The Long and Twisted Evolution of Horror Video Games | Digital Trends

Horror is one of the most popular gaming genres out there today. Scary games are an especially big hit with the streaming generation, who love to watch their favorite content creators freak out. However, we wouldn’t have those countless jump scare reaction videos featuring the Resident Evil 2 remake’s Mr. X without years of fear-filled trial and error. Throughout the past few decades, there have been many trendsetters that built upon innovators of the past. That trend continues even now with games like Resident Evil 7, with its clear P.T. inspiration.

And it all started back in the 1970s.

Come on up to the house

The world of video game horror spans many different subgenres birthed throughout the years. Many see the 1972 title Haunted House for the Magnavox Odyssey as the earliest fear-filled gaming experience — if you even consider a screen overlay a horror game. There were other very early attempts at the genre throughout the ’70s and early ’80s including various text-based games, pixel-filled movie adaptations for the Atari and NES like Friday the 13th and Halloween, and of course, legendary IPs like Castlevania and Ghosts ‘n Goblins. But no game perfectly translated the feeling of a horror movie to the virtual playground until Splatterhouse.

Splatterhouse is a 1988 arcade beat ‘em up that is best described as an ’80s B-horror movie made into a video game. You play as Rick Taylor, a man on the brink of death who partners up with a symbiotic demon mask called the Terror Mask. Together, you slice, bash, and brutalize your way across a giant mansion to save your kidnapped girlfriend who’s to be sacrificed in some ungodly ritual. 

The game was the goriest thing many had ever seen, and that gore was its main selling point. It was unheard of, especially in a time before the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). Its TurboGrafx-16 port sported a parental advisory warning and a message on the box reading: “The horrifying theme of this game may be inappropriate for young children … and cowards.”

Today, Splatterhouse lives on as a cult classic of the past, the beginning of a classic horror series of games, and one of the forefathers of the horror gaming genre.

Home creep home

While Splatterhouse laid the groundwork for gore and monsters in the world of gaming horror, it was mostly an action game, with the only survival element being to not get hit. The origins of the most famous horror genre, survival horror, can be traced back to the early ’80s with NEC’s PC-6001’s Nostromo, Atari’s Haunted House, and Sinclair Research’s ZX81’s 3D Monster Maze. These three titles introduced the world to a new type of game where things couldn’t be solved with violence, but through passive progression, with an emphasis on solving puzzles and using stealth to make your way past the assailant. 

The elements introduced by these titles finally came together on the Nintendo Entertainment System with Capcom’s 1989 game,Sweet Home. This classic JRPG based on a Japanese horror film of the same name presents the player with a party of five filmmakers exploring an old mansion full of ghouls, ghosts, and specters. There’s just one objective: Escape with your life. 

To do this, players find items to place in their limited inventory and solve puzzles throughout the mansion while fighting or avoiding creatures of the dark. One wrong play and a party member can permanently bite the dust, leaving one less member to help on the journey out. This game is cited as one of the first to tell a long horror story and does so with diary pages found throughout the game.

Evil is born

If a lot of these details sound familiar, it’s because many of Sweet Home’s features were direct inspiration for what would become the king of horror games, 1996’s Resident Evil, which was originally meant to be a Sweet Home remake for a new generation.

All the glory for inspiring the groundbreaking Resident Evil series can’t be credited to Sweet Home however. There are also EA’s Project Firestart and Infogrames’ Alone in the Dark. These games further fleshed out classic survival horror tropes. Features like full-on storytelling, dynamic music, limited ammo that barely fazes hard-to-kill monsters, pre-rendered backgrounds, and a simple human main character are all here. And no one can forget 1995’s Clock Tower, which introduced the world to Scissorman, as well as more stealth elements in the genre, and pushed the idea of multiple endings, which was also showcased in Sweet Home and 1993’s Splatterhouse 3.

Finally, in 1996 the king took to his throne and Resident Evil hit shelves everywhere, coining the term survival horror. New genre elements were all brought together, with multiple pathways, various endings, a mansion setting, optional character deaths, diary entry-driven stories, puzzles, optional enemy encounters, limited ammo, pre-rendered backgrounds, and so much more being put together into one amazing Jill sandwich

So with so much taken from other games, what did Resident Evil bring to the genre? The tank control scheme, which has grown to be a horror staple seen in many Resident Evil clones that followed. Those games brought the world into a new age of digital horror — an age that birthed many bold titles of the horror genre and rebirthed others into juggernauts as well.

Terror evolved

After Resident Evil, there were titles like Square Enix’s Parasite Eve and the Dreamcast exclusive beat ‘em up/shooter/horror mash-up Blue Stinger. Notable among the various Resident Evil-inspired titles was 1996’s Corpse Party. This indie horror title invited players into the world of psychological fear. The game stepped away from the typical Western B-movie horror that many of these games favored and took an approach more inspired by Japanese film. 

This style was taken even further with 1999’s Silent Hill, which put atmosphere before everything, with its strongest asset being its screen-obscuring fog and dark narrative. Its Japanese horror influence brought rise to series like Fatal Frame, another unique horror game that involved taking photos of ghosts. 

The Western market took a stab at the horror genre as well. Games like The Thing and Doom gave a new take on fear. Once again, the genre returned to what Splatterhouse brought to the table, as the American entries in the survival-horror genre had a heavy emphasis on action and being able to fight opposing forces head-on. This caught on with Japanese markets as well when Resident Evil 4 changed the genre by putting an emphasis on action.

No one could miss Resident Evil 4 and how it was changing the genre when it released. Suddenly, survival horror meant you could gun down creatures as long as your inventory was right. You were no longer helpless. Other titles followed in its bloody footsteps, like 2008’s Alone in the Dark. Many saw the genre becoming less horror and more action until F.E.A.R and Dead Space released in 2005 and 2008 respectively, showing that cinematic action and true horror could still play together and deliver a scary product.

Modern fear

The following years saw the genre continuing in that action vein until the indie scene started returning the genre to its roots in the 2010s. True survival-horror games like Amnesia, Slender, and Nightfall threw aside action-packed gore and took the John Carpenter Halloween approach by focusing on atmosphere and fear of the mind’s eye. This was also seen with 2014’s Five Nights at Freddy’s, the current lord of indie-horror franchises.

That same year would also be when the genre saw another massive innovation with the release of Konami’s canceled Silent Hill project, a playable trailer for a future title that fans dubbed P.T. The demo introduced the world to another evolution of the genre, taking elements from classic Japanese horror, mixing them with the first-person nature of games like Slender, and giving them the production value of a AAA Western title — with Hollywood star Norman Reedus in the starring role to boot. Even with the title canceled shortly after the demo’s release, PT was memorable enough to change the horror gaming world immediately. Its formula was even used in Resident Evil 7, a title that brought the series back to its roots and its throne. Even the founding forefathers of video game horror are still influenced by their peers.

Now we’re back where we started with the Resident Evil series being the star of horror innovation and others following behind. Other subgenres have taken rise throughout the years, such as the multiplayer horror genre as seen in Nightmare on Elm Street, Left 4 Dead, and Back 4 Blood.

Like any genre, horror is always evolving, and I can’t wait to see how developers will find the next way to make us scream.

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