With Halloween around the corner, it is the perfect time to settle down in a dark room, headphones on with volume to the max, ready to spook yourself with your favourite horror video game. But to all you gamers out there I have one question for you: What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of ‘Horror’?
My thoughts first jump to the broad genre of ‘Survival Horror’, the likes of games such as the Resident Evil and Silent Hill series’ – More recent years brought about further success for the genre with games like Five Nights at Freddy’s and Layers of Fear. The genre of horror also brings out many other sub-types, another prominent example being ‘Shooter Horror’, where games such as Doom and F.E.A.R reign supreme, or ‘Stealth Horror’, where players must sneak around in a high-tension atmosphere, the games Alien: Isolation and Amnesia being examples that have stricken fear in to gamers’ hearts since the day of their release. But how did Horror begin as a genre in gaming and how has it evolved to the current day? It began in a period many refer to as:
1970s-80s: The Dark Ages
It is widely believed that the genre began with the Magnavox Odyssey arcade game Haunted House (1972), a two-player game with one player playing the ‘Detective’ and the other the ‘Ghost’. Later, in 1981, the Atari 2600 released a game of the same name: Haunted House. It placed the player in a haunted mansion with the goal of collecting pieces of an urn while avoiding the monsters that are set on destroying you. The gameplay took advantage of the fact that not much could be done on a technical level at the time and used lack of sight and sound to spook its players. In later years, horror games inspired by pre-existing movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween incorporated gore for the first time.
1986 brought a timeless classic with Nintendo’s platformer-horror Castlevania on the NES console. Players controlled Simon Belmont, a vampire hunter with a deadly whip on a mission to defeat Dracula in the year 1691. It was the success of Castlevania that stemmed an influx of horror games in the late ’80s and ’90s.
The 1990’s: A Surge in Horror
The ’90s brought whole new popularity in video game horror with so many classics being released, including the beginnings of multiple successful franchises. 1992 brought Alone in the Dark (the first-ever 3D horror game) and it not only influenced many horror series to come but was a huge success, in 2009 Empire even included it in their ‘100 Greatest Video Games of All Time’ list. In 1993 Doom came out, pioneering the FPS genre and introducing Jump Scares. 1995 introduced Clock Tower where players had to hide from the threats around them, arguably becoming the first ‘stealth horror’ video game.
The most pivotal horror game of the ’90s came with Resident Evil. Resident Evil is a game series that has become a household name (well, if the house is full of gamers, that is) and the first game in the series was something that changed the world of horror. The game was released on PlayStation, sold over 8.5 million copies and was originally intended to be a remake of ‘sweet home (1989)’, a game earlier released also by Capcom. Resident Evil used gameplay mechanics such as limited inventory space and scarcely available save points in order to take away control from players. Puzzles and horrific images were also used to scare players. The game implemented multiple endings depending on who survived, adding a level of higher tension to your choices.
In 1999 the incredibly notorious video game developer Konami released their response to Resident Evil with the game ‘Silent Hill’ on PlayStation. It was revolutionary in terms of its writing, incorporating every-day man Harry Mason as the playable character and plucking inspiration from the works of Stephen King (in particular: The Mist), it was also graphically outstanding compared to games before it and used fixed camera angles to purposefully disorientate the player and build tension.
The Early 2000’s: Horror in Danger
The past seventeen years have seen such a massive leap in horror evolution, so much so that it’s hard to include every single impactful game of the noughties. Despite this, readers, I will try my best to convey to you the most key moments in horror evolution.
Fatal Frame, a J-Horror, was released on the PlayStation 2 and X-box in 2001 and introduced a new mechanic: Limited sight through a camera lens. (Sound familiar to any recent popular horror games?) The release of the film The Ring also added to the popularity of the game. Konami brought out a popular sequel in 2001 with Silent Hill 2, introducing one of the most beloved and terrifying villains in video game history: Pyramid Head.
However, in 2002, the genre began to struggle. Resident Evil: Zero, though critically acclaimed, was not as well-received as the previous Resident Evil games. Dino Crisis 3 on the X-box also came out as a flop. It was clear that horror needed a new direction or it would suffer a slow burnout.
Enter the creator of the Alone in the Dark series with a brand new idea, a game named Agartha. The game brought interesting concepts to the table, taking the butterfly effect to a whole new level. Aside from having the main personal plot, the players’ decision would be more important than ever with the whole game at stake, causing players to have to think very carefully about what they do…
Unfortunately, the game never saw release when the project was terminated already well into development. This, thankfully, was not a loss, as games in the near future took Agartha’s ideas and made it their own, most namely in 2007 with Bioshock.
Horror: The Revival
In 2004, Doom 3 took a whole new turn with the Doom series, turning into more of a survival horror than an action horror. It was more strategic, incorporating more of a storyline and it was a huge hit.
2005 brought Resident Evil 4 (my personal favourite of the series) and this game, opposite to Doom 3, was redesigned to be more action-horror than survival-horror. Third-person shooting was a vital part of the game and no more were there mindless zombies, but now a bigger threat- intelligent ‘infected’ beings that are able to work together to destroy you. It also added the feature of having to protect the life of an NPC with the character ‘Ashley’; you could not be selfish and just run past the threat.
(BagoGames: Resident Evil 4, flickr)
The Late 2000’s: New Generations
The years are 2005 and 2006: Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 have arrived on the scene (can you believe it was that long ago? I sure can’t!) Condemned: Criminal Origins comes out on Xbox 360 and for Microsoft Windows, bringing ‘Crime-horror’ to life. Bioshock was released in 2007, taking inspiration from the techniques of Agartha as earlier mentioned.
One great example of an iconic video game from this generation is the game Dead Space which came out across multiple platforms in 2008 and was a complete revival of the survivor-horror genre, succeeding where so many games of the past few years had failed. Players were made to feel even more helpless in the face of the even more threatening monsters and the game began to steer mainstream horror away from action-horror, which had been so popular in the past few years. It also incorporated sound in such a terrifying way that it left multiple players feeling seriously spooked.
The 2010’s: Horror is booming!
The popular game Amnesia: The Dark Descent was released in 2010 (and later re-released on PlayStation 4 in 2016) and used the mechanic of stealth in an all-new way for the genre, taking ideas from previous games such as ‘Metal Gear’. The mechanics of this game involved peaking around corners and through doors, emulating the real-life feeling of fear. This same element of stealth was later incorporated in top-selling games such as The Last of Us (2013) and Alien: Isolation (2014) on the PlayStation 4.
In 2014, on the PlayStation 4, a demo-game came out that I believe changed the future of horror gaming forever. I am talking, of course, about Hideo Kojima’s P.T., The ‘Playable Trailer’ for the once-anticipated Silent Hills. I have never personally found a game to be more utterly terrifying and chilling than this. Its graphics were realistic, its use of suspense and anticipation – setting you up for jump-scares that may never even happen – left such an impact on gamers that many didn’t have the nerve to play it more than once. Playing it multiple times, however, is something completely recommended, for P.T. was a game that would never have two playthroughs be the same. On my first run of the game, I encountered a rare glitch where I was “killed” in a situation that was thought to be impossible, needless to say, setting me up for a hundred more scares in the future. I was disappointed when I played the game for what must have been the 20th time, this time forcing my very horror-repelled best friend and her boyfriend to play, and they encountered absolutely no events in their play-through: this is something that can also happen in P.T.
It’s unfortunate that the game is no longer available to download, and even more unfortunate that Silent Hills was never released (Still cross your keys for the future though, I know I am!) but the impact P.T. made on the gaming industry was so large it started a whole new breed of horror games, one obvious example of this being the popular game ‘Layers of Fear’ (2016). Elements of P.T. can even be witnessed in Resident Evil 7 (2017) which steered away from third-person action into first-person survival.
(Ginx.tv, P.T. review)
Where are we now, and where are we going?
So where has all of this left us today? We’ve come a long way from The Dark Ages, that much is clear, but one thing that makes horror such an integral genre in gaming in this present day is the use of streaming: particularly on the websites YouTube and Twitch.tv. YouTube gamers such as Markiplier and Pewdiepie have risen to a crazy amount of fame with their “let’s play” videos, bringing coverage and success to horror games such as Five Nights at Freddy’s (2014) which brought the idea of ‘uncanny valley’ in to the mainstream, and Outlast: 1 and 2 (2013/2017), a further revival of the survival/stealth horror genre. Multiple gamers across Youtube and Twitch also actively take part in online multiplayer horror games like Dead by Daylight (2016) and Friday the 13th: The Game (2017), encouraging fans to join in with the fun multiplayer-games can bring (providing you have a better gaming laptop than me, which can’t run either game very efficiently.) Thanks to this free and easy way to find video games, the art of gaming has become more popular now than ever before and many indie games are being given the chance to rise to the public eye, something that would never have happened as little as ten years ago.
But what is going to happen to horror games in the future? Have we reached a peak? With the constant progression of Virtual Reality, horror games are becoming more interactive and terrifying than ever before. Imagine the near future before us: VR being sold at an affordable price for the average gamer, allowing more and more horror games to become accessible (including re-releases of our favourite classics!)
Virtual Reality is more than just a gaming platform; it is a whole-body experience. You see the horrific world before you, your body feels things that aren’t really there, you’re thrust into an immersed horror like never before, and this could be the ultimate replication of fear us gamers will ever get without being in the situations for real ourselves.
But with this, we must ask ourselves: Will we become so de-sensitised that the horror genre will continue to decline once again? What happens when we reach the peak of horror and become bored with it like we have done with horror in the past. Is there any way up from virtual reality, and if there isn’t, will horror disappear altogether?
Conclusively, readers, I hope reading this article has given you insight into the way horror works and inspires you to try something new, you never know, perhaps Haunted House (1982) will be the game to really send you into a mist of fear! (I mean… maybe.)
Let me know in the comments what your favourite horror game is, if you’ve tried any of the ones on this list and what you thought of them, and also if you feel inspired to try something new! Thanks for reading, merry Friday the 13th and a happy Halloween to you all!