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Why Are Survival Horror Games Scary?

Why Are Survival Horror Games Scary?

Since returning from Capcom Captivate – cue shameless plug for my round-up article – I’ve been asked a lot of questions from sister mags here at Imagine’s offices about the games there. What’s the point of Dead Rising? What does Dragon’s Dogma mean? Does everyone use Ken in Street Fighter x Tekken?

One question I haven’t been asked is, is Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City scary? I thought it was odd that no-one asked until I thought about it some more and thought actually, yeah. It does make sense that no-one has asked. It’s a third-person online team shooter. Of course it’s not going to be scary. You get the sense that even Capcom sometimes forget that there are zombies milling about in the midst of its Umbrella vs US military spin-off and sees the Tyrant as a bigger soldier without a gun.

Still, this leads onto another question, that isn’t so easy to answer – what does make survival horror games scary?

Forbidden Siren – Scary

True story: when I was at uni in Southampton, I played through Forbidden Siren with my flatmate. We took turns completing levels because we were both so utterly pathetic that we were both cacking our pants at how scary it was. Even now, I remember the level where you wake up in a small Japanese home with shibitos patrolling the corridor directly outside your bedroom. You could sight-jack – an ability allowing you to see through the eyes of your enemies – which meant my flatmate could see one shibito right outside the bedroom door. He tried psyching himself up, opening the curtains (drawn for ‘atmosphere’) and even pretending to charge the door in a hopeless display of faux bravery.


Half-an-hour later, he was still stuck in that bedroom, before conceding defeat. We then put Pro Evo on. I don’t think we ever went back to it.

Why was Forbidden Siren so scary? One of the main reasons was that you were vulnerable. You couldn’t fight your way out of trouble. The game was never designed around that. Surviving was a case of hiding and evading, rather than bludgeoning and shooting. Shibitos also came back to life after you killed them, creating a tense atmosphere where you could never relax. There’s something to be said for games that don’t afford you the luxury of a safe haven. You’re always on guard and left nervous. Forbidden Siren also had a really creepy aesthetic – washed out colours, grainy cutscenes, dark visuals and a bleak storyline. The pace was glacial, allowing the atmosphere to soak in.

Individually, the reasons don’t amount to much but together, it was bloody terrifying. It still stands as the scariest game I’ve ever played and one I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t complete because it was too hard but because it was too scary. I’m blaming my inability to complete it on my own cowardice.

Well, that and Pro Evo.

Resident Evil 5 – Not Scary

Conversely, Resident Evil 5 isn’t a survival horror game despite some people using that tag. It’s an action game. It’s built around confrontation. That’s why you can upgrade your weapons, that’s why you can’t avoid enemies, that’s why it has huge boss battles, that’s why it can shift from daytime Africa to underground science labs without worrying how detrimental it’ll be to the atmosphere.


The only real clues to Resident Evil 5’s survival horror lineage are its name and its controls having evolved out of the genre’s early days, inheriting some of its trademark clunkiness.

There are tense moments in Resident Evil 5 – your first encounter with the chainsaw-wielding bagman will induce panic while wading through the crocodile infested waters is a nervy experience, but they’re not scary. Big difference. Then again, nothing ever can be all that scary when you have a rocket launcher on your back and a grenade-tossing partner by your side. Little wonder that the chainsaw-wielding bagman and the crocodile waters are standout moments – they’re among the handful of occasions where you do feel vulnerable.

So Why Are Survival Horror Games Scary?

I think it’s to do with vulnerability. It’s no surprise that as the genre has equipped you with better controls and bigger guns and you feel more confident in looking after yourself, any feeling of fear has vanished alongside it.

The perfect example of this is Left 4 Dead. Compare how the game feels when you have a full team of four to how it feels when your team-mates have died and you’re left on your own. It becomes a completely different game. The odds are stacked against you as Left 4 Dead hasn’t been designed for you to survive without others helping you out. Worst of all, you know it. Hunters screeching and Smokers coughing don’t just become warning signs when you’re on your own. They become ominous and make you cower in fear.

There’s been an action-tilt to the survival horror genre in recent years, with even the likes of Silent Hill struggling to recreate the horror of its early outings. Old-school survival horror games where the pace is slow, where you’re on your own and where you feel vulnerable just aren’t made anymore. It’ll be interesting to see how Dead Island turns out, as that looks like it will land on the action side of the divide. Even so, it could add a new perspective to figuring out why survival horror games terrify you to begin with.

So question to all you readers then – what was the last game that frightened you and why do you think it had such an impact on you?

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  • James Steele

    Although it’s not on PS3. The scariest game us easily ‘Amnesia: Dark Descent’ on steam. It is so utterly terrifying because you know that you are being looked for/hunted and have no possible way of stopping them – and so as you said you feel completely vulnerable. The dark corridors and bad visibility add to the atmosphere making you highly alert and doing whatever possible to be able to try and see your path ahead.

  • Sandy

    I’ll admit something here. I am unable to play scary games. Even the dungeon sections of Oblivion had me jumping out of my seat. So, for me, almost any game with a dark section counts as scary…

  • Ryan King

    James – I’ll definitely check that out! Not heard of it before but it sounds good. I have a real love/hate thing with scary games, Amnesia sounds like it fits the bill 🙂

    Sandy – That makes me feel like slightly less pathetic about my Forbidden Siren confession!

  • Kat

    I Agree with James… I’m in love with this game i just started playing. Even tho i just started it, it is one of the most horrifying game i ever seen. I always loved Silent hill series more then anything else but i always loved the horror games where u dont have to just shoot ur enemies… Amnesia is an experience you wont forget… Good Luck =D