How to Design a Survival Horror Game

Survival Horror is one of my favorite genres, I have not designed a survival horror game before, but I think I have an understanding of the theory behind it. In this article we’ll go over a variety of survival horror games which I think were very successful, analyze why they were successful, and see what lessons we can glean from this.

A survival horror game is all about the oppressive environments, frightening enemies, psychological state of the character, disturbing and unsettling imagery, lore, they are often but not always story based games, the setting is mysterious and terrifying, combat mechanics generally revolve around the player’s inherent weakness and vulnerability towards the enemies.

Before we get into our first example, you might want to check out this tutorial on the basics of iClone7, very useful if you want to craft your own animations.

Also check out part 2 of this guide, where we delve into the best game ever made, PATHOLOGIC CLASSIC HD.

OK so let’s check out some games….

What is the number 1 scariest game?

  • Pathologic Classic HD (2005)
  • Silent Hill 2 (2001)
  • Fatal Frame 3 (2005)
  • Rule of Rose (2006)
  • Corpse Party (2008)
  • Forbidden Siren (2003)
  • System Shock 2 (1999)
  • The Evil Within 2 (2017)
  • Amnesia The Dark Descent (2010)
  • Condemned Criminal Origins (2005)
  • Silent Hill 1 (1999)
  • Saya no Uta – The Song of Saya (2013)

What makes good survival horror?

Survival horror hinges on the weakness & vulnerability of the player, the lore, the psychology of the villain & main character, the unnerving nature of the enemies, & the willingness to delve into dark & uncomfortable topics & themes. The environment is a character in these games.

What is the scariest Minecraft seed?

Anyway, let’s get into it shall we?


Silent Hill 1 was the scariest game ever made at the time of it’s construction. While Resident Evil was at it’s core, just a silly action game, this was one of the first, true Psychological Horror games, in the vein of the original Alone in the Dark, it focused on atmosphere, a sense of impending dread, terrifying enemies, and psychological symbolism, dispersed throughout the entirety of the game.

The town felt, empty, the monsters and enemies you fought, ranging from misshapen things, to dogs, to flying bat creatures, to bizarre dwarfs in the school map, to ghost babies, they felt more like ghosts in a dead town, than they felt like occupants of the town.


As you walked those streets, you wonder, who killed all these people? How did they all disappear? I often wondered if maybe the main character was insane, and he was just walking through the town attacking citizens he thought were monsters. Or if the entire game just took place inside his head, and he was rolling around in a mental ward somewhere in a straight jacket, in a padded cell.

Easily Overwhelming Combat

The combat was deliberately sluggish and difficult, you were not a harmless kitten as you are in a game like Outlast, which I found quite poor, but you were certainly too weak to be able to engage in combat on a frequent basis without quickly getting cut down by the oppressive world. Combat is best avoided, enemies best to be ran around, rather than wiped out. Generally, unless one is going through an area many times, or you are doing a puzzle or searching a room, you are generally best to avoid combat, run around them, bullets are scarce.

The Real World vs the Other World

There was also a juxtaposition of the REAL or GOOD world, and the EVIL world, which was somehow even worse. While the real world was still somewhat unnerving with the encroaching fog, and the boarded up town, lacking any of it’s citizens, except the odd survivor encountered while walking around the world, once in a while, at least it resembled the normal world in some sense. In the EVIL world, which you would find yourself in, the it was identifiable as the same world, but it was darker, the walls were brown and rusted, the lights were dark or red, the enemies far more frightening and numerous. Blood dripped out of the walls, cats and bodies were strewn around in strange places. It was truly a frightening game for it’s time, and a far more psychologically complex story than most pewpewpew players were used to playing during the course of their day. This was after all, the time of Crash Bandicoot, and Bloody Roar, not exactly Aristotle level philosophy there, so a game with a brain was a novelty at the time. A beautiful one. And a memory I will always treasure.

Boss monsters

The boss monsters were also these big misshapen meat things, vaguely resembling something which was one of this world, they are now, out of control monstrosities of the flesh, and shotguns are required to take them down. Those instances of forced combat were very tense, the fights were very close, and difficult to triumph in. You felt very good when you took down those monsters.

The town is a character

The town was also vast and expansive, a huge sprawling monstrosity in itself, with a paper map you could find. Finding maps of the levels you explored was an important mechanic.

Psychology of the player

The main character’s motivation was simple, he lost his daughter. He has to go to hell and back, to find her, wherever she is, somewhere in this dark and empty town consumed by fog.

It was truly a revolutionary game for it’s time, it is somewhat amazing that they combined all these concepts and ideas so coherently and so well, in a game era characterized by Lara Croft the Tomb Raider blasting undifferentiated bad guys.


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Unlike it’s later sequels, notable only for stealing and poorly implementing a few of the ideas and twists found in the tangle of this game’s arteries, System Shock 2 was genuinely revolutionary in it’s form, ideas, characters, environment, story, plot twists, combat, UI and inventory, character controller, upgrade paths and RPG systems, lore and atmosphere.

It was a perfect storm of genius, made iconic by the nature and brilliant design of it’s chief and notably enemy, the villain Shodan. Shodan was an out of control Artificial Intelligence, in the previous game she had overrun Citadel Station, turning it into a hellscape of mutant monsters, bioengineered robots, and android killers. She was narrowly defeated by the hacker who created her. In her current incarnation, she has returned to life on the starship Von Braun, sent on a deep space mission to explore the possibilities for faster than light travel. Shodan quickly consumes and takes over the fledgling ship, converting it into a research lab for scientific experimentation. The humans are all mutated into half living monsters, the many, their consciousness merged into a singular mind controlling all of them like puppets, as they sing of rapture while trying to murder you. The Anilids. Shodan’s forlorn and rejected children. They have taken over the ship and even Shodan herself is powerless to oppose them, that is why she requires your help. Part way through the story you encounter her in your adventure, and she becomes the most iconic narrator in the history of gaming villainy.

She is arguably the best villain ever crafted.

Her dialogue, the divine ravings of a demented queen of infernal genius and blessed brilliance, looks down upon the world like an insect in her sight, barely noticeable and not even worth killing, just there in her periphery, something to be dealt with if needed. However she has other matters to attend to, and the crushing of a bug, humanity, is neither important to her, or even approximating a challenge, she is a divine being, in her own conception, and her hatred for the refuse of humanity and the many, is rooted in her own elevation to Godhood, and their vulgarity, and banality in her otherworldly sight and vision.

Shodan took a game which would have just been good, and made it eternal, a game which will live forever as among the finest ever crafted. While Bioshock the ripoff got much higher acolades, than this more cult based classic, I do not know why. This is so much better. Shodan, in truth, reminds me of myself. She seems like an exaggerated parody of how I feel on a good day. I like Shodan, she is cool. She is an example of a great villain taking your game to the next level.

A terrifying world to explore

The world itself was, wild and fascinating in it’s splendor, the howls of the anilids, filling the world with eerie discomfort, as they hunted you through the bowels of the ship. XERXES, the perfunctory master of the ship, confounded Shodan little, as he was easily subverted at all time, still his droning voice filled the airwaves as he blasted his propaganda for the many, through the ships many speakers and amplifiers. It was a really good scene, watching the many hunt the last remaining humans on the ship to extinction, you found the digital remnants, of their last thoughts and words, calm at first, just corporate greedheads out to make bundles of cash with their science kits and toys, they slowly came to realize the horror they had inadvertently unleashed upon the world, and their confusion, turned to panic, as you heard them in real time, narrating their deaths at the hands of the many. Those who did not die, soon turned to monsters themselves, converting to the purported glory of the many, their minds went, and they became howling monsters of divine origin, spouting hymns from the depths of hell, as the dragged you, or tried, kicking and screaming, into union with them. It was a spectacle, on the level of great opera, a tour de force of horror. The top tier, the apex predator of gaming.

Final Thoughts

Is it that time already? I’ve only gotten through two games, so far, I think next time I’ll just do part two of this, so I can get into some of the other more notable examples of survival horror done well.

Survival horror has the potential to be one of the most intriguing and difficult genre’s of gaming to create, many of the finest games ever made by man (sry, humans) are survival horrors, you can scarcely call your console or platform legitimate if it doesn’t have at least one really good Survival Horror game on it, often that’s all you need.

Your survival horror must have something unique about it, something to make it stand out from the crowd. Something that makes it special. In Silent Hill it was the confluence of ineffable qualities, which made it something unique, and more than the sum of it’s parts. It is hard to pin down what makes that game special, but it is special, that’s for sure. In System Shock 2, the culprit is easier to identify, it is good because Shodan is there. It would have been a mediocre but fun shooter without her, but with Shodan’s involvement, it became a magnum opus of horror and out of control deified genius brought to flesh. She was so effective at her villainy, it is hard to even imagine how that game could have been improved in any way. Except by a full on sequel, I despise Bioshock, and will forever, until the day they make System Shock 3. Instead of wasting their budget on such dross. System Shock 3, will be a glorious game, when someone, somewhere, finally realizes, that would be the best thing ever. It needs a budget, System Shock 3 is not an indie game, but when it is made correctly, it will be from the divine.

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