Written by Marie Overman, Winters Mill High School Class of ’23
What defines a survival horror game?
Many horror games before the 90s were action games–largely combat-based games where you have a weapon and a number of enemies to defeat. The horror aspect threw in a few atmospheric changes, made items more difficult to find, and turned those enemies into flesh eating monsters.
To make a good survival horror game you need high stakes. The player never knows when an enemy will appear, having to prepare for battles they won’t see coming. The player will be desperately searching for a means of defending themself if they want to survive whatever horrid situation they’re in. Then even once they’ve killed the monster, there are no rewards of experience points or items dropped. The only reward you have is your life and the promise of more dread the further you go.
The survival horror game is a testament to how a simple change in mechanics can create an entirely new gaming experience.
Sweet Home: The First Survival Horror Game
Sweet Home is a survival horror game released in 1989 by Capcom, in a time where survival horror wasn’t considered, by itself, a genre. Sweet Home was one of, if not the, first true survival horror game, since it utilized some of the most important survival horror aspects. It had QTE’s, or quick cinematic timed events, anxiety inducing gameplay and visuals, and a heart-wrenching ghost story to go with it.
The game consists of five characters you can switch between to solve puzzles and fight battles. Each character holds a special item that will help you solve those puzzles. You will need each of these items at some point or another in the game to solve puzzles and progress through the game. The hard part is, deaths in the game are permanent. No revives, no second chances.
The game was able to portray the setting and atmosphere well too, taking advantage of different mechanics to flesh out the environment and define the perspective of the character. One example is the ability to zoom in and out at different areas to give different effects. It zooms out in the beginning, giving you a bird’s eye view of the forest and lake around the Mamiya Manor.
Later on, some of the rooms get smaller, only taking up a small part of the screen while the rest goes dark. Some describe this as an almost claustrophobic feel, which is exactly what it was meant to do.
How Resident Evil Redefined The Genre
Resident Evil, also by Capcom, was originally meant to be a remake of Sweet Home. Tokuro Fujiwara, producer of Resident Evil and creator of Sweet Home, wanted to give into Resident Evil what he wasn’t able to in Sweet Home, especially on the graphics front.
And he pulled through. The new 3D graphics and voice acting allowed players to be further immersed in the survival horror experience. The music was way more atmospheric than that in Sweet Home as well, and helps to build up that tension as the player waits for a monster to jump out at them
Capcom made good use of their perspective skills in Resident Evil as well. The player’s view changes from room to room, using seamless transitions as if switching through camera footage, making you feel as if you’re watching back tapes of the characters as they try to survive.
The game doesn’t make it easy. You have to find ammunition to survive monsters that roam the halls. There can be ammunition in spots you originally would not think of, under tables and boxes you have to move to find. Then the enemies jump out at you in the next hallway, and if you hadn’t thought to look for that ammo, you may have just dug your own grave.
Resident Evil is also a puzzle heavy game, just like Sweet Home. There are about 25 puzzles in the original, a major upgrade from the seven in Sweet Home.
The Resident Evil Impact
Resident Evil’s success marked the beginning of the “Golden Age” of the Survival Horror genre. Many games started coming out that mimicked Resident Evil, such as Overblood (1996), The Note (1997), and Hellnight (1998).
It allowed the term survival horror to come to light, and now there are many more games that fit that genre, even though sometimes the lines between survival and action horror may be blurred.
Now the franchise has almost 30 games, including remakes.
Explore the MAGIC of Video Games!
Even though horror games have been around since the 70s, the survival horror game genre wasn’t truly defined until the early 90s with the release of Sweet Home. The stakes were higher, the world less forgiving, and the player felt truly invested in the game they were playing. And from Resident Evil to Silent Hill, you can see hints of Sweet Home’s influence around every corner.
Great atmosphere, mechanics, and immersive gameplay are what make these timeless video games stand out among the rest. Are you interested in learning more about game development and mechanics?
Get started with the fundamentals of game creation with MAGIC’s game development courses.