As Capcom abandons the genre, and rumours point to a co-op Dead Space 3, will this year's E3 spell the death of survival horror?
This year it feels like E3 could be the final nail in the coffin for survival horror. After Dead Space 3 was unofficially confirmed by several sources, and South African retailer BT Games started accepting pre-orders, I started to get excited at the prospect that one of the last bastions of the genre would be getting a new entry. Then IGN sources reported that Dead Space 3 will include drop-in, drop-out co-op, and my excitement levels plummeted.
Ask any survival horror fan why co-op doesn't work in the genre, and they'll invariably cite the same example: Resident Evil 5. Whenever there was a sniff of danger, Sheva came running to drop-kick a few enemies and make life a cake-walk. Even with an equally-fallible friend taking the place of overpowered AI, the essence of fear is lost. The key features of survival horror are isolation and powerlessness, and these qualities quickly evaporate when a chum is right by your side. Heaven forbid you should die in a modern video game, because Sheva simply won't allow it. Even the most mortal of wounds can be dealt with via a quick slap on the back, getting you straight back into the action.
And that's the key word, 'action'. Capcom has stated that straight survival horror games simply don't sell enough to warrant triple-A releases anymore. Series producer Masachika Kawata stated himself in an interview with Eurogamer that the survival horror market is "small, compared to the number of units Call of Duty and all those actions games sell".
These are damning words for the genre, and seem to spell the end of Resident Evil as the flagship series for survival horror. But beyond that, these comments underscore the current trends of the industry. Rather than pursuing the ideas they are genuinely passionate about, many developers seem to be pro-actively pursuing the same basic premises as other games that have already sold millions. It's an understandable tactic up to a point, but this is exactly how video game series stagnate - by regurgitating the same ideas over and over, until gamers start to lose interest.
And then there's Dead Space. The first Dead Space was a true survival horror title - and had praise heaped upon it as a result - but its sequel definitely started the move towards action gaming. We'll have to wait and see what happens with Dead Space 3, but if the rumours of co-op play turn out to be true, it's hardly a promising sign. The apparent industry perception is that the only way a survival horror series can survive is to quickly deviate into another genre and speed up the gameplay. Why do publishers have such little faith in a genre when Dead Space's first entry alone proved that it can be successful? Not only do publishers remove fundamental gameplay elements, but with the addition of bland multiplayer, we horror-junkies are destined to go unsatisfied.
The argument goes that Capcom and EA are moving away from survival horror because the market is too small, but if that was the case, Dead Space wouldn't have succeeded in the first place. By moving these franchises into another genre, they are no longer a huge fish in a small pond, but a small fish in a very sizeable ocean. Dead Space and Resident Evil may be big names, but they are far bigger in the survival horror market than among the action crowd.
Capcom and EA are attaching action games to survival horror franchises, not the other way around. Capcom made the god-awful Operation Raccoon City, which was a critical flop, as well as The Mercenaries on 3DS, which wasn't great either. Dead Space and Resident Evil are well known as survival horror franchises, not action series. They have achieved success and acclaim as scary games, and that's why people love them. Many people will buy Resi 6 and Dead Space 3 based on their experiences with older entries in the franchises, which were survival horror experiences, which surely means that the genre still has a place in the industry.
But this is a flawed strategy because Capcom runs the risk of alienating both audiences. The survival horror faithful will no doubt be pissed off by the fact their beloved franchises aren't what they once were, and if action fans wanted to play Resident Evil, they would have done so by now. For an example of how such tactics can backfire, one need only look at EA's recent misadventures with Syndicate, or 2K's troubles with its XCOM brand. Fans went berserk when 2K announced a new XCOM game, only for it to be revealed as an FPS. 2K quickly back-tracked and have repeatedly delayed the game's release, while simultaneously announcing a new, more familiar turn -based strategy game. The overall lesson to learn from this? By throwing all their eggs in the action basket, publishers run a very real of risk of ruining their franchises.
For people like me, thankfully, all hope is not lost. The godfather of survival horror, and creator of the Resident Evil series, Shinji Mikami, announced recently he is working on a new "true survival horror game". Codename Zwei is being developed by Mikami-san's Tango studios, and published by Bethesda, the powerhouse behind The Elder Scrolls series. Mikami said he is "striving for pure survival horror", and is "being very hands-on with the development of this game to ensure the quality is there". This is music to my ears, and flies in the face of Kawata's comments, not only does it have the man behind the genre making sure the game is a pure example of survival horror, it's also backed by one of the biggest publishers in the industry. Mikami hasn't said much about Zwei, but he's said more than enough to get me excited.
If you want to know the kind of impact Shinji Mikami can have on a game, play Resident Evil 4 and 5. Mikami worked on Resi 4 and left before 5, and the difference was palpable. Even when Capcom started the push towards action in Resident Evil 4, Mikami still found a way to retain the series' focus on horror. Resident Evil 5 lost sight of this goal; it tried to do exactly what Mikami did with 4, only bigger, and without his genius - and it failed miserably.
It's obvious that we currently have a lot more questions than answers, but all that is about to change. With E3 right around the corner, hopefully EA, Capcom, and Bethesda will no doubt shed some light on what they have in store. At the very least we will see how Dead Space 3 plans to use co-op; maybe EA will prove me wrong and do something truly innovative and make co-op horrifying, but somehow I doubt it. Hope is all but lost for Resident Evil. E3 will no doubt allow Capcom to showcase all the new action-oriented features that promise to make Resident Evil 6 the least Resident Evil title yet. If anything, I expect the footage to be more akin to the mundane movie series.
We must all keep our fingers crossed for Bethesda and Mikami, and hope that Zwei makes an appearance that puts the other two to shame - not only to raise the spirits of survival horror fans, but to show the rest of the industry that it can be done.