Let’s Play a Game: The Evolution of Fear in Video Games

SplatterhouseWith Resident Evil 7 preparing to lurch its way into our living rooms early 2017, This Is Horror looks at how horror and genre themes have established themselves in video games. In this first part, we look back thirty years to the earliest generation of gaming and find that as long as there have been games, there have been scares.

Interactive Fiction

Everyone knows that nothing is more frightening than a strong narrative with vivid, graphic descriptions. Back in the days when computer graphics were, at best, four colour sprites on line drawing backgrounds, game designers made use of words to great effect, to create an atmosphere in their games.

The Hobbit Game TextA classic example of this is 1982’s The Hobbit on the ZX Spectrum. The game became renowned for being impossibly difficult, but what set it apart from its peers was the descriptive language used, particularly to describe its monsters. A scene which stays in the mind is, just at the edge of Hobbiton, where the player enters a forest and among the dark, barren trees your character sees pale, bulbous eyes. The fear factor here was magnified when any action you chose ended with a swift death from above. Another But perhaps the most harrowing memory for players of The Hobbit was mistiming or directing an attack and reading the fateful words “with one vicious blow, he cleaves your skull. You are dead.”

Wolfman coverAnother textual adventure which successfully grabbed the attention of horror fans of the time was Wolfman on the ZX spectrum and Commodore 64, primarily because it was the first video game to be granted an eighteen certificate by the British Board of Film Classification. The BBFC’s report intimated this was due to the gory nature of the still images used in some scenes of the game, but fans will confirm the writing was far more chilling. Indeed, the opening scene begins with the protagonist awakening from a deep sleep, with the sound of an animal’s howling in his mind, blood on his hands, clothes torn and no knowledge of the events of the previous night. The storytelling is gripping and harrowing throughout, which led to the game achieving great acclaim.

Early Horror-themed Action Adventures

While horror fans have spent the last few months beating zombies to oblivion with discarded shovels in Dying Light and similar games, thirty-one years ago, gamers had just got their hands on Knight Lore. One of the earliest isometric games, the player inhabited the body of the sabreman, working his way through a mysterious castle. It seems like a stock standard story until the daylight meter runs out and, as night falls, he becomes a werewolf. While this gave him super strength and attack powers, the object of the quest was to find the cure for his condition, deep in the heart of the castle. The game was widely held to be a classic, and was even reprised on Xbox One last year, as part of Rare’s thirtieth anniversary collection, Rare Replay.

GauntletAsk any fan of the Left for Dead series what gives the game such an adrenaline-fueled edge and they will talk to you about the huge volume of zombies and the way they swarm at you from all angles, giving you the sense that it’s more than just the gore. Casting an eye back thirty years to Atari’s masterful Gauntlet arcade game brings about the same feelings. Trapped in a claustrophobic dungeon setting, four mythological characters: the Wizard, Warrior, Valkyrie and Elf have to team up to keep seemingly endless swarms of skeletons, ghosts and other nightmare creatures at bay, while finding keys to open doors to subsequent chambers where even more monsters await. The booming voice of the narrator telling you that “The Valkyrie … is about to die,” as the player is trying desperately to fight off several hundred marauding skeletons only increases the stress levels.

Ghosts n GoblinsTwenty years before they cooked up Resident Evil, the creative minds at Capcom unleashed what went on to be a classic of arcade and console gaming in Ghosts ’n’ Goblins. Cast as Sir Arthur, the player had to run left-to-right, while taking on just about every mythological supernatural villain imaginable. The premise was that none other than Satan himself had abducted the hero’s girlfriend and awoken an army of zombies, cyclops, demons, dragons and more besides to stop Sir Arthur from taking her back. The colourful, well-drawn nature of the graphics, along with the ability of the zombie and skeleton enemies to rise from their graves in any place, at any time made Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins one of the scariest arcade titles of its time. It went on to spawn multiple home ports and sequels.

Fast forward to the end of the 80s and in 1988, not long after the release of Nintendo’s NES (or Famicom), Namco released Splatterhouse. With a central character who was clearly based on Jason Voorhees of Friday the Thirteenth fame, the game was a side-scrolling beat ’em up, which was nothing new at the time. What was new was the ability to chop the heads off of your enemies with a machete, or to shoot them in the face at point blank range with a shotgun. The storyline of the game was also particularly grisly. A young couple take shelter from a storm in a huge mansion, only for the playable character, Rick, to wake up wearing a Mayan mask which imbues him with super human strength. He goes on to find his girlfriend, only to discover that she has been turned in to a winged demon. He kills her and is then left to hunt down the monsters throughout the Splatterhouse until finding a demonic ‘womb’ at the centre which he has to destroy. Even the player’s energy bar is displayed as a series of anatomically accurate human hearts. The game’s gore and horror movie style plot endeared the title to a lot of fans at the time and generated several sequels.

All of these early horror games are part of what led to the wide variety of genre video games which are so popular today. In the next part of this series, we’ll delve into how horror in interactive games developed over the 90s, as graphics and sound effects became more realistic.


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