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The Art Of Darkness: The Changing Landscape Of The Survival Horror Game

A new breed of indie developers are reanimating the bloated corpse of this once glorious genre.
26 November 2012, 5:45pm

There's a certain thrill in playing a great horror game, an unnerving blend of constant danger and constant awe. You could always press escape, end it all and go look out the window, but you'd rather hide in a wardrobe and listen to children cry. Every twist and turn sends you to a more terrifying place, but still you push on intrepidly, willing yourself to be possessed. With the golden age of survival horror now long gone, a new wave of developers are looking to create games that feel highly polished and intelligent whilst still retaining the ability to reduce you to a whimpering mess.

Released in 1996, Capcom's legendary Resident Evil is considered the first survival horror game, but really it’s games like Konami's Silent Hill and Tecmo's Fatal Frame that captured the darker, more psychological elements that have come to define it. Based on traditional Japanese fiction of ghosts and ghouls, these were some of the first horror games to reduce or remove an emphasis on combat and instead focus on clever mechanics and puzzles to help create a more substantial and interactive narrative. Fatal Frame removed combat entirely, replacing your weapon with a camera with which you photograph the spirits to an untimely end in a more sinister take on Luigi's Mansion. Though crude by today’s standards, these games have remained a template for survival horror ever since.

Silent Hill

Fatal Frame

And so it became a staple. Capcom have now pumped out at least some form of Resident Evil every year since 1996, with each one slowly becoming more action and combat dominant in an attempt to replicate the successes of other rising genres. 2005's F.E.A.R. combined the shooter and horror genres well, reviving the eerie apparitions of Japanese horror in the form of a little girl named Alma, but it still felt like it was there just to break up the parts where you get to shoot bad guys.

Competition between publishers had seemingly ruined this beloved genre, with some even declaring its premature death. The suspense and tricky puzzles had largely been replaced with shock value, never allowing the player to go more than two minutes without having to blast something out of existence.


In the past few years however, we've begun to see something of a revival. Free from publishing contracts and with a whole new generation of tech behind them, independent developers are now returning to the genre, looking to create a survival experience that both borrows from and builds upon the classics. With the recent resurgence of the PC platform, otherwise unknown developers have been able to showcase their dark and sordid imaginations to the world without relying on the creatively restrictive backing of big budget investments. With a surprisingly high success rate this anyone-can-play-guitar attitude has inspired a whole generation of part-time coders and level designers to create incredibly individual pieces of work that seem to defy the industry.

Based on the stories of a running web series written by anonymous contributors about strange, mutant creatures SCP – Containment Breach is a free, independently produced survival horror made in the weak but accessible Blitz3D engine. Creating a cult following, along with bringing in readers for creative writing site The SCP Foundation, it proved that a game could be lacking in polygons or pixels and still be a clear success. It succeeds by being pretty damn terrifying, building suspense and distorting your spatial awareness through a series of dark, complex corridors where you try to escape a monster known only as SCP-173. By using a blink meter the game can incorporate a clever mechanic where SCP-173 cannot attack you whilst in direct line of sight—blink or turn around and you're fair game.


Flip this device on its head and you have Slender, a simple but effective game built in Unity. Based on Creepypasta and 16th century German folklore, it’s less a story and more an idea. Walking around a circular, dense forest, you must collect eight pages from a possible ten points of interest, while the Slender Man lurks in the trees, getting faster and more ballsy with the more pages you find, until he seems to never leave the corner of your eye, willing you to look. Look at him for too long and he takes you.

Relatively new to the scene and already proving that they can keep up with AAA developers, UK-based thechineseroom are an indie company capable of creating games that are not only rich in story, but also a treat for the eyes. Although not survival horror, their impressive debut Dear Esther is a lonesome and haunting tale told through a man's letters to his dead wife as he follows the footsteps of an 18th century shepherd across a Hebridean island with nothing but his thoughts to guide his pilgrimage. All of this is built to the highest standard in the Source engine, fully immersing the player in the bleak but beautiful environments.

Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs

They’re now teaming up with Sweden's Frictional Games in a drool-worthy collaboration to create Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, the eagerly awaited follow-up to Frictional’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent, which currently holds the almost unanimous title of scariest game ever—and with thechineseroom's input, A Machine For Pigs looks set to outclass its precursor in every way. Using the true formula of survival horror, a detailed narrative, an essential inventory system, and inventive puzzles—all mixed with some of the scariest moments of my life—Frictional have created some of the genres finest examples in both their Penumbra and Amnesia series.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent

It's the successes of developers like thechineseroom and Frictional Games that are attracting the attention of both wannabe game designers as well as veterans. This means that, hopefully, larger companies may actually start listening to their teams, who have been telling them all along that more guns doesn't necessarily mean more money. Rather, they have to start putting more time into developing the characters or storyline. But with the release of titles like Resident Evil 6, that doesn’t seems likely. In some ways, survival horror is better left in the hands of independent developers. The freedom gives them the ability to create a more definite, personal vision, undetermined by the number of sales or pre-orders. And if that allows us to see more of their dark and twisted imaginations, then I can't wait.