Just in time for Halloween, Steven Balbirnie charts the rise, fall, and rebirth of the horror genre
Videogames are perhaps the medium best suited to the horror genre as giving the audience agency brings the fear closer to home. With horror games being such an established component of the industry today, it is surprising to consider their almost incidental origins.
Arguably, the genre originated with Capcom’s 1989 title Sweet Home, which was a tie-in for a Japanese horror film of the same name directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. It was designed as an RPG, though it featured elements that would form the core of survival horror, such as puzzles and health and inventory management. The key significance of Sweet Home, however, is that it led to the creation of the most influential survival horror game ever made, 1996’s Resident Evil.
Resident Evil had originally been planned as a 3D remake of Sweet Home, but during the development cycle it mutated into a nightmarish title in its own right, thus launching a series that would forever change the games industry.
The creepy Spencer Mansion, made difficult to navigate by devilish puzzles and fixed camera angles, was populated by horrific monsters who were notoriously difficult to kill due to tricky controls and the need to conserve ammunition. This set the trend for much of what has followed.
The next major leap came three years later, when Konami took Capcom’s formula for survival horror and kicked it up a notch to create Silent Hill. This represented the first psychological horror game, which also drew inspiration from the 1990 film Jacob’s Ladder.
Set in a town that mirrors the inner fears and torments of those who pass through it, the Silent Hill series brought a new and even more unsettling edge to the genre through its use of Freudian and Jungian psychological tropes, typified by Silent Hill 2’s infamous antagonist, Pyramid Head.
The 2009 title Silent Hill: Shattered Memories took matters even further by psychologically profiling the player and tailoring the game experience accordingly. The 2002 GameCube game, Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, also broke new ground by including insanity effects that would represent the deteriorating mental state of the protagonist. Some of these tropes would even break the fourth wall such as a false message to the player stating that their memory card had become corrupted.
In the same way that survival horror was an offshoot of RPGs, action horror was an offshoot of the FPS; the first action horror being id Software’s Doom, released in 1993, with its brooding atmosphere and demonic imagery. This subsequently spawned a larger genre, most notably including 2005’s F.E.A.R. and the Dead Space series.
Resident Evil 4 marked the perfect hybrid of survival horror and action horror, but, while a triumph in its own right, its unfortunate legacy has been that its success led to the degeneration of mainstream horror into action titles increasingly devoid of the survival and psychological elements that had defined them for over a decade.
While mainstream titles have seen a decline in recent years, with Resident Evil 6 and Dead Space 3 performing notably poorly, attention has instead turned to the flourishing indie horror scene. Garnering critical acclaim and in some cases commercial success, titles developed by small teams such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the Slender games and Outlast have resurrected the genre.
Rather than evolving the horror genre however, these new independent titles are actually returning horror games to the roots that mainstream developers have strayed so much from. The modern focus on atmosphere, sound design and player vulnerability all trace their origins back to games from the 1990s.
The Lovecraftian charms of Penumbra and Amnesia hark back to 1992’s Alone in the Dark and 1996’s Quake; demonstrating that if there is one influence that has been at the core of the genre from its inception to the current day, it has been the mythos created by H.P. Lovecraft through his literary works.
The atmosphere and sumptuous sound design of Amnesia and the audio distortion of Slender were foreshadowed by the incredible audio work that Akira Yamaoka pioneered in the Silent Hill series, with sirens and white noise being used to terrifying effect, creating an environment in which often what you could hear was far more horrifying than anything you could see.
Player vulnerability is also key to modern horror, in which many titles don’t allow the player to defend themselves; running and hiding are the only options. This is hardly new, as 1995’s Clock Tower saw the player powerless to do anything other than flee from the game’s antagonist, Scissorman, and pray that they weren’t found and eviscerated with a giant pair of shears.
Scissorman was the original stalker character whose horror legacy was notably continued by Nemesis in Resident Evil 3 and has now manifested itself in the forms of the abominations roaming Castle Brennenburg and Mount Massive Asylum. These characters conform to a genre trope which mainstream action horror has so carelessly neutered.
With the vast gulf between the triple A and indie horror sections of the industry exemplifying the genre’s mixed fortunes of late, much attention has turned to The Evil Within, which is due for release next year.
Helmed by legendary horror maestro Shinji Mikami, the visionary behind Resident Evil 1, 2 and 4, The Evil Within’s aim of revitalising the moribund survival horror genre has raised hopes within the community. Only time will tell if Mikami can return to greatness the genre, which his work did so much to define.