Dark Souls: Where Survival Horror is Hiding
The Dark Souls series is a survival horror game in disguise. It might look like an action RPG; it has all those stats, numbers and loot that RPGs are known to have, but beneath the surface, Dark Souls is pure, undiluted terror.
First off, this is a series downright obsessed with death. You die, other characters die, you see other players who are ghosts, over half the monsters are skeletons, zombies, or in some cases much, much worse--but clearly dead. If that wasn't bad enough, there's the whole concept of hollowing, where a person slowly loses connection to their humanity because they've spent so much time being dead. Dark Souls II takes this even further by having you watch your character slowly decay in front of your eyes with each failure you make.
The whole crux of the game is that you'll die often. In Dark Souls II there's even an epitaph listing the number of total deaths that has been recorded. It's easy to brush past a lot of this as just background fluff, but From Software are devoted to exploring one facet of the human experience so much it manages to shape the entire game. If this isn't survival horror, then I don't know what is.
Dark Souls's identity as a horror game doesn't end there though. No, the mechanics, thought processes and method of storytelling are actually a lot like traditional survival horror.
First off, discomfort.
One of the primary tenants of modern game design has been the focus on accessibility. Games have to be understood, informative and ease the player into the experience. This doesn't necessarily mean that they have to be "easy" but it's understandable why we sometimes interchange the two concepts.
Either way, Dark Souls is neither of those things. Upon starting you'll usually have your spine crushed by a fat demon with a club minutes after you've had the controls explained. In Dark Souls II it's fairly easy, if you're not paying attention, to wander down a path and have your head chomped off by some angry monster literally seconds after taking control of your character.
This is incredibly similar to the feeling that was evoked in the "Golden Age" of survival horror. Silent Hill 3, with its unsettling noises and oppressive sense of dread, understood that making the player feel uncomfortable was just as important as frightening them.
In Dark Souls, death can be around every corner and enemies can kill you in just a handful of attacks, making many encounters just as nerve-shredding as it was taking on a horde of zombies in Resident Evil. In both Dark Souls and traditional survival horror, you're always on edge, prepared for an attack from the least possible place, to make sure that you don't waste any of your meagre healing items.
Likewise, the complete lack of information given to you in Dark Souls is in itself a puzzle that needs to be solved.
Classic survival horror essentially used puzzles as the progression system: monsters didn't need to be defeated in order to progress, they were just there to frighten you and make things harder. Collecting items and figuring out how to unlock certain doors was usually your main task. Dark Souls progression is much the same, you're regularly given a key and a rather cryptic description pertaining to its use and left to your own devices. All this in turn shapes Dark Souls pacing.
In Silent Hill, there was usually a quiet section followed by increasing moments of stress and panic. Monsters might get more frequent, or there'd be horrible noises coming from certain rooms. Then things would get even worse, followed by a flip into the Otherworld: perhaps the best video game representation of a living nightmare. Eventually you'd fight a boss and then there'd be a huge sigh of relief as you were granted temporary reprieve from all that stress.
Dark Souls follows a similar structure: you work your way through an area, tension slowly increasing as the enemies get harder and the souls you'll potentially lose upon death get greater and greater. Almost when you can't take that tension anymore the game makes it even worse with a humongous boss that you think you have no chance of beating. Once you do, you have your catharsis: a beautiful sight of a bonfire. Rinse and repeat.
Silent Hill in particular is an apt game to compare to Dark Souls. Whilst early Resident Evil and Alone in the Dark share the basic survival horror mechanics, it's Silent Hill that has the same multi-layered plot. On the surface, both Dark Souls and Silent Hill have rather simple stories but dig deeper, and there's a whole boatload of meaning to be gleaned from both titles. It doesn't take Sigmund Freud to figure out that Pyramid Head might be more than just some guy wearing a metal helmet, and there's plenty of similar examples in Dark Souls: there's a lot going on behind a relatively simple premise.
In fact, I'd go as far to say that Dark Souls world isn't really a fantasy world at all, at least not the kind that you'd find in a say a Bioware or Bethesda game. Most of the game's areas, and this is especially true of the sequel, are rather abstract in nature; they might have some lore attached to them but they seem more from some kind of dream (or in many cases a nightmare) than they do a fully realised fantasy world. Dark Souls II's hub, Majula, is both beautiful and at the same time incredibly depressing; with a melancholy tune that chimes away lightly in the background, almost as if your character is trapped in some kind of perpetual purgatory.
And that's about where survival horror is at the moment: purgatory. The likes of Amnesia and Outlast seem to be heralding a new wave of first-person horror titles, but the traditional horror games of the 32-bit era are still in limbo. Focusing just on Dark Souls difficulty misses the point; it brings back, and evolves, a lot of older survival horror mechanics that can be put to good use.
Let's hope Konami and Capcom are paying attention.