Alien: Isolation and the Evolution of Survival Horror Games

Survival horrors are a genre of games that most of us enjoy at least once or twice a year. Titles like Resident Evil and Silent Hill are names of series that immediately suggest specific experiences to gamers. Mostly, they signal a game's intention to scare the living daylights out of you! We enjoy them because they maintain a constant pressure upon our fight-or-flight responses, inducing fear and bathing our brains in rich waves of dopamine. Typical survival horrors (SH) accomplished this through scary monsters, dark settings, creepy scores, and mysterious plots...or simply having hideous mutants suddenly jump out of the darkness at us. Many SH's also take place in dark mansions or abandoned towns where you must slowly gather clues to solve a mystery. Game play is typically a little slower than other game types. Also, there's usually less hack-and-slashing through weak opponents and more of a slow methodical advance and retreat. Often, you must run from danger more than run to it, and part of beating the game means having to survive the game. Overall, effective survival horrors create a constant uncertainty, letting us enjoy feelings of safety only for short periods of time. feat image Alien: Isolation (The Creative Assembly) is a highly-anticipated survival horror game coming out this week (Oct 7th) that epitomizes the features of the genre. The game has been praised for its visual fidelity to Ridley Scott's film and its ability to scare the pants off you through an intense game of cat-and-mouse with the highly-alert, blood-thirsty xenomorph. In anticipation of the game's release, we thought it would be fitting to look back at a few early titles of the 80's and 90's that are commonly seen as the most influential in shaping the visual and thematic form of the genre today.

Haunted House (1982)

First released on the Atari 2600, Haunted House is considered by some to be the first survival horror.* The game requires players (represented by a pair of eyes) to navigate the haunted mansion of the late Zachary Graves to recover three pieces of an urn. The game is also reported to be one of the first home video games to feature scrolling graphics and a multi-level playing field. In 2010 Atari produced a updated sequel with modern graphics and traditional storyline. While it's hard to see the fear-inducing quality of Haunted House given violence of today's games, it still contains some important elements of the survival horror genre like solving mysteries, collecting objects, escaping scary mansions, and avoiding monsters.

Sweet Home (1989)

This early survival horror title was an RPG developed and published by Capcom for PC and released exclusively in Japan. The game also takes place in a haunted mansion where a group of five treasure-seeking characters must work together in order to locate lost artwork. Each character has a specific skill that needs to be used in order to complete the game. Deadly monsters are often encountered along the way, and once one of your team member dies, they cannot be revived throughout the remainder of the game. In the video below, Cornshaq Walkthru's gives a very detailed description of Sweet Home's game play along with some historical context for its inclusion into the genre of survival horror. The commentary begins at :45.

Alone in the Dark (1992)

This early fright fest was designed by Frédérick Raynal, published by Infogrames, and released for PC platforms in the early 90's. Players must guide characters out of a haunted mansion, advancing by solving puzzles while either banishing, slaying, or eluding various ghosts and monsters. The player can collect and use weapons, manage a weight-based inventory system, and explore a partially nonlinear map. The game received the European Computer Trade Show 1993 awards for "Best Graphics" and "Most Original Game." Alone in the Dark is considered a forerunner of the survival horror genre, and its influence can be seen on the Resident Evil and Silent Hill franchises. It has also spawned four follow-up games as part of the series, as well as two movies.

Clock Tower (1995)

In Clock Tower you play Jennifer Simpson, a young girl who is adopted by a wealthy recluse named Mr. Barrows and who goes to live in his dark mansion known as the "Clock Tower." Jennifer must roam the mansion in search of clues to solve her father's murder. All the while, she and her friends must avoid a slasher named Bobby who wields a large pair of scissors...and yes, he runs with them! Jennifer's flights from Bobby delay her puzzle solving and require her to frantically search for objects or hiding places to avoid the scissor-wielding attacker. Below is a helpful selection of "death scenes" from the Clock Tower that highlights the game's strategy to scare players with sudden reveals. We particularly enjoyed the one beginning at 4:45.

Resident Evil (1996)

One of the most iconic of survival horror games, Capcom's Resident Evil was originally conceived as a remake of its predecessor, Sweet Home. The game was directed by Shinji Mikami, who took gameplay design cues from Alone in the Dark. Resident Evil established many conventions seen in the scores of sequels, spin-offs, and other titles that wanted to capitalize on the game's immense popularity. Some of its influential game play conventions include the control scheme, the inventory system, as well as the iconic typewriter-based saving process. The following video contains a visual history of the franchise, showing game play from the original up to the latest versions. This is an invaluable resource for illustrating the visual evolution of this influential game.

Silent Hill (1999)

Published for Playstation by Konami, the game follows Harry Mason as he searches for his missing adopted daughter in the fictional American town of Silent Hill. In his search, he stumbles upon a cult conducting a ritual to revive a deity it worships. Silent Hill's gameplay consists of combat, exploration, and puzzle-solving. It uses a third-person pov, with the camera switching to other angles only occasionally. This was a change from older survival horror games, which shifted constantly through a variety of camera angles. Because the game had no heads-up display, players had to consult a separate menu to check the character's health. Silent Hill is considered a defining title in the survival horror genre because of its move away from B movie horror elements, toward a more psychological style of horror that emphasized atmosphere over cheaper thrills.
This list represents some earlier forms of survival horror games whose popularity and innovations helped shape later ones. Over the past decade, popular franchise remakes like Resident Evil 4, Silent Hill Homecoming have transitioned from a more subtle "psychological horror" approach to one focused more on incorporating action-based elements within their game play. This additional "content" typically includes more violence, weaponry, and larger buckets of blood and gore. Although the long term response to the transition has been mostly positive among players, some critics see the move as a diluting of the genre and an abandonment of its most appealing features. This month Shinji Mikami, the creator of the Resident Evil franchise, is releasing a new survival horror, The Evil Within. Mikami stated that his goal was to bring survival horror back to its roots, as he was critical of recent survival horror games for having too much action. Whatever form the survival horror genre might take in the future, it's almost certain to be a popular game form for years to come. That's mostly because it seeks to engage the most primal response within us--the need to survive. *Note: there is much debate about which video game was technically the "first" survival horror, so this list isn't intended to be definitive, comprehensive, or complete, but simply a sampling of games typically seen as highly influential. Feel free to provide us with your own opinions and additions to the list by commenting below.