The birthing of... “Survival Horror”
(Resident Evil, 1996 by Capcom)
Back in the days of the depression, cinema found itself being censored by religious groups and soon after, producers in Hollywood realized that a rating system that upheld American moral values needed to be instated in order to pass the approval of audiences and government sanctioned groups like the MPAA. For video games in the early 80’s, most game developers upheld the morals, especially Eastern morals, of the times and effectively there was no need to set standards and bearers for game consoles and third-party developers.
It was not until Mortal Kombat was released in 1992 was it clear, due to the level of horrific violence and sexuality, that a rating system, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), would need to be introduced by the video game world in order to prevent the same systematic government sanction that occurred in the early days of cinema.
Sega Genesis was very liberal with their content opposed to Nintendo, the worlds leading game console. Nintendo focused on family-oriented gaming scenarios that target a wide age range that dominated ninety percent of the industry. Sega and other platforms were ready to step outside the realms of family-friendly and bring fantasy and horror to gamers. But Mortal Kombat was not the first to introduce the idea of horror, or survival horror, to players. It simply was the last straw on the camel’s back.
The crossover between 2nd, 3rd and 4th generation game consoles showcased a slow ascent into more realistic and narrative games in which the gamer plays the main character in a cinematic choose-your-own-adventure world. With cinema, the level of acceptance of immoral content, such as sexuality and violence, took generations, but with gaming, the content attracted the attention of not only horror fans of cinema but teenage boys.
(Mortal Kombat X by NetherRealm Studios)
The Alien film largely contributes to the idea of survival horror in both the world of film and games. The tale involves the fight to survive in a horrific situation in which the spacecraft Nostromo acts as a haunted house that must be escaped like in the tradition of House on Haunted Hill. The idea of escape as a way of winning the game introduced the idea of having a character be timed to gather curtain object, solve puzzles and travel to a location of escape only to find themselves in a final showdown between good and evil. When the game Nostromo was released in 1981, the violence was lacking, replaced with the feeling of suspense. This widened the eyes of many gamers who were also fans of the genre. This lead to many more games before and after the great American video game crash that upheld a level of suspense through the use of puzzle solving in a horrific setting.
(AX-2: Uchuu Yusousen Nostromo by ASCII Entertainment Software, Inc.)
Horror films turned video games became popular with the release of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1982, Halloween in 1983 and The Evil Dead in 1984. Original content such as Beyond Castle Wolfenstein in 1984 and the widely popular Castlevania in 1986 broke away from the idea of playing a previously seen film. Nintendo gave in to the success of teen and adult-oriented games, as kid-friendly as they may seem today, with titles like Maniac Mansion by Lucasfilms in 1987, Friday the 13th in 1989 and the widely popular A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1990.
(Maniac Mansion, 1987 by Lucasfilm Games)
The early nineties brought a change to the level of survival horror as games moved from 2D to 3D or Arcade-Style to At-Home-Entertainment. The release of Alone in the Dark in 1992 brought the world of video games into the most cinematic gaming possible for its time. In a third-person view that greatly resembled cinema, the series brought a sophistication to the realms of video game horror that would not pick up for a couple of years, at which point an Alone in the Dark series had developed. Instead, gamers geared towards a new type of gaming in a first-person standpoint, or first-person shooters. The game Wolfenstein 3D used a ray casting view so that players had the ability to move about in three-hundred and sixty degrees of freedom. The game involved shooting and killing as the means of winning and greatly inspired, shocking for its time and overwhelmingly successful, Doom in 1993 which matched the rebellion of the American teen angst that took over the nation with industrial music and a post-war mentality behind it.
(Alone In The Dark, 1992 by Infogrames Entertainment)
By the time Mortal Kombat hit markets and took the level of violence to the extremes, cinematic third-person survival horror within the video game world was still new. It wasn’t until the release of Clock Tower in 1995 that people realized what was missing in the market.
(Clock Tower, 1995 by Human Entertainment)
The game was a cult success and lead to a game that started a whole new generation of expectation in the genre realm and gaming as a whole. The game that started and coined the term “Survival Horror” swept audiences off their feet, Resident Evil in 1996 remains the ultimate idea of cinematic gaming horror. The series’ success was the separation of violence when killing a character for points in a gaming objective as killing other humans within the gaming world was considered immoral while killing the walking dead was deemed necessary. After all, you can’t kill what is already dead.
(Jill Valentine in Resident Evil by Capcom)
Oddly, committing virtual murder in a first-person or single perspective lead to the development of a rating system with games like Doom and Mortal Kombat but the cinematic third-person perspective of killing what is deemed evil, such as the zombies in Resident Evil, catapulted the idea of survival horror for a new generation of games like Parasite Eve in 1998, Silent Hill in 1999 and Fatal Frame in 2001.
(Parasite Eve, 1998 by Square Inc.)
Since then, games like Castlevania, Wolfenstein, and the Alien Franchise have spawned many successful sequels breaking the way for “moral violence” while the overuse of sexuality has been placed on the back burner. First-person shooters, always in a war scenario, remain widely popular and even dominated the industry with realistic hand-to-hand combat while third-person cinematic role-playing games and survival horror is prophesied as the gateway into future virtual reality franchises. Just look at Alien: Isolation in 2017. And with cinema head-honchos like Del Toro, Spielberg and Lucas jumping on board, cinematic survival horror will surely be the birth of a new virtual gaming generation.
(Alien: Isolation by Creative Assembly)