As said before, there are many things that developers do in order to make up the bulk of their survival horror game. While some of these elements can work, there are ways to do them, and there are most certainly ways not to do them. You most certainly can experiment and get creative with your game as a whole, but you need to be very careful not to fall off the deep end. Here are a few elements that can be used to the developer’s advantage, but can also lead to some disastrous results.
Heavy Artillery: Do not get me wrong. There are plenty of games that give you weapons, and still maintain their stance in the survival horror world. However, the use of guns such as machine guns, gatling guns, sniper rifles, lasers, whatever they are; these are things that just do not belong. When you give your player the means to wipe out monsters with air strikes and missile launchers, that fear and dread you mean to invoke are just not there. A big bad monster comes out of nowhere. Oh, I shot him. Well that was fun, what next? These are known as action games. Do not slap the genre “survival horror” on a game and give your player a magical one-hit sword. Most of the time, it just really does not work.
Over Complicated Puzzles: Puzzles in survival horror are quite common, in fact, they’re in just about all of the noteworthy titles. However, there comes a time whenever you need to look at your overall story and ask yourself “How long will this puzzle take?” If you’ve done your job correctly, given your player a good amount of fear factor in an area, made your haunted house nice and spooky with that subtle tinge of fright, good on you! However, putting a Myst-level puzzle in the middle of a room with which to slow their progress is highly discouraged. After a while, you lose all feeling of uneasiness in favor of confusion. That confusion can turn into boredom very quickly if you are not careful. Then your player goes off to a walkthrough of the game and that just takes them out of the experience as a whole. Was it really worth it?
Fast and Easy Scares: Perhaps the most used and abused element of the survival horror genre. Before terror or eeriness sets in, we are treated to a big fat monster with scary fangs going booga booga! No… just no. There is a method to this, and popping out at the very beginning to scream at your player is not the answer. These things take time to build, they need to progress slowly before you jump the gun.
Atmosphere: Let’s face it, if you do not have the skills to create a truly unsettling atmosphere for your player to lurk, survival horror is going to be nigh impossible. This can be done in several creative ways, some ways need very little expensive backgrounds, but at the same time, the more creative you aim, the better you should probably be with your surroundings and the more time you should spend adding just that extra tinge of subtle paint on a wall that looks like it may or may not be blood.
The Antagonist: Perhaps one of the most important things you can get right and wrong is the main villain of the game. Dracula is a very hefty example of this, so let’s use him, shall we? Dracula has been depicted in thousands of ways, whether it be the ancient Transylvanian vampire or a new age, bleak depiction of the vampiric lord, he can be menacing, or he can be an outright joke. Say you bring him into the fray and he does his thing, but then in walks his father. The bigger, badder vampire guy with the aura of mastery will overshadow our favorite blood sucker, and then all credibility will be lost. You just killed any vibes you were aiming for in favor of a new, scary bad guy with bigger shoulder pads. Well, what about Dracula? If he’s sitting there trying to impress his daddy, why do we care?
Or, let’s say you go a little overboard with his villainous traits, give him that evil laugh that we all know, make him just walk in, spout out some threats and kill a kitten. Well, now we’re just sitting there saying “Okay, we get it, we want to kill you. You don’t need to rub it in!” Subtlety, that is the key to giving us a fulfilling urge to reach the goal, and it also makes us fear this guy. We need to be afraid of his fangs and his power, and once we get into that final boss battle, we can truly concentrate and wonder “Well, crap, what do I do now? I need to pay attention. OH GOD! PLEASE HAVE MERCY ON ME!”
Helplessness: This can be completely abused and horribly mistreated. However, when done right, it can be the kicker that makes your game truly great! If you truly feel helpless in the eyes of a terrifying entity, but have that chance of escape/victory, the urge to survive will come to you naturally. Hence the name “survival horror.” You want to survive, and thus you will play every facet of the game in order to obtain the ability to do so. Even if you are given a pistol with which to defend yourself. If that pistol does not stop the monster, though it may slow it down, the horror is heightened! “Crap! What do I do now? I need to run! Please don’t catch me!” Boom! You have just successfully upped the fear factor and made your game that much better.
Forced Fear: Finally, it is worth talking about one thing that many games seem to fall back on as a means to invoke some sort of reaction. Do not tell the player what they are feeling. Do not have a fear meter or some random character saying “This place is so scary!” We will be the judge of that! Telling us to be scared and driving it into our heads like you’re commanding us to emote just does not work. Yes, having the character we play show how scared they are can affect us, but that is only if it is done properly. There are tones you need to set, traits you need to build upon and relationships you need to cement into us before we truly begin to feel for what they are going through. Telling us when to scream is overstepping your bounds as a game, and usually draws an opposite reaction of perpetual eye-rolling.
You can have a great game with amazing game mechanics at your disposal. Good on you. However, before you start labeling your genre to the capacity of Lovecraftian horror of the survival variety, make sure you at least make an effort to bring us into that mindset. It is not easy, especially if you are aiming to truly make us bite our nails. You can throw in all of the jump scares you want, but unless you get us in that dark, abysmal place in our psyches that invokes those emotions we came here for, you have failed your mission. Pay attention to what truly brings out the scares and makes us delve into that world. You will be glad you did. But first, always remember to drink water.