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The History of Horror Games

October 14, 2016

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By: Max Cannon

Audiences have always loved horror. Whether sitting in a crowded movie theater or a listening to a friend’s story on a dark and stormy night, people love to be scared. If you want to find the true zeitgeist of an era look no further than what scared people at the time.

Video games have been tackling horror to various degrees of success since the days of the NES. Anyone who was playing a PlayStation 15 years ago would tell you that Alone In The DarkResident Evil, or Silent Hill were the definitive horror experiences. But in the same way Freddy Krueger of 30 years ago won’t be scary to an audience of today, a game will lose its scare factor over time. Horror, just like any other genre, needs to be reinvented to keep itself relevant to a modern audience.

The Early Days of Scaring Gamers

Though there were games on the Atari that could be called a horror game, one of the first true horror games was 1989’s Sweet Home for the NES. Sweet Home, based on a film of the same name, is a horror RPG involving a team of filmmakers trapped inside a mansion looking for a way out. The ominous 8 bit soundtrack and occasional obstruction of view makes this an eerie game to play late at night even by today’s standard. And interestingly enough, Shinji Mikami, one of the pioneers of survival horror began working on a remake of Sweet Home in the 90’s and ended up creating the influential Resident Evil series.

Aside from the likes of Clock Tower or Laplace no Ma horror games were almost nonexistent on the SNES. It’s not until the original Playstation and Nintendo 64 era that the survival horror genre was really born.

A monster from the NES classic, Sweet Home.A monster from the NES classic, Sweet Home.Courtesy of Obscure Video Games

With intentionally hard to use controls, fantastic sound design, and slow pacing Capcom’s, Resident Evil took several cues from 1992’s Alone In The Dark and built upon them. As is the classic horror setting, Resident Evil places our characters in a frightening mansion where every step was audible, every bullet found was a small victory, and if a player wasn’t cautious, their game could end before it ever really began.

To this day Resident Evil games are still popular. The franchise has never been afraid to reinvent itself, and by scrapping almost the entire layout of the original trilogy, Resident Evil 4 is considered the series highlight. With a refreshingly new take on the genre, the 2005 survival horror title’s original release as a GameCube exclusive changed games forever. By moving the camera closer to the player and allowing more control, with the same slow and cautious pacing fans loved, Resident Evil 4 became one of the most beloved and scary experiences of its time.

In 1999, a year after Resident Evil 2, Konami brought Silent Hill to the Playstation. Using a similar control scheme to Resident Evil, Silent Hill puts the players into the titular town where Harry Mason searches for his missing daughter. With the best use of sound on the console, Silent Hillterrified players but it wasn’t until the series’ second outing on the Playstation 2 in 2001 that the franchise really got the spotlight.

Silent Hill 2 is one of the first games to realize the potential of psychological horror.Silent Hill 2 is one of the first games to realize the potential of psychological horror.Courtesy of Vice

Where Resident Evil had a story that focused more on action and experiments in labs, Silent Hill was a psychological horror and Silent Hill 2 wasn’t afraid to mess with the player’s head. Silent Hill 2 features James Sunderland, a man who receives a letter from his deceased wife calling him to the haunted town. Though the past few entries into the series has strayed from what made the franchise great, this game’s focus on minimal melee combat, excellent story, and unique environments make this one of the greatest horror games of our time.

With the massive praise of Resident Evil and Silent Hill for focusing on slow pacing, weak combat, and puzzles it is a shock that a game could do everything so differently and still be successful. Monolith Productions delivered a pair of fantastic games within the same year that turned the horror genre on its head with F.E.A.R. releasing in October of 2005 and Condemned: Criminal Origins just a month after.

Horror Shoots Into The 21st Century

With the F.E.A.R.  and Condemned franchises, Monolith Productions took the ideas that made previous horror games so successful and put them on the chopping block.F.E.A.R. is a first person shooter where players fight soldiers and giant robots while running from ghosts through hospitals, skyscrapers, and abandoned elementary schools. While Condemned is a first person survival horror series with a focus on brutal melee combat, dark industrial music, and forensics based puzzles that place you in a dirty, mannequin filled city. Also there is a bear.

Monolith’s addition to the horror franchise offered a new perspective to games. By switching to a first person perspective the player loses that disconnect from the person they’re controlling. They’re more a part of the game, and when the protagonist is attacked, the player is even more worried for them.

Slender: The Arrival updated the original game's idea.Slender: The Arrival updated the original game's idea.Courtesy of Slender: The Arrival

Jumping ahead several years we see the rise of the indie game. Games made by one or two people in a basement give fresh ideas to gaming and because of those fresh ideas we are living in a horror game renaissance. We see games like Slender: The Eight Pages, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Five Nights At Freddy’s, and Outlast. These games are prime examples of modern horror. First person, no combat, and dark visuals. But we can’t discuss modern horror without discussing the crowning achievement of the genre, the game all other horror games strive to be.

P.T. was announced during Gamescom 2014 with a tame looking trailer making the game seem like every other horror game out there. The game was released as a free download on PSN where a player walks through a looping hallway where things slowly change. With extremely confusing directions, some of the most impressive sound design and visuals ever to be seen, and a dark, unnerving atmosphere P.T. isn’t only the scariest game to exist, but it is my personal favorite game of all time. Never have I felt so scared and uncomfortable in a game.

Upon beating the extremely difficult puzzles, which require translation of over 4 different languages, the player is rewarded with a cutscene revealing the game to be a new Silent Hill game: Silent Hills. The game was created by Hideo Kojima of the Metal Gear Solid games, Guillermo del Toro who is known for creating several horror films including Pan’s Labyrinth,  and starring Norman Reedus of The Walking Dead and del Toro’s Mimic. It turned out to be too good to be true as the full game was recently cancelled and P.T. is now unable to download. Unless you, or a friend, already have the game downloaded on your system you’ll be unable to play it unless things change.

P.T's instantly noticeable ending.P.T's instantly noticeable ending.Courtesy of Destructoid

Today's best horror games are typically indie, existing outside of the AAA space. And with the release of VR platforms, gamers will have an entirely new way to scare themselves. Of course we'll cross the hurdle at some point and the things that scared us yesterday may not have the same impact tomorrow, but by that point we'll have already found the next game to terrify us.

Have Your Say!

Do any horror games mean a lot to you? Have you played any of the classics above? Comment below!