It's either strange or desperate days when the two biggest original IPs are being launched in October and November by a publisher as risk-adverse as EA. Amid a sea of sequels, it's encouraging to see chances, however small, being taken with these titles in a period that is usually considered a graveyard for new IPs.
I'm only halfway through the entertaining Dead Space, and still on the fence about how well Mirror's Edge's compelling demo will translate into a $60 experience, but both earn points for not only creating new universes that are only mildly derivative, but also for how they are subtly shaking up the boundaries of their respective genres. While neither are world-shattering experiences, in a medium in which fan expectations bind developers' creativity, and where being "formulaic" often seems to be praise, they have at least gone so far as to think about stepping outside the box.
As the Escapist's own review pointed out, Dead Space is one part Doom 3 with two parts BioShock, and pleasing mixture at that. But is it, fans ask, survival horror? The existence of games like Dead Space led Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander to ask whether survival horror even still exists, lamenting the fact that today's market dynamics have brought a more Western approach.
Perhaps the better question would be to ask what, in fact, "survival horror" even means, and if it ever existed in the first place. What does "survival" mean, anyway? Is it to differentiate itself from some other kind of horror, where the object is to die as quickly as possible? What it means is precisely nothing - or at the most it means "Resident Evil". The genre was created to fit the game, not the other way around, and Japanese genre names are a hodgepodge of dictionary entries thrown together at random - witness "tactical espionage action" (Metal Gear Solid), "actioventure" (Nintendo's Captain Rainbow), or "dancing split-second action" (answers on a postcard).
A game should not be limited by its genre, required to fit all the conventions and check all the requisite boxes. Stubbornly insisting that survival horror must contain certain elements, as some fans and more than a few critics who should know better do, is exactly why so many genres are as pigeon-holed and staid as they are.
While I do believe that the designers of Dead Space went in with the intention of creating something scary, they failed - only hemophobiacs are likely to find it terrifying. But at least they didn't try to create scary in the exact same way every game since Resident Evil has seemed obsessed with, and had the courage to find inspiration elsewhere (although admittedly taking inspiration from the most-praised title of last year is not exactly brave). I am still waiting on Silent Hill 5 to drop through my letterbox, but I suspect it will not live up to the high expectations I have for it. But that may be through no fault of its own - Double Helix is tasked not only with keeping a series exactly how it was so as not to offend fans, but also with finding a way to make that same game style actually shift units this time, unlike the last two Silent Hill titles.
A game does not require limited ammo, ridiculous puzzles and health packs as rare as hen's teeth to be considered "horror," and to think that it does - and plead with developers to make it so - is doing nothing but restricting the growth of a larger horror genre. What a horror game requires is to make its main purpose scaring the player, and nothing more. A deliberately broken combat system or restrictive, pre-rendered angles no more make a game "horror" than men in rubber monsters suits make a horror film - they are a means to end, not the experience itself. Restricting the combat in, say, Silent Hill was a way of making the player afraid. That feeling of fear is the desired result, not the restricted combat system.