Why We Love Survival Horror
Part One: Drawn to the beauty in darkness.
Posted November 22, 2019 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
However one may view video games’ legitimacy as an art form, it is difficult to contest that with the rise of blockbuster franchises such as Metal Gear Solid, Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto and Resident Evil, they have become an integral part of Western culture.
As with the rise of previous kinds of media, controversial games have led researchers and the mass media to flirt with the idea that video games may be responsible for violence in society, including mass shootings. Despite these factors and ongoing conversations, major AAA game titles, most of them violent in nature, gross as much as the gargantuan Marvel Avenger movies. Not only that, these major budget games now employ A-list celebrities for motion capture and voice acting, bringing beloved video game characters closer to life than ever before.
As such, they influence culture and demand to be taken seriously. For many, games are taking the mantle from books and movies by having a profound effect on people’s lives at the peak time of their development, providing a lens with which to wrestle with difficult existential questions, mental health issues, and ultimately explore one's place in the world. In line with this blog's creed, this article will explore the uncomfortable reality that visceral survival horror helps people make sense of a world they can feel abandoned by.
Enter Survival Horror
Survival horror is not a new art form. It ranges from cult classics such as Alien and The Thing—which birthed an entire generation of survival horror—to modern-day franchises such as Resident Evil, which forced a cultural paradigm shift in what was thought to be possible with video games. Survival horror moves beyond a simple cheap jump scare; it immerses the audience into a world of terror, disgust, and fear—a psychological feedback loop that keeps one clawing back for more. James Cameron, one of the most successful directors of all time, once noted whilst making Aliens:
"It’s in our nature to be afraid of the unknown, but also to be curious and to explore, to use a flash light to delve into those dark corners—but god forbid that flash light should fail."
There is something tantalizing and yet chilling about this quote. Images flash through the mind of movies or games that invoke this sense of primal fear. It is suitably vague enough to claw its way into the mind and scratch away at the individual's own unique fears. But looking deeper, the quote serves as a metaphor for delving into those darker parts of the human condition that survival horror games allow one to explore, without repercussions. This is the lynchpin to the success of this genre.
When fear is experienced, the body is flooded with adrenaline, increasing sensitivity and awareness to the environment. At this moment, the body is prepped for battle—or to run like hell. In a false alarm—or, say, a jump scare—the body, once realizing there is no danger or the danger has ended, floods with dopamine, invoking feelings of joy and happiness. Overwhelmed with a sense of achievement at having survived, waves of euphoria and confidence sweep over the individual—the same effect of sniffing a line of cocaine.
However, survival horror games go beyond simply flooding the body with adrenaline and dopamine. They use this as the appetizer, the cocktail to get the hairs standing on edge. (Such a visceral experience merits shifting to a more intimate writing style, which will be used for the remainder of this article.)
A good survival horror wants you to suffer the cognitive dissonance of, on the one hand, wanting to desperately run away and phone your mom, and on the other, facing your fears and peering into those dark shadowy corners, even as your flashlight flickers on and off. These games want your hairs to be standing on edge as the pattern-searching part of your brain races to make sense of shapes partially shrouded in darkness. Did that shadow move? Was it yours?
I would argue, in line with Nietzsche, that survival horror makes you face that which most terrifies you, and teaches you that if you embrace the struggle, and survive, you will be stronger for it, knowing you reached into the darkness and came out victorious. This is what initially draws us to survival horror.
However, it is not just restricted to fear of the terrifying and sinister; it uses these themes to go far deeper into the psyche. Good survival horror delves into deeper unconscious layers, which many of us wrestle with and desperately try to keep under wraps.
Often referred to as the "Shadow," conjured by Jung and popularized recently by Peterson, games allow us to gaze beyond our personas—the masks we don for everyday life—and peer into what is lurking in the dark recesses of our psyche. These games allow us to experience and explore these dark fantasies and urges, which Jung argues is needed to prevent the shadow from overwhelming us.
It can allow us to explore parts of our personality through metaphor, imagery, and, in a sense, "playing" with our own shadow, without actually living out acts which would be too dangerous or are not acceptable in a civilized society. The animalistic parts of ourselves can be unleashed; the morbidly bleak, curious, and dark aspects of who we are can explore some difficult questions about morality, reality, nihilism, and struggle.
Not only does this prevent us from casting our shadow onto others, and projecting our greatest fears, it is cathartic. As Aristotle notes, it is a type of cleansing in which you experience a tragic pleasure and come out feeling purified. When taken together and combined in just the right amount, these individual parts can be skillfully blended to bring about an experience that will be scorched into your brain.
In part two of this series, we will explore one such game that appeared to get this blend just right and left a mark on millions: Silent Hill 2.