I’ve said before survival horror games are like slow burning candles. The world of the game slowly creeps into your mind, instilling a sense of dread, something more than an adrenaline rush, something that shakes your very core with fear. One of the ways survival horror games achieve this is by presenting the player with a world that is more than darkened hallways, flickering lights, ominous sounds, or spectral figures. The world in which the player walks and the enemies he/she faces are imbued with meaning, they represent something, and as the player thinks more about what they represent the more it helps to eat away at the sanity of the player.
Not Just any Old Haunted House
One of the most recognizable locations for anyone who has dabbled in survival horror games is the ghostly town of Silent Hill. But the town is so much more than a truckload of fog and creepy sounds. The town constructs itself based on the sins and fears of the unfortunate souls who become trapped within.
The area on which Silent Hill was built is filled with its own rich history that is colorfully strung throughout the series. The land was a holy site to Native Americans known as “The Place of Silenced Spirits.” After forcing the indigenous people off the land, the first colony was abandoned after a epidemic killed most of the colonists. When colonists returned to the land it would be used first as a penal colony and then as a POW camp during the Civil War. By the time we get to the first game the town has been transformed into a resort town. But existing alongside the beautiful scenery is the nightmarish shadow that the players find themselves in.
While the history goes a long way to explain the nature of Silent Hill it doesn’t always explain the town the player interacts with. The town likes to take a peek inside its victim’s minds to create a more frightening experience.
In Silent Hill 2 it is hinted the town one sees is crafted from one’s own mind. While most of the locations James visits seem like just twisted versions of the real world Silent Hill the hotel he visits at the end has special meaning because it’s where he and Marry stayed. Angela implies that the Silent Hill she sees is one that is always on fire while Laura seems impervious to the town’s effects.
The world that the player experiences in Silent Hill 4 The Room is a reflection of the mind of Walter Sullivan. As the player progresses through the game the player learns more about Walter’s past, learning about his suffering at the hands of the Silent Hill cult.
While I don’t consider The Suffering survival horror it does share a lot of the design philosophies that make for a good survival horror game. The game takes place on a prison island filled with a bloody history that has infected the very land with an evil presence. The island has the power to corrupt and influence those that inhabit its land. As the player runs around the island they are not just running around a creepy environment but an environment that itself is pulsating with evil.
Zombies Are Overrated
Just as the environment the player finds him/herself in can be imbued with meaning the monsters the player faces can be something more than grotesque monstrosities. It’s one thing to face mutated monsters but it’s another thing to face something crafted from the personal demons of an individual or the depravity of human nature.
In the Silent Hill games the monsters the player faces come from within the minds of those caught up in the town’s influence. The creatures the player faces in the first game are manifested from Cheryl/Alessa’s mind. Except for the abstract daddies, which represent the abuse Angela suffered from her dad and brother, the monsters in Silent Hill 2 represent parts of James. Pyramid Head represents his desire to be punished while Maria is idealized representation of Mary. And again in Silent Hill 3 the monsters represent the mental scars of Heather/Alessa caused by her history with the Order. While the monsters faced in Silent Hill 4 are representative of the madness bred in Walter by the Order.
The design for the creatures faced in The Suffering didn’t come from the scarred minds of the individuals that found themselves on the island but simply drew upon the depravity of human nature. Each of the creatures represents a form of execution or specific deaths on the island. The slayers and marksmen represent beheading and firing squads while monsters like the noosemen represent COs who were lynched as revenge for letting inmates die in a collapsed mine.
In the Fatal Frame series the ghosts faced aren’t representations of a character’s mind or human depravity but they do represent something else that can frighten the player: death. The form in which the ghosts are presented is how they died. If a woman died of a broken neck that is how she is presented to the player. You are not only facing something might that might be seen to represent death but something that represents all the ways death can take you.
Bringing it all together what does this mean for designing a truly frightening survival horror game? It means that you should consider imbuing the creatures and environment you present the player with twisted meanings. Not all survival horror games implement what I have talked about here, or implement such design decisions to varying degrees. In the early Resident Evil games the monsters and environment don’t carry any metaphorical meaning but through other methods creates tension and fear in the player. The Silent Hill games tend to place more focus on the symbolism of the monsters while the environments of the Fatal Frame games tend to not mean much, instead opting for a more traditional Gothic feel. Choosing to add meaning to the environment and monsters adds something more than the flickering light in the hall or the strange sounds in the forest. A deep sense of fear and disgust comes from not just realizing that you have to survive the onslaught of a deformed creature but realizing that creature is formed from the dirt and grime of reality. That its shape comes from the depravity and terror humans inflict on each other. That the ground you walk wasn’t made evil from the beginning but because of the blood that was spilled upon it. These things eat away at a person even if they survive the nightmare because the things that gave form to those nightmares are still out there walking the streets.