There is a reason that when ‘Survival Horror’ and horror games when placed together and conflated with each other, don’t seem to fit. A game like Silent Hill 2 doesn’t really share much in common with Dead Space 2. Perhaps that’s an unfair comparison, since Silent Hill 2 is highly regarded as a classic, whereas Dead Space 2 was beloved for the first week of its release. How about a game like Siren: Blood Curse compared to say, Resident Evil 5? They don’t really go together, and I really don’t think it has anything to do with how good any of these games are. A lot of the time, I think they’re conflated purely because people will use these phrases interchangeably, simply arguing from raw meaning. In that argument, survival horror is clearly a type of horror in which you’re asked to survive, it’s horror with survival being important. Taken at face value then, obviously survival horror is a type of horror.
There are several problems with this.
Foremost, it’s very hard to name a horror game that doesn’t have a survival element somewhere. The term is all-inclusive. Whilst people who use the term argue that not all horror is survival horror, they have trouble naming any game which is not. Especially when you consider how often horror in the general sense uses the threat of harm.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, is that a lot of these games simply aren’t horror, they have a horror theme, and sometimes even a horror atmosphere, but do not evoke the same defining emotions that make playing horror an engaging experience. Sometimes they’ll even work against any sense of horror you could otherwise have had. Dead Space 2 is a great example of this, any horror the game could have generated is lost, acting more like a systematic desensitisation session that anything genuinely horror (which has to be, when not subtle, rare, and if Dead Space 2 is anything, subtle and sparing it ain’t).
Is Dead Space 2 survival horror? Well yes it is. Once we get rid of the idea of survival horror being a subgenre of horror, or even treating horror like a subgenre of it and more correctly regard it as an action subgenre, then it makes a lot more sense. Then, survival horror games don’t have to be about horror, as a lot of them aren’t, but simply be inspired by horror, or have Gothic horror inspired enemies. Even if the survival horror aspect destroys the horror element of a game, we can still rightfully regard it as a survival horror. Such is the case with Dead Space 2, which would be a lot scarier if we were concerned with the atmosphere and steeping ourselves in a clever horrific tale rather than worrying about how much health and ammo we have because dying is such a tedious drawn-out sequence.
That would certainly be a more useful distinction than the all-encompassing one. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work that way. If we visit the Wikipedia page for survival horror we’ll discover that survival horror is “a subgenre of action-adventures video game inspired by horror fiction”, “These games make the player vulnerable by providing them with less ammunition and fewer heavy weapons than other action games”. Good so far. The article goes on to explain a little history and further defines what it means by survival horror. “The player must face a large number of enemies, but ammunition is sparser than in other games, and powerful weapons such as rocket launchers are rare.” At this point it falls apart. It then includes as an “independent survival horror game” the brilliant Amnesia: The Dark Descent. A game which has no ammunition, no weapons, very few enemies (which you can’t harm), and certainly no rocket launcher. As a quick side note, the talk page and page itself all make the claim that survival horror as a genre is only applicable to games. I think by the point when a quick Google of “survival horror film” returns almost 1.5 million hits, it has become something more (although again, it is used interchangeably with horror). I find it odd and wonder if there is much precedent for a genre description to have picked up an entirely superfluous extra word, I would have thought it could only happen the other way around.
Thus a game being classed as survival horror gives us almost no information about a game. We can’t say that the game is a horror game, which would be infinitely more useful, it tells us that a game might have some horror theme in it at some point. Possibly an inventory system. Once again, it has become an all-encompassing term including many games most supporters of the phrase would never use it to describe. My point is not that survival horror has become meaningless, it’s that survival horror never really existed.
Now I’m one of these people who doesn’t like to complain about something without offering a least a glimpse of a solution, a direction to explore. In other words, an answer to, “but what do we use in its place?” I think the main problem with the term is its ordering. It was first coined by Resident Evil, not known for its clever, or … well, sensical dialogue. This is a game that contains the phrase “I was nearly a gibble sandwich”.
How about then, instead of survival horror, which sounds like horror with a focus on survival, let’s coin a new phrase, let’s swap the terms around. How about, horror-themed survival, or maybe horror-inspired survival? That’s basically what these games were originally.
Alternatively, and something I’ve been doing for a while already is avoiding calling things survival horror, or even horror-based survival, entirely. We already have the most useful genres, action, horror, and it’s enough.