Shinji Mikami, Zwei, and creating a “pure” survival horror
With Tango Gamework’s Zwei, Shinji Mikami hopes to create a “pure” survival horror. But what is a “pure” survival horror, and is such a genre still relevant to Xbox 360′s audience today?
Last night Bethesda Softworks announced the first project to come from Shinji Mikami’s Tango Gameworks is a survival horror game, currently going under the codename Zwei’. Mikami himself will be the director, and has stated that he is commited to making a game that is the realisation of “pure” survival horror – an experience which he defines as one that pushes the limits of fear and exhilaration.
“A true survival horror game is one in which the player confronts and overcomes fear,” says Mikami. “I’ve found my focus and one again I’m striving for pure survival horror. I am being very hands-on in the development of this game to ensure that the quality is there. Rest assured.”
What exactly is a “pure” survival horror in today’s day and age? What was the last truly scary game that you played? Does the survival horror genre even really exist any more in the form we knew back when Resident Evil and Silent Hill popularised the genre?
The elements that originally made survival horror games so thrilling were half intended, half accidental. Features like the scarcity of ammuniton were very intentional design decisions, as would be the placement of enemies like the zombie dogs crashing through the mansion’s windows in the original Resident Evil – easily one of the most frightening moments of the last generation.
But there were pleny of less purposeful features that also defined the genre – elements enforced by the technological limits of the time but nevertheless greatly enahnced the atmosphere and terror of the experience. We’re talking about things like the bad camera and clunky controls of Resident Evil, which although hardly an intentional design decision nevertheless cultivated a very tangible feeling of tension as you attempted to escape from enemies you couldn’t see. Then there’s the fog of Silent Hill 2 – ostensibly used as a way of concealing the game engine’s poor draw distances, but something that stirred up an atmosphere that was at once dreamlike and hostile.
Because such technological problems were overcome with the introduction of new hardware, we’ve seen the survival horror genre lean more towards the action end of the spectrum with every new release. It’s all thanks to Resident Evil 4, of course, which resulted in ‘survival horror’ becoming ‘action horror’, as seen in the likes of Dead Space, Left 4 Dead, Alone In The Dark, Condemned, so on and so forth. The Silent Hill series has always tried to stay true to its roots, but more often than not it’s gone for shock value over a slow build up of a sense of unease – case in point: Silent Hill: Downpour.
So what does survival horror mean in the current generation? What examples have we seen recently of “pure” survival horror? Most recent titles that take on the label of ‘horror’ have sat more firmly in the action category – games about empowerment, confrontation and combat-driven encounters against hordes of enemies. Where are the games about vulnerability, isolation, evasion and puzzle-solving. Where are the games with a focus on psychological terror?
I’d say we’ve had just two recently, and neither of them appeared on Xbox. The first I gleaned over when talking about the Silent Hill series, but Silent Hill: Shattered Memories was the closest Konami has got to the original sense of terror the first two games crafted with ease. By removing combat developer Climax Studios made an incredibly tense experience – just play the chase sequences to get a sense of that. The narrative was great too. We won’t ruin it here, but Climax went out of its way to refocus on the psychological aspects of Silent Hill’s horror as well as the more obviously frightening aspects.
And then there’s Frictional Games’ Amnesia: The Dark Descent, which is without doubt the most frightening game I have ever played. So frightening, in fact, that I still haven’t finished it due to my being a big old wuss. To attempt to decribe why it is frightening would harldy do the game justice, but suffice it to say the removal of combat – essentially making you the weakest entity in the game world – results in one of the most nerve-racking game experiences available today. Every slight noise, every little shift in shadows becomes a terrifying and potentially deadly threat. It’s so effective that you feel unsafe not just in the game, but in real life.
So, will Shinji Mikami look to these games in his development of Zwei? Will he be brave enough to remove combat from a big name Xbox title? Or will he find some way to make combat a defensive measure rather than something that empowers the player? All I know is, the ‘purity’ of survival horror comes in the first part of the term; these are game about survival, about fighting for your life, about being vulnerable and alone. You can’t create those sensations by loading the player with weapons and putting them in control of a barrel chested action hero. You need to under power them. It’s in doing that that the horror element comes in. It’s difficult to feel horrified if you’re holding a huge rocket launcher.
I’m interested to see what Mikami has planned for Zwei. It’s about time someone made a truly frightening horror game that’s relevant to the Xbox 360 generation. I think it can be done, but it’s going to require more than grimy textures and a few jump-out-of-the-closet scares.