The history of the horror game is almost as old as the video game industry itself. For decades players have bought millions of copies of games that spooked, shocked, startled, and just plain scared them. However, few genres have become as splintered as the horror genre. Players these days may find themselves confused at just what is out there and what play style might fit them best. In light of the recent return to form of the genre with the release of The Evil Within, let's examine the myriad of subgenres that descend from horror.
This is where it all started. The first game considered to be both of the horror genre and the survival horror sub-genre of games was the 1982 Atari 2600 release Haunted House. The game was crude, but the exploration and the fear of the unknown was there as well as the hallmark of limited item usage. Survival horror would hit the mainstream and get its official name with the 1996 release of Capcom's Resident Evil. This game would popularize the horror game the world over, with its lonely mansion and terror lurking around every corner, as well as its hallmark zombie enemies, Resident Evil would go on to spawn a plethora of sequels and copycats.
Konami's Silent Hill, which released in 1999, would take a similar approach to Resident Evil in gameplay style, but the fear in Silent Hill was more focused on the surreal and supernatural. With the release of Silent Hill, survival horror was truly in its golden age. However, as time went on, and more powerful consoles allowed for faster paced games, players became frustrated with the relatively slow pace and unwieldy controls of traditional survival horror games. The 2005 release of Resident Evil 4 brought a redefined gameplay doctrine to survival horror, with a new emphasis on action and gunplay. While Resident Evil 4 is considered by many to be the swan song of the original generation of survival horror, many also find that the gameplay style it introduced helped fuel the decline of the survival horror genre.
Third-Person Action Horror
While using the traditional viewpoint of the survival horror genre, this game type steers more towards a moderation between action and horror and tends to sacrifice its horror elements for smoother gameplay. Shades of these actions can be seen quite clearly in games like Dead Space, where some elements of survival horror, such as ammo and item management or “unkillable” enemies are replaced by bigger, more powerful weapons and tools with that gamers use to dispatch the hulking enemies the game constantly throws at them.
Unlike the later Resident Evil games, however, there’s no pretense that these games are rooted in “classic” survival or anything of the sort. They’re simply blockbusters tinged with aliens, mutants, and other creatures that go bump in the night. Players can expect much more physical interaction with the environment such as platforming sections and moving or destroying sections of the background to continue progression through the game. These games typically don’t emphasize limited item usage and feature many more enemies and weapons in which to defeat them. Games such as Blue Stinger, Nightmare Creatures, Dead Rising, and Manhunt fall under this category.
This genre eschews the formula of the survival horror genre almost entirely in an attempt to overwhelm players, not by subtle loneliness or the macabre, but by sheer numbers of supernatural enemies. The classic 1993 first-person-shooter DOOM is one of the first games to exhibit this gameplay style. Although players will almost never run out of items, the sheer number of enemies will tax the player’s abilities and there will always be the threat of being overrun. This genre proved to be very popular and spawned a host of classic games including the DOOM, the F.E.A.R., Resistance, and the Metro series.
On the other hand, over the last few years we’ve seen a surge of games like Left 4 Dead and Killing Floor, cooperative shooters that force you to rely on your partners in order to succeed. For instance, you may find yourself pinned down by a Hunter, an enemy in Left 4 Dead that immobilizes you with its long, sticky tongue until another player eliminates it. Your health is sapped and if you happen to be killed, you’ll be stuck in a closet until another player lets you out. There’s something to be said about being forced to rely on other human players to ensure your survival, and that’s part of what makes this particular subset of games so terrifying at times.
This sub-genre takes the direct opposite approach of the Shooter Horror games and completely embraces the horror aspect in its gameplay. These games typically feature enemies that players have little or no defense against except for running and hiding. These games can tend to be more frustrating than the others in the horror genre, as they tend to be packed with instant deaths and constant restarts, but the reward of beating these powerful enemies and solving their mysteries keeps players clamoring for more. The most popular games in this subset are the Penumbra and Amnesia series, Slender: The Arrival, Outlast, SCP: Containment Breach, and most recently Alien: Isolation.
Japanese Folklore Horror
There is a whole world of games that are based on traditional Japanese folklore, or ideas that Eastern game-makers find horrifying in their own culture. The idea of being “spirited away,” or whisked away to another dimension by a spirit, is an enormous influence on these games, and demons like the “oni” are prominent in these tales. Games like Fatal Frame, Siren, Ku-on, Rule of Rose, and Clock Tower, focus on a tales of children and loved ones betrayed raising from beyond the grave to torment those caused or did not prevent their passing.
The Japanese Folklore games tend to focus more on the surreal, and interpersonal connections between human beings than other horror games. For instance, Fatal Frame features deeply personal narratives that involve the hopes and dreams of its protagonists, or the bonds between sisters and family. In Fatal Frame 3: The Tormented, playable character Rei Kurosawa finds herself dealing with a cursed tattoo that begins to engulf her body, which even borders into body horror territory. It’s a surreal type of nightmare, and the kind of thing you only tend to read about -- surely not the sort of thing that should happen to a normal person. These games deal in this type of horror quite often, and that’s part of what makes them so psychologically imposing.
The End... Or Is It?
While it seems as though every horror game out there is a bit different, in the end you can begin to tie them all back to similar roots and goals--especially the modern titles we're seeing cropping up today. In the future, it's quite possible we're about to see an influx of a new genre: virtual reality horror. It's already been established, but it needs time to grow and blossom into something on its own. Just as the landscape of video game technology evolves, so will the types of games we’ll see. And if games like the Oculus Rift’s Dreadhalls or Caffeine are to be believed, we’re in for a very bright… or dark future.
Look at you, hacker. Brittany is fueled by horror, rainbow-sugar-pixel-rushes, and video games. Until her dying breath she'll be wielding a BFG made entirely of killer drive and ambition. Check out her work at PfhorTheWin.com. Like a fabulous shooter once said, get psyched!
Brittany Vincent posted a new article, More Than Survival: The Five Faces of Horror Gaming
Good read. Horror is by far my favorite genre. Can't wait to play Alien: Isolation this Christmas.
Yeah, this was a good read. I picked up Outlast recently and am waiting until Halloween to give it a spin.
i've had outlast on my PS4 for a while. guess it's time i actually try it out
Just, uhh.... Pack lots of snacks and drinks. You're going to need them for some of those locker sessions.
Nice article, so disappointed Vampire Rain had no mention though.