So You Want To/Write a Survival Horror Game

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How-To Guide


/wiki/So You Want Towork
The door to safety is shut. There is no turning back.
Resident Evil Zero

Be sure to check out So You Want to Write a Story for advice that holds across genres.


What The Genre Runs On[edit | hide | hide all]

  • Nightmare Fuel: It's not enough to unintentionally scare people. The whole point of survival horror is to scare the living daylights out of the player.
  • Paranoia Fuel:

Recommended Tropes[edit | hide]

Choices, Choices[edit | hide]

  • Weaponry: Generally, you shouldn't give the player police or military grade weapons until late in the game, if at all, and after the enemies have gone up in strength and difficulty. Most games restrict it to things like melee weapons, pistols, revolvers, shotguns, and other guns that one would expect to see lying around. By all means, avoid providing the player a BFG in anything except a New Game+. Above all, make sure it fits the theme of your setting.
    • Also consider how proficient the protagonist should be with them. The key is to keep the protagonist feeling vulnerable, and limiting them to random flails of an Improvised Weapon can help keep them feeling desperate.
    • In fact, you might even consider the idea of not allowing the protagonist to fight back at all, meaning they can only run from or, at best, stun enemies. Do not make the mistake of assuming that fighting and killing enemies are necessarily essential components.
    • Nor should you make the mistake of assuming that the inability to kill enemies equates to giving the player no means to at least temporarily ward off threats. The need to stop what you were doing to run away from the Implacable Man every 30 seconds quickly stops being scary and starts being annoying, which is not the effect you're supposed to be going for.
  • Health and ammo: How much of each should there be? Too little and the game will be Nintendo Hard... but it will also be scarier since every bullet and health pack counts. A fine balance between enough/too little should be found. Consider including multiple difficulty settings, with lower difficulty providing more health and ammo and vice versa.
  • First-person or third-person perspective?: The former allows for the player to be snuck up on by enemies much more easily, since most of the screen is no longer visible, but it can also frustrate players when they can't tell where the enemy is. The latter avoids this, but can remove some of the fear and add Fake Difficulty if there's poor camera control.
  • How many enemies?: Some survival horror games get by with only one Implacable Man hunting the player, a la Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees. Others throw them into a zombie apocalypse. In the middle, a zombie apocalypse with a few iconic bosses/sub bosses can be used. In fact, it's possible to avoid standard enemies altogether by having the player trapped in a malevolent Genius Loci.
  • What Sort of Scares?: Yahtzee divided monster scares into three; you might find others, but here are his:
    • You walk by a cupboard and a monster jumps out and goes "A bloogy woogy woo!" (Cheap Cat Scare moments, basically. Useful if not overdone.)
    • You look at the cupboard and realize there's a monster behind you. And you just know he's going to go "A bloogy woogy woo!" at some point, but he doesn't, and you're terrified to turn around because what he'd do then would be even worse. (Here, your mind does most of the work: Nothing Is Scarier.)
    • The monster says "A bloogy woogy woo," but he's all the way across the room and coming very slowly toward you, giving you plenty of time to get away. (Not so scary, but on the other hand, there's always the Advancing Wall of Doom, where the monster acts as a visceral time limit on the actions you're taking to get away from it, and every little mistake or back-track makes it more intense.)
  • What "flavor" of horror?: Western horror is visceral (the horror comes from the threat of being eaten or otherwise painfully murdered; a prime example would be Dead Space, where the enemies are basically Zerg Rush zombies with tentacles and claws and have to be mauled to death), while eastern horror is cerebral (feelings of isolation and paranoia, some Rule of Symbolism, and "being trapped with something that hates you in a very passive-aggressive way"; a prime example would be Silent Hill where there are few enemies, but the ones that are there are very symbolic and can be tied directly to regrets, frustrations and mental trauma). Something in the middle would be like The Thing, where you're soaked in as much Paranoia Fuel as the writer thinks he can get away with, and he then provides a lit match in the form of an enemy popping messily out of a teammate. You could have something down the middle by starting out fighting hordes of zombies, and as you start to get mentally fatigued, pile on more and more Freudian imagery until the player is fighting (un)living H. R. Giger sculptures.

Pitfalls[edit | hide]

  • Why Don't You Just Leave?: Not such an issue in a broken starship, but in a monster-infested suburbia, why not just hop the next bus out of town? Some games forget to give the hero a darn good reason for sticking around when there are monsters trying to eat his soul. The reason could be external or internal, ranging from "surrounded by desert" and "impassable forcefield" to "my daughter's here somewhere and I'm not leaving till I've found her." But steer clear of the milder forms, like "the bridge is out" (why not just swim across the river?) or "oh gee I might have to walk a couple miles down the road." At any rate, go read up on the Monster in the House plot in Ten Movie Plots, which is basically what Survival Horror is.
  • Villain Decay: Because of the nature of the player as a monster-killing dynamo, they may become a One-Man Army despite starting the game as an Action Survivor. As a result, players may lose that initial dread you worked so hard to get as the monster stop being scary. Common ways to avoid this is to make most enemies particularly weak on purpose, but giving them Zerg Rush tactics to keep them frightening en masse. Creating a few Sub Boss enemies to harass players, or even an Implacable Man that they can't kill for most of the game, and can survive only by fleeing, are other means to curb the player's confidence as they hit their stride. If you must use Demonic Spiders, make sure they aren't "cheap".
  • Camera Control: In a movie, a monster popping up out of nowhere is scary. In a videogame, a monster popping up out of nowhere is also scary, but if overdone can be a little annoying. In a movie, a hero who doesn't look both ways and gets mugged by the monster is subject to audience mockery. In a videogame, a camera that can't be made to focus on the places the player expects a monster to come out of is Camera Screw, and damn annoying! So, use the former, avoid the latter.
  • Pacing: To quote Yahtzee; "There haven't been any mainstream survival-horror games this year, just a lot of action games where the enemies have arms growing out of their tits." Gribbly enemies and atmosphere come to naught when one goes through zombies (or whatever) like popcorn and the story's done in four hours.

Potential Subversions[edit | hide]

  • Claustrophobia, Agoraphobia... or both? Most Survival Horror games cause dread with small, cramped spaces and strange, hard to locate sounds. You never know what horror lies behind a new... or old... door. This is because it's usually thematically appropriate, since most of these games are in a Closed Circle. However, some games manage to avoid the monotony of a sewer, haunted house, or cramped spaceship by adding vast, "empty" areas. The trick is to somehow hide the enemies, be it by playing possum, invisibility, impenetrable darkness, fog, or some other means.
  • Rather than over-the-top gore, make the setting a Sugar Bowl (or more accurately, a Crap Saccharine World). Make the players fear the cuddly berserker teddy bears! Have the player run in fear of the pack of singing bunnies who want nothing more than to eat their flesh!
  • Instead of trapping the hero in a remote, monster filled location they must escape, place them in a densely populated environment where no one will help them.
  • Don't be cribbin' Silent Hill, use locations other than (or in addition to) the Abandoned Hospital and Mannequin factories. Or use them in an unexpected way: the Hospital is completely clean. Too clean, even. And then the steam-punk zombie orderlies show up to "clean up" the mess that is the player.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture is often done only by the villain. But is it too much to ask that the bad guy gets a taste of his own medicine for once? It's horror, use it as the Moral Event Horizon for the PC.
  • Try setting your game in a historical period or a fantasy setting instead of the usual modern or sci-fi style setting. Army of Darkness and Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare have deadite/zombie attacks in 1300's England and in The Wild West, for example.

Writers Lounge:[edit | hide]

Suggested Themes and Aesops[edit | hide]

Potential Motifs[edit | hide]

Suggested Plots[edit | hide]

Departments[edit | hide]

Set Designer / Location Scout[edit | hide]

Very important, since it help set the mood. Generally, it has to be a scary place. Is it a town in the American Midwest? A small village? a spaceship? Or maybe it's all inside the head of your hero.

The main idea is to build a feeling of fear and isolation. Potential tropes include:

Also consider that a big part of horror is the familiar acting in an unexpected and horrifying way. Thus, a familiar location that has been distorted may be more effective than strange architecture or locations that most of the audience will never see. Also has the advantage of making people squeamish when they return to these places in real life, thanks to the Tetris Effect.

Props Department[edit | hide]

Costume Designer[edit | hide]

  • Depends on the setting and character.
  • For the main character, give them relatively normal clothes for the setting and for their position in life. Jackets and vests, for some reason, seem to be really popular in this genre.
  • For The Load, a three-piece suit (if male) or a girly skirt (if female) works well to emphasize how out of their element they are.
  • Armor Is Useless often comes up.
  • Hell-Bent for Leather might work if a character is the tough guy.
  • Blood-spattered scrubs are also good.

Casting Director[edit | hide]

Think carefully whether the protagonist should meet anyone at all. Though groups of allies can work, it can be more unnerving and isolating if no one is encountered.

Furthermore, a friendly, normal and reliable character can reduce tension if not used carefully. Consider making all characters strange and unreliable in some way, unsympathetic or downright malevolent. Any sympathetic and helpful characters should either die quickly, get separated from the player, turn on the player, or be The Load that has to be protected. Having said character be kidnapped may work, but beware turning things into a case of "The princess is in another castle".

To this end, we suggest a cast consisting of people including, but not limited to, the following:

Stunt Department[edit | hide]

  • Loads of narrow ecapes.

Extra Credit[edit | hide]

The Greats[edit | hide]

The Epic Fails[edit | hide]

  • The 2008 reboot of Alone in the Dark. Shitty controls just make people Rage Quit, it does nothing for tension.
  • Vampire Rain from AQ Interactive. A failed attempt to mash Metal Gear Solid with Survival Horror, the game is especially notorious for having a thinly-written plot with wooden voice acting, dreadful dialogue, lousy gameplay, horrendous enemy A.I. and inconsistent difficulty. Moreover, the most innovative thing in the game is that your knife (a melee weapon) actually requires ammo to use. (Face Palm)
  • Ju-On: The Grudge, a game also from AQ Interactive. Notorious for having cheap scares that a 12-year old won't scream at, horrid controls, ludicrously short amount of gameplay, and poor sound effects, it will more likely put the player to sleep than wet his or her pants.
  • AMY, a downloadable game from Vectorcell, is a prime example of how not to make a Survival Horror game for your Play Station 3 or Xbox 360. As these reviews point out, there's nothing quite like a perfect storm of horrible controls, repetitive scares, and Fake Difficulty to buzz-kill an otherwise interesting premise.

Honorable Mentions[edit | hide]

  • F.E.A.R. is a combination of the tropes of FPS games and Japanese ghost movies a la The Ring. While it's quite possibly the most action-heavy game on this list, and only included here because of its supernatural horror elements, the two genres it draws from go together well enough to make it a worthwhile experience.
  • The System Shock games and their Spiritual Successor, the BioShock (series) series, are also examples of horror-shooters done right.
  • The Siren games are a decidedly Japanese take on the Zombie Apocalypse, with a heavy focus on stealth rather than combat.
  • Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. While quite buggy, it is still widely regarded as one of the best adaptations of the works of H.P. Lovecraft ever made.
  • Clock Tower.
  • Fatal Frame.
  • Dead Space: uses 3rd person shooter elements and gives a combat focused play, while throwing hordes of grotesque untraditional zombies at the player that can only be killed through removing limbs. Scares are focused on unexpected appearances of hidden necromorphs and seeing the deaths of innocent survivors. Anxiety is created through the claustrophobia, seeing how the ship is basically a warzone/massacre, and with the general feeling that, like Metro 2033, combat results in a net loss for the player. Notable for the unique story and richly detailed setting.