Tons of scholars (that I can’t link to because of licensing issues with academic libraries) have argued that survival horror video games are the quintessential video game genre. I’ve gotten into more than a few debates on this point. While, yes, survival horror video games are a great genre, they aren’t necessarily the quintessential genre. The biggest reason for this? All video games are inherently survivalist.
Now, this probably sounds like a bold claim, and your first instinct is probably going to be to rally against it. It’s not that I have anything against survival horror video games—I’m defending my master’s thesis tomorrow on the Silent Hill franchise. Survival horror video games only seem quintessentially video game-y because they consistently have a distinct lack of ludonarrative dissonance that other genres seem to dabble in a bit more. Perhaps that’s not really fair since Resident Evil gives you control of a special tactical force officer and he/she seems like quite the novice because of the game’s clunky tank controls. But disregarding this issue, the gameplay and mechanics of survival horror games are often consistent with another thematically. Players want to survive just as the characters want to survive and both are willing to do what’s necessary to continue surviving. This often relegates players and characters to running or killing monsters, but rarely humans (without good narrative cause, like for continued survival in The Last of Us).
But returning to the core concept that all games are inherently survivalist. Virtually all games require the player and protagonist’s survival for continued play until the end-state. While there are a few games that toy with this concept (I can only come up with the flash game Five Minutes to Kill Yourself and its sequels, but I’m sure there are more), almost all video games require survival up-to and through the narrative in order to initiate the game’s final end-state. Which may result in death itself, as with Journey, or may not. What matters though is not so much being chased by monsters or the protagonist’s realization that their survival is threatened. Instead, it’s the progression to that end state and the player’s desire to survive and avoid game overs as much as possible.
To prove this point, I’ll look at a few different games from various eras and genres: Pac-Man, Final Fantasy VII, and Grand Theft Auto V to show the supposed differences in these games, and how they actually function similarly.
Pac-Man is one of the greats, and it truly has a very simple formula: eat the pac-dots, avoid the ghosts, eat the fruit, eat the super pac-dots to eat the ghosts. As the many game overs I got as a kid shows, the game pushes players into an end-state before forcing the player to begin again. In a less narrative game, like Pac-Man, this isn’t the most terrible thing because it allows players to re-experience the game’s agenda of eating dots and running from ghosts. Instead, the game over end-state renews the game. For this classic arcade game, the lack of narrative doesn’t really punish players because it simply re-starts the procedure. The player often doesn’t realize their goal is survival for two main reasons: one, it isn’t blatantly explained to players that they’re expected to survive, it instead becomes apparent through the game’s mechanics and continued play; and two, the (original) game does not have a successful end-state, but rather a kill screen that results in Pac-Man’s death and end of the player’s game. They player guides Pac-Man around, helping him survive the ghosts to ultimately kill him anyway. However, because of the skill required to hit a kill screen as the end of the programmable game, gamers find it
The second game I’ll look at is also very popular and well-known: Final Fantasy VII. Unlike Pac-Man, FF7 has a very strong narrative that sets several goals throughout the game’s progression. While the over-arching goal is to find and kill Sephiroth, there are more minor goals along the way that keep distracting the player from their mission, even as they feed into that same goal like collecting better weapons, more powerful materia, and many additional side quests as well. The game does punish players with game overs if they fail in various fights, and forces players to pick up the plot at their last save point. This could mean hours of game play for the less-responsible player, or sometimes just several frustrating minutes that are relived over and over as the player struggles to beat a boss (like me and the Demon Wall on my first play through). With the exception of Aeris (who dies anyway), the entire game is centered upon the player’s ability to survive through the battles and complete the narrative tasks and events to finally make it to the final boss area and defeat JENOVA and Sephiroth. Again, the game highlights the narrative quest’s goals rather than the mechanically functional goal of survival, but Final Fantasy VII is, at it’s core, a game about continued survival.
Contrary to these two older games is Grand Theft Auto V, which doesn’t punish player for dying and makes very little fanfare over death by simply dropping the protagonist (any one of three) outside the hospital with slightly less money in their pocket. Also unlike the other two games, GTAV can be played with a narrative focus or simply goofing around and committing crimes for fun rather than following a specific goal. With such a unique selection of options for game play, the player can do basically whatever, including cause as much mayhem to raise their wanted level to the maximum before the police finally kill them. This is probably the most well-known stereotype of the GTA games, but even while playing in this way, players are expected to survive as long as possible—even if the end result is, much like Pac-Man, death.
Despite the thematic and narrative differences between these games, each game requires basic survival to continue progression, thus hughlighting one of the games’ true–but hidden–themes of survival. Most games don’t actively promote survival as the key component to making the game, but it is virtually always present as an expectation and pre-requisite for successful game play.