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Survival horror is a subgenre of action-adventure 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. Although combat is a part of the gameplay, the player must ration ammunition by evading enemies and avoiding direct confrontation. The player is also challenged to find items that unlock the path to new areas, and solve puzzles at certain locations. Games make use of strong horror themes, and the player is often challenged to navigate dark maze-like environments, and react to unexpected attacks from enemies.
The term "survival horror" was first used for the original Japanese release of Resident Evil in 1996, which was influenced by earlier games with a horror theme such as Sweet Home and Alone in the Dark. The name has been used since then to describe games with similar gameplay, and has been retroactively applied to games as old as Haunted House from 1981. Starting with the release of Resident Evil 4 in 2005, the genre began to incorporate more features from action games, which has led game journalists to question whether long-standing survival horror franchises have abandoned the genre. Still, the survival horror genre has persisted in one form or another, with several critically acclaimed titles in recent years.
Survival horror refers to a subgenre of action-adventure video games which draws heavily from the conventions of horror fiction. The player character is vulnerable and under-armed, which puts emphasis on puzzle-solving and evasion rather than violence. Games commonly challenge the player to manage their inventory, and ration scarce resources and ammunition. Another major theme throughout the genre is that of isolation. Typically these games contain relatively few non-player characters, and as a result, frequently tell much of their story second-hand through the use of journals, texts, or audio logs.
While many action games feature lone protagonists versus swarms of enemies in a suspenseful environment, survival horror games are distinct from otherwise horror-themed action games. Rather, they de-emphasize combat in favor of challenges such as hiding and running from enemies, and solving puzzles. Still, it is not unusual for survival horror games to draw upon elements from first-person shooters, action-adventure games, or even role-playing games. "Survival horror is different from typical game genres in that it is not defined strictly by specific mechanics, but subject matter, tone, pacing, and design philosophy."
Survival horror games are a subgenre of action-adventure game, where the player is unable to fully prepare or arm their avatar. 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. Thus, players are more vulnerable than in other action games, and the hostility of the environment sets up a narrative where the odds are weighed decisively against the avatar. This shifts gameplay away from direct combat, and players must learn to evade enemies or turn the environment against them. Games try to enhance the experience of vulnerability by making the game single player rather than multiplayer, and by giving the player an avatar who is more frail than the typical action game hero.
The survival horror genre is also known for other non-combat challenges, such as solving puzzles at certain locations in the game world, and collecting and managing an inventory of items. Areas of the game world will be off limits until the player gains certain items. Occasionally, levels are designed with alternative routes. Levels also challenge players with maze-like environments, which test the player's navigational skills. Levels are often designed as dark and claustrophobic to challenge the player and provide suspense, although games in the genre also make use of enormous spatial environments.
A survival horror storyline usually involves the investigation and confrontation of horrific forces, and thus many games transform common elements from horror fiction into gameplay challenges. Early releases utilized camera angles seen in horror films, which allowed enemies to lurk in areas that are concealed from the player's view. Also, many survival horror games make use of off-screen sound or other warning cues to notify the player of impending danger. This feedback assists the player, but also creates feelings of anxiety and uncertainty.
Games typically feature a variety of monsters with unique behavior patterns. Enemies can appear unexpectedly or suddenly, and levels are often designed with scripted sequences where enemies drop from the ceiling or crash through windows. Survival horror games, like many action-adventure games, are structured around the boss encounter where the player must confront a formidable opponent in order to advance to the next area. These boss encounters draw elements from antagonists seen in classic horror stories, and defeating the boss will advance the story of the game.
The origins of the survival horror game can be traced back to earlier horror fiction. Archetypes have been linked to the books of H. P. Lovecraft, which include investigative narratives, or journeys through the depths. Comparisons have been made between Lovecraft's Cthulhoid Old Ones and the boss encounters seen in many survival horror games. Themes of survival have also been traced to the slasher film subgenre, where the protagonist endures a confrontation with the ultimate antagonist. Another major influence on the genre is Japanese horror, with comparisons made to classical Noh theatre and early 20th-century fiction writers such as Edogawa Rampo.
Some common elements of survival horror games can be found in the 1981 Atari 2600 game Haunted House. Gameplay was typical of future survival horror titles, as it emphasized puzzle-solving and evasive action, rather than violence. The game made use of monsters commonly featured in horror fiction, such as bats and ghosts which each had unique behaviors. Gameplay also incorporated item collection and inventory management, along with areas that are inaccessible until the appropriate item is found. Because it has several features that have been seen in later survival horror games, some reviewers have retroactively classified this game as the first in the genre.
Many of the features of the genre could be seen in the 1989 release Sweet Home, for the Nintendo Entertainment System. The gameplay focused on solving a variety of puzzles using items stored in a limited inventory, while battling or escaping from horrifying creatures, which could lead to permanent death for any of the characters, thus creating tension and an emphasis on survival. It was also the first attempt at creating a scary and frightening storyline within a game, mainly told through scattered diary entries left behind fifty years before the events of the game. Developed by Capcom, the game would become the main inspiration behind their later release Resident Evil, which also borrowed various other elements from the game, such as its mansion setting, "opening door" load screen, death animations, and multiple endings depending on which characters survive. Some thus consider Sweet Home to be the first in the genre.
In 1992, Infogrames released Alone in the Dark, which has been considered a forefather of the genre. The game featured a lone protagonist against hordes of monsters, and made use of traditional adventure game challenges such as puzzle-solving and finding hidden keys to new areas. Graphically, Alone in the Dark utilized static prerendered camera views that were cinematic in nature. Although players had the ability to fight monsters as in action games, players also had the option to evade or block them. Many monsters could not be killed, and thus could only be dealt with using problem-solving abilities. The game also used the mechanism of notes and books as expository devices. Many of these elements were used in later survival horror games, and thus the game is credited with making the survival horror genre possible.
The term "survival horror" was first used by Capcom to market their 1996 release, Resident Evil. The game was mainly inspired by Capcom's Sweet Home, released seven years earlier. Resident Evil also adopted several features seen in Alone in the Dark, including its fixed cinematic camera angles and some of its puzzle-solving challenges. The control scheme in Resident Evil also became a staple of the genre, and future titles would imitate its challenge of rationing highly limited resources and items. The game's commercial success is credited with helping the PlayStation become the dominant game console, and also led to a series of Resident Evil films. Many games have tried to replicate the successful formula seen in Resident Evil, and every subsequent survival horror game has arguably taken a stance in relation to it.
Overblood is considered the first survival horror game to make use of a fully three-dimensional virtual environment. This is also true of the 1999 release Silent Hill, which drew heavily from Resident Evil while using realtime 3D environments in contrast to Resident Evil's pre-rendered graphics. The game was praised for moving away from B movie horror elements to the psychological style seen in art house or Japanese horror films, due to the game's emphasis on a disturbing atmosphere rather than visceral horror. The original Silent Hill is considered one of the scariest games of all time, and the strong narrative from Silent Hill 2 in 2001 has made the Silent Hill series one of the most influential in the genre. Fatal Frame from 2001 was a unique entry into the genre, as the player explores a mansion and takes photographs of ghosts in order to defeat them. The Fatal Frame series has since gained a reputation as one of the most distinctive in the genre, with the first game in the series credited as the best-written survival horror game ever made.
Western developers also began to return to the survival horror formula. The Thing from 2002 has been called a survival horror game, although it is distinct from other titles in the genre due to its emphasis on action, and the challenge of holding a team together. The 2004 title Doom 3 is sometimes categorized as survival horror, although it is considered an Americanized take on the genre due to the player's ability to directly confront monsters with heavy action. Thus, it is usually considered a first-person shooter with survival horror elements. Thus, the genre's increased popularity led Western developers to incorporate horror elements into action games, rather than follow the Japanese survival style.
Overall, the traditional survival horror genre continued to be dominated by Japanese designers and aesthetics. 2003's Clock Tower 3 eschewed the graphic adventure game formula seen in the original Clock Tower, and embraced full 3D survival horror gameplay. Sony employed Silent Hill director Keiichiro Toyama to develop Siren. The game was released in 2004, and added unprecedented challenge to the genre by making the player mostly defenseless, thus making it vital to learn the enemy's patrol routes and hide from their field of vision. However, reviewers eventually criticized the traditional Japanese survival horror formula for becoming stagnant. As the console market drifted towards Western-style action games, players became impatient with the limited resources and cumbersome controls seen in Japanese titles such as Resident Evil Code: Veronica and Silent Hill 4: The Room.
In 2005, Resident Evil 4 attempted to redefine the genre by emphasizing reflexes and precision aiming, thus broadening the gameplay of the series with elements from the wider action genre. Its ambitions paid off, earning the title several Game of the Year awards for 2005, and the top rank on IGN's Readers' Picks Top 99 Games list. However, this also led some reviewers to suggest that the Resident Evil series had abandoned the survival horror genre, by demolishing the genre conventions that it had established. Other major survival horror series developed their combat systems to feature more action, such as Silent Hill Homecoming, and the 2008 version of Alone in the Dark. These changes were part of an overall trend among console games to shift towards visceral action gameplay. These changes in gameplay have led some purists to suggest that the genre has deteriorated into the conventions of other action games. Jim Sterling suggests that the genre lost its core gameplay when it improved the combat interface, thus shifting the gameplay away from hiding and running towards direct combat. Leigh Alexander, the news director of Gamasutra, argues that this represents a shift towards more Western horror aesthetics, which emphasize action and gore rather than the psychological experience of Japanese horror.
The original genre has persisted in one form or another. The 2005 release of F.E.A.R. was praised for both its atmospheric tension and fast action, while Dead Space from 2008 brought the survival horror genre to a science fiction setting. However, critics argue that these titles represent the continuing trend away from pure survival horror and towards general action. The release of Left 4 Dead in 2008 brought cooperative multiplayer to the survival horror genre, although it is mostly a shooter game at its core. Meanwhile, the Fatal Frame series has remained true to the roots of the genre, even as Fatal Frame IV transitioned from the use of fixed cameras to an over-the-shoulder viewpoint. More recently, the 2009 release of Resident Evil 5 has been praised despite critics questioning its status as a true survival horror game. Overall, game developers have continued to make and release survival horror games, and the genre continues to grow among independent video game developers.