Monday, 20 February 2012

Editorial : A Brief History of Horror Gaming - Part 1

A Brief History of Horror Gaming


As I write this, the second game in THE DARKNESS series is sat atop the shelves in stores worldwide. A game that utilises first person action, comic-book sensibilities and is blessed with a bucketful of glorious gore. Jimmy Stewart was right, life is indeed wonderful.

It’s been a long ride to get to where we are now in the gaming world, where old masters of the genre like Mr Carpenter come to spread their creative wings. It’s easy to sit back today with our Wide-screen TVs and our super powerful consoles and live the dream, but it was a long road.  Let's face it, we Horror fans are spoiled for choice when it comes to gaming, and that's cause for celebration, kids. In an ever changing world our love for horror is a constant, but our means of experiencing and enjoying fear and the macabre are making leaps and bounds forward, and its damned exciting. We can share the gaming experience with other fans the world over without moving from our couch, we can BE the guy behind the gun with only a few bullets left and a horde of the hungry undead hot on our heels. Hell, we can even play through the eyes of the undead ! We can band together and fight off mutants, and take on lank haired ghost girls in worlds so fully realised they make Main Street look like 24th Street, but It wasn't always this way....

As a card carrying 80's kid, I was lucky enough to have been there at the start.  I grew up with each consecutive gaming system, and watched the whole story unfold as games that today's generation would, rightly, deem so basic as to be laughable, filled our young heads with nightmares and fuelled our imaginations for endless hours. Put us in a dimly lit room with a twenty minute loading time, some monotone bleeps for a soundtrack to back up the unrecognisable graphics, and we were THERE, man!

 The magical moment when horror and video games first locked eyes, took place almost 30 years ago, when a then revolutionary gaming system known as the Magnavox Odyssey released a title called HAUNTED HOUSE (1982). It was the first game to feature all those cool things we associate with our favourite genre. Bats, ghosts, monsters and more all provided kids in the dark ages with plenty of spooky fun. Sure, there was little to be afraid of, but this was the moment that horrors Gothic sensibilities and gaming were to meet, and in the years that followed things just got better. As arcades began to grow across the globe and kids moved away from the forests and playgrounds,  and into the brightly lit wonderland of the Arcade Hall, Horror influenced games were rapidly becoming more and more popular. 1985 saw the release of GHOSTS N GOBLINS (1985), a platform based side scroller that took the world by storm, and captured the imaginations of budding genre geeks the globe over, ruining a million childhoods in one fell swoop as we wiled away the hours trying to save our princess bride from the clutches of Beelzebub himself. We battled zombies, ravens, sea monsters, gargoyles, possessed trees and much more as we made our way toward the big kahuna and our gal. It was also so damn difficult that it’s become a rite of passage for gamers nowadays to complete the thing. Soon after came SPLATTERHOUSE (1988), a controversial game for its time, as it was the first arcade scroller to rely heavily on gore and violence for its kicks. In it you played, for all intents and purposes, a Jason Voorhees clone, and spent your time smashing all comers to mush with a baseball bat, axe and machete. The parents hated the damn thing, and of course, us kids lapped it up like there was no tomorrow. Some things never change. (It was recently remade to sound fanfare and critical success among horror fans).

By 1985, home computers were already a fixture in most households, and while Dad bought you the thing for your school studies, the only thing we had in mind was to get our grubby paws on the latest arcade conversion coming down the pipe. Owners of the fabled ZX SPECTRUM, AMSTRAD and COMMODORE 64 were treated to a plethora of classic spook filled games.

ANT ATTACK 3D (1983), pit the player against swarms of giant ants in a (necessarily) sparse world. The classic ATIC ATAC (1983) combined exploration and simple avoidance tactics to create a colourful and fun experience, and in a stroke of genius, featured a rotting chicken as a health bar. The release of the 3D adventure NOSFERATU (1983) was a notable moment, and perhaps the first horror game that actually garnered fear in the player. It worked hard to put you in the mindset of the character, utilising a Gothic musical score, (as Gothic as sound could get anyway), lots of exploration in a foreboding castle, and an emphasis on atmosphere that would become, rather obviously, a key requirement in the horror games to come. FRIDAY THE 13TH THE GAME (1985) plunked players down in the heart of Camp Crystal Lake during one of Jason's killing sprees, and while it was a critical failure, mostly due to playing out as a sort of whodunit, (Jason was disguised as a camper until he attacked, don't ask me why), with little actual 'game play' involved. We loved it nonetheless. We were just stoked to have Jason on our monitors.

Later, more advanced home computers such as the COMMODORE AMIGA and the ATARI ST, blessed us with titles that came close to matching their arcade counterparts. FRIGHT NIGHT (1988) put us in the shoes of Jerry Dandridge and urged us to prey on sultry blonde's to keep the character ticking. IT CAME FROM THE DESERT (1989) placed you middle centre in the heart of a 50's atomic monster movie and blended action, adventure and puzzling to great effect. HORROR ZOMBIES FROM THE CRYPT (1990), NIGHTBREED (1990), ALIEN BREED (1991), ELVIRA (1991), DARKSEED (1992), and many more brought horror gaming front and centre, and it was with the unvieling of a hunble online shooter the following year that Horror gaming, and gaming itself, took a huge leap forward.

The release of ID's DOOM (1993) was a landmark in gaming history, and introduced the world to the first person shooter. Taking its cues from ID's own WOLFENSTIEN (1992), and transferring the action to mars, DOOM essentially put the player in the eyes of the games character, pitching them in a fully real time 3D environment battling endless waves of demonic enemies, first within a space station and in later levels, within Hell itself. The game was renowned for its tense game play, dynamic lighting, contained hostile environments and a propensity for gore and mayhem that was unheard of at the time. While released initially as shareware on the PC, the game soon found worldwide fame as gamers across the planet got their first real taste of where Horror gaming would be heading in the future. It’s perfect mix of action and scares have secured its legacy in the annals of gaming, and its influence has been felt for many years since.

While many of these earlier games were barely horror in terms of scares, the content provided us fans with a new means to enjoy our number one interest, and for many kids, these games were their introduction into the genre. It’s rare for any genre fan to have found his/her introduction through literature, but I'd bet there’s a whole hell of a lot fell in love whilst gaming. After all, most upstanding parents were monitoring their child's viewing on VHS and TV, but how many parents had any idea there perfect offspring was spending their nights blasting the hordes of hell a new ass? Few, I would think, and bless the Gods of Horror for those small favours. These things may seem small nowadays, but this was important shit to an eight or nine year old back then. Trust me.

And if we'd known what was coming next, our heads may have exploded there and then....


The dawn of the 32-bit consoles, led by Sony’s Playstation afforded developers the tools to create far more vivid worlds in which to work their magic, and saw a huge step forward in Horror gaming with the birth of 'Survival Horror'. This is where gaming and horror truly became one. The Survival Horror sub-genre utilised elements directly from horror cinema and aimed to place the player into environments and situations designed simply to scare the hell out of them. It’s the point where horror gaming became every bit as terrifying as horror cinema, and often more so. The barrier of the big screen no longer existed. The player was now, for all intents and purposes, inside the movie. There was no guarantee of safety in a happy ending. None. And it was glorious. Suddenly the possibilities seemed endless, and time has proven that this was exactly the case.

CLOCK TOWER (1995) brought the Horror goods to the next gen, yet the first game to be labelled ‘Survival Horror’, within the industry was Capcoms  Zombie epic, RESIDENT EVIL (1996). A game so absolutely committed to instilling dread in the player it was ruthless. Although Capcoms previous release, SWEET HOME (1989), was the blueprint for their masterwork, THIS was the moment when everything changed. Action and fast paced gun play was gone, as was any kind of incidental horror imagery for the sake of Gothic nuance. No, this was a fully fledged horror movie in which YOU were the star. The influence of not only horror imagery, but the essence of what made horror so powerful was implicit here. FEAR. Your character was extremely vulnerable, held limited ammo, and was trapped within a claustrophobic dimly lit environment where horror's lurked around every corner, and it was often a far better strategy to flee rather than fight. Among its myriad strengths were its atmospheric music, explicit gore,effective jump scares and a very strong plot line.

Essentially, the original RESIDENT EVIL and its immediate sequels dropped unsuspecting players inside a George Romero movie, (the great man was actually set to direct the film adaptation. One can only dream), and left you to your own devices. Sure it was extremely playable, but this was more than a game, this was the merging of many kids, and adults, dreams. Terror, gore and game play.
Of course, the title was a huge success, and as the concept of ‘Survival Horror' lit up the gaming world. Developers were keen to hop on the bandwagon and create their own brand of fear fuelled gaming. The immediate years after the release of RESIDENT EVIL saw a whole host of horror influenced titles, both good and bad, emerge on the scene. Among the best were its sequels RE2 (1998) and RE3 (1999), and Capcoms own DINO CRISIS (1999). And while many clones were sub standard, there were some that truly understood the power this new style of gaming could hold, and set about creating their own masterpieces.

The next evolutionary step in Survival Horror came with the release of Konami's SILENT HILL(1999), a game that took all the strengths that made the RESIDENT EVIL series so effective and added the element of psychological horror into the heady mix. SILENT HILL combined brutal and disturbing imagery with a surreal and disorienting atmosphere that deeply affected players on visceral and an intellectual level. The game played like an interactive nightmare. Whereas R.E was heavily influenced by western horror, SILENT HILL drew its inspiration from Eastern fright films and Art House Horror, and replaced R.E's pre-rendered static environments with real time 3D exploration.  It was a great success and its first sequel, SILENT HILL2 (2001) is still considered by many as the peak of the Survival Horror era, and one of the scariest games ever created. That same year saw the release of FATAL FRAME, which took the J-Horror influence to its logical conclusion, and remains one of the scariest video games ever developed. FATAL FRAME allowed the players to photograph spirits in an extremely foreboding oriental world, and was gifted with what many regard as the strongest writing in the genre, up till that point. Lank haired ghost girls and fleeting glimpses of shadowy spectres abound, and the unique game mechanic , ( photography forced the player to get up close and personal with a whole host of demonic entities), pushed the player into extremely claustrophobic and frightening scenarios. Its sequels expanded on this format to great effect, and Survival Horror reached its zenith. Yet traditional Survival Horror was soon to become a rarity.....


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