I’ve been gaming for a really long time, and used to absolutely love survival horror games because of how creepy and how right they were made, emphasis on the word were, since I honestly believe there’s no good survival horror games left, with most of them resorting to jump scares than actually doing what it takes to build a proper horror game.
The most recent example would be Alien: Isolation, of a horror game done so right it was amazing. But the question is, what exactly makes a survival horror game?
I really enjoy watching Ben Croshaw, or Yahtzee as he’s known online, rip apart games because that’s his job, he’s a video game critic who does his job right, and much like him, one of my all-time favorite games is Silent Hill 2, not because of its gameplay or the story, both of which are great but of course now can be considered questionable when it comes to gameplay specifically, but there’s one thing Silent Hill 2 did so right it hasn’t be topped till date, with Alien: Isolation coming close, it’s the atmosphere of the game.
Many people ask me what is so scary about a horror game, often wrongfully assuming a player already knows what’s coming towards the player. This is a misconception that I would like to dispel, because in a horror game, it goes without saying that you know something is going to happen, it’s the anticipation of what’s going to happen, and the atmosphere that accompanies it. IACG understands this and imparts the importance of building atmosphere, which is often as important as anything else like gameplay or character design in ensuring immersion.
The essence of a Survival Horror game is not how scary the monsters are designed to be, but how creepy the atmosphere is. No matter how scary a monster is, it is still something you can see and attempt to attack it to find weaknesses, but you can’t actually attack the atmosphere, Silent Hill 2 has the knack of making you feel completely lonely, like there’s nobody around. Sure, there are a few human characters here and there, but they’re mostly crazy and run away, and you’re left with just monsters and the town itself.
Silent Hill 2 worked because it wasn’t just the monsters that were out to get James’s head, but the town itself was the enemy. The omnipresent fog gave it an ever-present sense of danger lurking just beyond your line of sight, which wasn’t very far thanks to the very same fog. The monsters are notably feminine, except for the notable exception of one very large monster, the Pyramid Head. The reasons of which we shall not talk about today because if you still haven’t played this masterpiece then I don’t really want to spoil it for you.
Later Silent Hill games tried to recreate the magic, but failed miserably. I’m not saying Silent Hill 2 was a one hit wonder, because while Silent Hill 3 and Silent Hill 4: The Room might not be as good as 2, they have their moments and can be clearly identified as a Japanese horror game, the true downfall of the series came with the selling of the IP to western developers, none of whom actually understood what it takes to actually make a good Silent Hill game, forget talking about a good survival horror game. There was the laughably bad Silent Hill: Homecoming and then another one I can’t be bothered to remember. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories however, attempted to recreate the original Silent Hill magic, the game even has a Psych profile test at the start to help create a creepy atmosphere for you, the player, in game. But then again, Silent Hill 2 managed to do this without an actual test that you can take way back during the days of the PS2, and that is what makes this game so special, the developers didn’t have to resort to any gimmicks to get under your skin, the game bled its atmosphere into the real world, the feeling of desolation and despair weren’t just limited to James’s mind, but yours as well. That’s something you don’t see in games anymore.