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Survival Horror: Origins | A Brief History of Survival Horror Games | PART 1 | GameX.io

Survival Horror: Origins | A Brief History of Survival Horror Games | PART 1 | GameX.io


It was a Friday. Bill Clinton was president of the United States. Because you loved me by Celine Dion was playing
on the radio far too often for my liking. But most important to the story I want to
tell, on March 22nd, 1996 a genre took the scene. The Survival Horror game. Resident Evil, or as dubbed in the Japanese
market that originated it, Biohazard was born. It employed elements of horror that had yet
to be taken advantage of in mainstream gaming culture. But I’m getting ahead of myself. While this may be the origin of the name,
the survival horror was seeded in many games that came before. Today I want to take a look at these games
and how they shaped what would be one of the most popular genres for the better part of
a decade. To fully understand the beginnings of the
survival horror genre, one must look at the contributing climate. During what was arguably simultaneously the
golden age and wild west of video games, the 1980’s was also host to another cultural
phenomenon. The rise of the horror film, and more specifically
the slasher flick. Where the 60’s saw the rise of camp horror
that drew from classic tales of monsters, the slasher was a relatively new take on horror. Less intimate than the stories of Dracula,
villains like Freddy and Jason were ruthless killing machines that stalked their prey. And that last bit is one of the most important
factors in the rise and acceptance of the genre, at least in western culture. The horror climate that people wanted to see
changed to situations that were less about grand romantic adventures, instead fixating
on a character or group of characters tale of survival. A common misconception, at least in my mind,
is that the horror climate for western culture and Japanese culture was fractured, with western
cinema adopting a more action oriented tone, while Japanese film took a more psychological
approach. While this is true in terms of narrative,
I do not personally believe there was as big a difference between the two tonally. They both fixated on small scale stories with
big horrific appeal that again told the tale of survival. This is very important, because if the genre
had been any more polarized than it was outside of tone, we may not have seen as large an
acceptance to the survival horror genre on such an international scale. Granted, the stylistic elements that can be
found throughout survival horror and the games that preceded the genre can be found in stories
a fair bit older than the likes of the slasher genre. Many similarities can be drawn to H.P. Lovecraft’s work and the narrative elements
and character design of many horror games. Some survival horror games have even gone
as far as to use the stories as the settings for their games. But what may be seen as the most important
aspect of survival horror, the gameplay mechanics, took a bit longer to realize than the setting
and tone. An early horror game that played a role in
developing some of the more stealth driven aspects of Survival horror was Nostromo in
1981, a scifi horror game vastly inspired by Alien. The game had you sneaking through a space
ship avoiding an invisible alien with the goal of escape. Another important note to take from this game
was the use of limited resources require to achieve your goals. Should you not have enough of an item, you
would have no choice but to die. This laid the groundwork for the importance
of inventory management in future titles. In 1982 we saw the release of 3D Monster Maze,
which had the player attempt to traverse a maze while avoiding a T-rex in hot pursuit. You had no weapon to speak of and had to rely
on getting out of the maze to win. The same year, Haunted House for the Atari
2600 released which featured monsters classically found in horror, like ghosts, spiders and
bats. The game also featured a lighting element
on higher difficulty setting where a player must light a match to reveal the area of the
map around them. Playing with light and darkness is an element
of many survival horror games that can be seen as an incredibly central role to gameplay. It’s interesting to see how this concept
was played with in the formative years of the genre, as simple as they may have been
at the time. Another title of the same year that may have
played a role in developing the genre’s appeal was Sega’s arcade title Monster Bash
that featured characters like Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolfman. The latter half of the 1980’s saw more action
horror games take the spotlight, such as Castlevania and Splatterhouse. While these games did not feature many gameplay
elements that would have realistically contributed to the survival horror genre, they did a service
to the horror game genre as a whole in showing how titles could receive critical acclaim
and international popularity. It wasn’t until 1987’s Shiryou Sensen:
War of the Dead that a game that could truly be called a survival horror in retrospect
hit the scene. The game was marketed as an action RPG, though
through the narrative, gameplay and setting could easily be seen as a survival horror
premise today. The player character is a lone SWAT team member
who must traverse a monster infested town to rescue survivors and bring them to a safe
zone within a church. The gameplay featured open environments not
dissimilar to Dragon Quest while exploring while employing side scrolling real time battles
like Zelda II. The game also featured a limited ammo system,
where often times players may run out and have to use either their fists or a knife
to battle enemies. The game also featured a day/night cycle that
would keep track of the number of days you had spent surviving. This feature would go on to be more prevalent
in the survival and RPG genre as a whole, while not seeing as much use within the survival
horror genre. In 1989, however, the game that would have
the most influence on Resident Evil and the genre as a whole was released. Sweet home by Tokuro Fujiwara was possibly
the most realized pre-survival horror game released within the generation. This one may be a bit obvious as Tokuro Fujiwara
would go on to be the creator of the Resident Evil franchise, but the features present in
this game are like going over a checklist of what is required to be a classic survival
horror game. The game used a limited inventory and puzzles
to create tension and immersion. There were multiple characters with their
own unique skills and abilities, each with their own multiple character paths. An overarching story that was told mostly
through documents found scattered around. Multiple endings based upon which characters
survived and the paths you had taken throughout the game. These features, while scattered among the
games I said lead up to that fateful day in 1996, were all together in the same place
for the first time. That being said, the game was still a top
down 2D RPG and the style that many attribute to the genre would not be found until a few
years later. 1992 marked the release of Alone in the Dark. While it can be argued that this game was
not a true survival horror game because of its emphasis on action, it featured some of
the largest stylistic elements of the survival horror genre. The pre-rendered backgrounds, the static and
cinematic camera angles of scenes. The horrific take on light and dark. It was the first time, in my opinion, that
a game was able to achieve a truly terrifying atmosphere. In the following years leading up to Resident
Evil’s release there were several other games that in one way or another contributed
to the genre at large. Titles like 1994’s Doctor Hauzer which featured
no combat, but put an emphasis on puzzles and horror atmosphere. The game utilized sound and music in a way
that heightened expectations in all future Survival Horror games. But then, that fateful day arrived and the
namesake of the genre was used for the first time, spurring several franchises that would
become part of a cultural zeitgeist. But that, my friends, is a story for another
day.

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