Characters in survival horror

I want to talk about characters for survival horror. These aren’t the hotshot cops of Lethal Weapon, the spies of The Bourne Identity, or the soldiers of Aliens. I’m thinking here of Barbara, the frightened young woman from Night of the Living Dead; Jim, the injured bicycle courier from 28 Days Later; Heather, the teenage daughter in Silent Hill 3. These are everyday people thrust into terrible circumstances–isolated from civilization, threatened by deadly supernatural foes, lacking useful gear, ill-prepared to handle the sudden collapse of the world around them.

Then there are survival horror characters in roleplaying games like All Flesh Must Be Eaten. These can be the same kind of everyday schmoes who barricade themselves inside a shopping mall in Dawn of the Dead. They can even be mystically gifted, destined to lead the human resistance against evil. For gaming purposes, I much prefer survivors: people with a regular, everyday existence who hold some edge that lets them cope with sudden danger and violence.

    a backyard mechanic who can find parts and fix cars to move faster than the undead
    an abuse survivor who’s developed fast reflexes and acute situational awareness to stay out of the hospital
    an office worker who blows off steam at the gun range on weekends
    a fourth-year med school dropout working a dead end sales job

If you make roleplaying characters too powerful, it’s no longer really survival horror. It becomes an action story with zombies instead of Nazis. Characters that are too weak can lend themselves well to entertaining play for a while, but they’re basically Happy Meals with legs. Survival horror requires isolation and danger, and regular folks can’t plausibly survive long under the stresses that horror survival demands. Given the suggestion of one of my players, I’m going to give folks a little more structure for making their characters.

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One thought on “Characters in survival horror

  1. Your article makes me happy because it is interesting, but it makes me sad because I might be a good candidate for survival in case of a real life zombie apocalypse. That also makes me happy, though. Stop toying with my emotions, dammit!

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