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A Brief History of Horror - Part 2


Jack Gardner

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In part one, we looked at the early era of bone-chilling games, ending with an overview of the first commercially successful horror title, Alone in The Dark. In this second installment, we’ll look at the frightful legacy left behind by the pioneers of video game scares. With 1992’s Alone in The Dark, Infrogames had unintentionally opened a Pandora’s Box; as copies of the floppies flew off the shelves, publishers began to see the potential profitability of horror games. More game makers than ever before began trying to scare their audiences.

 

The same year Alone in the Dark hit shelves, the lesser-known Dark Seed made waves in the fledgling video game horror community by releasing with art design by H.R. Geiger, the artist best known for his work creating the monster from Alien. At Geiger’s insistence, the title was among the first to feature high-resolution (for the time) graphics at 640x400. A point-and-click adventure game, Dark Seed placed players in the role of Mike Dawson, proud owner of an old, creepy mansion (notice a pattern of creepy old houses, yet?). By the time the credits roll, alien embryos have been implanted, parallel universes have been discovered, and creepy images have taken hold in your memory, never to leave. Dark Seed released on Amiga and DOS systems and was later ported to the Amiga CD and Mac, while Japan received Saturn and PlayStation ports. The game was relatively well received at the time, despite stability issues and the difficulty of the title. Due to the massive popularity of Alone in the Dark, Dark Seed’s release has largely been overshadowed and many gamers remain unaware of the title’s existence.

 

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The 7th Guest by Trilobyte was released 1993 to a storm of press and popularity. Trilobyte created a game full of adult-oriented content, FMV cutscenes, puzzles, and pre-rendered 3D graphics. The game was so large that it became one of the first games to be released only on CD rather than floppy disk. The unprecedented amount of graphical innovations led to attention from the public, which translated into more than two million copies being sold. In Mark Wolf’s book, The Video Game Explosion: A History from PONG to PlayStation and Beyond, Wolf quotes Bill Gates saying that The 7th Guest was a “new standard in interactive entertainment.” In 1993, Mr. Gates was certainly not overstating the truth, and the game still has appeal today. To date, The 7th Guest and its sequels have seen a re-release on PC, Mac, and the iOS app store.

 

In 1995, Roberta Williams, creator of Mystery House and the King’s Quest series, produced another frightful adventure game with Sierra On-Line called Phantasmagoria. Phantasmagoria billed itself as a psychological horror point-and-click adventure game. The tagline on the box, “Pray it’s only a nightmare,” indicates that at this point the video game industry had fully embraced the notion of instilling fear into its products. Surprisingly, the plot didn't revolve around a creepy mansio- Okay, I’m lying, the plot totally revolves around a creepy mansion. Phantasmagoria’s story centered around Adrienne Delaney and her husband Don who move into an isolated old mansion previously owned by a wizard with a rather dubious reputation. What follows Adrienne and Don’s poor choice of abode is an evil tale of murder, violence, and devilry. Phantasmagoria was incredibly successful, despite being some retailers refusing to carry it and an outright ban in Australia, becoming one of the best-selling games of the 1995.

 

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Fun fact: Phantasmagoria made use of full-motion video and was the first game to use a live actress as an in-game avatar. The vast amounts of data created by the video files forced the game to be released on seven discs.

 

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While Roberta Williams was leading the reign of terror in the American markets of 1995, half a world away Clock Tower was making waves in Japan on the Super Famicom. Clock Tower follows the life of Jennifer Simpson, a newly adopted orphan who is brought to live with the mysterious Barrows family and the events that unfold when she arrives at their home. Clock Tower was designed to be a point-and-click adventure title, albeit with controls simplified for a wired gamepad rather than a keyboard. While very similar to traditional adventure games, what set Clock Tower apart was the method developer Human Entertainment used to instill fear into players. While players navigate the environment (spoiler: the environment happens to be a creepy mansion) and solve puzzles, there is the ever present threat of death in the form of a murderous boy dubbed the Scissorman. The Scissorman appears at both randomly and at predetermined times, robbing players of a sense of safety and control. Clock Tower also lacks any meaningful combat, meaning that if Scissorman is encountered by the player the only recourse is to run and hide. The creepy edge this gives to the horror imagery found in Clock Tower cannot be overstated.

 

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1995 was the year of the horror adventure game with a third highly influential title coming onto the scene courtesy of developer The Dreamers Guild titled, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. Possibly one of the most mature looks at disturbing and uncomfortable subject matter to be found in video games, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream is a science-fiction horror game set in a future version of Earth controlled by a super computer known as AM, who has eradicated all human life on the planet with the exception of five unfortunate souls whom the machine has kept alive to torture indefinitely. After 109 years of torture, AM decides that each human must undergo trials that prey on the captive’s deepest fears. The game unflinchingly deals with numerous difficult issues like insanity and genocide, but does so in a manner that is meant to make people think about the issues rather than exploit them for easy emotional payoffs. I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream is a difficult game that is certainly not for everyone, but it is also one that I would recommend to gamers who believe that games can have important things to say on difficult subjects.

 

You might notice a similarity between many of the horror games released leading up to 1996, they were all point-and-click horror adventure titles. Though many of these titles were great, developers were beginning to look for more interesting gameplay mechanics and new ways to scare their rapidly growing audience. Sweet Home on the NES might not be well remembered by Western audiences because it was never officially released in the West and Alone in the Dark is mostly recalled these days for the terrible 2007 Uwe Boll film and the mediocre 2008 video game rather than the series point-and-click roots, but the influence of both titles was definitely felt in the game that coined the term survival horror and launched it into the public consciousness of both East and West: Resident Evil.

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