Surviving Impossible Odds
Survival horror is a favorite subgenre of horror in video games. Its primary focus is on the survival of a character or a group of characters. Usually against scary monsters and an even scarier atmosphere.
The idea is not to die despite insurmountable odds, few weapons, limited ammunition, limited health, and poor vision.
The player must beat the challenge of finding an exit or try to escape through maze-like environments. In this kind of game, puzzle-solving and ingenuity beat monsters with heavy weaponry and strength.
Imagine an abandoned city, prison, or dungeon, hurt, blindsided, heart accelerating, gasping for breath, bleeding, running low on ammunition, and you can smell corpses. You hold the trigger and exhale, knowing you are not the hunter but the prey.
That is survival horror in a nutshell.
Games like Silent Hill, Amnesia, Resident Evil, Dying Light, The Last of Us, Fatal Frame, and Alien Isolation are good examples of this genre.
In films, the equivalent of a survival horror would be a home invasion film or a slasher film. Even a zombie movie, if it is contained within a small area, can be considered a good example.
What About Literature?
As a genre, survival horror may be the providence of video games, but literature can also benefit from it. Some people may argue that is what psychological horror is about. In a way, there seems to be a connection between them.
After all, psychological horror is about playing with your character’s fears and mental instability to frighten the reader. Therefore, what is not shown is just as important as what is shown or told to the reader. The fear of being confined, with no escape (and chased by someone or something) is a powerful one.
Accordingly, if we accept the above definition, you would realize it sounds a lot like a thriller. Are they the same thing?
There is a connection, but they are not the same thing. Indeed, a thriller does play with your emotions; creating suspense by not showing or telling you everything.
Arguably, horror fiction works best in the dark, in isolation, facing the unknown. All horror is about surviving the monster. Yet, survival horror takes it to an extreme. Even worse, it forces the character to solve puzzles while trying to survive.
Survival horror is more about survival despite being overwhelmed and handicapped. Isn’t that the essence of good fiction? Putting your characters through ever-increasing risk and challenges.
Can Horror Survive?
I will argue that speculative fiction in general, and horror, in particular, can benefit from borrowing ideas and techniques from survival horror.
Despite video games like Resident Evil being interactive experiences, horror literature can include more realistic elements. And writers can use some of the survival horror techniques to make the reading experience more interactive as well.
(Just avoid the “find the keys” trope. It gets old fast. I am sure writers can think of better, more tense obstacles for our characters than “find the keys”. Unless, of course, there is a horde of bioengineered zombies chasing you and the door is locked).
Actually, there are a few books that do that. For example, Matheson’s I Am Legend, S. D. Perry’s City of the Dead, and J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise, among others.
But we could see many more. And not only horror. Fantasy and science fiction do also touch on themes of survival despite scary and overwhelming odds.
Think about it. An under-powered, everyday character faced against impossible odds, trying to survive by wits alone. What is not to like?
What is your favorite survival horror game or novel?