Survival Horror 101: A Beginner’s Guide

Survival Horror 101

Presented by Ack
Note: We have been creating beginner’s guides for a number of classic consoles, but now we’re expanding the concept to genre-specific guides.  We hope you find them useful for getting more familiar with a genre.  If you have further questions or recommendation for the series, please post something in the comments.

Survival Horror has always been a bit of an odd duck.  Based entirely on an intended emotional response, as opposed to gameplay mechanics, its one of the genres most heavily impacted by film and literature, while also doing its best to use its interactive nature to get under the player’s skin.  While often labeled as a subtype of the Action-Adventure genre, Survival Horror will often break with its parent and branch into entirely different genres.  This has included First Person Shooters, Role Playing Games, and even Platformers.

Background Information

  • The term “Survival Horror” was originally coined by the first Resident Evil.
  • While never gaining the mass appeal of such genres as 2D Fighters or Shooters, Survival Horror titles such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill played pivotal roles in the 32/64-bit era, where their mature appeal helped PlayStation dominate the era while Nintendo continued to be labeled “kiddy.”
  • Survival Horror’s “Golden Era” spreads from 1996, with the release of Resident Evil, to 2005, with the release of Resident Evil 4, though many other great titles have been released outside of this timeframe.
  • Despite the wide range of styles, many Survival Horror games of the golden era closely resemble Resident Evil, earning the name Resident Evil Clone, or RE Clone.

Haunted House


Early Pioneers and Influences in The Genre
Though it wouldn’t come into prominence until the mid-1990s, Survival Horror’s earliest roots can be traced as far back as the Magnavox Odyssey, with the game Haunted House (1972).  Haunted House required the use of a color overlay and a deck of cards, as well as two people.  The game focused on a detective trying to locate specific clues while not touching others as he attempts to take on the ghost, played by the other player.  It was overly complicated and played more like a board game, and the design didn’t catch on.

Horror gaming would not resurface for several years, until the release of such titles as Haunted House and Halloween on the Atari 2600.  But while horror themes would appear in many titles during the decade, Survival Horror wouldn’t get another leap forward until 1989, with the release of Capcom’s Suito Homu, a Japan-only horror RPG for the NES.  This game would be one of two to influence Capcom’s later development of Resident Evil, featuring door animations when transitioning between rooms as well as limited resources and a haunted mansion setting, and is sometimes touted as the first true survival horror.

The second game to influence Capcom was the Lovecraftian horror game Alone In The Dark, released in 1992.  With its underemphasis on combat and it’s third person fixed-camera perspective, Alone In The Dark would set the gameplay style for many of the titles in the golden era.  The title would be followed by a number of less successful sequels, as well as another Lovecraftian game, Shadow Of The Comet.

7th Guest

Horror Concepts Being Applied to Adventure and FPSs
During the early 1990s, many Adventure titles were heavily using horror elements.  Such games as Dark Seed, I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, The 7th Guest, Phantasmagoria, Mansion of Hidden Souls, and D would see releases in the early to mid-1990s, though such games as Uninvited and Shadowgate had been building the trend since the mid-1980s, and games like Scratches are still keeping the trend alive.  One of the line of point-and-click horror titles, Clock Tower, would become a force of its own in horror gaming, spawning several sequels on the PlayStation and PlayStation 2, as well as influencing the game Haunting Ground.

First Person Shooters would also see their rise with the pivotal release of DOOM, with all its hellspawn and gore.  Doom clones would become extremely popular, and while the FPS tended towards a more action-oriented line, such games as System Shock, FEAR, Alien Trilogy, and eventually titles like Left 4 Dead would keep a firm grasp on its horror roots.

The Golden Era of Survival Horror
In 1996, Capcom would release Resident Evil, naming the genre and ushering in the Golden Era.  With game themes inspired by Night of the Living Dead, limited supplies, a fixed camera making it difficult to see upcoming enemies, clunky controls(often referred to as “tank controls”), limited number of saves, and large amounts of blood and gore, Capcom quickly found themselves with a hit.  Resident Evil would help make the PlayStation the massive hit it was(despite also being released for the Sega Saturn), and would spawn numerous sequels as well as several live-action and CG films, and the characters are widely recognizable.  The third-person tank control style became very popular, and many of the console-based horror games that used it are known as RE clones.

Silent Hill, Konami’s psychological response to Capcom’s undead horror extravaganza, would further push the genre.  Still considered by many to be the scariest game ever made, Silent Hill would feature a weak protagonist with little skill with firearms, cinematic and unnerving camera angles, chilling enemies to be fought in near-total darkness, blood, gore, and a twisted sense of warped reality.  Though sometimes labeled a Resident Evil clone, it managed to stand on its own feet admirably and was followed by numerous sequels, including a play novel and light gun game, as well as a live-action film and several comic books.

But despite its successes, the genre had a large number of failures and criticisms, in particular the camera and control styles that had made it such a powerhouse in the early days of 3D console gaming.  Survival horror began to evolve, sometimes melding genre conventions (such as mixing third-person movement with first-person combat in the supernatural horror series Fatal Frame), or changing genres entirely (as Clock Tower 3 did when it transitioned from a point-and-click into an entirely third-person adventure game).  As technology improved, gamers found themselves wanting more and continuing to criticize the conventions of the past.

Resident Evil

Transitioning in the Modern Era
And in 2005, the Golden Era ended with the release of Resident Evil 4.  With its over-the-shoulder perspective, large storage capacity, and even larger armory of weapons, RE4 was a solid game, but almost too action packed to fit in the genre anymore.  Fans of Survival Horror still debate constantly as to its status in the genre, whether its really a horror game or merely a third-person shooter with horror trappings.  Either way, the game was a huge success, and developers decided to try it in other places.  Dead Space, Cold Fear, and the 2008 release Alone In The Dark reflect this more action-packed tone.  Resident Evil 5 continued this trend, straying far from its progenitor.

Meanwhile, Silent Hill fell into a slump with the release of Silent Hill 4, an experiment that proved unsuccessful in comparison to the rest of the series, and Konami handed the reigns over to other developers, with mixed results.  Fatal Frame continued to produce sequels, though the most recent has been denied to western markets.  Other series like Condemned have come along, but these are often either ignored or done in by poor-quality sequels, such as Condemned 2.  Some members of the survival horror fan community have declared the genre dead, or at least in a terrible slump, saying the genre was really only successful when technology was limited to the point it was acceptable to limit the players.  That said, horror games are continuing to see release, and online mod communities are doing their part to keep the trend going, especially for PC-based first person shooters.  So perhaps a new Golden Era looms over the horizon.  One can only wait and see.

Silent Hill 3

Genre Conventions

Because Survival Horror transcends genres, pinpointing conventions can be difficult.  But there are certain recurring ideas in the genre:

  • Uncomfortabilty: Survival Horror games do their best to make the player feel off-kilter and insecure, often through the use of bizarre camera angles, blood and gore, visual teases of upcoming horrors, or strange imagery designed to target and disturb the player.  D even went so far as to use a time limit.  Ultimately Survival Horror is about disturbing the player, not the protagonist.
  • Limited Resources: Perhaps the most pivotal of all methods, limited resources make the player second guess himself, forcing him to make decisions concerning upcoming battles and question his capabilities.  This is often done by limiting weapons, ammunition, health supplies, save methods, or other equipment.
  • Dread: Survival Horror uses is conventions to attempt to stop the player from entering the next room, because they do not know what to expect.  Perhaps an enemy will be right in front of them when the game load.  Perhaps a horde of enemies will be there.  Perhaps it will be a new enemy.  Perhaps there is a trap.  Perhaps the player will die.  When did I last save?  Survival Horror’s greatest asset is to make the player fearful of the unknown.  This can be done cheaply with instant kills, or by making a game horrific in its own right through style and gameplay.
  • Audio: musical queues and sound effects are often used to generate emotional responses in films, television shows, and video games, and Survival Horror is no stranger to the concept. From the sudden ramping up of music when the Scissorman has seen you in Clock Tower, to the ghostly whisperings in Fatal Frame, to the ragged breathing of Lickers in Resident Evil or the twisted and unconventional music of Silent Hill, music and sound effects are pivotal to inspire fear.  Of course, they can also serve as an early warning and can help aide the player.
  • Puzzles: perhaps the large pack of bloodthirsty dogs is pretty bad, but you’re also going to have to figure out what switches to throw and what items to use to make it through the next room, and it’s likely going to be something pretty weird.  Survival Horror uses puzzles to through a monkey wrench in the action, much like other genres.  But it has a tendency to do so in bizarre ways, from playing bloody piano keys to using a unicorn medal on a statue to get a key.

Alone in the Dark

Tips and Tricks

Need a little rundown of techniques to make it through a Survival Horror game?  Wondering how fans of the genre do it over and over again?  Here’s a couple of words of advice to help make it through that next room.

  • Conserve Resources: you do not need to shoot everything, most enemies can just be run past. Knives and melee weapons don’t have to be reloaded, and if you pick the right place to fight, you can force enemies to come at you one at a time.  Only use the big guns on bosses or the hardest enemies.  If you can’t fight back, find the best places to hide and make beelines for them.  And always aim for the head or the knees.
  • Master Your Audio: the game’s likely using some means of telling you what’s in the room with you, even if you can’t see it.  When you enter the room, take a moment to listen.  It’s the only early warning system you’ve got.
  • Reverse Psychology: the game’s trying to mess with you.  Don’t let it.  You’ve got the tools to kill these things, even if you don’t have ammunition, and your guns are bigger…usually.  Don’t think of it as you being stuck in there with them, think of it as them stuck in there with you.
  • Abuse the Game: can’t make it through that horde of enemies in one go?  Hop in the room, pick off one, then hop out.  The game is using all its best methods to take you down, you might as well use the game’s conventions to fight back.  Loading points, dumb AI, infinite ammo and melee weapons, bottlenecks, do whatever it takes.  Survival Horror may be about horror, but your emphasis should be on survival.
  • Make Sure It’s Dead: if you knock it down, make sure it stays down.  Silent Hill lets you stomp enemies, so stomp them.  Resident Evil uses an auto-aim feature: if it spins you to face it, it’s obviously not dead yet.
  • The Closer It Is, The Easier It Is To Shoot: remember, objects get bigger the closer they are, and since you don’t want to waste ammunition, let it get close enough to ensure you won’t miss. This may be a bit tough since you probably want to avoid enemies, but it’s better to let it get close and kill it than to run out of bullets before it’s dead.
  • And Remember: the more horror games you play, the better you’ll get at them overall.

Survival Horror Library Guides

We will be working hard to create some more guides to help you hunt down more Survival Horror games for your growing collection, but here are some lists to get you started.

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ryon says:

I feel that you underplayed the significance of the original Alone in the Dark. I had played it on a powerful PC with a nice sound system years before the original Resident Evil, and I feel that all resident evil added to the formula was bad acting and illogical puzzles.

It was perhaps a shorter game than RE, but all of the major scares were already executed better. Also, I found the Lovecraftian themes of AitD more compelling than the George Romero meets SuperCop universe of RE.

Perhaps a video comparison of AitD and RE would be an interesting project.

Dan says:

During the “golden age” I never really played any survival horror games except Silent Hill 2 on xbox. With that being said, I don’t feel that it would be too enjoyable to play the old ps1 games since old 3d games didn’t age well. If anything I might check out the numerous ones available for Dreamcast, but that is unlikely.

Right now I occupied with expanding my collection of Saturn imports.

Anthony says:

I still remember the first time I ever played the original Resident Evil. The dog through the window always scared the crap out of me. I was still pretty young then, and wasn’t very good at games, so I never got too far, and never played another Resident Evil until 4. I absolutely loved the game, and while the atmosphere isn’t quite as perfect, I still consider it a survival horror (unless you use that cheat on infinite ammo). Never played 5, because that one did look too much action to me. I did play Condemned this last year, and I must say that game blew me away. I also just picked up Silent Hill 2 for the Xbox because many people said it’s supposed to be one of the best.

I think we’ll return to another good era, we just haven’t found that perfect formula for this generation yet (although I do love Condemned).

Enough of my rambling, thanks for the good article 🙂

J T says:

I was hoping you would write an article like this Ack. I think you must be one of the world’s leading experts on survival horror based on your posts in the forums. Thanks for putting this up.

Octopod says:

Great article Ack.

Mike says:

I like these guides, but the one thing I would like to see added is a simple timeline noting all the significant titles from the genre. You don’t have to list everything, but I think it would be a nice quick reference.

Ack says:

Hey guys, thanks for the kind words.

Mike, the timeline idea is really good. When I wrote this I was attempting to develop a template to apply to all future genre 101s, but a chronological list of significant titles unfortunately never came to me. I like it, and I’ll see about incorporating it in the future. I might also come back and put one in here.

Ryon, you’re not the first person to tell me that I have a tendency to not give Alone in the Dark as much credit as it deserves. I just feel the connection to Sweet Home is more important to emphasize, since it was a previous Capcom game. But you’re right, a side-by-side comparison would be interesting. I don’t necessarily think Romero’s a bad choice for a game though.

JT, I appreciate the praise, but I’ve spoken with a few guys who blow me away in the subject. There are some amazing web communities based around the topic, like Chris’ Survival Horror Quest.

Dan, I’ve heard a lot of people complain about going back, but it’s usually the controls that get them. The Dreamcast does have a decent collection, but keep in mind that quite a few were ports of PS1 games. If you move up to the PS2, Xbox, Gamecube, the graphics issues may be less troubling.

noiseredux says:

great article, Ack!

Hatta says:

I hadn’t heard of Suito Homu(Sweet Home). I looked around and found that there’s a translation patch, if anyone is interested in playing this in English. Check it out here:

Wintermute1981 says:

It still doesn’t seem like that long ago the original Resident Evil came out. During the late 90’s all of my friends were pretty hardcore about RE and Silent Hill. Great article Ack, keep them coming.

Leviev says:

there is some great survival info here glade i read it

gus says:

Great article man!!


Really great article, especially the early history including 2600 Haunted House (those eyes when hitting the wall), original Alone in the Dark and cool puzzler 7th guest. Resident Evil mention of Tank Controls headaches, here is the Tank Control link with my work around.

Japhei says:

Very nice write up. Although I dislike horror movies I enjoy the games a great deal.

Keep up the good work!

Edgar says:

i have an idea fr a game of resident evil but i just cant find a website to tell dem i searched everywer but no luck and i hope dat if i ever get in contact with CAPCOM i just want to tell dem dat ive been a fan ever since ive played resident evil 4 and i love resident evil more den any game and again im 12 only and ive accomplished a lot fr resident evil but i just want to say that Capcom needs a boost and i want to give dem an idea fr Resident Evil dat will change it forever but because da technonolgy is not so great i wanna say dat this game of resident evil is not yet ready but it ive alwaysn will in the futher ever since i started arguing about resident evil is better den call of duty my frends kept giving me ideas i used to tink bout dis game 1 sed dat resident evil’s story is beetter den the 1 of call of duty but resident evil online sucks and call of duty has better online gameplay and those words kept me thinking because of call of duty’s online it sold a lot so dats wen that great idea came to me i want resident evil to succede so i thought about dis game and came to a conclusion dat it will be the best game of all time and just because im 12 u guys must be tinking im retarded but i am thinking ahead of u guys plese CAPCOM give me a chance to tell u bout dis game i wud tell u write now but i dont want these ppl 2 no bout my idea

Edgar says:

my real name is atila im just using my bros email

michau says:

I think The Dark Eye just should be included here somewhere… Not exactly survival, but one of the most disturbing adventure games I’ve played so far. Based on E.A.Poe’s work, it is very interesting interpretation of a literary text – and a solid game at the same time.

D says:

no mention of Eternal Darkness?

I wanted to suggest a future feature of less known Survival Horror games like Rule of Red, Ku-On, or Haunting Ground. That would be an awesome feature to have on here and would give me another set of games to go purchase!

I want to mention two other games: the original Megami Tensei Digital Devil or Sweet Home! Those are hugely influential on the horror genre, throughout the survival horror genre.

As always, I love racketboy features the best. Keep it up guys!

AppleQueso says:

Have you ever heard of Chris’s Survival Horror Quest? It’s a survival-horror blog (with a few posts on other subjects) with some excellent info.

It’s got articles on genre conventions and history that are far more in-depth than what’s presented here. Here’s an article of his on the genre’s origins:

Heavymetalme says:

I’m surprised you didn’t mention SWEET HOME, as mentioned in these comments. Not to mention, that SWEET HOME got a movie BEFORE Alone in the Dark- that’s gotta say something.

And I must say, the SWEET HOME movie is phenomenal. Hunt it down- you won’t regret it.

Ack says:

Actually Heavymetalme, I did mention Sweet Home, but under it’s Japanese title “Suito Homu.”

And AppleQueso, I actually mentioned Chris’ Survival Horror Quest in a comment a few days ago. While I haven’t been visiting much lately, I used to check their forums on a daily basis. The knowledge there is quite good, and Chris provides interesting insights into the industry since he’s also a game developer.

Ack says:

Hey guys, I just got word that the article was linked over at Capcom’s blog, Capcom Unity! Thanks to jgonzo for posting about it!

Heavymetalme says:

I stand corrected! Never seen the japanese title written out- I’m only familiar with the movie.

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