A short history of videogame horror and the current crisis in console scares

Chris Pruett has made it his personal mission to play, promote and deconstruct horror games. His website, Chris’ Survival Horror Quest, chronicles his experiences – good, bad and often very ugly – as he journeys through the medium, seeking out the lessons and learnings of horror games old and new. Here, Pruett offers his unique timeline of videogame horror’s evolution and his thoughts on where it might sink its teeth next…

What is a horror game? It’s a difficult genre to pin down.

Unlike racing games, shooters, match-three, horror isn’t a genre label that describes specific mechanics. Nor can it be identified purely by virtue of content or iconography: there are plenty of non-horror games leveraging The Walking Dead right now, for example. No, the glue that ultimately holds the horror genre together – what makes it unique – is that it’s a family of games designed with one specific goal in mind: to scare the hell out of you. It’s a genre that requires a unique approach to criteria quite without equal or parallel in videogames. It’s about a sensation, fear, rather than a quota of mechanics or images.

The tense Halloween adventure game released in 1983 for the Atari 2600? Horror game. The Friday The 13th side-scroller released in 1988 for the NES? A horrible game. Not a horror game.

To examine the evolution of videogame horror through the ages, then, I find it best to consider the history of the genre in terms of design lineage rather than whether there’s a witch and a broomstick present.

Once upon a time, horror games were hard to find, but what was there proved to have a lasting legacy: it shaped what would come later. There was Infocom’s The Lurking Horror (PC/Mac, 1988), ICOM Simulations’s Uninvited (Mac, 1986), Sweet Home (Nintendo Entertainment System, 1989) among others and, while few in number, their impact can still be felt today. Uninvited, for example, along with its predecessor Deja Vu, established puzzle mechanics (such as manipulating items via a palette of action verbs) that have proved a mainstay of many adventure games.

Sweet Home (Nintendo Entertainment System, 1989).

Horror game historians often declare Sweet Home the precursor to Resident Evil, largely because it uses the same “creaky door” cinematics that Capcom’s title later employed to mask load times and transition between areas. The resemblance between the two games is more tenuous than is widely acknowledged, though: Sweet Home is, after all, an RPG with random monster encounters and a party mechanic that couldn’t be further from the calculated scares of Capcom’s mansion and the splintered, isolated protagonists trying to make sense of it all.

In truth, Sweet Home’s wider impact and influence is down to far more than those shoddy door animations. It turned item management into an axis for fear. Each character in Sweet Home has just two inventory slots and those slots are usually occupied by crucial heath and puzzle items to really make survival a war of attrition. When you run out of inventory space – which happens often in the thick of a puzzle – your only recourse is to drop a peripheral item on the floor and come back for it later. In a game where every excursion is dangerous, every avenue leading to potential damnation, you’d frequently have to work your way back across the map to retrieve an important item in a nerve-wracking race against time. Even more nail-destroying, Sweet Home’s game-loop forces players to periodically shed powerful items in order to progress to the next stage, thereby destroying any comfort zone and sense of strength or certainty they may have attained. Resident Evil initially softened Sweet Home’s inventory system by adding those rather magically interconnected item boxes, but in Resident Evil 0 (GameCube, 2002) Capcom returned to the high-stakes drop-anywhere system, reminding us all of Sweet Home’s lasting legacy.

Despite the early experiments of pioneering titles like Sweet Home, the horror genre arguably didn’t truly arrive until its more widely known ’90s titans – Alone In The Dark (various platforms, 1990) and Clock Tower (Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 1995) – made their indelible mark on the timeline.

Alone In The Dark (various platforms, 1990).

Alone In The Dark took the point-and-click adventure genre and dragged it kicking and screaming into 3D compositions and control methods. As in earlier adventure games, the background art was a static image, with character art composited on top. Characters were rendered in realtime 3D, and its backgrounds had perspective and depth. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this revolution in horror; the ability to compose and frame scenes this way bestowed designers with unprecedented power to build tension through cinematography. The move to a perspective camera with cuts between shots also necessitated direct control over the playable character (leading to the now infamous character-centric “tank control” scheme which subsequently became one of Resident Evil’s most hated features).

The development and success of Resident Evil (PS1, 1995), a direct descendant of Alone in the Dark’s design, flung open the horror game floodgates. Many, many horror games were released in the late ’90s and early ’00s following in Capcom’s footsteps. The best of the bunch modified or manipulated the newly established format to explore fear in different ways. Silent Hill (PS1, 1999) pioneered the use of lighting and audio, Parasite Eve (PS1, 1998) resolved the “tank control” problem posed by 3D perspectives, Fatal Frame (PS2, 2001) and Siren (PS2, 2003) introduced unique forms of interaction (first-person combat and sneaking mechanics, respectively) and Silent Hill 2 (PS2, 2001) showed how horror could be used as a vehicle for a complex, enigmatic narrative. The influence of this golden age of horror design spread to entirely new genres; titles like The Suffering (PS2, Xbox, PC, 2004) applied many of the lessons from earlier horror games without being tied to the plodding pace of Alone in the Dark.

Despite this rapid progress, the horror boom began to show signs of exhaustion. The market for Alone in the Dark style games became saturated, and as new consoles loomed on the horizon the popularity and fiscal viability of the genre began to decline.

Resident Evil 4 (Nintendo GameCube, 2005).

But as one form of horror game sputtered and breathed its last, another was born. Just as the original Resident Evil had done so, Resident Evil 4 (Nintendo GameCube, 2005) changed the way horror games were conceived and developed for some time. Resident Evil 4 modernised many of the core design conventions from earlier horror games and shucked off the rest, focusing instead on high-stakes, close-quarters combat, uniting the strands of action and horror in an irresistible, immediate mix that made Alone in the Dark and its children look creaky and cumbersome by comparison.

Resident Evil 4 was a huge success, of course, and it remains the model for third person action design.  Though it abandoned of many of the core tenets of its predecessors, Resident Evil 4 retained enough of that DNA to prevent its horror muscles from atrophying completely. However, subsequent games following in its footsteps (such as the Dead Space series, and even more recent Resident Evil games) slowly replaced horror-affording mechanics with slicker systems in the name of modernity and adrenaline. As a result, most of the games now employing elements of Resident Evil 4’s design are no longer technically horror games at all, having polished the action bits to a shine at the expense of fear.

In a twist worthy of a Dario Argento flick, however, an older, half-forgotten strand of horror game design would return to pick up the genre’s flickering torch. Though it was released several years after Alone in the Dark, Clock Tower represents an alternate branch of the horror design family tree. Released exclusively in Japan, Clock Tower broke the adventure game mould in a different way. Rather than pursuing 3D perspectives and compositions, Clock Tower embraced its point-and-click roots and focused instead on creating tension through disempowering the protagonist and player. Clock Tower’s Jennifer is a “normal” teenager: no special powers, no battle armour, no weapons or combat skills. When attacked by a crazy nine-year-old wielding a pair of giant shears, her only recourse is to flee, to hide. Clock Tower was arguably the first game to put great emphasis on the vulnerability of the main character and to build a game around that conceit. No longer just about escapism, the horror genre was now about escaping.

Clock Tower (Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 1995).

The charts had been dominated by the Resident Evil brand and its ilk since its debut but – much like the series’ signature Scissorman – the Clock Tower model had been waiting quietly in the darkness. It had been incubated and nurtured by titles like Hellnight (PS1, 1998), Echo Night: Beyond (PS2, 2004), and Haunting Ground (PS2, 2005).  Then, around 2008, a few obscure Japanese games began to explore first-person horror games that starred regular-joe protagonists and featured no combat. One of the first, The Nameless Game (Nintendo DS, 2008), alternated between a 3D viewpoint and a cursed NES-era RPG that slowly infected the real world. It was followed by Ju-On: The Grudge (Nintendo Wii, 2009), Calling (Wii, 2009), and Night of Sacrifice (Wii, 2011), all of which were first-person, combat-free, run-and-hide horror games. Perhaps it was the accessibility of the Wii nunchuck-as-flashlight interface that made these games appear after such a long hibernation; Night of Sacrifice even made use of the Wii Balance Board to make fleeing from its ghosts physically stressful. Regardless, these children of Clock Tower established a format that is now one of the most popular in the horror genre.

But they were not the games that made the format explode. With the release of Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010, PC) and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (2009, Wii), the Clock Tower approach to horror design suddenly came crashing through the skylight into public view. The release of these two games, which placed emphasis on exploration, featured no combat, and starred protagonists that have no special abilities, caused the horror genre to undergo another major shift.

Like Silent Hill 2 before it, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories showed that horror could play host to a strong, personal narrative. Its use of exploration and audio logs (as proven by System Shock 2 a decade earlier) to tell a story was ambitious in its simplicity. It’s a strand that has been furthered again in the likes of Gone Home (PC/Mac, 2013) and Dear Esther (PC/Mac, 2012) which similarly trade away a significant amount of interactivity in order to explore a story as a physical space.

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (2009, Wii).

In my eyes, it’s the success of Amnesia that has lead to a second horror game boom, a silver age, if you will, dominated by indie developers designing for desktop platforms. This new breed is a lively mixture, from the likes of Slender (PC/Mac, 2012), SCP – Containment Breach (PC, 2012), and the upcoming Routine (currently in development). Not to mention a whole host of similar titles pending on Steam Greenlight which I’d argue owe their existence, their chance at success, to Amnesia. Like Amnesia, these titles are almost all first-person, combat-free, and focused on hiding and exploring. And because these games are strongly influenced by Amnesia, they are, at their core, the descendants of Clock Tower.

Where do horror games go from here? On PC platforms, the future is bright, at least if you enjoy running for your life, disempowered protagonists and dangerous, deserted (and dimly lit) environments. There’s also some signs that these games, or something similar from a sibling genre like Escape the Room, may show up on your smartphone or tablet very soon. Big budget console horror games, on the other hand, haven’t quite recovered from their foray into faster-paced but less frightful waters. But perhaps, in the auteur’s third-coming, Shinji Mikami’s Evil Within will be the cure to the identity crisis currently plaguing console horror.

By day, Chris Pruett runs Robot Invader, an independent development studio in Silicon Valley. Under the cover of night he maintains Chris’ Survival Horror Quest, a research blog devoted to the dissection and analysis of horror games.

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