Someone once asked me to tell them what kind of game Metal Gear Solid was. Being a self-confessed Kojima zealot I replied ‘Well, it’s a post modernist epic in the guise of a stealth action adventure, exploring the limitations of the genre in which it’s presented and the stereotypes presented therein… Obviously’. ‘So…’ she asked, with a sigh, ‘it’s a shooter’. ‘No no no’ I cried, ‘it’s far more than that, besides, it’s more action adventure than shooter’. ‘Do you shoot people?’ She asked. ‘Well, yes but…’ ‘Then it’s a shooter’ she concluded. This got me thinking; how do we define our games and is it possible that we mis-represent our most loved titles? With that in mind, I’m going to put forward that the Mario Bros. games are some of the greatest survival horror titles ever produced.
If we pare down exactly what defines a ’survival horror’ at its basest level, to be a part of that genre requires a combination of several key elements. The instilling of fear in the player is probably the most important, combined with a ‘horror’ element (normally in it’s aesthetics) and the challenge being to ultimately ’survive’ to the credits. These are fundamental basics and present in arguably all of the titles we generally define as belonging to that genre, but surely the world of Princess Peach, Shine Sprites and Tanuki suits has no connection to these things?
In survival horrors, the main character essentially faces a larger, either physically or numerically, much more powerful force. Through this imbalance of power, tension is created. The Resident Evil series for example, whilst usually featuring a well trained, combat ready individual, maintains this tension by placing strict limits on quantities of ammunition whilst you fight hordes of undead. The Clock Tower franchise takes a different approach, each protagonist having no ability to attack, relying on staying hidden from enemies to progress through the environs. Our faithful plumbing pal ultimately is an incredibly weak individual, susceptible to death after a maximum of two hits in the original NES title, and can be harmed simply from walking into the enemies he faces. He relies on finding his ‘ammunition’ (such as stars and fire flowers) scattered sparingly throughout the Mushroom Kingdom, but ultimately the best way to get from start to finish is to avoid enemies at all costs.
Another survival horror staple is the use of music, sound effects and visuals to create an oppressive and often times disorientating atmosphere. Silent Hill for example famously utilises heavy ‘fog’ effects, the absence / presence of light, twisted enemy design and a metallic tinged, industrial influenced sound scape, to limit the players view, create dramatic tension, look disturbing and invoke a sense of aural unease respectively. When we actually consider the inhabitants and world Mario traverses, it’s very much a surrealist dreamscape, a world Salvador Dali or Man Ray would be very much proud of. Walking mushrooms out to kill you, aggrophobic red turtles stuck in an eternal routine of walking left to right, a bullet with a menacing smile, an abstract metal dog held only by a chain, not to mention the spirits of hundreds of dead inhabiting the ‘Haunted Houses’, it seems that not all is well amongst the inhabitants, but what of the just-too-cute levels, or the recurring King character looking to burn you alive for entering his forbidden castle? What of the soundtrack that increases pace, invoking a sense of panic, only occuring when the dreaded, ever present timer, symbolising your untimely death, begins to run out? What of Mario 64’s never ending set of stairs, creating that uncanny effect seen in survival horrors, such as Silent Hill 4, of being trapped in a never ending cycle?
There are a lot more examples of other titles that could fit into alternative genres too; are the Tony Hawks games part of the genre of sports, or should we see them as platformers? What genre does BioShock belong to? Is Time Crisis a light gun shooter or a rhythm action game? We take it for granted when a person labels a title in such a way and as many social scientists have suggested, labelling something in one way or another often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Might be worth keeping in mind the next time you tell your friends Halo is just a first person shooter…