Survival horror is a subgenre of video games inspired by horror
fiction that focuses on survival of the character as the game tries to
frighten players with either horror graphics or scary ambience.
Although combat can be part of the gameplay, the player is made to
feel less in control than in typical action games through limited
ammunition, health, speed and vision, or through various obstructions
of the player's interaction with the game mechanics. The player is
also challenged to find items that unlock the path to new areas and
solve puzzles to proceed in the game. Games make use of strong horror
themes, like dark maze-like environments and unexpected attacks from
The term "survival horror" was first used for the original Japanese
Resident Evil in 1996, which was influenced by earlier
games with a horror theme such as 1989's Sweet Home and 1992's Alone
in the Dark. The name has been used since then for games with similar
gameplay, and has been retroactively applied to earlier titles.
Starting with the release of
Resident Evil 4
Resident Evil 4 in 2005, the genre began
to incorporate more features from action games and more traditional
first person and third-person shooter games. This has led game
journalists to question whether long-standing survival horror
franchises and more recent franchises have abandoned the genre and
moved into a distinct genre often referred to as "action
2 Game design
2.1 De-emphasized combat
2.2 Enemy design
3.1 Origins (1980s–1996)
3.2 Golden age (1996–2004)
3.3 Transformation (2005–present)
4 See also
Resident Evil (1996) named and defined the survival horror genre.
Survival horror refers to a subgenre of action-adventure video
games. 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 such as 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 usage 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. They tend
to de-emphasize combat in favor of challenges such as hiding or
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.
According to IGN, "
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 horror games, where the
player is unable to fully prepare or arm their avatar. The player
usually encounters several factors to make combat unattractive as a
primary option, such as a limited number of weapons or invulnerable
enemies, if weapons are available, their ammunition is sparser
than in other games, and powerful weapons such as rocket launchers
are rare, if even available at all. Thus, players are more
vulnerable than in 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
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 (often making use of dim or shadowy light
conditions and camera angles and sightlines which restrict visibility)
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 used 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
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 Great 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, including classical
Noh theatre, the books of Edogawa
Rampo, and Japanese cinema. The survival horror genre largely
draws from both Western (mainly American) and Asian (mainly Japanese)
traditions, with the Western approach to horror generally
favouring action-oriented visceral horror while the Japanese approach
tends to favour psychological horror.
Nostromo was a survival horror game developed by Akira Takiguchi, a
Tokyo University student and
Taito contractor, for the PET 2001. It
was ported to the
PC-6001 by Masakuni Mitsuhashi (also known as Hiromi
Ohba, later joined Game Arts), and published by ASCII in 1981,
exclusively for Japan. Inspired by the 1980 stealth game Manibiki
Shoujo and the 1979 sci-fi horror film Alien, the gameplay of Nostromo
involved a player attempting to escape a spaceship while avoiding the
sight of an invisible alien, which only becomes visible when appearing
in front of the player. The gameplay also involved limited resources,
where the player needs to collect certain items in order to escape the
ship, and if certain required items are not available in the
warehouse, the player is unable to escape and eventually has no choice
but be killed getting caught by the alien.
Another early example is the 1982
Atari 2600 game Haunted House.
Gameplay is typical of future survival horror titles, as it emphasizes
puzzle-solving and evasive action, rather than violence. The game
uses monsters commonly featured in horror fiction, such as bats and
ghosts, each of which has unique behaviors. Gameplay also incorporates
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
Malcolm Evans' 3D
Monster Maze, released for the
Sinclair ZX81 in
1982, is a first-person game without a weapon; the player cannot
fight the enemy, a Tyrannosaurus Rex, so must escape by finding the
exit before the monster finds him. The game states its distance and
awareness of the player, further raising tension. Edge stated it was
about "fear, panic, terror and facing an implacable, relentless foe
who’s going to get you in the end" and considers it "the original
survival horror game".
Retro Gamer stated, "
Survival horror may
have been a phrase first coined by Resident Evil, but it could’ve
easily applied to Malcolm Evans’ massive hit."
1982 saw the release of another early horror game, Bandai's Terror
House, based on traditional Japanese horror, released as a
Bandai LCD Solarpower handheld game. It was a solar-powered game with
two LCD panels on top of each other to enable impressive scene changes
and early pseudo-3D effects. The amount of ambient light the game
received also had an effect on the gaming experience. Another
early example of a horror game released that year was Sega's arcade
Monster Bash, which introduced classic horror-movie monsters,
including the likes of Dracula, the
Frankenstein monster, and
werewolves, helping to lay the foundations for future survival horror
games. Its 1986 remake Ghost House had gameplay specifically
designed around the horror theme, featuring haunted house stages full
of traps and secrets, and enemies that were fast, powerful, and
intimidating, forcing players to learn the intricacies of the house
and rely on their wits. Another game that has been cited as one of
the first horror-themed games is Quicksilva's 1983 maze game Ant
The latter half of the 1980s saw the release of several other
horror-themed games, including Konami's
Castlevania in 1986, and
Kenseiden and Namco's
Splatterhouse in 1988, though despite the
macabre imagery of these games, their gameplay did not diverge much
from other action games at the time.
Splatterhouse in particular
is notable for its large amount of bloodshed and terror, despite being
an arcade beat 'em up with very little emphasis on survival.
Shiryou Sensen: War of the Dead, a 1987 title developed by Fun Factory
and published by
Victor Music Industries
Victor Music Industries for the MSX2, PC-88 and PC
Engine platforms, is considered the first true survival horror
game by Kevin Gifford (of
GamePro and 1UP) and John Szczepaniak
Retro Gamer and The Escapist). Designed by Katsuya Iwamoto,
the game was a horror action RPG revolving around a female
Lila rescuing survivors in an isolated monster-infested town and
bringing them to safety in a church. It has open environments like
Dragon Quest and real-time side-view battles like Zelda II, though War
of the Dead departed from other RPGs with its dark and creepy
atmosphere expressed through the storytelling, graphics, and
music. The player character has limited ammunition, though the
player character can punch or use a knife if out of ammunition. The
game also has a limited item inventory and crates to store items, and
introduced a day-night cycle; the player can sleep to recover health,
and a record is kept of how many days the player has survived. In
1988, War of the Dead Part 2 for the
MSX2 and PC-88 abandoned the RPG
elements of its predecessor, such as random encounters, and instead
adopted action-adventure elements from Metal Gear while retaining the
horror atmosphere of its predecessor.
Sweet Home (1989), pictured above, was a role-playing video game often
called the first survival horror and cited as the main inspiration for
However, the game often considered the first true survival horror, due
to having the most influence on Resident Evil, was the 1989 release
Sweet Home, for the Nintendo Entertainment System. It was created
by Tokuro Fujiwara, who would later go on to create Resident Evil.
Sweet Home's 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. Its
horrific imagery prevented its release in the Western world, though
its influence was felt through Resident Evil, which was originally
intended to be a remake of the game. Some consider Sweet Home to
be the first true survival horror game.
In 1989, Electronic Arts published Project Firestart, developed by
Dynamix. Unlike most other early games in the genre, it featured a
science fiction setting inspired by the film Alien, but had gameplay
that closely resembled later survival horror games in many ways. Fahs
considers it the first to achieve "the kind of fully formed vision of
survival horror as we know it today," citing its balance of action and
adventure, limited ammunition, weak weaponry, vulnerable main
character, feeling of isolation, storytelling through journals,
graphic violence, and use of dynamically triggered music - all of
which are characteristic elements of later games in the survival
horror genre. Despite this, it is not likely a direct influence on
later games in the genre and the similarities are largely an example
of parallel thinking.
Alone in the Dark (1992) is considered a forefather of the survival
horror genre, and is sometimes called a survival horror game in
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 uses
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.
Riverhillsoft released Doctor Hauzer for the 3DO. Both the
player character and the environment are rendered in polygons. The
player can switch between three different perspectives: third-person,
first-person, and overhead. In a departure from most survival horror
games, Doctor Hauzer lacks any enemies; the main threat is instead the
sentient house that the game takes place in, with the player having to
survive the house's traps and solve puzzles. The sound of the player
character's echoing footsteps change depending on the surface.
In 1995, WARP's horror adventure game D featured a first-person
perspective, CGI full-motion video, gameplay that consisted entirely
of puzzle-solving, and taboo content such as cannibalism. The
same year, Human Entertainment's
Clock Tower was a survival horror
game that employed point-and-click graphic adventure gameplay and a
deadly stalker known as
Scissorman that chases players throughout the
game. The game introduced stealth game elements, and was
unique for its lack of combat, with the player only able to run away
Scissorman in order to survive. It features up to nine
different possible endings.
The term "survival horror" was first used by
Capcom to market their
1996 release, Resident Evil. It began as a remake of Sweet
Home, borrowing various elements from the game, such as its
mansion setting, puzzles, "opening door" load screen, death
animations, multiple endings depending on which characters
survive, dual character paths, individual character skills,
limited item management, story told through diary entries and frescos,
emphasis on atmosphere, and horrific imagery.
Resident Evil also
adopted several features seen in Alone in the Dark, notably its
cinematic fixed camera angles and pre-rendered backdrops. The
control scheme in
Resident Evil also became a staple of the genre, and
future titles imitated its challenge of rationing very limited
resources and items. The game's commercial success is credited with
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.
Golden age (1996–2004)
The success of
Resident Evil in 1996 was responsible for its template
being used as the basis for a wave of successful survival horror
games, many of which were referred to as "
Resident Evil clones."
The golden age of survival horror started by
Resident Evil reached its
peak around the turn of the millennium with Silent Hill, followed by a
general decline a few years later. Among the
Resident Evil clones
at the time, there were several survival horror titles that stood out,
Clock Tower (1996) and
Clock Tower II: The Struggle Within
(1998) for the PlayStation. These
Clock Tower games proved to be hits,
capitalizing on the success of
Resident Evil while staying true to the
graphic-adventure gameplay of the original
Clock Tower rather than
Resident Evil formula. Another survival horror title
that differentiated itself was
Corpse Party (1996), an indie,
psychological horror adventure game created using the RPG Maker
engine. Much like
Clock Tower and later
Haunting Ground (2005), the
player characters in
Corpse Party lack any means of defending
themselves; the game also featured up to 20 possible endings. However,
the game would not be released in Western markets until 2011.
Another game similar to the
Clock Tower series of games and Haunting
Ground, which was also inspired by Resident Evil's success is the
Korean game known as White Day: A Labyrinth Named School (2001), this
game was reportedly so scary that the developers had to release
several patches adding multiple difficulty options, the game was
slated for localization in 2004 but was cancelled, building on its
previous success in Korea and interest, a remake has been developed in
2015. Riverhillsoft's Overblood, released in 1996, is
considered the first survival horror game to make use of a fully
three-dimensional virtual environment. The Note in 1997 and
Hellnight in 1998 experimented with using a real-time 3D first-person
perspective rather than pre-rendered backgrounds like Resident
Capcom released the successful sequel
Resident Evil 2, which
Shinji Mikami intended to tap into the classic notion
of horror as "the ordinary made strange," thus rather than setting the
game in a creepy mansion no one would visit, he wanted to use familiar
urban settings transformed by the chaos of a viral outbreak. The game
sold over five million copies, proving the popularity of survival
horror. That year saw the release of Square's Parasite Eve, which
combined elements from
Resident Evil with the RPG gameplay of Final
Fantasy. It was followed by a more action-based sequel, Parasite Eve
II, in 1999. In 1998,
Galerians discarded the use of guns in
favour of psychic powers that make it difficult to fight more than one
enemy at a time. Also in 1998,
Blue Stinger was a fully 3D
survival horror for the
Dreamcast incorporating action elements from
beat 'em up and shooter games.
Silent Hill series, pictured above, introduced a psychological
horror style to the genre. The most renowned was
Silent Hill 2 (2001),
for its strong narrative.
Konami's Silent Hill, released in 1999, drew heavily from Resident
Evil while using realtime 3D environments in contrast to Resident
Evil's pre-rendered graphics.
Silent Hill in particular 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 game also featured stealth elements, making use of the
fog to dodge enemies or turning off the flashlight to avoid
detection. 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. According to IGN, the "golden age of
survival horror came to a crescendo" with the release of Silent
Also in 1999,
Capcom released the original Dino Crisis, which was
noted for incorporating certain elements from survival horror games.
It was followed by a more action-based sequel,
Dino Crisis 2, in 2000.
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
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 one of the best-written survival horror games
ever made, by UGO Networks. Meanwhile,
Capcom incorporated shooter
elements into several survival horror titles, such as 2000's Resident
Evil Survivor which used both light gun shooter and first-person
shooter elements, and 2003's Resident Evil: Dead Aim which used light
gun and third-person shooter elements.
Western developers 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
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 weaponry. Thus, it is
usually considered a first-person shooter with survival horror
elements. Regardless, 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. 2002's Clock Tower
3 eschewed the graphic adventure game formula seen in the original
Clock Tower, and embraced full 3D survival horror gameplay. In
Resident Evil Outbreak introduced a new gameplay element to the
genre: online multiplayer and cooperative gameplay. Sony
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 them.
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 recent years, developers have combined traditional survival horror
gameplay with other concepts.
Left 4 Dead
Left 4 Dead (2008) fused survival horror
with cooperative multiplayer and action.
Resident Evil 4
Resident Evil 4 attempted to redefine the genre by
emphasizing reflexes and precision aiming, broadening the gameplay
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 followed suit by developing 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 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
F.E.A.R. was praised for both its atmospheric tension and
fast action, successfully combining
Japanese horror with cinematic
action, while Dead Space from 2008 brought survival horror 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
Left 4 Dead in 2008
helped popularize cooperative multiplayer among survival horror
games, although it is mostly a first person shooter 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.
Also in 2009,
Silent Hill made a transition to an over-the-shoulder
viewpoint in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. This Wii effort was,
however, considered by most reviewers as a return to form for the
series due to several developmental decisions taken by Climax
Studios. This included the decision to openly break the fourth
wall by psychologically profiling the player, and the decision to
remove any weapons from the game, forcing the player to run whenever
they see an enemy.
Examples of independent survival horror games are the Penumbra series
and Amnesia: The Dark Descent by Frictional Games, Nightfall: Escape
Cry of Fear
Cry of Fear by Team Psykskallar and Slender: The Eight
Pages, all of which were praised for creating a horrific setting and
atmosphere without the overuse of violence or gore. In 2010,
the cult game
Deadly Premonition by
Access Games was notable for
introducing open world nonlinear gameplay and a comedy horror theme to
the genre. Overall, game developers have continued to make and
release survival horror games, and the genre continues to grow among
independent video game developers.
The Last of Us, released in 2013 by Naughty Dog, incorporated many
horror elements into a third-person action game. Set twenty years
after a pandemic plague, the player must use scarce ammo and
distraction tactics to evade or kill malformed humans infected by a
brain parasite, as well as dangerous survivalists.
Shinji Mikami, the creator of the
Resident Evil franchise, released
his new survival horror game The Evil Within, in 2014. Mikami stated
that his goal was to bring survival horror back to its roots (even
though this is his last directorial work), as he was disappointed by
recent survival horror games for having too much action.
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Video game genres (List)
Beat 'em up
Hack and slash
Shoot 'em up
Grand Theft Auto clone
Escape the room
Point n' click
Construction and management
Multiplayer online battle arena
Multiplayer video game
Nonviolent video game
Multiplayer online game
Social network game
Video game clone
Internet Speculative Fiction Database
Black comedy (sometimes)
Found footage (film)
German underground (film)
Old One in fiction