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The History of Survival Horror Games

The Evolution of Fear

My name is Alan Wake; I’m a writer…

And with that single line, the survival horror genre was bought back to haunt gamers once more. Developed by Max Payne creator Remedy Entertainment, the Twin Peaks and Stephen King inspired storyline of Alan Wake offered an atmospherically creepy experience for Xbox 360 gamers, as Wake tried to rescue his missing wife from a supernatural force. The use of light and dark, of endlessly feeling chased, and the small US town setting gave gamers a sense of unease – but it also bought a sense of familiarity. There was a question at the bottom of our minds; hadn’t we seen all this before?

The beginnings of survival horror can be found in the mid-1980s, with the likes of Electric Dreams’ Aliens: The Computer Game crafting heart-stopping terror despite the obvious technical limitations of the time. Based on James Cameron’s Aliens, the game pitched players as Colonial Marines and made them responsible for guiding the team through the xenomorph-filled corridors of LV-426 through a multi-screen, first person, interface.

By using a crude first-person perspective and providing the option of switching between different Marines, Aliens: The Computer Game thrust gamers into a truly terrifying environment. It was unnerving and unsettling, even if it was two-tone on the Spectrum 48k and despite the crudity of the graphics Aliens laid the earliest foundations for others to follow. The influence of Aliens is still being felt today in games such as EA’s Dead Space.

The History of Survival Horror Games The Evolution of Fear
Dammit, Jim! I'm a Stephen King wannabe, not a mechanic!

Japan’s status as home to some of the greatest names in videogames and horror movies inevitably meant it too would produce some of the greatest examples of the genre – the best of which pre-date some of the more popular examples, like Resident Evil. Though far from a pure survival horror, the 1989 role-playing game Sweet Home, which was never released outside of Japan, gave a glimpse of core features of the genre years before they came to fruition in Resident Evil. Sweet Home even had the same opening door transitions, and inventory systems. Like Aliens: The Computer Game, Sweet Home was the gaming equivalent of primordial gloop – the genre was still evolving.

Despite these proto-survival horror titles, arguably the first ‘true’ survival horror game came in 1992, with Alone in the Dark. Inspired by H.P. Lovecraft (like Silicon Knights’ GameCube survival horror, Eternal Darkness a decade later) Alone in the Dark put gamers into the shoes of private investigator Edward Carnby. Like both Aliens and Sweet Home, Alone in the Dark featured some of the design ideas that would feature in the genre for years – most notably, the use of pre-rendered backgrounds, static cameras, and 3D characters. Combat wasn’t a massive element in the game however; gameplay instead relied more on puzzle-solving, something that would also become a feature of the genre over the next ten years.

Although these games all offered a hint at what was to come, it wasn’t until the first Resident Evil and Silent Hill titles that most modern gamers got their first taste of the genre and how scary it could really be. While both debuted on the original PlayStation, which must have helped their popularity, the two were thematically and stylistically incredibly different despite some superficial similarities.

The History of Survival Horror Games The Evolution of Fear
It's scary, but...

Like Alone in the Dark a few years previously,Resident Evil’s corridors and exterior environments were all pre-rendered backgrounds, which allowed the developers to create highly detailed levels, increasing player immersion. However, by using pre-rendered backgrounds the development team at Capcom (headed by the legendary Shinji Mikami, who also spearheaded Sweet Home) restricted themselves to using static cameras through the game, removing control from gamers. Strangely though, this didn’t have detrimental effect you might anticipate; instead it immersed players in the mansion, as the STARS Alpha team of Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine searched for the missing members of Bravo team.

The survival horror genre may have technically started with Aliens, but it was Resident Evil that first coined the term and which remains the most iconic franchise in under that umbrella to this day.

Perhaps that’s because of the game’s memorable set-pieces (nobody forgets the zombie dogs jumping through the windows)? Or the claustrophobia of being chased down narrow corridors? The, um, amazing voice acting? It’s likely a mix of all those elements, but one thing’s for sure – Resident Evil kick-started the genre, prompting a number of franchises to appear in its wake, each taking survival horror in unique directions.