Survival-horror is a sub-genre of action-adventure video games that emphasizes vulnerability, resource management, and puzzle-solving in a horror themed environment. Games in the genre often have a metroidvania style of progression, and also make use of horror tropes common to cinema, such as fixed cameras.
The term was originally coined by Capcom in 1996, during the promotional campaign of Resident Evil, though it can retroactively fit certain games who were instrumental in building the genre; these include games such as 3D Monster Maze, Haunted House, Clock Tower and Alone in the Dark.
The following is a crash course history of the survival-horror genre, highlighting key and major titles in the history of the genre.
The Magnavox Odyssey was the first home console available on the market, the games were sold along the console. Among these was Haunted House, the game (and most of the other titles who came along with it.) is more akin to a tabletop role-playing game, using the TV screen as the interface. But it's technically the first attempt at making a horror themed video game.
Hunt the Wumpus - 1973
The game is controversial entry in the history of survival-horror games, some gaming historians like Bernard Perron says it shouldn't be considered as such. But beside that, Hunt the Wumpus was about trying to kill a monster (the Wumpus) hiding in a series of caves, using a limited numbers of arrows, if the player find himeself out of arrows, the Wumpus will eat him.
Zork - 1974
Zork is a classic text base adventure game and a classic of video games in general. It's not strictly a horror game, but it's influence on the video game industry is so important, that it's "DNA" can be found in various game genres like Adventure, Metroidvania and RPG, and of course Survival-horror. The game not only feature a proto Metroidvania style of progression, which would also become a stable of games like Resident Evil, but also more frightening moments where the player is asked to keep his lantern lited to evade monsters.
House of Usher - 1980
House of Usher is an often overlooked game released for the Atari 8-bit line of computer by a small company called Crystalware. The game already have some of the traits of genre, the player can use a crossbow, with a limited number of arrows, he must find treasures throughout a huge mansion, and even have a few puzzles to solve along the way.
Nostromo - 1981
The game was developed by Akira Takiguchi for the PET 2001 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.
Haunted House - 1981
The gameplay emphasizes puzzle-solving and evasive actions rather than attack. The game uses monsters commonly featured in horror fiction, such as ghosts, spiders and bats, each of which has unique behaviors. it also incorporate inventory management and item picking in order to progress to the next area. Because it has several features that have been seen in later survival-horror games, it's often retroactively classified as such.
3D Monster Maze - 1982
This title is a first-person maze game by Malcolm Evans. In the game, the player must run aways from a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and find the exit before the creature catch him. The game even states it's distance and awareness to the player, further raising the tension. Though 3D Monster Maze is not the first game to includes an invincible antagonist, that honor goes to 1976's Shark Jaws, and would also be seen later in 1980's Berzerk. The game still remain a classic of the era, not only for the incredible atmosphere it manage to create, but also for it's rather impressive graphical aspect, thanks to Malcolm Evans’s impeccable coding, Therefor it's an iconic title of early horror gaming
Shiryou Sensen: War of the Dead - 1987
The game was a horror action RPG revolving around a female SWAT member, Lila, rescuing survivors in an isolated monster-infested town and bringing them to safety in a church. It had open environments akin to Dragon Quest and real-time side-view battles like Zelda II, though War of the Dead departed from other RPGs not only with it's more dark and scary atmosphere but also through the limited ammunitions and inventory as well as a day-night cycle; the player can actually sleep to recover health.
Sweet Home - 1989
The game often considered the first true survival horror title, due to having the most influence on Resident Evil. Sweet Home's gameplay is 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. Its horrific imagery prevented its release in the Western world.
Project Firestart - 1989
Released for the Commodore 64 in 1989, Project Firestart is a side scrolling action-adventure title, set in an abandoned spaceship, called the Prometheus. Players are tasked with retriving importants documents and finding out about what happened in said spaceship, the game not only had all the now known specifications of modern survival-horror games, but even in it's presentation, the game almost pre-date Alone in the Dark's cinematic cameras angles.
Alone in the Dark - 1992
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 pre-rendered 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.
Resident Evil - 1996
The term "survival-horror" was first used by Capcom to market this 1996 release. It borrows heavily from Sweet Home, such as its mansion setting, puzzles, "opening door" load screen (directly taken from Sweet Home), death animations, multiple endings, 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. 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.
Silent Hill - 1999
Released in 1999, Silent Hill 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.
Fatal Frame - 2001
The player explores a mansion and takes photographs of ghosts in order to defeat them. The 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.
Resident Evil 4 - 2005
In 2005, this title attempted to redefine the genre by emphasizing reflexes and precision aiming, broadening the gameplay with elements from the wider action genre. It's often seen as the game that killed the survival-horror genre. Nevertheless, Its ambitions paid off, earning the title several Game of the Year awards for 2005, and influencing at least the entire next decade to come in the genre.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent - 2010
Although it wasn't the first of it's kind, Frictional Games's Amnesia: The Dark Descent was for many survival-horror enthusiasts a return to form for the genre. After the success of Resident Evil 4 in 2005, most horror franchises, and even new IPs for that matter, took a turn toward more action driven gameplay. Amnesia: The Dark Descent goes for a more simplistic approache by stripping the player from his ability to fight back, all the while spearheading a new horror indie scene in gaming. It was also accused of reducing the survival-horror genre to it's most basic mechanics, launching a new wave of "hide'n'seek" type of horror games, such as Outlast or Slender: the Eight Pages.
Lone Survivor - 2012
Lone Survivor arrived after the genre had known two very different changes in a design philosophy; The late 2000's, during which many players who grew up with the genre felt unsatisfied with the more action oriented approach to the games of the era. and the early 2010's during which we saw the arrival of newer indie titles focusing more on hiding and running from any potential threats, which was felt as breath of fresh air for somes or a dumbing down for others. Lone Survivor was the first game in long time to return to the more classic approach, The story take place during an outbreak, and the protagonist is a lonely man who try to cope with the downfall of society. The game would go on to inspire a new generation of developpers to revive the "old-school" formula with titles like Back in 1995 or Remothered: Tormented Fathers.
Other notable games influential to the genre includes:
- 1984 - Alien
- 1985 - Ghost Town, Friday the 13th: The Computer Game, Maxwell Manor, The Screamer, The Rats
- 1986 - Aliens: The Computer Game, Carmine, Nosferatu the Vampyre, Zombi
- 1987 - Alien Syndrome, Dr. Chaos, Ghost Hunters, Where Time Stood Still
- 1988 - Domain, Hurlements, Jaseiken Necromancer
- 1989 - D・Dash, Don't Go Alone, Friday the 13th, War of the Dead Part 2
- 1990 - Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, Infestation, Midnight Mutants
- 1991 - Elvira: Jaws of Cerberus, Alien Breed, Corporation, Wreckers
- 1992 - Alien³ (Gameboy), The Dark Half, WaxWorks
- 1993 - Alone in the Dark 2, Alien Breed 2, The Legacy: Realm of Terror
- 1996 - Overblood, Enemy Zero
- 1999 - Athena: Awakening from the Ordinary Life, Blue Stinger, Countdown Vampires, Dino Crisis, Gorky 17, Fear Effect, Galerians, Germs Nerawareta Machi, Koudelka, Nocturne, Parasite Eve 2, Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, System Shock 2, The Guardian of Darkness, Virus: It is Aware
- 2000 - Blair Witch - Volume I: Rustin Parr, Devilman
- 2004 - ObsCure, The Suffering
- 2005 - Condemned: Criminal Origins
- 2006 - Rule of Rose
- 2007 - Penumbra: Overture
- 2008 - Dead Space
- 2009 - Cursed Mountains
- 2010 - Deadly Premonition
- 2011 - Dead Space 2
- 2012 - Cry of Fear
- 2013 - The Last of Us
- 2014 - The Evil Within
- 2015 - Soma
- 2016 - The Count Lucanor
- 2017 - Darkwood
- 2018 - Remothered: Tormented Fathers
- 2019 - Daymare: 1998
- 2020 -
The World of Scary Video Games: A Study in Videoludic Horror a book by Bernard Perron
Dead Pixel, short videos about the history of horror video game
Forbidden-siren.ru, a Russian website mostly dedicated to the Siren series, but also have sections about survival-horror games in general.
Les Autres Survival Horror - survivals-horrors.com, a French website about obscure and overlooked horror games.