The Old Ways Aren't Best When It Comes To Survival Horror

When nostalgia for the sake of nostalgia doesn't work

You’d be hard pressed to find a bigger fan of survival horror than me, but a new wave of games harkening back to the horror games of the 90s are really missing the mark -- and that’s a huge bummer.

See, modern survival horror games have been building upon their ancestors for two decades, and while there’s still a spot in my heart for the original Resident Evil games and their myriad problems, those soft spots are built upon a foundation of nostalgia. Weirdly, modern developers trying to appeal to my nostalgia without bringing anything new to the table aren’t making games that endear themselves in the same way. Maybe trying to copy those games without adding new ideas shouldn’t be rewarded.

Take for example the new game Vaccine from developer RNC. It’s a spooky procedurally-generated mansion crafted from very PS1-style art where zombies are trying to prevent you from stopping a deadly outbreak. Sound familiar? Sure, we know what this is tapping into -- all the way down to the terrible inventory and, yes for real, old school tank controls. (For those unfamiliar, tank controls were the most complicated and un-user friendly control styles in the history of games and oh boy is it not pleasurable to revisit.) The game also loves to use forced camera angle switches -- a horror game mainstay -- but putting three or four in every procedurally generated room makes the game nearly unplayable. Additionally, the menus and plot point notes are poorly translated from a non-English speaker to make the game extra unfortunate, and not in a fun Jill Sandwich way.

It makes sense: people love Resident Evil and even the remaster was one of the highest-selling titles of the year. Why not tap back into this? But adding to the tank controls with a randomized house layout that makes some playthroughs impossible, and building a leveling system that makes each playthrough easier than the last, instead of harder, seems like a weird way to build a game.

For those looking to dive into this kind of game with no question about what they’re getting, developer Throw the Warped Code Out released Back in 1995-- an original Silent Hill-esque adventure sporting graphics that might have even been a better fit for the Nintendo DS. But while it nails a tone and visual style, going so far as to even simulate a poorly input RGB TV, but fails to nail even the basics of actual horror. A bunch of wooden Slimers never come close to putting the main character in actual danger, and your inventory will quickly be overloaded with health packs to cancel out any possible stakes.

1995 tries to directly emulate an era and a genre but also, why? Sure, I bought it and I’ll always give this type of game a chance, but why can’t they elevate beyond duplication and into the improvement of lost game styles we used to love? Resident Evil 7 has shown what a revitalized franchise can do, but it also keeps just enough of its DNA (especially terrible inventory limited management) to remind us of what came before. Instead, some games are now aiming for a set of catchphrases, and it is gamers who are worse for the wear.

Recently, I had the terrible pleasure of reviewing Husk. The game had billed itself, early and regularly, as a mix of Twin Peaks and Silent Hill -- which should be seen as the biggest of all possible red flags. The end product is barely a game. It is devoid of monsters, none of its gameplay works right (especially stealth), lacking character or humor or depth; the things its touchtone influences were built upon. If you can’t think to bundle your bullets into boxes and instead leave them individually strewn about in the dark for players to randomly click at, and if you take away the player’s gun because “it got wet”, you also won’t be the kind of game maker to take anyone beyond cliche haunted hospitals and abandoned trainyards.

All of this circles back to the newest game to get me furious about this kind of missed point, and that’s Gloomywood’s 2Dark. Directed by Frédérick Raynal, known for creating Alone in the Dark (which mostly launched survival horror back in 1992), this seems like it would be a perfect return to form. The game is an isometric, bit art journey into Hannibal’s best nightmares, as a detective attempts to break-up a child kidnapping ring via a mix of stealth, puzzle solving, and brutal murder.

Sounds like it would be hard for this to go wrong. That’s why I was willing to meet Xbox One’s ridiculous $30 price point for this indie title. And oh boy, did that go wrong.

2Dark manages to combine all of the horror game flaws on this list the way that someone else might combine red and green herbs. The poorly translated instructions and dialogue make even opening a door into a confounding experience, and the game creator may or may not have understood the distinction between child sexual abuse and child kidnapping, making even your earliest motivations muddled. Certainly a few translation errors would be easy enough to overlook, but nothing gets better from this point. A terrible inventory management system takes over a third of the gameplay screen and the game itself is too dark (literally) to the point of making cheap deaths an unavoidable and rage inducing standard. Saving requires your character to smoke a pack of cigarettes that opens him up for attack for long enough to get you killed and send you back to the beginning.

It would also be remiss for me not to mention all the child murder. There is a lot of child murder. Maybe this seems weird to you, and it should, because video games have traditionally never crossed that line. You might remember your inability to kill kids in Fallout 3 or other titles, but here it is central gameplay mechanic. You’re trying to sneak kids away from kidnappers, but they are idiot children, so unless you re-kidnap them, they’re often in place to ruin everything and get you killed. It’s a daring and fascinating idea if done right, and goddamned crap if done wrong. This is done wrong.

There’s a resurgence of survival horror for survival horror’s stake, and that doesn’t help anyone. No one went into making Silent Hill 2 wanting to rip off anything else, much less material from two decades before. There will always be space for scary spectacle and for small indie environmental ideas, but forward thinking should always lead the way, because turning 180 degrees is nearly impossible to do -- as anyone who lived through tank controls can remind you.

A small aside: most of the games mentioned here are the products of small or even single person developers, who are often not native English speakers. I don’t mean to hold that against anyone, and I certainly understand the scale of expectations I, as a consumer, should be bringing to the table here. But there is a thin line between quirky mistakes and creating unplayable experiences, and the later seems to be what borrowing old-school game mechanics wholesale results in.