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Digital Scare Tactics: A Brief History of Horror in Video Games

Silent Hill Resident Evil Capcom Konami Sweet Home Dead Space Amnesia Dead Rising Left 4 Dead horror

Horror as a genre is something that has been around for a long, long time. Stories like Frankenstein, films like Psycho, and others have captured the minds of people years after their releases. Although many will shrug off horror as a fad, it always manages to come around and bring out new, enticing experiences.

The same is true of horror games, although they have seen quite a shift as time goes on. Now we’ve got games like Resident Evil 6 which received critical reception and may or may not even quality as horror anymore. Upcoming titles like Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs instead look to try and recapture more primal scares. Where did horror games start? Will they ever come back to their roots?

Most will suggest that Sweet Home, Alone in the Dark, or even Resident Evil started the horror game genre. However, the earliest attempts at horror were even older. They may not have sparked a fad, but they are important all the same, especially when you consider how similar they are thematically to what came later.

One of the very first was Haunted House on Atari 2600 in 1982. The game had players controlling a pair of bright white eyes through a pitch black mansion. As you search for an urn which needs to be pieced together, enemies attempt to get you. Your goal isn’t to simply avoid them, though, as you’re required to collect other items in order to access new sections of the mansion. It’s an incredibly simplistic game but it set up a few basic ideas: haunted houses are scary and contain puzzles.

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Uninvited


The Atari 2600 was home to other horror games, such as the extremely limited print run of Halloween, and a few others, but after that it was up to the computer crowd to come up with something. In 1986, a new game came to Macs named Uninvited. The point-and-click adventure took place in, you guessed it, a haunted house filled with creepy things. Again, it made sure to include puzzles for progression and a graphically impressive atmosphere for the time. The Lurking Horror was released a year later, but in stark contrast, featured no graphics. Despite being a text adventure, it managed to be quite effective at scaring the player and ultimately became a popular game.

Heading into the late 1980s we will now see one of the games that everyone likes to classify as the “original” horror game... but we'll get to that in a minute. There is one more notable game that requires a mention. Project Firestart arrived in 1989, in fact, only a few months before Sweet Home. Regardless, it managed to be another title which now seems like a blueprint of the genre.

Despite trying to be an action game, the atmosphere was made to be eerie. It offered up players only limited ammo as well which contributed to a feeling of weakness. In order to push the narrative, players would discover abandoned journals and learn from first hand accounts. What games do you know of nowadays that employ this same technique? While Project Firestart isn’t entirely playable today for most, it does deserve credit for being a fair contender for a blueprint of horror games.

A few months later, Sweet Home arrived on the Famicom (the Japanese equivalent of the NES). It’s easy to see why people peg this as the de-facto horror template as it contains all the hallmarks, such as a haunted mansion, group of survivors, puzzles, and did in fact serve as inspiration for Resident Evil. Funnily, the game was itself based off a film of the same name, meaning it is licensed title. Regardless, it fused a horror atmosphere with RPG elements and managed to be a worthwhile adventure. Unfortunately, gamers outside of Japan have never had the opportunity to play a “legitimate” copy.

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Splatterhouse


When thinking of these games, it’s easy to point out that horror has shifted away from ponderous searching into blood-soaked FPSes, but that’s not completely accurate. Even back in the 80s there were pairing horror themes with action gameplay. Massive series such as Castlevania had begun back then, as did Splatterhouse with its gory, gross, and over-the-top killings. Mostly though, attention was paid to depicting haunted houses. If you wonder why, simply look to the '80s film landscape, which was when the slasher film flourished. Slashers took place in shopping malls, markets, and more, but mostly they took place in scary buildings.

Although there are even more games that peppered the '80s, the next big title is Alone in the Dark from 1992. With this title, we were pushed into a polygonal world of horror. Although the graphics appear more goofy today, they managed to bring the idea of static camera angles to the genre (which would later be used to great effect in Resident Evil and Silent Hill). The game featured two playable characters, monsters, and puzzles. Many attribute the creation of survival horror to this game, and while not entirely accurate, it’s easy to see why. Alone in the Dark definitely brought some new ideas to the table and helped developers and gamers both realize that survival horror experiences were possible in 3D.

Between the end of the '80s and the '90s, many horror games made the rounds. However, there were a few notable ones before Resident Evil graced the PlayStations. Clock Tower: The First Fear arrived on Super Famicom in 1995 and brought more of the same - a haunted house. However, one huge innovation was the idea of one main antagonist. Instead of simply running from various monsters, there was one evil entity ready to stalk you throughout the entire game. No matter what you were doing, Scissorman might be right around the corner, ready to strike. Hiding or simply running was a necessity lest the protagonist fall into a panic and possibly get killed. Although non-Japan based games have no legal means of playing it, the rest of the Clock Tower series has arrived in other countries.

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Resident Evil


Finally, in 1996 something amazing happened. A game with B-horror quality voice actors, polygonal graphics, and a weird story managed to become a massive hit. Resident Evil hit the PS1 with a bang and players couldn’t get enough. The game took place in a mansion, of course, and had two playable characters as well as zombies (and other creatures), static cameras, puzzles, and basically all the hallmarks of what was now known as the “survival horror” genre. Although very few of these features were new, they were put together in a very playable fashion. Its tank controls may not have aged well but the game is definitely deserving of praise for making horror games mainstream.

From then on, horror truly exploded in the gaming landscape. Tons of games peppered the landscape, although only few became notable. One such game is Silent Hill, which also came to the PlayStation in 1999. Although it would be hard for modern gamers to really understand, at the time most viewed Silent Hill as a Resident Evil rip-off. Even covers of magazines depicted protagonist Harry Mason as a muscled, grizzly man ready to shoot the head off zombies. Of course, Silent Hill was nothing like this and instead focused on an entirely creepy town and the cult at the center of it. There was more psychological goings-on than just surviving, and that helped usher in other types of horror titles.

Other games came out in this time period attempting to either cash in on tropes, or try something new. Overblood attempted to be more of a sci-fi zombie game, but didn’t catch on much. Parasite Eve took a page out of the Sweet Home book by fusing horror with RPGs, and perhaps to better effect. Blue Stinger tried and failed at being a beat ‘em up like Splatterhouse. Echo Night tried to channel ghosts and give a more moody approach, but still relied on puzzles and eventual stalker character like Clock Tower was able to establish. If there was one thing in common, many developers at least attempted to keep some semblance of scariness in their games.

Titles like Silent Hill 2 arrived in 2001 and only further pressed players to embrace psychological horror. With the age of the PS2, many titles arrived which played to the strengths of the original Clock Tower. Rule of Rose, Haunting Ground, Clock Tower 3, and more all paired players up against continuous stalkers. The idea that the scariest thing is to be unarmed, or poorly armed, fueled these titles and made them enthrallingly horrific experiences. Others like Fatal Frame also made use of this logic, although they did arm their protagonists with a “weapon”.

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Resident Evil 4


With the arrival of Resident Evil 4 (first on GameCube in 2005) we saw the genre attempting to shift. Along with zombies that weren’t quite zombies, the game became much more action-oriented. Although Resident Evil 4 managed to mix scares with action, it gave a glimpse to what the next generation of horror was set to offer. Plentiful (enough) ammo, a strong hero, and loads of zombies was something that fans wanted more of. Despite the shift in tone, it was still impossible for Leon S. Kennedy to shoot while walking.

Games continued to filter into the genre but most weren’t very notable. Gamers seemed to not be very focused on the genre, even when the launch lineup for Xbox 360 featured the horror game Condemned. The genre wasn’t dead, but it seemed stagnant, until Left 4 Dead invigorated it in 2008. Despite attempts at horror action before, they most always seemed to air on the side of “horror”, unless they were Doom. Left 4 Dead though brought a very fast, exciting zombie shooter to the masses and it was a huge hit. Then we entered the age of zombies which is only now in recession.

Zombies invaded horror games left and right as well as non-horror games, like Call of Duty. Zombies became the focus of completely un-horrific games like Plants vs. Zombies and basically lost all luster as a scary being. This evolution of zombies was one also felt by the movie industry, where film fans were angry that zombies were granted cognitive ability and now run. Fast, weapon-toting zombies entered into our games and many loved it, while some horror fans felt the genre had sold out. For a while we have lived with an overload of zombie games like Dead Rising, Dead Island, and beyond.

Games like Dead Space, also out in 2008, kept many facets of the modern action-horror game but still desired to scare players. The fight between the splintering of horror was interesting, where some decried action-horror as a complete bastardization of the genre. Others believed that action-horror was the only way to go. Regardless of your opinions, it definitely seemed that the ones getting bought the most were from the action category. This is easy to see by simply looking at how Dead Space 3 appears to be jumping even further into action territory. Even the Silent Hill series tried its hand at more action-focused adventures with Silent Hill: Homecoming and Downpour.

Alongside all these action heavy games, though, independent developers were rising to the occasion. Many longed for the games they grew up on, and because no big company was publishing them, made their own. From this world of indie development we’ve seen older types of horror return. Games like Lone Survivor, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and even Slender are putting the focus back on psychological or stalking scares.

No matter what side you’re on, horror can maintain itself with many forms. Horror has lasted and evolved tremendously over the years. The question is now what will we see next? Perhaps we will see big companies follow indie examples and make horror games just the way they had years ago.


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