Art is constantly transforming and games are no different. As time marches on, the increase in processing power and graphical fidelity have taken games from squares that represented images, to allowing for all sorts of artistic and visual styles that range from the surreal to the photo realistic. One such genre that has often been at the forefront of this innovation, is horror.
The games that dared to scare
The horror genre has faced scrutiny and criticism since the earliest days of video games. Fear is a fascinating aroma and embodies a near-limitless ability to explore anything the human mind can fathom or imagine. Pushing what’s allowed as developers explored what was possible wasn’t easy either. Parents feigning concern and the other usual suspects that seemingly always appear whenever curious minds start exploring nuanced topics and asking uncomfortable questions that could inspire change.
Despite the many obstacles and hurdles over the years, horrific and thought-provoking games have survived and grown into something sinister, ominous, and exciting. And it’s because of the earlier titles in the horror genre that resulted in such a large genre with countless sub-genres and scares. Earlier haunts and frights like Night Stalker, Sweet Home, and Silent Hill helped create a foundation that would provide a haunted home to fear for years to come.
These are some of the iconic titles within the horror genre that have helped shape the genre over the years:
Haunted House (Atari 2600, 1982)
Haunted House is incredibly simple, but survival horror had to start somewhere so why not in a haunted house? The game features a few different locations, including three floors and a basement. The goal is simple: search the haunted mansion to recover three pieces of an urn and make it out alive.
Designer James Andreasen made a clever choice to obscure the player’s surroundings, only allowing them to see what’s there with the aid of a match. Players can light the match an unlimited number of times but the light only lasts a few seconds before going out.
The player character is represented as a pair of eyeballs, which bounce around the house as you explore. It’s a cute reminder of the kind of game you’re playing and also a good way to creep around the Atari 2600’s limitations.
Haunted House helped illuminate the importance of atmosphere and how crucial it can be when designing a scary video game.
Necromancer (Atari 8-bit, 1982)
Necromancer is a really unique title and it was all developed by one person. The late Bill Williams managed to develop some stunning titles for the Atari 8-bit family of consoles. Perhaps the most well-known of the titles made by Williams is Necromancer, an intriguing game featuring a wizard attempting to defeat a great evil.
Despite the Atari 8-bit console’s very limited technology, Necromancer features multiple acts and levels with an interweaving narrative. Having a story with supporting gameplay with multiple acts would have been remarkable on its own at the time but Necromancer also has captivating gameplay and atmosphere.
Players fight against hordes of enemies while trying to grow as many trees as possible, all in the name of destroying Tetragom the Necromancer. The game takes place across three different locations, which include The Forest, The Vaults, and The Graveyard. And it all leads to an exciting showdown against Tetragom!
Necromancer is impressive for so many reasons and no doubt helped show what kinds of storytelling and horrors could be unleashed through video games. Enemies from the second act that are left alive make an appearance in the final act too, which helped highlight the unique connections that could thread through interactive media.
Night Stalker (Intellivision, 1982)
Night Stalker may seem a bit basic in its approach and premise but it achieved so much. Night Stalker was Mattel’s spooky answer to games like Beserk and Pac-Man. Taking place inside a hedge maze, Night Stalker pits players against killer robots, bats, and spiders, which are realistic antagonists according to the game’s official manual.
There’s a gun that can be used to destroy enemies but it only contains six bullets. It comes back eventually but players need to survive without its help until it does, much like the Power Pellets in Pac-Man.
Night Stalker gets ridiculously difficult after a while, with enemies increasing in both number and power, but it’s spooky fun until it’s not. Night Stalker’s atmosphere and music pack ample tension onto the game cartridge, which wasn’t an easy feat at the time.
Frankenstein’s Monster (Atari 2600, 1983)
Frankenstein’s Monster has a horror atmosphere wrapped tightly around the tension of arcade games. Based on Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, Frankenstein’s Monster puts players within the walls of Dr. Frankenstein’s castle. The goal of the game is simple but it won’t be easy.
Players need to run through the castle and collect special stones to absorb the energy that’s intended for Dr. Frankenstein’s monster.The stones must be placed around the monster before the doctor brings them to life.
The trips to the lower parts of the screen aren’t easy and are littered with spooky hazards, such as pits of acid and spiders. It takes six trips in total to successfully acquire everything necessary to stop Dr. Frankenstein, and things only get more difficult when the timer runs out.
Once the timer ends, Frankenstein’s monster is free and unleashed on the player, making survival much, much harder.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Atari 2600, 1983)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre came far ahead of its time, with many stores refusing to even sell copies of the game. Releasing almost a decade after the release of the original film, the game gave players the chainsaw and placed them within the iconic, starring role.
Players control Leatherface as they attempt to murder trespassers while avoiding obstacles in the environment. It’s kind of funny to imagine the controversy the game caused, especially after seeing the game’s graphics. Putting players in control of killers and baddies would eventually become incredibly popular with games like Dead by Daylight, but 1983 was far too soon.
Still, seeing a reasonably good adaptation of the classic film on such limited hardware is inspiring. I can only imagine the influence the game had on gamers, especially future developers.
Halloween (Atari 2600, 1983)
Developed by the same team that brought Leatherface to the Atari, Halloween was also controversial for its subject matter. The game notably featured more gore than the film, including an instance where the babysitter runs around after being beheaded. That being said, Halloween doesn’t put you in control of the killer.
Halloween puts players in control of an unnamed, teenage babysitter that’s trying to save as many children as possible while a killer chases her. Players progress by stabbing the killer twice or after taking five children to designated safe rooms. The former tactic is best reserved for when it’s necessary though as players have to find the knife before using it.
Go to Hell (ZX Spectrum,1985)
Go to Hell takes place in Hell, and it looks the part. Its lower resolution and restrained framerate add to the whole vibe. It embodies terror and is unsettling throughout the entire experience.
Go to Hell features an absolutely hellish quest: make your way through hell while collecting the six crosses needed to destroy the master of Hell. There are horrifying enemies scattered throughout the game that all want to destroy your character, condemning them to hell forever. The tension and atmosphere are remarkable. It’s astounding how horrifying and hopeless the game feels throughout, especially considering it was originally released for the ZX Spectrum in 1985.
Go to Hell features screaming skulls and a gruesome amount of gore spread across its canvas, which consists of a massive maze. It manages to feel like the first Legend of Zelda in some ways, but with even more chaos and almost no hope of survival. It’s also much less optimistic than Zelda, if you can imagine.
Go to Hell is filled with atmosphere and detail. It’s a great example of how hardware limitations can be used in favor of terror. It honestly feels like an early precursor to low-poly horror experiences, which have become very popular within the indie community in recent years. Did I mention the game’s thudding “music” is actually meant to be your character’s heartbeat?
Chiller (Arcade, 1986)
Chiller eventually came to the Nintendo Entertainment System but only as an unofficial port. There’s no way Nintendo ever would have signed off on a game like Chiller back then, and it’s pretty easy to why.
Chiller is a light gun arcade game that puts players in control of a sadistic murderer that does some pretty not-okay stuff. The murderer that players control is never seen but nearly everything else is.
The graphics and art style are limited but there’s still quite a bit of gore across Chiller’s four main levels. It’s difficult to recommend a game where the objective is to torture and kill NPCs as quickly as possible, but it remains an important title within the genre.
It sold poorly because most arcade owners understandably refused to carry it but it certainly left its mark on video games. Exploring what can be done and what should be done in art isn’t exclusive to video games. Chiller isn’t even the only example of a title like this (the Manhunt franchise comes to mind), but it’s certainly one of the earliest.
Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (NES, 1988)
Konami’s follow-up to the first Castlevania brought a lot of new changes to the franchise, including a day/night cycle and conversations with non-playable characters. The horror elements and more gothic aspects remained but players now had additional agency.
Leveling up and slashing your way through Simon’s Quest has aged poorly in many respects, but the atmosphere and excitement from the journey to destroy Dracula is as iconic as ever. Existing within the world of Castlevania feels meaningful in Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest and that level of immersion makes the experience more impactful as a result.
Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest showed the possibilities and rewards for storytelling and gameplay when players were more immersed within a tense and at-times spooky world. It may not aim for frights as much as other games from the horror genre but Simon’s Quest absolutely showed what’s possible when video game worlds surround and captivate its audience.
Horror is a genre dense with different topics, questions, and ideas, all of them begging to be discussed at great length with no final answers. Witnessing the deconstruction and exploration of some of life’s most complex topics will always be interesting, regardless of where it takes place. Books, films, and TV series are quite capable of going to many of the same places that games explore, but the non-linear nature and possibilities introduced with player agency and interactivity allow games to go the deepest with their participants.
Part One largely centered around the barriers introduced by technological constraints and the creative solutions utilized by developers. In Part Two, we’ll see these questions and solutions grow more complex and sinister as interactive horror enters more detailed 2D spaces and 3D environments.