The Retronomicon 11.01.13: A Brief History of Horror Gaming
Posted by Stewart Lange on 11.01.2013
411's Stewart Lange takes a look all the way back at the games that helped the evolution of the horror genre, from Haunted House for the Atari 2600 right the way to the present day!
Hello and welcome to a very special edition of the Retronomicon! This week, I'm going for something I feel is more ambitious than I've done before on this column. I was looking at numerous ways to do a Halloween special of some sort and didn't want to pick just one game, then couldn't narrow it down to just 5 games, so I've decided to go for all of them. Well, not exactly, but I reckon I'll be able to do a fairly concise wrap up of the history of horror based video games in somewhere around 1500-2000 words. No problem, right? Right. To keep things retro, I'm cutting things off at 2005, so pretty much the start of the 360/PS3 generation. Sorry to everyone who requested Condemned, but it just isn't old enough to really get it's name into the column.
While I procrastinate, I'll thank everyone who commented last week on my Final Fantasy 7 column. I knew it'd be a game that would get some split opinions and I'm always very happy to hear both sides of the divide. I'm not going to do my usual break down of the comments due to the volume of content this week, but rest assured I read and enjoyed all of your comments. Next week should be back to normal, but hopefully I have some comments this week to fill some space! I already have a game picked out at the request of regular reader GVIL but I'll get back to focusing on doing polls to vote for the next game I write about. Search the Book of Faces for 411 Retronomicon and hit the LIKE button to get involved.
Right. Knuckles have been cracked. Research has been done. Nerves have been settled. Welcome to the History of Horror Gaming 1983-2005, exclusively on 411mania.com. Bring on the banner.
BLOOD, GUTS AND PIXELS
Our story begins in 1982. What many critics consider to be the first true horror game Haunted House is released for the Atari 2600. Your character is a pair of eyes (really) and you have to navigate through numerous rooms full of ghosts, striking matches to get away from them. While this doesn't sound like much fun, let me just remind you this was 30 years before Alan Wake. Cited as influential in the creative development of many classic games, that was where it all started. When that was successful, developers started doing a bit more with the format, and 1983 saw a number of releases. Atic Atac, Ghost Manor and a whole bunch of Dracula themed software continued the haunted house premise, but allowed the player to do something you couldn't in Haunted House- fight back. Swords, axes and spears were all introduced as weapons that could somehow slay ghosts, which didn't make sense. Thankfully, games had not developed to a point yet where they had to make an awful lot of sense and these action packed titles made for a good change of pace from helping a frog to cross the road and finally, adults had something aimed at them on the home consoles.
STICKS AND STONES MAY BREAK MY BONES, BUT WORDS?
As exciting as these games were, there was only so much that could be done at the time as far as setting the scene was concerned. Instead of being hampered by the technology of the day, or lack thereof, game developers started looking towards the text based adventure games to create real depth in story for their horror games. Basically the same premise as your classic adventure books (turn to page 38 if you chose to draw your sword and so on) the lack of real coding for characters, backgrounds and animations led to games such as Dracula being able to give the player a far more in depth experience. While these games weren't for everyone, mainly due to the lack of any action, they were certainly popular amongst the same audience who would keep their finger in the last page before reading what happened when they turned that corner (don't lie. I know you did). Developing on this idea, games such as Uninvited and Zombi would add in visual elements and even point and click features to give the player more immersion in the setting. The text based horror game's popularity was fairly short lived, mainly due to advancements in technology with Nintendo and Sega releasing the NES and Master System respectively, giving gamers and the people who catered for them plenty more options to create and play the settings that they'd only really been able to read about on their trusty Commodores.
CHEAP MOVIE TIE-INS
The late 70's saw a boom in the slasher movie, with movies such as Halloween, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th becoming huge hits due to the mix of blood, violence and sex. With the larger than life main characters, these were easy to latch on to, ready made franchises for developers to make games around. Unfortunately, the three games I mentioned were among the first to be hit, receiving horrible Atari 2600 make overs in the early 1980s. The best of the three was the Massacre game, which was by any other name a side scrolling platformer where you controlled Leatherface as he killed people, leading to the game not being stocked by major retailers and becoming one of the rarest games of the era. While Friday the 13th got a deserved remake on the NES, the others weren't so lucky. By all accounts, there wasn't a well received game made from a horror movie until Evil Dead (again, a movie that had been badly ported in the early 80s) made it's debut on the PS1. A survival horror game (we'll get there......) the game wasn't so great as it was cool, mainly due to the voice acting of one Mr. Bruce Campbell. The first game, Hail to the King did pretty well, but the most successful in the series was Fistful of Boomstick which was credited with better gameplay and a funnier story.
As we've come to expect, there have been very few high quality games based on movies and even less so on horrors, but there are a few games that were so unapologetic in their plagiarism they deserve a mention, specifically Splatterhouse. Undoubtedly a game I'll be covering at some point in an upcoming Retronomicon, Splatterhouse features a huge, monstrous man going through the levels slaughtering demons while wearing a hockey mask. Sound fairly familiar? Yes, Splatterhouse is a huge Friday the 13th rip off in all but the setting, but instead of being a poor movie game, it would have been the game the classic movie deserved, had it received just a little bit of tweaking.
SHIT JUST GOT REAL
In the early 90's, the advancement in technology and the home computing boom which made household computers affordable to the masses led to the advent of the CD-Rom. Unlike cartridges, CDs were able to use their data more effectively and store for the first time, high(er) quality video files. This started with just cut scenes, but soon enough, full games were created using real actors instead of animated sprites. The first notable release of this nature was Night Trap for the Sega CD. The addition of actual actors into video games soon led to the video games rating system being brought into effect by the US Congress (although I believe they were already under the British classification system by this point). While Night Trap used actual video scenes, other titles like Dark Seed, D on the 3DO and Mortal Kombat captured the action and added it into the games for unparalleled realism, compared to anything else seen by that point. In many cases, this feature caused the games to run slower than they should and as a result, many games of this nature did not do particularly well.
One interesting exception to this law was PC release The 7th Guest. Largely cited as the game that helped to sell CD drives for home computers, the game ended up selling over 2 million copies worldwide and was among the first games ever released exclusively on CD. The game featured entirely 3D rendered backgrounds and puzzles, with a full cast of actors playing the characters. This was a real case of the live-action actually enhancing the game, bringing the player into the atmosphere and creating what I remember to be a genuinely creepy experience. Another notable title, while not a horror title, was Under A Killing Moon. The use of real actors enhanced the experience and made it a more unnerving experience than it had any right to be.
BLOOD, GUTS AND BIG F*CKING GUNS
As I covered in the last section, the early 90s saw the introduction of age restrictions on video games. While some people saw this as a potential death knell for the industry, instead game makers finally saw an opportunity to market games with adult content, but without the moral downside that children would have easy access to their games. Kicking off the first real wave of violent video games was Doom in 1993. A game I've covered already in the Retronomicon, what Doom lacked in scares, it made up for in blood, guts and quite literally, Big Fucking Guns. ID Software created the game and while a slightly censored version was released, it did see a big rise in violent games, especially on the PC. ID followed their 1993 hit with Quake, which was a far more atmospheric game than Doom, which dialled down the violence to make the player worry a lot more about what was around the next corner.
As the blood level went through the roof, it was hard for games to not try and compensate elsewhere to remain somewhat marketable. Many other first person shooters steered away from the high levels of gore that had been seen elsewhere, effectively popularising the modern combat based games as opposed to the horror FPS. Other titles, such as Carmageddon and Duke Nukem were either heavily censored or so light hearted they were so far departed from being true horror titles. It was clear that the more over the top the violence, the less scary the game ended up and the horror genre in gaming really needed revitalised. Thankfully, changes were just around the corner.
SURVIVE, IF I LET YOU
In 1996, horror fans had very little to be excited about. The games that were targeted towards them had become too over the top to be truly scary and console games were really heading towards being bright and colourful. Enter Capcom, who released Resident Evil and turned horror gaming on it's head. Coined "survival horror," Resident Evil (another featured Retronomicon game) started a new trend. With extremely limited resources and an extremely developed story, the PS1 had found it's first big hit in R.E.. As with all great ideas, there were quickly a number of imitators. Capcom also released Dino Crisis, which took away the zombies and replaced them with dinosaurs. The other big survival horror franchise that was born in the 90s was Silent Hill. While almost as successful as Resident Evil, spawning a movie franchise and numerous sequels, I found Silent Hill to be a far creepier experience.
Not all survival horror games wound up being cheap clones, however. New elements were introduced as different developers tried to move away from the big two in the genre and stand on their own. One such success story was Fatal Frame, or Project Zero as it's known over here. The Tecmo title was one of the most genuinely terrifying games I've ever played in my life, as you explore an abandoned mansion armed with only a camera. Often overlooked by anyone other than genre fans, the four games in the series vary in quality but are different enough from everything else to set themselves apart from the rest of the genre. By this point, Resident Evil had seen a couple of well received sequels that were largely in the same vein as the original, but was starting to look towards different genres to stay relevant, with spin off titles introducing FPS elements and riding on the tails of House of The Dead and the light gun craze that it had re-ignited along with Time Crisis (which isn't in any way a horror game, I should add). This gave other franchises and brands to step forward, with notable titles being Parasite Eve and Clock Tower 2.
The Clock Tower series and the creativity of the Fatal Frame games cemented the Japanese as kings of the survival horror genre. Resident Evil had originally been released over there as Biohazard but the aforementioned titles really rode the wave of Japanese horror movies that were finding a new success in the west, borrowing heavily from the likes of Ju On: The Grudge and The Ring, which found it's own way to consoles via the Dreamcast. This game drew attention to the sometimes laughable translation and voice acting that we'd been able to previously ignore and as new ideas became few and far between, the genre ground to something of a halt.
GET OUT OF MY HEAD!
The last great horror game of the era in my opinion would be Eternal Darkness on the Gamecube. While I'm going to aim to cover this soon, I would really be amiss if I didn't mention this often forgotten gem. While the gameplay itself was fairly standard and what we'd expect from a survival title, the game featured time travel elements and uniquely, a "sanity meter." What this meant was that as your character became more and more exposed to bizarre goings on, they started not only losing their mind, but losing your mind too. The game would throw different effects at you, such as moving statues, "ghost" enemies and bleeding walls, but more worryingly for the player, the game would prank glitch you, giving you a blue screen or even telling you that your save data was corrupted, as a ruse to make you switch off your console or try to further investigate the fault.
This psychological warfare hasn't been copied since, mainly due to Nintendo owning a copyright and the sequel having struggled to receive adequate funding, but it was clear that horror games couldn't just be exclusively violent or tense anymore. They had to really get under the skin of the player, preventing you from playing with the lights off unless you were truly hardened. Later games in the Silent Hill series, notably the fourth game in the series, The Room, did this with some success and continue to do so, while other franchises have never returned to their roots or become so outdated that they don't succeed.
Since 2005, there have been many successful horror titles released, covering all the bases. The Left 4 Dead games cater for the fast and frantic violence fans, while fans of the survival genre not only still have new Silent Hill titles but also Alan Wake, Dead Space and Deadly Premonition, which is actually pretty close to Eternal Darkness in terms of pure weirdness. The Condemned managed to merge a number of genres to create a dark, violent and frightening journey, while Slender has become a cult hit due to being wet-your-pants scary. There's still plenty of life in the horror genre, but as a new generation of consoles rolls around, we can only wonder what the next evolution in the genre will be.
Thank you all so much for reading! If you enjoyed this column, please remember and let me know in the comments section and on Facebook by searching for The Retronomicon! I'm not going to do my usual wrap up here, I'll leave before you get sick fed up of reading my writing! I genuinely hope you enjoyed this week's special look at horror games as much as I enjoyed writing it and hope you had a fantastic Halloween! See you all next week!