Playing With Fear: The Survival in Survival-Horror Part 1
Horror has always been an interactive genre - be it written stories, movies, tv, or classic radio shows - allowing yourself to be frightened by fiction requires high levels of immersion and suspension of disbelief, and good old imagination. Good horror is a personal journey for each audience member, and as such video games have always been uniquely primed with the potential to deliver great horror experiences
Welcome to Playing With Fear where one horror-infatuated gamer brings you the best (and sometimes worst) of what video games have to offer those who like to be scared. Horror & Survival games are experiencing a great resurgence right now. We’ll explore the best games of the current generation, the previous generation, and explore survival/horror games of the past and look towards future releases as well.
Way back in this column’s infancy I talked about the horror genre and its tendency to be called “survival horror” which is really a melding of two separate genres. Back in the day when all we had were Alone In The Dark and its limited offspring scary games were just called ‘horror’ because it was a simpler time and games were simply more simple (closing in on Stan Lee levels of alliteration there). However, in 1996 when Resident Evil jump-scared its way into our lives, those in the industry dubbed it a ‘survival horror’ game, as there was a lot more to the game than just exploring its narrative. Players were now in danger, and survival was key.
Fast forward a couple decades and the genre label has continued to evolve. See, now we have horror games, we have survival horror games, and we have the rapidly expanding genre of survival games. While the survival sub-genre existed in its own right for a while, things really didn’t get cooking until late 2011 when a quirky, odd looking little game called Minecraft released on PC. And we all know how that turned out. Or maybe you don’t, i could be making assumptions here. Minecraft exploded and literally made billions of dollars.
But why am I talking about Minecraft in a horror game column, you’re probably asking yourself, mouse pointer getting dangerously close to that little ‘x’ in the top right of your screen. Because i tangent a lot, that's why! No, wait, it’s related, i swear. Hear me out.
See, what the good people behind Minecraft didn’t fully realize they were doing was introducing small elements of horror into casual gaming. Minecraft is a crafting game. It is right there in the title. You chop down trees, and mine stone, and through experimentation you slowly start to build bigger and more complex things. It is, admittedly, a shockingly fun and addicting game. So where is the horror? Its hidden right in plain sight. See within the world of Minecraft is a day/night cycle. And at night, monsters come out. Weird green things that explode when they get close to you called Creepers, and walking Skeletons, giant spiders, zombies, and hostile wild tribes people. At night, Minecraft changes drastically from a crafting game to a weirdly-high-level-of-anxiety-inducing survival game. And when it exploded in popularity, so did the survival genre.
Now since 2011 there have been countless crafting & survival games from shameless Minecraft clones to brilliant works of art and everything in between. However, most of them don’t embrace or even slightly possess any of their horror DNA. And yet some of them do, and some are truly embracing the survival-horror genre. So, because I care, I’ve decided to highlight a few of them for you, my personal favorites, and the ones that best embrace both the survival, and the horror elements of this specialty sub-genre.
Originally released for PC in 2013 and developed by Klei Studios, Don’t Starve has seen immense popularity in the years following its debut and has since expanded to almost every platform imaginable. Seriously, you can get it on PS4, XboxOne, PC, iOS, Android, OSX, Linux, and even the PlayStation Vita and WiiU. It has continued to grow with two single-player DLC releases (with a third expected out this fall) as well as a fully co-op version - Don’t Starve Together - helping it stand out amidst a crowded marketplace by offering a complete and competent multiplayer experience. (Full Disclosure, as always if you buy anything from my reviews, I won’t receive any money because no one sponsors me).
Okay, so it exists on every platform known to mankind and has a ton of content, but what the hell is it? Don’t Starve is a complete crafting survival game. After a (very) brief introduction you wake up in a strange land with no idea how to get home and with nothing to help you survive (there's not a lot of narrative to the game so what there is I don’t want to ruin, and really that isn’t the point of the game anyway). You are immediately thrown into a survival situation where you have to start gathering what resources you can in order to build the basic tools needed to survive, hunt, and build more advanced tools for more advanced resource gathering. You must monitor your character’s health (traditional Hit Points) that can be lost due to fatigue or starvation (separate pools you have to monitor) as well as their mental state which diminishes with exposure to strange goings-on and exhaustion.
All of that would be enough if it weren’t for the hostile creatures trying to kill you. There are strange Pig-people who are mostly peaceful and while they are fearful of you, they won’t attack unless you attack them (why would you attack the peaceful pig people? I dunno you tell me when you are starving to death surrounded by walking Ham). There are also the Lovecraftian Fish people who are - apparently - the natural enemy of the pigfolk and will kill you on sight. There's also your traditional giant spiders, giant birds that will kill you for stealing their eggs, killer bees, etc. All of this is stressful, it's anxiety inducing, and its occasionally unsettling. But is it scary?
At night it is. Because once you’ve survived for a few days, you start to see things in the dark. And the more you see the worse your mental health gets, and the worse your mental health gets, the more there is to see. From strange sounds that alarm your character, to odd moving shadows in the firelight (and once you really start to lose it, broad daylight), shapes that look like horrible monsters just outside the glow of your campfire. But you are safe, you’ve built yourself a small shelter and maybe a primitive spear, you have a fire and some berries and you feel safe. And then the beasts attack. Loud, vicious, and seemingly made of shadows, they attack at night destroying everything to get to you.
It doesn’t feel like there are any strong horror elements until you find yourself blindly running through the wood with a dwindling torch and an unknown number of hellish hounds on your tail.
The beautiful art style of the game helps to lure you into a false sense of security as well. It is wonderfully illustrated with quirky character designs and muted colors. Once you really start to pay attention to the art direction and sound design you realize there is a super creepy vibe to everything, and a strong ominous sense of doom. Don’t Starve is deceptive and wonderful for it.
This War Of Mine
Originally released in 2014, Polish developers 11 bit Studios war based survival This War of Mine has seen a few tweaks and updates and re-releases before reaching its current state. Now widely available on major platforms and coupled with an expansion The Little Ones, This War of Mine presents a completely unique take of both the War and Survival genres. While most war games focus on the heroics and adventures of frontline soldiers, 11 bit studios gave us an experience that focuses on the aftermath of the civilian life, something they’ve experienced first hand as their game is based around the Bosnian War, specifically the siege of Sarajevo which lasted for over 1,500 days from 1992 to 1996. Now making a game about a recent war would be enough to set it apart from the market, but it is further distinguished by, again, focusing on the civilians left in the wake of the war.
This War of Mine takes the traditional survival game elements of resource gathering and management and brings it home, with resources being anything from canned goods, to home medications, and common building materials. You are not in some exotic location gathering strange items, this game is solidly grounded in reality. It is a wartorn city in the midst of invasion and while everything you collect are real life items that you see on a daily basis, their scarcity makes them delicate and valuable.
You play as any number of characters, each with their own backstory, skills, and flaws. Everyone has a mood and health and mental health and their environment, the things they see and do, and the resources they have all impact their ability to survive. How does a smoker cope in a world where they suddenly can't get tobacco? How does being a caffeine addict who has to ration a small amount of coffee impact your relationship with the other survivors? This has to be balanced and managed by the player as you take control of each character based on who you think is best suited for the job at hand.
In addition to keeping everyone happy, you have to manage starvation, dehydration, illness, depression. You must venture out of whatever half-destroyed building is serving as your shelter and explore. Maybe you found a gun to defend yourself, but most likely you ‘re not that lucky. You need to gather resources to defend yourself from raider-like packs of burglars.
The world that you are doing all of this in is very grim. Something the characters will point out to you through their dialogue or journal entries. The horror elements of this game come mostly from the world, but also form your own choices. This War of Mine has the distinction of being the only game to every truly make me horrified of the outcomes of my own decisions. The first time i broke into the home of an elderly couple who were just trying to hide and survive, and stole medication from them to heal one of my own, I didn’t think a lot of it. Until I went back and found that they had died due to not having their medication. I had killed them. Most games with player choice will give you big heroic moments to chose the lives of the many over the lives of the few. In This War of Mine you’re deciding between the lives of the few and the lives of the fewer. It is grim, it is dark, your characters get depressed as a result of the things that you make them do, and it regularly feels like a no-win situation. However, it is exactly the sense of desperation that spurs you on, you want to keep looking for that light at the end of the tunnel. You can escape the horrors of this war, and all the death. Right?
On that incredibly bleak note, I will be leaving you. This has been part one of my feature on survival games. I can’t put all my content out at once, why would you ever come back if I did that? Don’t worry there is more to come! When we next return to explore the elements of survival, we’ll take a look at the dangers of the Canadian wilderness, zombie apocalypse and interior design, and why you never want to get lost in the woods.