugging you then. In Project Zomboid, even if you manage to store plenty of food, water and weapons it takes only a single fire or loud noise for the whole neighbourhood to give you a visit.


"Quick! Zerg them!"

When I look back at what I consider Horror Survival and what the industry usually offers, what I consider survival would need a new “Hardcore-Survival” sub-genre. Ordinary Horror-Survival games appear to have the components in theory, but usually which ever other genres they also combine are more dominant. I still enjoy playing Resident Evil, Doom 3 or other “horror-survival” games. When looking for a real horror survival game however, I look carefully at the screenshots, reviews and videos. Mind you, having a crate filled with guns, deciding which one to destroy the demons with, and then executing your plan is fun, but it is not a horror-survival situation. It’s action horror.

In Short Summary

As time passes more and more games leap up to catch your attention as current-gen Horror Survival games. Some of them are visually nice, with an interesting story, or challenging gameplay. The problem is that a lot of the time the Horror Survival is sacrificed for Action, to make better sales. It would not be fun, if you could not kill a horde of undead or aliens with laser chainsaws. On the other hand, a player looking for a challenge would be disappointed.

Alex “WriterX” Bielski

About The Author

Aleksander "WriterX" Bielski
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Student of Psychology, he was identified as a Nut-Job even before he started the course. Having done some small work as a Modder for a number of titles, and worked as a Game Designer part-time, Alex now writes in third person. As Co-Owner and Editor of AlterGamer.com he aims high, while being armed only with a sling. In the future, he hopes to become a fully qualified Newspaper Editor, and purchase Google.

4 Responses to What is Survival Horror?

  1. It’s great finding somebody that thinks alike about Survival Horror.

    The good news: I’m making that game you’re talking about. Going back in time and aiming to make a game today that’s what RE2 looked like in my then 10-years old eyes. Hardcore-Survival pretty much defines what it is.

    BTW, also take a look at DayZ, it’s something too.

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