The False Revival of AAA Horror Games

The Tax Collector Man
16 min readApr 10, 2024

“Survival horror is back!” was the general refrain surrounding Resident Evil 7’s 2017 release, which was the first game in the numbered franchise since Resident Evil 0 — I’d argue for Resident Evil 4’s position here, but let’s not start with an argument — to be a full-fledged scary experience about limitations and vulnerability. In other words, the first Resident Evil game to actually feel like one since the early aughts.

Once considered the touchstone franchise of horror games as a whole, Resident Evil had become emblematic of their decline. A series of increasingly incoherent survival-action games, 5 and 6, lowered public perception of the name significantly. But executives don’t care about reception; they care about money. Resident Evil 6 didn’t meet quarterly expectations, which spoke more to suits than any review in the world. Changes would have to be made, and developers would have to either figure them out or find a more profitable use for their time.

In this case, the changes they came to (which mostly involved unchanging things) were good. The resulting string of modern Resident Evil titles, remakes included, has been pretty uniformly great, even including a slightly mismanaged trek through Raccoon City by Jill Valentine. After fifteen years of relative disregard by the money men of AAA games, horror (survival or otherwise) finally seemed to hold a spot in the industry. Other games would follow.

Right?

Just today, publications picked up a story about Motive, the studio behind 2023’s recent Dead Space remake. Motive is a subsidiary of Electronic Arts, and was just folded into their “Battlefield development team.” In other words, their obligations for the near future revolve around advancing “the vision of Battlefield.” I’m not sure even a Battlefield fan could explain that vision to me, which seems a bit like something you’d come up with by staring at TV static until you got an idea in the form of a headache.

People are already forecasting what this means, which is an assumption that all hopes for further Dead Space titles are on ice indefinitely. I believe it. I’m not expecting more Dead Space, and I’m certainly not expecting a fourth entry; a wholly unwarranted but more profit-inclined remake of Dead Space 2 is, or was, likelier. This has very little to do with whether or not 2023’s Dead Space was “successful” or not. It sold pretty fucking well in the United States. By my metric, these things make plenty of money. But they don’t make Battlefield money, so their profitability or lack thereof is ultimately irrelevant. Why make sensible, appreciable gains when you can chase The Bag?

One could say that Dead Space was born and reborn by executives chasing the mythical Bag, trying in both instances to siphon a little of that Resident Evil money from an industry quickly changing gears in response to its sudden successes. This isn’t an indictment against it; Silent Hill was born from Konami’s desire to produce a competitor to Resident Evil, or at least a willful clone. The designs of Team Silent produced something else entirely, and I would say the same is true for Dead Space. By the whims of executives, most things are born not from a desire to reimagine other art but replicate its profit margins. The actual creatives have to work with the canvas they’re given.

That same chase sabotaged Dead Space. It had nothing to do with the people who were actually making it. Rather, the suits decided they were more qualified to shadowbox the inane whims of the market. After the excellence of 2, Dead Space 3 was a wonky mix of microtransactions, meaningless resources, weapon crafting gobbledygook, and half-baked multiplayer. Electronic Arts thought that, because these things were in games they perceived as profitable, they could just copy the homework like somebody multiplying numbers in a calculator. It “failed to meet sales expectations,” probably because it wasn’t very good. Visceral Games, the subsidiary behind Dead Space, was assigned other duties.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it happens all the time. When Konami dissolved Team Silent to see if other studios could produce more profitable Silent Hill games, all they handed off was a hot potato. Said studios fumbled, tried their best to figure out what they were even working with, and could only come away with clunkers that nobody really liked. Konami, having forcefully disbanded the group which actually held the ethos to creating Silent Hill, was as much help as a call center. When the anticipated and genuinely promising Silent Hills was shitcanned some years later, following P.T.’s emergence in 2014, it was a casualty of Konami’s rote, greedy incompetence; a desire to make freemium mobile games and gambling machines while seeing the product of meaningful art as a nuisance.

the first Silent Hill thing (?) to be sorta a video game (???) in the last decade is currently churning along unnoticed and unseen. people can’t even be bothered to laugh about it anymore. there are no summaries written about whatever the story is. haven’t seen it mentioned even as a punching bag by avid fans of the franchise in actual months. a fascinating equilibrium of unengaging terribleness

Now Silent Hill, like Dead Space, is back. Now that Dead Space might very well be gone again, Silent Hill remains. I anticipate the same fate for Konami’s bizarre reintroduction of the franchise, which amounts to a scattershot of products, services, and rehashed images fired at random in a bid to see which, if any, make a barely acceptable ridiculous fuckload of cash. Silent Hill already prints money, of course. But could it print more? Never mind that Konami will invariably decide that they’re still not satisfied with their own insane profit margins and, once the clip is spent, will not be reloading it with anything more than additional Pyramid Head gambling machines and psychosexual knicknacks.

Both of these efforts came from an executive desire to replicate the modern successes of Resident Evil, and both seem sure to withdraw — in Silent Hill’s case, they’re setting it up to crash miserably before it’s dragged behind the curtain. Birthed and killed by nonsensical capitalist demands, over and over.

In AAA terms, it does not feel like survival horror is “back.” Resident Evil is back! That’s great. But Dead Space isn’t back, and neither is Silent Hill. Everyone who made those games good has always left, been laid off, or is currently getting kicked around in the classic pre-layoff ritual. Their philistine, capital-obsessed managers are chasing a trend while treating it like a fad, and history is repeating itself. When it does, the workers always bear the consequences long before the bosses do.

And yes, there’s Resident Evil. Nobody can argue that Capcom’s output is almost unparalleled in terms of releases that actually feel richly considered and, y’know, good. But even ignoring the warning signs, like the uneasy number of microtransactions in their recent releases, even Resident Evil can only inspire so much confidence — five core titles in six years, three of them remakes. However good they are, Capcom’s obvious priority lies in making fairly assured money. Resident Evil might maintain some of the old roads, but it is not treading new ground. The new remains elusive.

New titles, new stories, new conceits, new visuals, new ideas. These are the things that AAA horror games increasingly lack among their fairly limited offerings, and that’s even extending a hand to embarrassing works of misanthropic absurdity like The Last of Us. The struggle for games to find what Werner Herzog coined as “fresh images” is, like the above struggles with creative control and corporate mismanagement, a general and uniform one. In horror, it seems especially plain in the light of a false “mainstream” revival of a genre that used to contain fresh images with relative frequency.

Between 1996 and 2006, we saw the rise (and often the fall) of Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Fatal Frame, Siren, Haunting Ground, Rule of Rose, Kuon, and dozens of others. Games that embraced their associated friction and sense of atmosphere were common, from immersive sims like Thief and System Shock to mainstream action games like Half-Life and DOOM 3. Christ, one of first games Square released after Final Fantasy VII was fucking Parasite Eve. This stuff was everywhere! You couldn’t get away from it!

It was not a utopia, and yes, a lot of it was uniform or at least fairly derivative — Resident Evil owes a creative debt to Alone in the Dark that it’s still never properly acknowledged. But there was always something a little different to find in the stream of studios with funding and relative creative freedom trying to scare players into spasms.

What about the new names seen between 2014 and 2024? If we omit indie games, which I promise not to spend the entire article doing, and broaden the kinds of horror we’re looking for, pickings are slim. There was Alien: Isolation (if we’ll make an exception for film franchise tie-ins), The Evil Within, technically P.T. (we all know how that turned out), Until Dawn, Little Nightmares, The Callisto Protocol? You have everything FromSoftware was doing, including Bloodborne, admittedly one of the finest survival horror games ever made. A fair few titles like Control? Of course there are more, but the names suddenly stop flowing out with such ease; you’re putting the pressure on just to remember that, yeah, I guess Dead by Daylight counts?

In the 2020s, AAA has not convinced me that “survival horror is back.” It has convinced me that executives are willing to try what the other guy is doing, rifling through their back catalog to see if the lightning will strike twice. Usually it does! But the standards have changed; video games have gotten bizarrely expensive to make in a collective race to the bottom and suits have gotten so, so much greedier. No trick the old dog can perform is sufficiently more appealing than turning the old dog upside down and shaking it back and forth until it starts vomiting up quarters.

Consequently, why come up with something new? The companies that once stood behind the new, or at least stood around while the new received enough of its tacit inattention and cash to exist, have no further interest in it. When the new cons itself into existence, typically under the promise of the old (new game from Glen Schofield!), we’re typically unlucky enough to find that the past has already stolen its identity: a game like Callisto Protocol shambles out, a hodgepodge of boring tropes and TurboSquid body horror monsters, promising to do what the old thing did.

It will not compete against new ideas, because there aren’t many of them floating around. It will compete with itself. Playing The Callisto Protocol and the Dead Space remake with only a month’s separation was a funny situation, but also a little dreadful. To clarify, I really enjoyed the Dead Space remake and thought Callisto was jackassery, but both led to feeling an unpleasant inability to escape the past moment. Somehow, Callisto has even less of the new than Dead Space did at release. I’m not sure if the remake fared much better. The influences helming the original, from System Shock 2 to films like Event Horizon, had been replaced with more Dead Space. It was a texture like uncomfortably smooth marble, somehow janky in its lack of any feeling.

2023’s Dead Space was a great game and still amazing to play, faithful in some areas and newly imaginative in others. Like many remakes, it holds an uncomfortable charge: a sense that the newness once held by old things is the only permissible newness anyone will greenlight, and that any uniqueness the effort holds was smuggled in. That uniqueness conjures the image of a Dead Space 4, but it seems to have led many to a desire for the same to be done with Dead Space 2, or to an unfucked Dead Space 3, as if the idea of somebody just taking the good bits of that game and using them in another is too uncomfortable to bear. It certainly is for executives, and though their touch is mostly absent here, their aura casts a wide shadow. Unlike its progenitors, 2023’s Dead Space does not suggest a world beyond itself.

What about recent releases? There’s a remake of Alone in the Dark that I haven’t played yet. I would probably like it. People are saying it’s a “return” for a franchise that hasn’t really been itself since its original entry. I certainly like the original Alone in the Dark, not just for its influence but for its sense of Southern Gothic horror, which is a rarity in games. It felt literary in a way that Resident Evil, with its intrinsic B movie flair, wasn’t designed for. It has plenty of unique, appreciable qualities to carry forward.

But be honest, did the name Alone in the Dark want for a revival? Was there that much indispensable, irretrievable meat on its bones? You can certainly say that Alone in the Dark lost its way, but it wandered off the path in… what, 1995? After having already landed basically one good take on its own ideas? Saying it “lost its way” feels like engaging with a platonic ideal of a franchise that never existed and which, frankly, served as the argument against its own proliferation. It could not appropriately up its own ante. You can learn a ton from Alone in the Dark, but you can do that without being it, beholden to ideas that set borders from 30+ years ago on the imagination.

This brings us to Silent Hill 2’s forthcoming remake, a combination of words so unenviable that you have to pity Bloober Team, whose output has spent nearly a decade being incurious, ableist, and anodyne. Franchises like Layers of Fear conjure up the unfulfilled promises of P.T. in false and baffling forms, while shit like The Medium celebrates mundane stagnation in the promise to Experience Silent Hill Again, which continues to feel like circling around a roundabout and looking for the exit.

Far from the more free-floating definitions of new and old that we’re working with here, Bloober Team doesn’t just celebrate inertia but forges its own momentum. In other words, they’re straight-up plagiarists. They are thieves. That they would eventually work on an official remake for one of the most startlingly, shockingly new horror games of its day is like poetry — an indictment against everything that led us here, a joke awaiting the punchline of the game’s actual release.

Of course I’d like it to be good, but it won’t be and can’t be. Even if it were, Silent Hill would still be owned by Konami, where it can neither reinvent itself or retire and die in grace. Good Silent Hill games, which Silent Hill f is the likeliest to become, will be a fluke releasing alongside borderline shovelware. I can appreciate irreverence, but I cannot appreciate what Konami’s top brass comes to consider permissible. If any company represents the ills of the whole, it’s them.

There’s an elephant in the room, and that’s Alan Wake 2. Remedy’s long-awaited sequel is a total miracle that I can hardly believe isn’t eternally absent from actual reality. To discuss the depths of how excitingly new it felt would be beyond the scope of this piece. It exists, and that’s important enough for me. Remedy remains one of the few AAA studios capable, in an industry defined by a systematic rejection of authorship and creative control, of producing games that don’t feel like they were designed by committees responding to random, useless data. While not an exemplar in actual gameplay terms, on which Alan Wake 2 is frequently just fine, the command over experience that it has at its level of fidelity and budget is borderline unprecedented. It is a truly special thing.

Does it contain an answer to the problems plaguing its contemporaries? The actual answer to that problem always necessitates an uprooting beyond my ability to reckon with here, so no. The master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house, etc. However, it does embody an ideal, which is the cessation of the dull noise of money, not art, speaking into your ears and eyes. It is a game that uses every cent of its multi-million dollar budget to give you something heretofore unseen. The kind of thing that does something that makes you go “I didn’t know you could do that,” rather than reveling in the comfort of its own skin.

Like Control, Max Payne, and even Quantum Break before it, Alan Wake 2 is a demonstration of what happens when actual artists control the room. It is a game made because these developers, who know why Alan Wake was good, wanted to make another Alan Wake game; it is not a game made because market research said that Alan Wake-likes were really tearing up the charts. This shift in verve means everything.

The other elephant in the room, of course, is indie horror games. This is a bit like talking about roads while neglecting to mention cars, I know. They’re another province entirely; I’d quadruple the length of this piece covering them properly. They underpin everything. When Resident Evil 7 heralded a “return,” it was impossible not to notice how much it owed to titles like Amnesia and ANATOMY. Freed, at least in theory, from the inane obsessions of money men, they represent the real cutting edge, where the race to the bottom can potentially be broken away from, even as it rages nearby.

Obviously the new lies there, though the scene suffers its own share of interesting problems, some intrinsically tied to capital, others in the creativity (or lack thereof) left over when desires mirrored by company executives recede. A game like Signalis returns to a time when horror games could craft new images out of old influences, but such games toil needlessly outside the typical structure of the industry, born as labors of love surmounting miraculous circumstances to exist at all. Many games like Signalis fail to find a publisher in an ecosystem where funding has only become rarer. They just as often fail as a consequence of being so uncompromisingly new or so unlucky in the face of algorithms and the influencer structure that they simply never make a profit. For every Iron Lung, there’s a Hand of Doom or That Which Gave Chase that you or I have never heard of.

i would love to write at length about all the things i’m omitting here, including deeper thoughts on indie trends/mascot sludge/the constant psx riffing as emblematic of subconsciously returning to a period where it felt like games Did Things and felt authored by human beings in an environment that hadn’t been totally subsumed by Process and Progress. sometime!

This is important because indie horror attracts a community like no other. There’s a sense of interconnectedness that reaches beyond rote copying, with games on itch.io (where “horror” always seems to be the most popular tag) capable of responding to each other with a snappiness and genuine sense of curiosity that just isn’t possible through the haze of Steam’s business-minded backend and congested set of obdurate features. It’s the kind of creatively-minded reinterpretation that harkens back to the days when a Resident Evil clone could morph into something as remarkable as Silent Hill. What if Iron Lung’s framework was given to a game about caving? What if there was a Source Engine-esque immersive sim where you scanned the night sky for aliens? What if the guy from Inscryption had a gun?

From this, at the best of times, you get things that feel truly mysterious, in the way that the most frightening and emotionally evocative horror always is. The stuff that’s harder to quantify exclusively in references to other things, that seem to build their own grammar or discover it among nightmares yet to be articulated in the medium. The works of Kitty Horrorshow, or Duskers, or Darkwood, or Mundaun, or others. They are, like Alan Wake 2, the kinds of experiences that become something special.

Which brings us back to AAA and the industry’s struggle at large to reckon with horror games. There is a sense of style and subtlety lost to executives, unable to be reclaimed under current conditions. Horror is incredibly simpatico with the whims of capitalism, its iconography often easy to bend into compromised and uncomplicated forms. In that world, repetition of the old is always preferable to the new.

It is also difficult to entirely subsume. The brand names may become desiccated, but the works that occupy them rarely do. Why else do the remakes appeal at all? That Konami can put Pyramid Head on a pachinko machine without robbing Silent Hill 2 of any of its enduring power is the reality they aim to exploit; that same reality only serves to show how ineffectual Konami really is in the face of something an executive can neither replicate nor deface, supposing you don’t let them sell the memory back to you and force them, however gradually, into either leaving it alone or revisiting the same circumstances that turned Silent Hill into a household name.

Those circumstances, I remind you, were the consequence of the people who didn’t care leaving the room long enough for the people who did to actually make them their money. The result is a work of human expression powerful enough to endure, to leave lasting feelings behind. This is infinitely more important than the specters of brainless things, like maximization and marketability. I would stand by it even if they made negative dollars for company suits. The fact that they’re also profitable is just the annoying byproduct. The secret to making money is beyond them; they are left to glare at fragments they can’t understand.

The Ishimura in both versions of Dead Space still terrifies, a baleful charnel house adrift in the void. Alone in the Dark still holds its primeval sense of unease. All the classic Resident Evil games are as stimulatingly scary as they were twenty years ago. These things endure, is the point. So long as they do, they can point beyond themselves, where new canvases may pockmark a kinder world filled, perhaps paradoxically, with richer explorations of the things that scare us.

There isn’t a core thesis here. I guess I’m getting away from those in a format where every big idea seems like it demands an equally big resolution. These are just some thoughts I’ve had lately: I would like to exist in an ecosystem ruled by a different kind of beast; a landscape of comfortable artists and uncomfortable audiences; a place where there are always brand new fears.

but this is admittedly pretty scary

--

--

The Tax Collector Man

Writing about dreams, nightmares, and the strangeness between them.