If there is one thing we all love, it is being so scared that our sleep pattern is messed up for a week. While video games may not be considered as unsettling as television or movies, a well crafted survival horror game can be just as detrimental to one’s bravery as any other entertainment. But what sewn-together Frankenstein’s monster would it take to make a universally enjoyed game in the genre? The courage of Sweet Home? The heart of Silent Hill? The brains of Left 4 Dead? The incredibly fashionable red-sequined shoes of Clocktower?
Ok, Clocktower didn’t have magic red shoes, but I needed that for the analogy. They didn’t have homicidal death scissors in the Wizard of Oz.
Something Fishy This Way Comes
First and foremost, if I had to choose one thing as the most important part of any survival horror game, even beyond the gameplay, it would be the setting. What would Resident Evil 2 have been without the attention to detail of Raccoon City’s fall? Would Silent Hill have been as powerful without moments like the chilling school scene? Would Sweet Home have been as effective if that mansion wasn’t so damn creepy? The reason a survival horror game ends up being different from any other first-person shooter or third-person action game is that the setting is almost as much of an enemy as actual enemies are. Using the setting to emphasize both the survival and horror aspects of the survival horror genre is what can make the experience so memorable.
The problem is that, at this point, gamers have seen all the popular tropes. Zombie-infested metropolis? Been done. Ghost-infested mansion? Been done. Dinosaur-infested laboratory? Somehow even that has been done. This leaves the developer of the perfect survival horror game to find a new, never before explored locale — which is obviously a daunting task. The easiest way to do this would be figuring out a scientifically advanced way to combine two previously successful themes seamlessly into one game. By scientifically, I mean throwing a dart at an enormous wheel with the names of video games on them.
Ok, lets see. Doom. And the second one… BioShock. I think I can work with that.
The setting of this hypothetical game would be an enormous international space station hovering over a newly discovered alien planet made entirely of water. This gives you the option to take advantage of two natural fears to instill a feeling of dread into the player — enclosed spaces and drowning. Because of it being a large space station there will be plenty of opportunities to put the player into a small and dangerous place. Having to crawl through air ducts just mere feet over dangers or having a creature bash through a wall near you while you have barely enough room to turn can do a lot to put you on edge. Compound that with having to always worry about water rushing in and forcing you to seal the area or seek higher ground and the programmers almost don’t even need to bother adding any actual enemies to the game.
Of course, we need to figure out a way to make it so this space station goes from point A (space) to point B (in the ocean so you can fight fish-aliens). That is where the gameplay comes in.
Like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book… but with more drowning.
Left 4 Dead proved one thing beyond a shadow of a doubt — Procedural AI taken to the next level makes for a far more entertaining game. The reason Left 4 Dead still has so much replayability and such a large community a year after its release is the AI director’s ability to provide you with a unique gameplay experience every time you hop into a server. While Left 4 Dead may not be a survival horror game, building on its AI director is what would make this game stand out.
Clocktower and Fatal Frame might offer some top scares the first time you play through them, but after that they lose their impact. Knowing where and when you are going to jump takes that aspect away from otherwise great survival horror games. Having a game that is, in a way, randomly generated would be the best option. One of the ways you could do this is by giving the gamer plenty of options as to how they will start. Multiple characters and character classes that will put you in different areas of the ship and give you different skills to use during your attempts at escaping this violent alien world would be ideal. One time you play you might end up being a mechanic in the bowels of the station when it goes crashing into the planet’s ocean, equipped only with your wrench to open ducts and a bolt gun to seal leaks. Another time you may be the station’s captain, and your big splash on the planet would be an entirely planned landing that goes horribly wrong.
Giving the game multiple endings and ways to win would also be a plus. Finding all the parts to repair an escape pod or setting off a rescue beacon could be one end of the spectrum, or even researching and discovering the bizarre secrets behind the spacestation and the planet could be another. This is something Dead Rising excelled in. By allowing you to decide what objectives to pursue, and by making it nearly impossible to get everything done at once, it gave you a deeper involvement in the plot.
This isn’t without faults though, as gamers will have to come to understand that the occasional impossible scenario is just a part of the game. It might be frustrating to start off as a guard in the main area of the station only to have the enormous viewing window shattered by an equally enormous fish alien as soon as you hit the water. Frustrating, but guaranteed to be entirely awesome.
Put ten skill points into “Looking Like BioShock.”
Aesthetically speaking, the easiest things to decide is that this would have to be a first-person game, and could just be a mod of BioShock to get the feeling of a creepy undersea environment right. Replace all the splicers with bizarre alien fish monsters and let the Big Daddies break through walls and glass to cause floods and you essentially have what I’m talking about anyway. Sound could play a huge role in letting you know when you are about to get attacked, or especially cue you on when something enormous and aquatic is going to make the area you are currently in a bit inhospitable.
Using visual and aural cues would also free up the screen by allowing the designers to remove as much from the HUD as possible. A life bar wouldn’t be necessary since the visuals could just change to alert you to your status in the same vein as Call of Duty, and an oxygen bar would be equally redundant since the sound of your breathing could be made a huge part of the game.
Putting as little as possible between you and your character will only help to scare you out of your She-Ra underwear, and also make the designers a ton of money. Dead Space, and surprisingly enough Ghostbusters, nailed this by physically putting all the information you needed about your character on it. Because this would be in first-person, that luxury wouldn’t be entirely possible. However, since this game would be more akin to Clocktower or Mirror’s Edge in that it would emphasize stressful puzzle solving and escape above fighting, being able to simply stop and check your vitals or your ammo could just as easily be assigned to a tap of the pause button.
So in the end we’ve sewn together the visuals of BioShock, the gameplay focus of Clocktower, the replayablity of Left 4 Dead, and the suspense of Dead Space. Not too shabby if I say so myself. A game like this that could draw you in and offer you so many types of different scares could easily lead to a few nights of checking behind the shower curtain before you go to the bathroom.
The only thing that is missing here is a name. Well, fine readers, I will leave that up to you. Leave a suggestion in the comments here, or shoot me an e-mail, and in two weeks when I do this again I’ll post the best suggestions. Oh, and if you are a modder or developer and you thought this seemed like a good idea, go for it. Consider my permission granted. I mean, you know what they say, “Those who can, do. And those who can’t just write about it on the Internet.”