The survival horror genre has been an increasingly growing one ever since the niche sect of gaming burst from the grave in the ’90s. While the past few years in particular have taken this fascination with the genre to a fever pitch, we haven’t just seen a surplus of survival horror titles, but also an evolution and growth in the form. The recent smash success Until Dawn, developed by Supermassive Games exclusively for the PlayStation 4, has garnered a lot of attention in particular for how it’s reinvented the genre and is such a tremendous step forward for survival horror. While looking at the title I couldn’t help but be reminded of the cult classic Dreamcast game, Illbleed, and how the current classic certainly owes a great deal to its predecessor. The two frightening titles share more than a few similarities, and in lieu of Until Dawn’s rabid success, digging into this relatively unknown gem and comparing the two only seemed appropriate.
2001 saw the Dreamcast singing its swan song, with the PlayStation 2’s dominance being well in effect at this point. In spite of the Dreamcast’s days being numbered, it still managed to churn out a number of influential titles during its eleventh hour, one of such being the deeply inventive survival horror game developed by Crazy Games, Inc., Illbleed. The game has you taking control of Eriko Christy, who must brave the horror-themed amusement park, Illbleed, in order to save her friends (who are all members of the Horror Movie Research Club with you, naturally). Each of Illbleed’s different rides/worlds/attractions essentially attack a different subgenre of horror, giving the game a healthy dose of freedom and ammunition beyond Until Dawn’s focused view on the woods trope. For instance one of the most bizarre offerings is the “Toyhunter” stage, which is pretty much a Toy Story mash-up where your Woody surrogate is saving his damsel in distress, Sexy Doll, from toy hell. Here he ultimately does battle with Zodick the Hellhog, getting as close as you can to taking down your system’s faithful mascot without bringing on a lawsuit (he even shoots out rings at you!)…
Alternatively, Supermassive’s Until Dawn sees seven friends going to the eerie Blackwood Pines, a secluded lodge up North, when they begin to be turned into prey by the vicious, hungry creatures that are loose in the area. While the plot might sound like all too many entries out of the survival horror genre, Until Dawn reinvigorates the genre in inspired ways. For starters, the title sees you having to play as multiple characters in order to get the full story, unlocking more and gaining access to additional people as you advance through the game rather than starting with everyone and then slowly wittling your way through the cast. Furthermore, which characters you manage to keep alive (or sacrifice accordingly) will drastically alter the route that your game goes down, reflecting an experience more like that out of a horror film—people are going to die, and it’s going to be unpredictable.
Until Dawn was heralded for this more nonlinear gameplay mechanic, yet the very same idea was being executed back in 2001 with Illbleed. In Illbleed, once you rescue your friends from the various attractions you then have the option to play as them with their survival dependent upon your performance in the game, which in turn informs your ending. That being said, both games still allow you to play solely as one character if that’s the experience that you choose to have. There’s no one way to work through these games. While both titles effectively ape the high body count trope out of horror films, Illbleed even takes this one step further that whenever one of your friends dies in the game, Eriko, will have her clothes become increasingly tattered. The damage will go all the way down to her being in the shreds of her bra and panties, mocking yet another all-too popular horror convention. You even need to have all of your friends die and be reduced to this near-naked state in Illbleed to access the game’s “true” ending, too!
A related feature to the survival rate of your characters in Until Dawn is the “Butterfly Effect” concept that the game implemented. Here, the decisions you make as characters will have crucial consequences later on in the game. This is true in the form of which of your characters are still alive, but also on a microcosmic scale. If one character takes a weapon out of a room in Scene A, another character is going to end up being unarmed when they get there in Scene D. This cause and effect relationship is still delved into in Illbleed, albeit in a much more simplistic way. Until Dawn even incorporated a harsh autosave policy into itself where you’re forced to start completely over if you ever want to redo any of the decisions that you’ve made in the game. This is kind of a bonkers level of rigidity going on here, but it’s taking the ideas that were introduced in Illbleed to the next natural level.
Another progressive step that was made with Until Dawn was in the case of how the title deals with the moral and ethical choices that your characters make. This might seem like the perfect idea for a genre that’s so morality focused, but Illbleed happened to take this concept and push it to an even more intricate place. Illbleed managed to incorporate your characters’ adrenaline, courage, fear, and other emotion-based factors into your experience, having all of this resemble more of a film or a real survival horror environment. It’s shocking that so few games after the fact have followed suit by working these psychological aspects into their gaming. It only makes sense that your proximity to scares would progressively wear you down and take its toll on you. Illbleed’s protagonist, Eriko, is also someone who has been subjected to every horror film that’s been created, desensitizing her into losing her sense of fear accordingly, in what’s some perfectly batshit crazy plotting.
Illbleed illustrates this idea via a sixth sense in the form of a “horror monitor” that allows you to detect traps and defuse fear, keeping your vitals intact. This power of deflating the scares that await you almost feels like the hindsight of watching a horror film for a second time and knowing when the scares are going to come and feeling less vulnerable as a result. If you’re not as savvy with your trap detection as you should be, you open yourself up to a number of problems, such as bleeding to death or becoming frightened to death if you don’t soon tend to your ailments. This adds yet another appreciated sense of reality and a glimpse of the growing stakes that are often felt in horror films once the consequences and body count begin to mount.
Until Dawn easily could have incorporated these aspects to some degree to create a more enriching experience, as opposed to say the presence of a lengthier dialogue script. That being said, the game’s frequent clue collecting often feels like its own variety of detecting traps.
A lot has been said for the ways in which these survival horror titles have pushed their genre forward and made these games feel closer to the experience of movies, but beyond all of that they both capture the tone of horror effortlessly. Both games manage to actually be scary, a detail that’s paramount through all of this. It’s great to be nudging the genre forward, but if it’s not scary in the process then what’s the point? Jump scares, intentionally bad voice acting, trope characters, and countless staples of the genre are thrown at you to the point where these don’t just feel like video games, but like great horror films at times, too. Illbleed is certainly the campier of the two titles (Illbleed, the park’s, slogan is, “You will shit with fear!” for example) with the game being legitimately funny at times. You’ll find yourself laughing much like how you might at a bad horror movie. Until Dawn leans into these hammy sensibilities as well, but is much more interested in scaring the fuck out of you.
While the blueprint that Illbleed helped establish has been serviced up in some respects in titles like Eternal Darkness, the Fatal Frame series, the underrated Michigan: Report From Hell, and most recently, Until Dawn, it still largely remains an innovator with many concepts that are ripe for potential in current survival horror gaming. Talk of a sequel to Illbleed was contemplated, and like many of the Dreamcast’s later-in-life gems, there were plans to port the title to the original XBOX, but they eventually fell to the wayside. That being said, with news of an Until Dawn sequel seeming ever more likely, perhaps the follow-up will flesh out even more of the physics that Illbleed introduced over a decade ago.
Ultimately while Until Dawn might be the more polished game that is technically more complicated, arguably Illbleed captures the survivor horror genre a little better—or at least tackles more aspects of it. Regardless of which one does it better though, they’re both tremendous successes in the form and their DNA is certainly intertwined with each other. Whether Illbleed was directly responsible for Until Dawn in any sense, it’s a nice example of how the genre has progressed in a relatively short amount of time and what it’s learned from itself through the years.
Now stop reading this think piece or two of your friends are going to die. Or continue reading and one might die and another is revealed to be the killer. Or go and delete your browser history and three might die, but two…