With Halloween right around the corner and fright-filled games like Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs and Outlast lurking on store shelves, we here at Extra Life thought it would be a great opportunity to delve into the origins of video game horror and get some insight into how the genre has evolved.
Though people debate over what exactly constitutes the very first horror game, the earliest one argued for is Mystery House, an Apple II adventure game from 1980. The title was one of the first adventure games to feature graphics and was the first game created by Roberta Williams, who later went on to make the long-running King’s Quest series. Mystery House locked players in an old, Victorian mansion with several other people and a murderer on the loose. The player must figure out the identity of the psychopath before he or she is the last victim. In what became a trend for following games attempting creepy atmosphere and visuals, the story was based on a pre-existing property, in this case Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.
The other game most often credited as one of the first games designed to scare players was Haunted House (where are people finding all of these scary houses?) released for the Atari 2600 in 1982. Due to the limitations of the system, the game didn’t look like much with pixels roughly the size of fists. The player, represented by a pair of eyeballs, has entered a haunted house to retrieve pieces of an urn that belonged to the late Zachary Graves. Spooky things like spiders, bats, and ghosts hid around the house and had to be avoided at all costs. The unnerving mechanic which separated this title from others of the time consisted of the character’s use of matches as a light source. The matches gave vision for a few seconds before they would go out or whenever an enemy entered the same screen as the player. This gave Haunted House a feeling of tension and suspense as you never knew when you might be in danger.
Over the following years, there was a period of games which, though they drew heavily on horror imagery, weren’t necessarily horror games in the true sense. Many of them were simply cash-ins on famous movies, going for shock value with depictions of violence that hadn’t been seen in video games at that point (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, The Evil Dead). Other attempts at horror games during this time were adventure games attempting to capitalize on famous horror properties like Dracula, Jack the Ripper, Frankenstein, and Wolfman. One of the few original games to attempt horror between 1982 and 1989 was the 1986 arcade light-gun shooter called Chiller which places players in the role of a torturer with the goal of torturing people in the most efficient and gruesome manner possible. The game ended up being less horror and more horrible, falling into the same camp as the movie cash-ins going for shock rather than substantial scares. The game wasn’t widely known due to how few arcades were willing to host the cabinets on their premises due to its distasteful content. People can debate the first “real” horror game prior to 1989, but that year the genre undeniably solidified around two video games: Project Firestart in the West and Sweet Home in Japan.
Project Firestart hit the Commodore 64 toward the end of the console’s lifespan after a long and troubled development process in the hands of Dynamix. In an effort to create durable laborers to work in space mines, the nations of Earth began dabbling with genetic engineering. What could possibly go wrong? When the research space station in charge of safely producing space mining monsters stops responding, it becomes the player’s job to find out why. Upon reaching the station, it basically becomes a side-scrolling Dead Space, almost 20 years before Dead Space was a twinkle in the eyes of its development team. The player is tasked with figuring out what went wrong on the station and search for survivors. Firestart introduced numerous concepts such as limited ammo, terrifyingly strong enemies, and journal entries that fleshed out the events and world; ideas still present in many games of the horror genre today.
The Japan-only Sweet Home released in late 1989 for the Famicom as a spin-off of a movie of the same name. Rather than being an attempt to milk money out of the relative success of the film, the game attempted to be a genuinely unnerving game. Following the plot of the film, Sweet Home begins with five people arriving at the Mamiya mansion to recover valuable paintings that had been left there by its previous owners. Upon entering, they become trapped by a malevolent spirit and must battle their way through ghosts and monsters to find an exit without being crushed by the crumbling building. Each character has a special ability or item that helps traverse the environment or aids in the random battles. Each character also could be permanently killed and there were five different endings depending on how many people survived their ordeal in the mansion. Additionally, each character had a very limited inventory to carry items for combat or puzzle solving, creepy journal entries were scattered around to flesh out the story of mansion, and the narrative was certainly creepy and unexpectedly dark for a game at that time. For the next few years the genre wouldn’t see any development outside of more video game adaptations of horror films like Clive Barker’s Hellraiser and A Nightmare on Elm Street. However, in 1992 Alone in The Dark became the first widely successful horror game, exploding the genre out of its niche.
Developed by Infogrames (that isn’t a typo) and released on PC, Alone in The Dark was the first 3D horror game. It added its own innovations to the horror formula through the addition of “tank controls,” false audio cues to alert players to non-existent danger, and dramatic fixed camera angles. Infogrames understood that having elements of unpredictability could toy with players’ expectations to effectively deliver scares. The story, from either the perspective of a private investigator or an inquisitive niece, was also fittingly dark dealing with death, hangings, and other gruesome monsters. After entering the old Derceto Mansion to investigate a recent suicide, the player becomes trapped and evil begins to manifest throughout the mansion. Gameplay focused on solving puzzles and managing limited inventory space, as well as some light combat elements. After clearing a portion of the mansion, the entire mansion became open for exploration leading to an unnerving sense of freedom as enemies stalked the building.
After the success of Alone in The Dark, the video game industry began to realize that some players actually wanted to be scared by their games. What followed could be seen as the blossoming of the horror genre, a growth that included memorable successes, forgotten gems, and many hilarious failures.