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An Alternate History of Horror XVII: Press Any Button

By Ryan Fleming.

Zombie Hunters in New Orleans.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The feeling of fear in horror fiction is usually felt vicariously. We, the reader, are not ignoring the warnings of Transylvanian peasants about going up to that castle after sundown. We, the listener, are not investigating the blood-curdling cry that has come from a locked room in our new home. We, the viewer, are not tripping over a tree root whilst trying to escape a masked killer in the woods. These things happen on screen, over the air, and on the page to other people.

That would change in the final decade of the 20th Century, when a relatively new medium was able to put people into the perspective of those under threat from whatever danger lurked behind closed doors.

Horror video games had been around since the 1980s, and arguably earlier, but the 1990s saw a number of titles that caused the genre to surge in popularity on the latest medium for fiction. Some series started in that decade are still releasing new entries into the 2020s.

Survival horror is the term used for most horror video games, though these only comprise one aspect (albeit a very large one) of the genre’s offerings for gamers. It also dates horror’s appearance in video games to the 1990s, excluding many titles released during the 1980s. There are even those that would argue that the genre-defining Space Invaders (1978) as an example of a horror video game. You don’t win; all you can do is survive as long as you can.

A survival horror video game? It's as realistic and life-like as some. And the acting is better than in some films.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Horror and games have a history long before video games were even invented. The Ouija was known as a parlour game by 19th Century Americans before it became a tool of Spiritualists from the First World War onward. It was later commercialised in the 1960s by Parker Brothers around the same time as Transogram released Green Ghost, marketed as the first glow-in-the-dark game. The Cthulhu Mythos made it into Dungeons & Dragons in 1980, the year before it got its own role-playing game in Call of Cthulhu. It was the 1980s that also saw the first true horror video games.

Many of the earliest horror video games lacked the capabilities to truly convey horror on-screen. Not that this stopped stores from refusing to stock The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween (both 1983 and based on the earlier films of the same names) for the Atari 2600 and forcing publisher Wizard Video out of the video game market. The Atari 2600 had also seen Haunted House (1982), developed by Atari themselves, which saw the player, represented by a floating pair of eyes, scour the rooms of a haunted house for pieces of a magic urn. It became a bestseller and positive reviews on its original release, and it is possible that without the video game crash of 1983 that Atari might have released similar games in the future.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Sinclair ZX81 users already had 3D Monster Maze (1981), which was also a massive success. Thanks to its atmosphere of dread in putting the player in a maze with a total of one (1) exit and one (1) Tyrannosaurus rex that will eat the player should their paths cross, it often gains plaudits even from modern reviewers as the first survival horror game. When designer Malcolm Evans found he was to lose his job as a microprocessor scientist, he founded New Generation Software, which continued to publish games for the Spectrum, including the well-received Trashman (1984).

Whilst the 1983 video game crash may have stalled development on the home console front in North America, arcade games remained popular both there and in Japan. It was there that Capcom first released Ghosts ‘n Goblins in July 1985. A platform game using horror trappings, it would become a bestseller in Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Its reception has grown in the years since, to the point where it is usually considered one of the greatest video games of all time.

Ghosts 'n Goblins. The horror is, of course, in that 'n.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Far less successful was Exidy’s Chiller (1986), whose content of torturing characters saw most arcade owners refuse to ever purchase it. However, it was only the first two levels of the game that featured the torture chamber aspect, and subsequent levels become a more straightforward light gun shooter killing paranormal monsters. Had this been the full content of the game without the torture aspect, then it’s possible the game might have managed some level of success.

Splatterhouse (1988), from Namco, was also famous for its violence, but the cartoonish violence of the beat-‘em-up game actually made it a marketing strength. The over-the-top violence was inspired by American horror films of the day, including the likes of Friday the 13th (1980), Re-Animator (1985), and Evil Dead II (1987). That they could get away with a hockey-masked, machete-wielding figure on the cover speaks of a time when perhaps film studios were too embarrassed to level copyright injunctions over their more unpretentious intellectual property.

Aliens (1986) would receive a Splatterhouse-esque arcade adaptation in 1990. That first foray into video games for that franchise came all the way back in 1981 on the PC-6001 with Nostromo, from the ASCII Corporation. The films loomed large over titles like Project Firestart (1989) on the Commodore 64, which ironically featured in its narrative a spacecraft called Prometheus, which would go on to become the title to Ridley Scott’s 2012 prequel to Alien (1979). Like Splatterhouse, had the owners of the film franchise been more litigious, it’s possible that both developer Dynamix and publisher Electronic Arts may have landed in some trouble.

Konami would use horror tropes in the platformer Castlevania (1986), released for home consoles, like Project Firestart, and is another counted amongst the greatest video games ever made.

Far less successful was the video game adaptation of Friday the 13th (1989) on the Nintendo Entertainment System, which is counted by some as being amongst the worst video games of all time. Publisher LJN fared little better with its 1990 adaptation of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), also on Nintendo. The controversies over prior horror titles were nothing when compared to Night Trap (1992). That game was first published on the Sega CD, an add on for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, and alongside Mortal Kombat (1992) was a major subject of debate in a 1993 United States Senate hearing on violence in video games. More of an interactive film than a video game, it made use of full-motion videos, and joins LJN’s Friday the 13th as a video game cited as one of the worst.

It is possible that the United States might have seen its own equivalent of the UK’s video nasties debacle in the 1990s, only over video games rather than films on home video. Retailers like Toys “R” Us pulled Night Trap from shelves when it was accused of promoting gratuitous violence and sexual aggression. In our history, the hearings led to the US video game industry eventually creating the Entertainment Software Ratings Board in 1994. This could easily have been a video game equivalent of the Comics Code Authority had the hearings gone worse, with Nintendo filling the role played by Archie and DC Comics in the 1950s. Could the hearings have gone worse? Chiller was perhaps too obscure to be a major focus, but if someone had gotten a hold of its home console bootleg for the hearings, it might have been a different matter.

As it happened, video games nasties and the Video Game Code Authority never came to pass. In fact, the 1990s proved to be a boom period for horror video games. The game changer was Alone in the Dark (1992), originally published for MS-DOS, and commonly sited as the first true survival horror game. It put much more of an emphasis on survival over combat compared with the successful arcade titles of the 1980s. A fixed camera angle system was used to get around some technical limitations and would go on to be a hallmark of the 1990s survival horror games.

The development taken by Capcom’s Resident Evil (1996) (or Bio Hazard as it was called in its native Japan) was one of the twists and turns. It began life as a remake of Tokuro Fujiwara’s 1989 Nintendo game Sweet Home, a role-playing game based on the horror film of the same name released that same year. It was originally due to be released on the Super Nintendo in 1993, then as a first person game for the PlayStation, and finally the third-person game for that same console. Had any of those alternate paths been taken, then the eventual game might not have the success it did, becoming the best-selling PlayStation game to that time, commonly seen on the lists of the best video games ever, and starting a franchise that continues to produce not only video games but also live-action films and much more three decades after its release. Director Shinji Mikami adapted several elements from Sweet Home to Resident Evil, including mechanics like inventory management based on a limited number of items, collectible epistolary elements to provide story background, and multiple endings based on how the player finished the game. Many of these would go on to become fixtures in the survival horror genre, including those games that appeared in the wake of Resident Evil’s success. Capcom would release Resident Evil 2 (1998) and Resident Evil 3: Nemesis (1999) before the end of the century. They would also release Dino Crisis (1999), again with Mikami directing, which was marketed as “panic horror” instead of the “survival horror of the Resident Evil games.

Outside of Capcom, Konami released perhaps the other watershed survivor horror title in the shape of Silent Hill (1999). It stripped out much of the action episodes of Resident Evil with its focus on an everyman player character as opposed to the law enforcement characters of the Capcom series. It also placed a far greater emphasis on atmosphere and psychological horror, completely eschewing the favoured enemies of survival horror: zombies.

The zombie as a horror element had not precisely vanished by 1996 but, on the big screen, they had devolved into comedic fodder, shambling around muttering “brains” as pioneered in The Return of the Living Dead (1985).

Comment is superfluous. The image says it all.

Picture courtesy Amazon.

Younger people in the United States no longer had a limited choice of entertainment where George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978) might be in frequent rotation. Romero himself cited Resident Evil as one of two games that brought the zombie genre to new levels of popularity in the 21st Century. Similar thoughts have been voiced by Alex Garland and Simon Pegg, writers of 28 Days Later (2002) and Shaun of the Dead (2004), respectively. It is possible that without Resident Evil, the boom in zombie horror seen in the 2000s across film (Zombieland – 2009), literature (World War Z – 2006), comics (The Walking Dead – 2003-19), television (The Walking Dead – 2010-22), and again and again in video games, would never come to pass.

Spoken of in the same breath as Resident Evil as an influence is The House of the Dead (1996), an arcade game in the light gun shooter genre that put much more of an emphasis on action than horror. That emphasis would become more common in zombie-themed video games as the 2000s continued. One unmade title from that era, City of the Dead, was to be based directly on Romero’s films and released to the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and PC in 2006. It was always planned as a first-person shooter, indicating the direction of travel for horror video games. Zombie fans in 2006 did not go wanting, as Capcom released Dead Rising that same year, originally an Xbox 360 exclusive, which put a much more tongue-in-cheek emphasis on zombies by setting the action entirely in a shopping mall. This was the same setting as Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and led to the rights owners of that film attempting legal action against Capcom, who in turn placed a warning label on the game’s box asserting no relation.

Dead Rising had at one point been mooted as a game in the Resident Evil series before the development teams began to emphasise the comedic aspects and it became its own original title. Had the connection to Resident Evil been maintained, it is possible that the series overall could have gone down a more comedic route, but it was already going down a very different path to the one set by the original games by 2006. The move to emphasise action over horror in horror video games might have been happening already.

The Thing (2002), based on John Carpenter’s 1982 film of the same name, managed to balance well the shooter and survival horror aspects, but emphasised both over just the latter. Resident Evil 4 (2005) was originally an exclusive game for the Nintendo GameCube, and like the original title, it went through various iterations. One of these was actually spun off as an original title unrelated to Resident Evil, like Dead Rising, and became Devil May Cry (2001). The hack-and-slash genre of that title represents another potential path the Resident Evil games might have taken.

The eventual Resident Evil 4, with Mikami returning to direct, abandoned the fixed camera look of the original games in favour of an over-the-shoulder third-person view. This view has become a standard one in many action games from Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009) to Gears of War (2006) to Grand Theft Auto IV (2008) to Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (2007).

As further Resident Evil sequels continued to emphasise action over horror, the zombie became a fixture of action and adventure games in general. Left 4 Dead (2008) and its sequels kept the Romero-inspired zombie apocalypse trappings but went for a full first-person shooter experience. Dead Space (2008) and its sequels added a science fiction bent to its zombies, using gameplay similar to Resident Evil 4.

Popular franchises would add zombie elements to their spinoffs and downloadable content, such as Call of Duty: World at War (2008) and Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare (2010). It brought horror elements in video games to more players than ever before, but rarely bringing those players to horror video games. However, like any good horror monster, even death could not not stop horror video games in the end.

The Last of Us (2013) used horror elements to inform its post-apocalyptic setting and would go on to draw widespread critical acclaim and become a best-seller. Its emphasis on narrative as well as, and sometimes over, gameplay would make it a landmark title in video game history. Part of that emphasis was to make its player characters more vulnerable; gone was the infinite ammunition and weapons of later titles – the emphasis was on surviving. In a way, it took things back to the original survival horror games of the 1990s, but without ever being called a survival horror. The proof was there, however, that maybe gamers were ready to be scared again.

Even as The Last of Us was hitting shelves, the indie title Outlast (2013) sought to put the emphasis firmly back on survival horror. The player character would be entirely unable to attack enemies and would have to rely on stealth tactics to last the night in an abandoned psychiatric hospital.

Shinji Mikami would return to the genre he made famous with The Evil Within (2014), giving in to market demands despite his hesitance in making another game. Once on board, he also sought to take the genre back to its roots, feeling more recent titles had placed more emphasis on action than survival. Both Outlast and The Evil Within would receive positive reviews and sequels.

Major franchises also took note of the revived interest. In the aftermath of the disastrous release of the long-awaited first-person shooter Aliens: Colonial Marines (2013), Sega would publish Alien: Isolation (2014). Most video game spin-offs of that film series had been more influenced by the action-packed Aliens (1986) than the original Alien (1979). Isolation’s emphasis on horror necessitated a change in the franchise title. However, reception of Colonial Marines had been so negative it may have harmed sales of Isolation, with Sega itself claiming that sales were weak. No sequel was forthcoming.

Konami also took note of the renewed interest in survival horror and began to look at reviving their Silent Hill franchise, a playable trailer released as P.T. (2014) eventually revealed a new title called Silent Hills to be directed by Hideo Kojima (of Metal Gear Solid fame) and filmmaker Guillermo del Toro with the player character played by Norman Reedus. Kojima’s eventual exit from Konami prompted cancellation of the game by the publisher, and P.T. remains a most tantalising glimpse of what fans could have enjoyed.

Perhaps the greatest indicator of a survival horror revival was Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (2017), which simultaneously evolved the franchise in a new direction and took it back to its roots. The perspective was changed to first person, but the emphasis was firmly on horror over action.

The 2010s also saw horror video games move into gameplay styles beyond survival horror. Until Dawn (2015) was developed by Supermassive Games and the intention was to create a slasher film as a video game. It took the form of an interactive drama with a great emphasis placed on the consequences of the player’s choices via a butterfly effect system. All playable characters could live or die based on the choices the player made. In some respects, it was reminiscent of a Choose Your Own Adventure book made video game. It boasted notable actors including Hayden Panettiere, Peter Stormare, and future Academy Award winner and Bond villain Rami Malek.

Until Dawn never saw a direct follow-up in the same style, but Supermassive Games continued to make other interactive drama games in the horror genre. Starting with 2019’s Man of Medan, Supermassive began The Dark Pictures Anthology. Taking inspiration from horror anthologies previously seen in literature, radio, film, and television, it presented a series of standalone games based on a different part of the horror genre. Man of Medan was based around a ghost ship, Little Hope (2020) on witchcraft, House of Ashes (2021) on the works of HP Lovecraft, and The Devil in Me (2022) inspired by the real-life crimes of HH Holmes.

The Dark Pictures Anthology is intended to have eight entries in total across two “seasons”. Supermassive would also release a spiritual successor to Until Dawn in the shape of The Quarry (2022), which combined elements of teen slashers and monster movies.

Teen slashers would be a popular source of inspiration for another style of horror games made popular in the 2010s: the assymetric multiplayer game. Dead by Daylight (2016) was designed to be played by five players. Four of these players are “Survivors” and the remaining player is the “Killer”. The objectives for the two classes of player should be self-explanatory. It proved popular enough that as more content was added, characters from other franchises were added as options to play as either Survivors or Killers. Film franchises like Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Saw; television series like Stranger Things; other horror video game series like Resident Evil and Silent Hill.

Some franchises saw the potential in such games and decided to launch their own titles. These included Friday the 13th: The Game (2017), which took the concept and used it based on various elements from the film series of the same name. That game part of a protracted rights lawsuit between Sean S Cunningham, director of the first film and producer of subsequent entries, and Victor Miller, screenwriter of the first film only. Despite the concept of Jason Voorhees as Killer only begun with the second, Miller remains credited for creating the characters. Its game servers were shut down in 2020, delisted at the end of 2023, and may not even function normally for those that already own it past 2024. The developers remarked that it would be bad business to keep developing content for a game that may never see release.

Other franchises have entered the asymmetrical survival horror market including Evil Dead: The Game (2022) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2023). The latter was from the same publisher as Friday the 13th; this time they secured the rights from the screenwriter to the first and could not use material pulled from subsequent films.

Between survival horror, interactive horror dramas, and asymmetrical multilayer games, video game horror fans have a lot to choose from in the 2020s compared with just different flavours of killing zombies from a decade prior.

Horror video games have undergone a lot of evolution in the four decades they have been published. From the early horror trappings in other video game genres to controversial releases to the boom in survival horror to popularising zombies to the diversity of styles we now have. Once horror had settled into video games, it became tailored to the most effective way to feel fear within the medium. Much as the genre developed new tactics as it moved from literature to film to radio to television.

During the original 1990s boom in survival horror video games, most titles were developed in Japan, as were a large share of video games overall, then as now. Video games were not the only medium into which Japan made forays worldwide in the horror genre during the 1990s. The end of the decade also saw a rise in interest in Japanese horror films in the West, which also brought attention to horror films made in other East Asian nations such as South Korea and Hong Kong. These films will be the subject of our next article.

Whilst fans can revisit horror in literature, film television, radio, and comic books with some measure of ease, the same cannot be said of horror video games. This is a problem that goes beyond the horror genre, of course. Fewer and fewer historic video games are readily available as hardware becomes outdated, and each time a video game is remade, it is a shiny new version to look like the latest graphical capabilities. If the horror genre had suffered a controversy in video games on the level of the video nasties panic, would any of the titles before whenever restrictions loosened be avaible for play today?

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Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP.

There is also SLP’s own Horror anthology, Travellers in an Antique Land (edited Katherine Foy).

SFP has an anthology of ghost (and similar) stories, Ghost Written.


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