Survival horror is such a staple of gaming that it’s easy to forget what it is. That might sound silly, after all it’s not like people forget what a horror movie is, so why would they forget what a horror game is? But while an entire genre of horror can be broad and fit into many categories, the survival horror subgenre is a little more complicated. You can’t just make a scary game full of jumpscares and hope that it becomes survival horror.
The Evolution of Survival Horror
Perhaps the best known series of survival horror video games is Resident Evil, which is even sometimes credited as having created the game type. With fixed camera angles, tank controls, and limited supplies in a setting filled with monsters and zombies, the concept of survival horror was given one of its most recognizable forms. The player is put in the character’s shoes and must make all the decisions to make it out alive.
But with any good thing, it has to evolve and become something different over time. What worked 20 years ago may not work now. So what makes a good survival horror experience? I believe the answer is in how well the game puts the players into the characters shoes. A fine example is in the Resident Evil 3 remake.
Survival Horror and Resident Evil 3
While a sequel, and partially picking up just a few months after the first game left off, the story is fairly self-contained. The game begins with the protagonist, Jill Valentine, waking up in her apartment. She is surrounded by information about her, letting the player know she is a cop who was suspended after being involved in a case that is being covered up by the police and the Umbrella Corporation.
Almost as soon as the game begins, we are introduced to the game’s primary antagonist as well: the Nemesis, a bio weapon designed to kill all S.T.A.R.S., Jill’s police unit before her suspension. This creature attacks Jill suddenly in her apartment and no matter what she does throughout the game it just keeps chasing her. She shoots it, watches an apartment floor fall on it, and hits it with a car off a parking garage all in the opening of the game and the thing keeps coming back. Playing the game is scary enough, the streets filled with danger from other creatures and zombies, but then the possibility that at any moment this unkillable creature is going to attack adds an additional layer of tension.
That’s where this game takes the idea of survival horror to the next level. There are the usual gameplay elements, the limited supplies and occasional puzzle, but taking control of Jill does more than just put the player in a scary scenario for the character. It puts players in the role all women deal with everyday.
Jill, Women, and Survival Horror
Jill is the only woman in the game. She meets a few other survivors, all men, and spends most of the game alone. She is the last member of her unit in town and the only one Nemesis is after. Jill is by herself and dealing with the dangers of the world like everybody else. However unlike everyone else she could also find herself randomly attacked at any moment by Nemesis. That threat could come at anytime or anyplace; on the street, in her home, or on the subway.
Resident Evil and its gender dynamic reflect real life. As a man, I can go to a lot of places and not think too much about it. Alone in a dark parking lot? Whatever. Sure, there’s the chance of maybe being robbed or becoming the victim of another violent crime. These are threats that face all of us. They are not specific to our gender. They are the zombies and other monsters of the game. Likely I’ll just walk through the parking lot, buy my frozen pizza from the store at midnight, and walk back to my car with my earbuds in, listening to a podcast. It’s life and most men just do it.
Women, like Jill, don’t have that luxury. Ask a woman if she would walk around alone, at midnight, with earbuds in. Odds are, she would not. She has to keep vigilant, be careful, because at any moment she could be sexually assaulted. At any moment Nemesis may show up to rear his ugly head. It’s the fear that’s always there, that can always come. At a work related event with people she knows? Doesn’t matter, someone the woman knows could still assault her. Data from the Centers for Disease Control indicates 43.6 percent of women in the U.S. have experienced some form of sexual violence. For men, it’s only 24.8 percent.
Surviving the Horror Alone
This is the scenario the player is put in for Resident Evil 3. You have to be on alert at all times, not just because of the normal dangers everybody else has to deal with, but because Nemesis can happen at any time. In the same way that issues of assault and harassment have changed over the years, so does Nemesis. At various points in the game when Jill seems to have finally done the creature in, it changes tactics and evolves, becoming bigger and harder to kill. Reflecting the reality that even when rapists are caught they rarely go to prison.
Jill does have some help over the course of the game, but when it comes to dealing with Nemesis she can rely only on herself. In the same way that women have allies, the end result is that the only one Jill can depend on is herself. She’s been betrayed by the police, a private company in Umbrella, and just like how women in real life have to deal with a lack of support often from police and the companies they work for, Jill is almost always in it alone.
In the end, Jill defeats Nemesis in its final, giant form. This isn’t the end of her fight, but the end of her fear. She’s not afraid to be out, she’s made it to the otherside. It isn’t the end, these things never really end, but it’s a step. Her final words to the creature are the same ones that many stalkers and predatory men should heed, “Next time, take the fucking hint.”
A fan of horror, fantasy, sci-fi, and everything in between. Billy graduated with a BA in English from the University of Memphis and moved to Maryland with his wife and son. When he isn’t spending time with his family he’s playing video games, reading, writing, or just watching something he’s likely seen 100 times before.