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How survival horror fear mechanics evolved with 3D technology

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If you can hear the abyss, the abyss can also hear you

Whenever a new technology debuts, media adjusts alongside the innovation, and this is especially true for survival horror games and 3D graphics and surround sound.

Modern games regularly use surround sound to position enemies on a map relative to the player. To pinpoint an enemy, the player will move the camera to determine where the sound is coming from. The fear mechanics in survival horror games work because you know that if you can hear an enemy, they can “hear” you. Gameplay becomes hide-and-seek.

There was a time when 3D graphics processing wasn’t as powerful as it is now, and surround sound wasn’t available at all — and survival horror looked a lot different because of that.

Even though 3D graphics were possible for early survival horror games like Alone in the Dark (1992) and Resident Evil (1996), there wasn’t enough rendering power to create 3D characters and a 3D room model.

To compensate, both games relied solely on a fixed viewpoint, where the camera remains still as the player wanders within its purview, switching when they move out of frame. Silent Hill (1999) combines a fixed third-person view with an eerily roaming camera, as well as fog outside and darkness inside to cut down on the load of rendering distant background graphics.

Although the fixed camera was a way of managing technological limitations, these games used it to their advantage.

The inability to control the perspective underscores a sense of powerlessness. Hearing a monster roar implies it must be nearby, but without the ability to see where it might be, the danger can come from any direction. Instead of sound being a deterrent for exploration, it forces the player to move forward so they can find the camera angle that allows them to see the monster.

Because the developers controlled the viewpoint of the camera, scenes could be structured around moments of terror, which is uncommon outside of cutscenes in modern survival horror.

Specifically, the camera angles mimic the cinematography of horror films. The player is positioned as the subject, then pushed to explore even though they’re not in control of what they see.

It’s no coincidence that this style is reminiscent of horror cinema. The creators of Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil both cite George Romero as an inspiration, and Silent Hill was explicitly described as an attempt to make “Hollywood horror.”

The aesthetics of survival horror games shifted once 3D graphic technology became sufficiently powerful and surround sound became standardized. It was possible to program parameters such as a room’s size and acoustic properties to create a dynamic landscape and make the sound-location of the player available to enemy AI. Thus you have modern survival horror games, which are often closer to stealth games in terms of mechanics.

Creators used fixed cameras as a workaround, but that choice informed the styles of all of these franchises. Silent Hill games relied on cinematic camera usage long after technology advanced beyond the need for it. Even though the fog and darkness started as a workaround to a technological restraint, it’s become a part of the franchise’s signature style.

Watch the above FiendZone video to learn more about how survival horror games evolved alongside 3D graphics and sound technology.