A discussion on Google+ today in the Gaymer community (thanks again, Brian) this week about finding video game characters attractive got me thinking. No, not about sexiest video game character(s), but about Dead Space 3 and the evolution of survival horror franchises. Yes, I know, my mind goes weird places.
I realize we’re more than a month out from the release of Dead Space 3, but that doesn’t mean we still can’t talk about it. The game has been out there and digested by many players, and has had plenty of time to be absorbed into our cultural consciousness. One of the sticking points brought up about Dead Space 3 was that many folks felt that is was too “action-y,” and had strayed from it’s survival horror roots. Some games make this transition well (Resident Evil 4), and some games do this poorly (Silent Hill 4). Again though, I’m not going to make this into a review of DS3, but instead focus on the more general ideas.
The sides to the debate regarding the “action-ification” of survival horror games seem to be “ERMAHGERD, WORST EVAR!!!!1!!” and “Is it good?” The loud, rather vocal first group seem to believe that it will lead to the downfall of Western civilization as we know it. The second group largely doesn’t seem to care what genre a game labels itself as, but only whether or not it’s good. And let’s be honest, it’s hard to pick a genre for some games. Especially AAA titles like, say Mass Effect 3. Is it an RPG who’s combat system just happens to be 3rd person cover-based shooting? Or a 3rd person cover shooter with Jedi powers and RPG elements? I think the series kinda slid a bit between the two over the course of the trilogy, but that’s another show. I largely agree with the second of these two groups about quality over classification, especially since I see the evolution of a survival horror franchise towards a more action-oriented direction is an inevitability.
Why? Two reasons – sales and story. The first one is obvious, and it’s the one people seem to whine the most about. Individual game developers may be, or some times claim to be, in it pour l’art (I’m looking at you, David Cage), but publishers and larger studios are businesses. They’re here to make money. When you expand the genre of a game in it’s sequel(s), you make the sequel and the series as a whole more accessible to a general audience. I personally believe that we, the community of gamers, should encourage this, because lament the casual/social revolution all you want, it’s made gaming a much more widely accepted part of culture in general. I believe Extra Credits did a video about this, but I just can’t remember which one. S1E6 also touches on the withering of horror games, focusing more on the overall genre and less on individual franchise. But I digress.
What about story? In a well written game, the moments which scare the player should scare the character, and vice versa. In the case of the original Dead Space, the experience is new to both of us (player and character). By the time we get to Dead Space 3 however, it’s old-hat. Isaac has been through a lot of shit up to this point, and while the necromorphs might startle him once in a while, they’re hardly scary. Since the player character in a survival horror game is, of course, our avatar, in both the new and traditional meaning of the word, we the player would no longer be scared. By Dead Space 2, every time you and I saw a necromorph lying “dead” on the ground you shot it before it could, potentially, jump up and bite you. This type of learned behavior is what makes new horror within a survival horror franchise rather difficult to achieve.
It can be done, though. Resident Evil 4 provides us an example of how. The first time one of Las Plagas burst out of the head of one of Los Ganados which I’d just shot in the head scared the piss out of me. Serious “OMGWTFBBQ was that?!” moment. And the chainsaw guys. Dear God, the chainsaw guys. The sound of that engine makes you more and more anxious until the motherfucker jumps out of nowhere and cuts your damn head off. Gets me every time. I also remember fondly when the RE1 remake came out on GameCube and there were a few moments where I scared myself by what wasn’t there. My specific example would be the hallway in the PS1 iteration when that damn dog jumps through the window at you. You know which one I’m talking about. When playing the GC remake, I remember heading down that hallway, getting more and more tense for that moment. It didn’t happen, and I’d just made myself very anxious in anticipation of an event which never happened.
Anyways, I’ve gotten off track. Why do survival horror games turn into action games? Because the protagonist and the player are hardened in their expectations. Any persistent character who goes through these sorts of experiences over and over again without learning and growing is not just an idiot, they’re a bad character.